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   Chapter 1 MISS MOPPET

An Unwilling Maid By Jeanie Gould Lincoln Characters: 13405

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

It was a warm summer day. Not too warm, for away up in the Connecticut hills the sun seemed to temper its rays, and down among the shadows of the trees surrounding Great Pond there were cool, shady glades where one could almost fancy it was May instead of hot July.

At a point not far from the water, leaning against the trunk of a stately maple, stood a young man. His head, from which he had raised a somewhat old and weather-beaten hat, was finely formed, and covered with chestnut curls; his clothes, also shabby and worn, were homespun and ill-fitting, but his erect military carriage, with an indescribable air of polish and fine breeding, seemed strangely incongruous in connection with his apparel and travel-worn appearance.

"I wonder where I am," he said half aloud, as he surveyed the pretty sheet of water sparkling in the afternoon sun. "Faith, 'tis hard enough to be half starved and foot-sore, without being lost in an enemy's country. The woman who gave me that glass of milk at five o'clock this morning said I was within a mile of Goshen. I must have walked ten miles since then, and am apparently no nearer the line than I was yesterday-Hark! what's that?"-as a sound of voices struck his ear faintly, coming from some distance on his right. "Some one comes this direction. I had best conceal myself in these friendly bushes until I ascertain whether 'tis friend or foe."

So saying, he plunged hastily into a thicket of low-lying shrubs close at hand, and, throwing himself flat upon the ground under them, was comparatively secure from observation as long as he remained perfectly still. The next sound he heard was horses' feet, moving at a walk, and presently there came in view a spirited-looking bay mare and a gray pony, the riders being engaged in merry conversation.

"No, no, Betty," said the little girl of about nine years, who rode the pony; "it is just here, or a few rods farther on, where we had the Maypole set last year, and I know I can find the herbs which Chloe wants near by on the shore of the pond. Let's dismount and tie the horses here, and you and I can search for them."

"It's well I did not let you come alone," said the rider of the bay mare, laughing as she spoke. "Truly, Miss Moppet, you are a courageous little maid to wish to venture in these woods. Not that I am afraid," said Betty Wolcott suddenly, remembering the weight and dignity of her sixteen years as compared with her little sister, "but in these troublous times father says it were well to be careful."

"Since when have you grown so staid?" said Miss Moppet, shaking her long yellow hair back from her shoulders as she jumped off her pony and led him up to a young ash-tree, whose branches allowed of her securing him by the bridle to one of them, "Of all people in the world, Betty, you to read me a lecture on care-taking," and with a mischievous laugh the child fled around the tree in pretended dismay, as Betty sprang to the ground and shook her riding-whip playfully in her direction.

"Ungrateful Moppet," she said, as she tied both horses to the tree beside her, "did I not rescue you from punishment for dire naughtiness in the pantry and beg Aunt Euphemia to pardon you, and then go for the horses, which Reuben was too busy to saddle.

"Yes, my own dear Betty," cried the small sinner, emerging suddenly from the shelter and seizing her round the waist, "but you know this soberness is but 'skin-deep,' as Chloe says, and you need not cease to be merry because you are sixteen since yesterday. Come, let's find the herbs," and joining hands the two ran swiftly off to the shore, Betty tucking up her habit with easy grace as she went. The occupant of the covert raised his head carefully and looked after the pair, the sound of their voices growing faint as they pushed their way through the undergrowth which intercepted their progress.

"What a lovely creature!" he ejaculated, raising himself on one elbow. "I wonder who she is, and how she comes in this wild neighborhood. Perhaps I am not so very far off my road after all; they must have come from a not very distant home, for the horses are not even wet this warm day. Egad, that mare looks as if she had plenty of speed in her; 't would not be a bad idea to throw my leg over her back and be off, and so distance those who even now may be pursuing me." He half rose as the thought occurred to him, but in an instant sank back under the leaves.

"How would her mistress fare without her?" he said ruefully "'Tis not to be thought of; they may be miles from home, even here, and I am too much a squire of dames to take such unkind advantage. There must be some other way out of my present dilemma than this," and rolling over on the mixture of grass and dry leaves which formed his resting-place he lay still and began to ponder.

Half an hour passed; the shadows began to deepen as the sun crept down in the sky, and the horses whinnied at each other as if to remind their absent riders that supper-time was approaching. But the girls did not return, and the thoughts which occupied the young wanderer were so engrossing that he did not hear a cry which began faintly and then rose to a shriek agonized enough to pierce his reverie.

"Good heavens!" he cried, springing to his feet, as borne on the summer wind the frantic supplication came to him-

"Help, help! oh, will nobody come!" and then the sobbing cry again-"help!"

Tim tall muscular form straightened itself and sped through the bushes, crushing them down on either side with a strong arm, as he went rapidly in the direction of the cries.

"Courage! I am coming," he cried, as, gaining the shore of the pond, he saw what had happened. Just beyond his halting-place there was a jutting bank, and overhanging it a large tree, whose branches almost touched the water beneath. At the top of the bank stood the elder of the two girls; she had torn off the skirt of her riding-habit, and was about to leap down into the water where a mass of floating yellow hair and a wisp of white gown told their story of disaster. As he ran the stranger flung off his coat, but there was no time to divest himself of his heavy riding-boots, so in he plunged and struck out boldly with the air of a strong and competent swimmer.

The pond, like many of our small inland lakes, was shallow for some distance from the shore, and then suddenly shelved in unexpected quarters, developing deep holes where the water was so cold that its effect on a swimmer was almost dangerous. Into one of these depths the little girl had evidently plunged, and realizing the cause of her sudden disappearance the stranger dived with great rapidity at the spot

where the golden hair had gone down. His first attempt failed; but as the child partially rose for the second time, he caught the little figure and with skillful hand supported her against his shoulder, as he struck out for the shore, which he reached quickly, but chilled almost to the bone from the coldness of the water.

"Do not be so alarmed," he said, as Betty, with pallid cheeks and trembling hands, knelt beside the unconscious child on the grass; "she will revive; her heart beats and she is not very cold. Let me find my coat," and he stumbled as he rose to go in search of it.

"It is here," gasped Betty; "I fetched it on my way down the slope; oh, sir, do you think she lives?"

For answer the young man produced from an inner pocket of his shabby garment a small flask, which he uncorked and held toward her.

"It is cognac," he said; "put a drop or two between her lips while I chafe her hands-so; see, she revives," as the white lids quivered for a second, and then the pretty blue eyes opened.

"Moppet, Moppet, my darling," cried her sister, "are you hurt? Did you strike anything in your fall?"

"Why, Betty!" ejaculated the child, "why are you giving me nasty stuff; here are the tansy leaves," and she held up her left hand, where tightly clenched she had kept the herbs, whose gathering on the edge of the treacherous bank had been her undoing.

"You are a brave little maid," said the stranger, as he put the flask to his own lips. "The shock will be all you have to guard against, and even that is passing;" for Miss Moppet had staggered upon her feet and was looking with astonished eyes at her dripping clothing.

"Did I fall, Betty?" she said. "Why my gown is sopping wet,-oh! have I been at the bottom of the pond?"

"You had stopped there, sweetheart, but for this good gentleman," said Betty, holding out a small, trembling hand to the stranger, a lovely smile dimpling her cheeks as she spoke. "Sir, with all my heart I thank you. My little sister had drowned but for your promptness and skill; I do not know how to express my gratitude."

"I am more than rewarded for my simple service," replied the young man, raising the pretty hand to his lips with a profound bow and easy grace, "but I am afraid your sister may get a chill, as the sun is so low in the sky: and if I may venture upon a suggestion, it would be well to ride speedily to some shelter where she can obtain dry clothing. If you will permit me to offer you the cape of my riding-coat (which is near at hand) I will wrap her in it at once, and then I think she will he safe from any after-effects of her cold bath in the pond."

"Oh, you are too kind," cried Betty, as the stranger disappeared in the underbrush. "Moppet, Moppet, what can we say to prove our gratitude? You had been drowned twice over but for him."

"Ask him to come to the manor," said Miss Moppet, much less agitated than her sister, and being always a small person of many resources. "Father will be glad to bid him welcome, and you know"-

"Yes," interrupted Betty, as their new friend appeared at her elbow with a cape of dark blue cloth over his arm.

"Here is my cape," he said, "and though not very large it will cover her sufficiently. Let me untie your horses and help you to mount."

"Oh, we can mount alone," said Miss Moppet, who had by this time recovered her spirits, "but you must come home with us; you are dripping wet yourself; and if you like, you may ride my pony. He has carried double before now, and I am but a light weight, as my father says."

"Will you not come home with us?" asked Betty wistfully. "My father, General Wolcott is away just now from the manor, but he will have warm welcome and hearty thanks, believe me, for the strength and courage which have rescued his youngest child from yonder grave," and Betty shuddered and grew pale again at the very thought of what Miss Moppet had escaped.

"General Wolcott," said the stranger, with a start. "Ah, then you are his daughters. And he is away?"

"Yes," said Betty, as they walked toward the tree where the horses were tied. "There has been a raid upon our coast by Governor Tryon and his Hessians; we got news three days ago of the movement of the Loyalists, and my father, with my brother Oliver, has gone to the aid of the poor people at Fairfield. Do you know of it, sir? Have you met any of our troops?"

"I have seen them," said the stranger briefly, with a half smile curving his handsome mouth, "but they are not near this point"-and beneath his breath he added, "I devoutly hope not."

"Which way are you traveling?" asked Betty, as she stood beside her bay mare. "Surely you will not refuse to come to the manor? Aunt Euphemia and my elder sister are there, and we will give you warm welcome."

"I thank you," said the stranger, with great courtesy, "but I must be on my way westward before night overtakes me. Can you tell me how many miles I am from Goshen, which I left this morning?"

"You are within Litchfield township," said Betty. "We are some four miles from my father's house. Pray, sir, come with us; I fear for your health from that sudden plunge into the icy waters of our pond."

"Oh, no," said the stranger, laughing. "I were less than man to mind a bath of this sort. With all my heart I thank you for your solicitude; that I am unable to accept your hospitality you must lay at the door of circumstances which neither you nor I can control."

"But your cape, sir," faltered Betty, her eyes dropping, as she blushed under the ardent yet respectful gaze which sought hers; "how are we to return that? And you may need it; I am sorely afraid you will yet suffer for your kindness."

"Not I," said the stranger, pressing her hand, as he gave the reins into her fingers; "as for the cape, keep it until we meet again, and-farewell!"

But Miss Moppet threw her arms around his neck as he bent over the gray pony and secured the cape more tightly around her small shoulders.

"I haven't half thanked you," she said, "but I will do so properly some day, when you come to Wolcott Manor. Farewell," and waving her little hand in adieu, the horses moved away, and were presently lost to sight in the underbrush.

"Egad!" said the stranger, gazing after thorn, as he picked up his coat and started for the spot where he had left his hat. "What a marvelous country it is! The soldiers are uncouth farmer lads, yet they fight and die like heroes, and the country maids have the speech and air of court ladies. Geoffrey Yorke, you have wandered far afield; I would you had time and chance to meet that lovely rebel again!" and with a deep-drawn sigh he plunged farther into the woods.

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