A PERILOUS MISSION
Several of us had remained rather late that evening about the cheerful fire in front of my hut,—for the nights were still chilly, although it was May, and the dreadful winter passed,—discussing the improved condition of our troops, the rigid discipline of Baron de Steuben, and speculating on what would probably be attempted now that Sir Henry Clinton had succeeded to the command of the forces opposing us. I remember Maxwell joined us, together with Knox of the artillery, each man with a different theory of campaign, but alike agreeing that, in spite of all we had endured during those months of suffering and privation at Valley Forge, the time to strike once again was near at hand, although our numbers were barely half that of the enemy.
It must have been midnight when I crept into a bunk, and, even then, found sleep absent, my eyes gazing out[Pg 10] through the open door to where the embers of the fire glowed red, and a sentinel paced back and forth in regular monotony. Suddenly he halted, and challenged hoarsely, flinging forward his gun. There was an indistinguishable answer, and, as I straightened up, the figure of a man blotted out the doorway.
“Yes. What is it?” I swung to the floor, unable to recognize the voice. The man’s hand rose to salute.
“I am Colonel Gibbs’ orderly. General Hamilton wishes you to report at once at headquarters.”
“The Potts house?”
I dressed hastily, my pulses throbbing with eagerness. Whatever the message meant, there was certainly some purpose of vital importance in sending for me at this unusual hour, and I was boy enough still to welcome any form of active service. No duty of the war had so tried me as the long winter of waiting. Yet, rapidly as I moved, the orderly had disappeared before I got outside, and I picked my way as best I could alone through the darkness, along the rear of McIntosh’s huts, until I reached the low fence surrounding the Potts house. Here a sentinel challenged, calling the corporal of the guard, and in his company I trudged up the path to the front door. There was a light showing[Pg 11] through a window to the left, although the shade was closely drawn, and a guard stood within the hall. At the first sound of our approach, however, a side door was flung open, letting forth a gleam of illumination, and I perceived the short, slight figure of Hamilton, as he peered forward to get a better glimpse of my face.
“All right, Corporal,” he said tersely, gripping my hand. “Come in, Major; your promptness would seem to indicate a readiness to get into service once more.”
“I had not yet fallen asleep,” I explained, “but we are all eager enough for action of any description.”
He smiled cheerily.
“You will soon be busy, never fear.” He closed the door behind us, and, with a glance, I viewed the room and its occupants. It was a small, low ceilinged apartment, containing a table, a dozen chairs, and a high commode. A few coals glowed in the wide fireplace, and the walls were dingy with smoke. Three candles, already burning low, gave fitful illumination, revealing four occupants, all known to me. At an open door to the right stood a sweet-faced woman, glancing back curiously at my entrance, and I whipped off my hat bowing low. Once before I had seen her, Mistress Washington, and welcomed the gracious recognition in her eyes. Colonel Gibbs stood before the fireplace[Pg 12] motionless, but my glance swept past him to the calm, uplifted face above the pile of papers littering the table. He was not looking at me, but his eyes were turned toward his wife.
“It is not necessary for you to retire,” he said quietly. “We shall not detain this gentleman except for a few moments.”
“It is not because of the Major’s coming I withdraw,” she replied pleasantly, “but the hour is late, and I am very tired. Good-night, all.”
Washington’s eyes were upon the door until it closed; then he turned slightly, facing me. Before he spoke again, Hamilton broke in:
“This is the officer, sir, recommended by General Maxwell—Major Lawrence of the Maryland Line.”
I bowed silently, and the commander rose to his feet, extending his hand.
“No doubt we have met before,” he said slowly. “You have been with us for some time?”
“My first action was at Harlem, sir.”
“You could not have been at Valley Forge during the past winter, however?”
“I was with the Marquis de la Fayette at Albany.”
“Yes, at Long Island, and he entered New York once at my request.”
Washington’s gray eyes were still on my face.
“Lawrence is a Massachusetts name.”
“Not exclusively,” I returned, “as our branch are Virginians.”
The stern lines about the mouth relaxed into a smile.
“Indeed; from the Eastern shore then. I recall now having once met a Judge John Lawrence, whose wife was a Lee.”
“My father, sir.”
His hand rested firm on my shoulder, as his glance turned to Hamilton.
“I require no further commendation, Colonel. You will find the papers in the second drawer. Please explain all the details carefully to Major Lawrence.”
He bowed toward me, and sank back once more into his chair, one hand shading the eyes that still regarded us. Hamilton opened the drawer designated, extracted an official document, and addressed me rapidly in lowered voice.
“This is a simple duty, Major, but may prove a dangerous one. You have been selected because of previous successful efforts of a similar nature, but the Commander-in-chief does not order your going; we seek a volunteer.”[Pg 14]
“Without asking the nature of the service,” I answered sincerely, “I rejoice at the privilege.”
“I knew that, Lawrence,” heartily. “That answer accords with your well earned reputation throughout the army. I will explain briefly the situation. Early this evening our pickets—or rather some partisan scouts near Newtown—captured a British officer, in field uniform, on his way from New York to Sir William Howe in Philadelphia. The prisoner was brought here, and on examination proved to be Lieutenant Edgar Fortesque of the 42nd Regiment of Foot. These troops came over with the last detachment, and arrived in New York less than a month ago. On searching Fortesque’s clothing we found this despatch,” holding out the sealed paper, “which we opened. It is not of any great military importance, being merely an order for Howe to proceed at once to New York, taking with him certain officers of his staff, and placing a naval vessel at his disposal.”
He paused, turning the paper over in his hands.
“However,” he went on slowly, “it affords us the opportunity we have long been seeking of getting a competent military observer into Philadelphia. Now that Sir Henry Clinton is in command of the British forces directly opposing us, it is necessary that we know accurately[Pg 15] their number, state of discipline, guns, and any point of weakness in the defences of the city. We require also information regarding the division of troops under Sir Henry’s command—the proportion of British, Hessians, and Tories, together with some inkling as to Clinton’s immediate plans. There is a rumor abroad that Philadelphia is to be evacuated, and that the British forces contemplate a retreat overland to New York. Civilian fugitives drift into our camp constantly, bearing all manner of wild reports, but these accounts are so varied as to be practically valueless. We must possess accurate details, and to gain these a man would need to be in the city several days, free to move about, observe, and converse with the officers of the garrison. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir; you propose forwarding the despatch by an officer who shall impersonate this captured Lieutenant.”
“Exactly. Fortesque is a young fellow about your age, and build. He has been in the army only eight months, and in this country less than thirty days. It is scarcely probable he is known personally to any of the present Philadelphia garrison. There is a risk, of course, but in this case it would seem to be small.” He picked up a paper from off the table. “Here is an[Pg 16] officer’s roster of the 42nd Regiment. It might be well for you to familiarize yourself with a few of the names.”
I studied the list a moment, bending down closer to the nearest candle, while rapidly reviewing in my own mind the duty required. I had no thought of refusal, yet appreciated to the full the possible danger of the venture, and felt anxious to make no serious mistake. I had achieved a reputation for reckless daring, yet this kind of service was hardly to my liking. To wear British uniform meant my condemnation as a spy, if discovered, and a death of disgrace. I had been within the lines of the enemy often before, but always as a scout, wearing the homespun of the Maryland Line, but this was to be a masquerade, a juggling with chance. I was not greatly afraid of being unmasked by the officers of the garrison, but there were those then in Philadelphia who knew me—loyalists, secret sympathizers with our cause, and not a few deserters from the army—whom I might encounter at any turn in the road. The prospect was not alluring, yet a glance aside at the profile of Washington, now bending low over a mass of papers, instantly stiffened my resolve. It was work I had no excuse to shirk—indeed no inclination—so I returned Hamilton’s glance of inquiry frankly.
“You wish me to go at once?”
“The earlier the better. I will furnish passports through our lines, and hard riding will put you across the neutral ground by daylight.”
“One moment, Major,” interrupted Washington quietly. “You were doubtless acquainted with our late Inspector-General?”
“Yes,” my face darkening.
“He is now in Philadelphia, and it might be safer were you to avoid meeting him.”
“General Washington,” I said frankly, “I have been loyal to you through all this controversy, but, nevertheless, have retained my friendship with General Conway. I believe the misunderstanding between you is entirely personal, and in no way affects his loyalty to the cause. Whatever his present relations may be with the British commander, I have the utmost faith that he would not betray me to either death, or imprisonment.”
“I am glad to hear your words,” and the kindly face instantly brightened. “This entire controversy has been most unfortunate, with wrong no doubt upon both sides. Unquestionably you are right, yet I felt it my duty to warn you of his presence at Clinton’s headquarters. God bless you, my boy, good-bye.”
I grasped the hand extended across the table, and followed Hamilton from the room, Gibbs still standing motionless and silent before the fireplace.
Categories: English Literature