Then Marched the Brave/Chapter VIII
CHAPTER VIIIAT HEADQUARTERS
"Your excellency, dar am a lame girl, an a fool Dutchman outside. De girl done say, she's got to delibber de eggs to yourself, sah!"
"Eggs!" The tall, anxious man at the table turned sharply. He was writing to Congress, and the interruption annoyed him.
"Yas, sah." The colored man bowed humbly. "I'se been tellin' dem we has eggs nouf, but the Dutchman he deaf as a stun wall, an' de girl am dat sot, dat your own self couldn't be sotter, sah. She done say her folks 'prived demselfs of food an' drink, sah, to save dese eggs fur your excellency, an' she goes on tu say, sah, dat she done been habbin' de debbil's own time gettin' past de lines wid de eggs. She's been 'sulted by de British and odder hard things. She won't go, sah, till I done tell you all dis rubbish."
"Bring her in," quietly said the listener.
Washington never slighted the humble, and, besides, messages were sent in odd ways. It was always better to be willing to listen. The black man departed, muttering, and presently returned, showing the lame girl in with no very good grace.
"Dat am de General!" he explained, shutting the heavy door after the limping figure.
There was no need of explanation. The eyes under the drooping frill grew joyous at the sight of the honored face. The heart under the coarse cotton frock beat high with pride, and—yes, shame, for how was the boy to make himself known?
"Pray be seated," the deep voice was saying. "You are weary and you have taken chances of danger to reach me with your gift."
Andy sank into the nearest chair.
"I appreciate your devotion and unselfishness, but I would advise no future attempts to pass the British lines for such a thing."
"There were other reasons, sir," said Andy. Washington came nearer.
"I fancied so," he said, "and they are?"
Andy drew the basket of eggs to him, and unwrapped several, handing the papers to Washington. The General took them, crossed to the window, and for a few moments pieced the bits together carefully. Then he read. Andy watched him, remembering that other face in the greenhouse on the never-to-be-forgotten night.
"Where did you get these?" he said suddenly. Andy stood up leaning upon his crutch.
"A messenger, in time of danger, must come as he may, sir," he said, bravely. Then tearing off the bonnet he added:
"Andy McNeal, at your service, sir!" Washington's face never betrayed him, but a glad look came to the overweary eyes. He extended his hand, and grasped Andy's.
"I remember!" he said. "You have been true to your trust. And now for the story."
Sitting in the stately room of the mansion, opposite the great General, Andy McNeal told his story. Try as he might, his voice would break, but he thought no shame of his weakness, for the keen eyes looking into his own were often dim.
"I asked a great thing of Nathan Hale," said the General at last, "but he gave it willingly. Andy McNeal, you have been a faithful friend to as great a hero as the Revolution will ever know. Many offer their lives. He offered his honor. Willing was he to die, and to die dishonored by the many. Some day his country will understand."
"And, sir, do you know the British are bringing their ships up the river?"
Washington's eyes gleamed. "I have sent men to Frog's Point," he smiled. "They will meet a welcome when they land. Thank you. And now farewell. Take heed as you return. You are safer without a guard."
"Is there no work for me to do? Is there no place in the ranks for such as I?"
The tremendous question broke from Andy's lips. To go back into idleness was his one dread. He longed to follow; to be the humblest, but most patriotic, of the many. Washington understood.
"I must leave here directly," he answered. "Ere another week passes I shall be gone. Where future battles are to be fought, remains to be seen, but always, my first object is to guard the Hudson. I need faithful hearts here. I shall not forget you, Andy McNeal, nor your service. If I can use you, be ready. I shall know where to find you. You are sure to be more useful here than elsewhere. You know your woods as few others do, and I know I can depend upon your courage and faithfulness. Again farewell."
Andy arose, drew on the disguising headgear, not even thinking of it, so full was his heart, and so he departed to face whatever lay before.
The immediate thing that faced Andy McNeal was the meeting with his own father. It took all the courage he possessed to do this, and yet he knew that he could not begin to live again until the new complications had been grappled with and readjusted.
After dark of the same day upon which Andy had seen Washington, he reached his mother's little house. Hans and he had had several encounters with the British, but a thickheaded, deaf Dutchman, and a young, frightened lame girl, with a hideous bonnet, served only for a moment's idle sport for the king's gallant men. And after annoying delays they were allowed to pass with a warning to come soon with more food, or their houses would be burned over their heads.
Andy paused outside the cottage. He heard his mother moving about, and the indistinct voice of a man from the guest-room beyond.
"The vine again!" thought Andy. But the ascent in the gown was difficult. "A maid's progress is bitter hard!" smiled he, and he thought tenderly of Ruth.
The little loft-room seemed oddly changed to Andy. He looked about. Everything was the same, and yet—
"It is that voice below-stairs," muttered he. "It alters everything." A feeling of hatred crept in Andy's heart against this man who had suddenly assumed so close a relationship to him.
"What will mother do?" he questioned as he changed his clothing, and put on the decent Sunday-suit that was hanging from the pegs. "What will she do?" And in his heart Andy knew what she would do, what, at least, she would want to do. He had seen it shining back of the trouble in her eyes when she first spoke to him. The want had brought the look of beauty with it, and had banished the marks of the lonely years.
"But a Britisher!" moaned the boy, smoothing his hair, "a Britisher for Janie and Andy McNeal! I might forgive him for all else—for mother's sake, but not that, not that!"
"Andy, lad, is it you?" Andy started. His mother was coming up the stairs!
"Yes, mother." She stood before him now. The coarse cotton gown that was familiar to Andy's boyhood was gone. A dull, bluish linen with white cuffs and collar had replaced it, and above the becoming dress shone the face of a new Janie.
A jealous pang struck Andy's heart, and he shivered in spite of himself.
"I thought I heard you, lad. You are safe?"
"Quite safe, mother."
"But sair tired?" she dropped into the Scotch unconsciously.
"Not overtired. I did my errand well."
"And now, Andy, what next?"
"Nothing. Since I cannot follow and fight, I must bide at home and wait. Does any one come here for help from the patriot army we must be ready, mother."
"Aye, surely, lad. You know where my heart lies!"
"But, mother, the—the person below. He is—a deserter if he is found here. What then? And surely not even he must keep us from doing our duty."
"Lad" (Janie came close), "I cannot hope to have you understand. When love comes your way, Andy, it will plead for me. All these years—I have been a starved and forsaken woman, and it has changed me. We all go astray, Andy, and—and your father. Oh! call him that, son, for my sake. Your father has dealt sorely with me and you, but he has come back. He was hunting us long before he found us. He wants to mend the past. Andy, as we hope for mercy from the good God, let us be merciful."
"But a Britisher, mother. An enemy to our cause. Oh, mother!"
"Andy, lad, come!" She put out her hand pleadingly, and Andy followed. There was a candle burning in the guest-room, and by its modest gleam sat the man who, when Andy had seen him last, was proclaiming his own son to be the rebel who had presumably struck one of the king's men in the cave. Very pale was the man now, and the bruise on the forehead shone plain even in the dim light. He looked up at Andy in a curious, interested way, and half extended his hand.
"You do not care to take the hand of a Britisher, I see." The white face relaxed in a faint smile. Andy went nearer.
"For my mother's sake I can take my—my father's hand, though it all seems mighty queer."
"I want you to know," said the man, "that I would not have told my head officer who you were that day, but I was so alarmed at the likeness you bore my mother that I was unaware of what I was doing. It was horrible to realize as I was beginning to do then, that I was probably speaking to my own—son."
"It was more horrible to think that my own father had been struck by a blow dealt in my defense. You must have thought that, too."
"No, I did not. Who struck that blow?"
The man started. "And he?"
"Died the death of a spy two days ago."
"Andy!" It was Janie who cried out. "Was our dear schoolmaster, Nathan Hale, the spy?"
"Nathan Hale, the patriot!" corrected Andy, and his eyes dimmed.
"Oh! how you have suffered, lad."
"Aye." Andy sank into a chair.
His father was looking at him keenly; and a growing expression of admiration was dawning in the searching eyes. Here was a son of whom he might yet be proud.
"Andy," he said, "I can imagine your feeling toward me. I do not say I do not deserve it. But your mother is willing to forgive the past, if you are willing to give me a trial." The thin lips twitched. Martin was a proud man, and his humble diet seemed never to be coming to an end. The hard young face opposite appeared more unrelenting than Janie's had seemed.
"What is best for mother is best for me," said Andy. "I am almost a man. When the war is over I shall try to do a man's part in the world. Each one of us has his life."
Martin again became serious. "I have money, Andy; I can help you, and give you a fair start."
"Your money will make mother's life easier. It has been a hard life."
"There, there, Andy, lad! Do not be bitter, son."
"Not bitter, mother. But I cannot forget. Not just at first."
"I can educate you, Andy," Martin added. "You might take that help from a stranger, and repay it later on."
A hungry look came into the boy's eyes. The teaching of the master had awakened an appetite that would not sleep. "I did without for many years," he replied. But Martin had seen the gleam, and was proud.
"In a day or so, Andy," he went on, "I must ask a favor of you. I want you to guide me to the patriot headquarters." The boy started. "I came half-heartedly to fight against the colonies. It is my desire to throw my lot in with theirs now. You may be able to do me a favor with your General. He will know you. If I come back you may be able to respect your father. If not—your mother has a good son, and Parson White will see that what belongs to you two will be yours."
"Father!" Andy arose, and this time stretched forth his hand gladly. "Father, I will try to be a good son to you, too!"
"Thank God!" sobbed Janie, kneeling by the chair, and drawing Andy within the circle of her new hopes.
The old clock ticked and ticked contentedly. The hissing of the kettle on the fire recalled Janie to her happy tasks, and Martin and his son wondered what the future would bring.