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   Chapter 4 FRIEND OR FOE

An Unwilling Maid By Jeanie Gould Lincoln Characters: 21428

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Betty Wolcott sat alone in her own room, thinking intently. The windows were all open, and the soft night air blew the dainty curls off her white forehead and disclosed the fact of her very recent tears. Never, in all her short, happy life, had Betty been so moved as now, for the twin passions of gratitude and loyalty were at war within her, and she realized, with a feeling akin to dismay, that she must meet the responsibility alone, that those of her household were all arrayed against her.

"If my father were but at home," said Betty to herself, "he would know and understand, but Oliver will not listen, no, not even when I implored him to keep Captain Yorke close prisoner here for two days by which time my father is sure to arrive. Aunt Euphemia is too timid and Pamela is much the same; as Josiah happens to agree perfectly with Oliver, Pamela could never be induced to see how cruel it is to repay our debt in this way. Oliver is but a boy,"-and Betty's lips curved in scorn over her brother's four years' seniority,-"and-and-oh! I am, indeed, astray. What, here I am, one of the loyal Wolcotts,-a family known all through the land as true to the cause of Freedom and the Declaration,-and here I sit planning how to let a British officer, foe to my country, escape from my father's house. I wonder the walls do not open and fall on me," and poor Betty gazed half fearfully overhead, as if she expected the rafters would descend upon the author of such treasonable sentiments. "But something must be done," she thought rapidly. "I care not whether he be friend or foe, I take the consequences; be mine the blame," and she lifted her pretty head with an air of determination, as a soft knock fell upon her chamber door; but before she could rise to open it, the latch was raised and a little figure, all in white, crept inside.

"I can't sleep, Betty," sobbed Moppet, as her sister gathered the child in her arms; "it's too, too dreadful. Will General Putnam hang my dear, kind gentleman as the British hanged Captain Nathan Hale, and shall we never, never see him more?"

"Dear heart," said Betty, smoothing the yellow hair, and tears springing again to her eyes as she thought of the brave, manly face of her country's foe. "No, Moppet, Captain Yorke is not a spy, as, alas! was poor Nathan Hale, but"-

"Betty," whispered Moppet, so low that she was evidently alarmed at her own daring, "why can't we let him go free and never tell Oliver a word about it?"

"How did you come to think of that?" said Betty, astonished.

"I am afraid it is the devil prompting me," said Moppet, with a sigh, partly over her own iniquity, and part in wonderment as to whether that overworked personage was somewhere soaring in the air near at hand; "but I always thought the British were big ogres, with fierce eyes and red whiskers, and I am sure my good, kind gentleman is very like ourselves."

Betty was betrayed into a low laugh. Moppet was always original, but this was delicious.

"No, child," she said softly, "the British are some bad, some good, and there are no doubt cruel men to be found in all wars. Moppet, as you came by the north door, whom did you see on guard in the hall?"

"Josiah Huntington," said Moppet promptly; "but you heard what Oliver said at supper?"

"Yes," answered Betty, "Oliver was so weary that Josiah was to watch until twelve o'clock; then, at midnight, Reuben was to guard the hall until four in the morning, when Oliver would take his place until breakfast. Did you note the time on the hall clock?"

"It was half past eleven," said Moppet; "the half hour sounded as I rapped."

Betty sat pondering for a moment, then she slid Moppet gently from her lap to the floor and rose.

"Moppet," she said gravely, "you are a little maid, but you have a true heart, and I believe you can keep a secret. I am going to try to release Captain Yorke, and I think you can help me. I bind you to keep silent, except to our dear and honored father, and even to him you shall not speak until I permit you. Promise me, dear heart?"

"I promise," said Moppet solemnly, and Betty knew that, no matter what happened, she could depend on her devoted little sister.

"Moppet," said Betty, "I have a plan, but 'tis a slender one. Do you recollect how close the great elm-tree boughs come to your window?"

"I can put out my hand and nearly reach them," said Moppet; "you remember Reuben cut the bough nearest, but oh, Betty, the tree has a limb which runs an arm's length only from the north chamber."

"So I thought," answered Betty, who was busily engaged in changing her light summer gown for one of homespun gray; "and now, Moppet, you and I must go into your room for the next part of my plot. I must speak to Captain Yorke, and can you guess how I shall manage to do it?"

Moppet's eyes grew large and round with excitement. "I know," she whispered breathlessly, "through my doll's dungeon. Oh, Betty, how lucky 'tis that Oliver never once dreamed of that!"

"I doubt if he even knows its existence," said Betty. "There goes the clock," as the slow, solemn voice of the timepiece sounded out on the night, "It is twelve o'clock, and Reuben will be coming upstairs from the kitchen. Hark!"-extinguishing her candle and opening her door softly. "Josiah has gone to the turn on the stairs, and is speaking to Reuben; quick, Moppet, if you come still as a mouse they will not see us before we can gain your door," and with swift, soft steps the two small figures stole across the hall in the semi-darkness which the night lamp standing near the great clock but served to make visible, and in another second, panting and eager, they stood safely within Moppet's chamber, clinging to each other, as they quickly fastened the latch.

Moppet's chamber was a small one, and occupied the center of the house, Miss Euphemia's being upon one side, and the north chamber (as one of the great rooms was called) upon the other. The great chimney of the mansion ran up between the large and small room, and what Moppet called her "doll's dungeon" was a hollow place, just high enough for the child to reach, in the back of the chimney. For some purpose of ventilation there was an opening from this aperture into the north chamber. It was covered with a piece of movable iron; and in summer, when no fire was used in that part of the house, Moppet took great delight in consigning her contumacious doll (a rag baby of large size and much plainness of feature) to what she was pleased to call her "dungeon." To-night Betty's quick wit had divined what an important factor the aperture might prove to her, and directly she had secured the door, she walked softly toward the chimney, and felt in the darkness for the movable bit of iron which filled the back.

When Geoffrey Yorke had finished the ample and delicious supper with which Miss Euphemia's hospitable and pitying soul had furnished him, he lighted his candle and made thorough search of his temporary prison to ascertain whether he could escape therefrom. Betty's gesture of disapproval when he was about to give his parole had seemed to promise him assistance; could it be possible that the lovely little rebel's heart was so moved with pity?"

"Sweet Betty," thought Geoffrey, "was ever maid so grateful for a small service! I wish with all my soul I might have chance and opportunity to do her a great one, for never have I seen so bewitching and dainty a creature," and Geoffrey's heart gave a mad leap as he remembered the tearful, beseeching glance which Betty had bestowed upon him as Oliver had conducted him from her presence.

The windows, of which there were two, looking north, received his first attention, but he found them amply secured; and although a strong arm might wrench them open, it would be attended by such noise as could not fail to attract the attention of his guard posted outside the door. This reflection prompted him to inspect the door; and discovering an inside bolt as well as the outer one, he drew it, thus assuring his privacy from intrusion. The large chimney was his next point of investigation; and although the flue seemed somewhat narrow, Geoffrey decided that it afforded some slight chance, provided he had the means of descent when once he reached the roof. Back to the windows again; yes, the great elm of which Moppet had spoken stood like a tall sentinel guarding the mansion, and Geoffrey felt confident that he could crawl from roof to tree and thus reach the ground. To be sure, it was most hazardous; there was the chance of some one sleeping in the chambers near who might hear even so slight a noise; he might become wedged in the chimney, or-pshaw! one must risk life, if need be, for liberty; and here Geoffrey smiled, as it occurred to him that this was what these very colonists were engaged in doing, and for a moment the British officer felt a throb of sympathy hitherto unknown to him. He had landed at New York but a month before, filled with insular prejudices and contempt for these country lads and farmers, whom he imagined composed the Continental army; but the fight at Fairfield, which was carried on by the Hessians with a brutality that disgusted him, and the encounter with such a family as this under whose roof he was, began to open his eyes, and he acknowledged frankly to himself that young Oliver Wolcott was both a soldier and a gentleman.

"The boy looked every inch a soldier," thought Geoffrey, "when he refused his sister's pleading; faith, he is made of firm stuff to withstand her. Oh, Betty, Betty! I wonder if the fortunes of war will ever let me see your face again," and with a sigh compounded of many things, Geoffrey picked up a book that was lying on the table, and resolved to read until it should be far on into the night, when he would make a bold attempt to escape.

The clock on the stairs struck twelve and Geoffrey, roused from the light slumber into which he had fallen, heard the steps outside his door as Josiah Huntington was joined by Reuben, who was to relieve his guard, and straightened himself, with a long breath, as he rose from his chair. As he did so, he became conscious of a slight, very slight, noise in the direction of the chimney; and turning his eyes toward it, a soft whisper reached his ear.

"Captain Yorke," murmured the sweetest voice in the world; and as the slight grating noise ceased, to his amazement a little white hand beckoned him to approach a small aperture, which he now perceived in the bricks about four feet from the floor. Very softly Geoffrey obeyed the summons, and cautiously made his way to the chimney.

"Kneel down and put your ear near me," said Betty, an

d the tall soldier dropped on one knee obediently; "be very careful, for though Aunt Euphemia's chamber is on this side, and she is usually a sound sleeper, it might be our ill fortune that to-night she would wake. I have made up my mind, sir; I cannot keep you prisoner under a roof that but for you might be mourning my little sister dead."

"I pray you say no more of that," interrupted Geoffrey softly. "I am more than repaid by your interest in my unhappy condition."

"It may be wrong, it doubtless is," said Betty, sighing, "but I have two plans for your escape. Tell me, are your windows securely fastened?"

"Too strongly to be tampered with except by making noise that is certain to be overheard," returned Geoffrey.

"Then we must try other means; if you can but manage to scale the chimney,-and I think there are still some pegs inside which Reuben put there in the spring when he went up after burning it out,-if you can reach the roof by the chimney you will find on the south side, close to the chimney itself, a trap-door which lets down by a ladder into our garret. The ladder is stationary, and I will meet you there at its foot, and from the garret there is a back stairway, down which you may creep to the buttery, and once there 'tis but a step outside when I open the door."

"God bless you," whispered Geoffrey, feeling a mad desire to kiss the pretty pink ear and soft cheek which he could just see by the dim light of Miss Moppet's candle; "shall I start at once?"

"No," returned Betty, "Josiah Huntington has just sought his chamber, and he will be watchful. Wait until you hear the old clock on the staircase strike three; that is the hour, I have been told, when all sleep most soundly. Then Moppet will tell you if all goes right, for I shall be waiting for you, as I said, above;" and with a soft "be very, very careful to make no noise," Betty moved away from the "doll's dungeon" and Yorke bounded to his feet.

"Now, Moppet," said Betty softly, "let me wrap you well in your woolen habit, lest you take cold."

"Oh, Betty darling," whispered the child, "how will you ever gain the garret stairs when Reuben is watching? He will be sure to think it strange; can I not go for you?"

"No, never," said Betty tenderly. "I will slip by Reuben, and you must not fret. Sit here on my knee and go fast asleep until I wake you."

Moppet nestled her little head down obediently on Betty's shoulder; but try hard though she did to keep her eyes wide open, sleep at last overcame her,-sleep so profound after all this excitement that Betty was able to lay her softly upon her bed without awaking, and for the remainder of those long hours Betty kept her vigil alone. It was nervous work: for determined though she was to release Yorke, Betty possessed a most sensitive and tender conscience, and love for her country and her people was as the air she breathed. It proved the tenacity of her purpose and the strength of her will that, notwithstanding her many misgivings, when she heard the clock sound the quarter she rose from her low seat by the window, where she had been gazing out into the night, and whispered softly to Moppet that it was time to wake. The child sprang up, alert and quick as Betty herself, and listened to her sister's last warning instructions to have no fear, but wait quietly for her return, and when the clock struck the hour to whisper through the hole in the chimney to Yorke that she had gone.

Very softly, her slippers held tightly in her hand, Betty pulled up the latch of the bedroom door and stepped into the almost dark hall. The night lamp had partly died out, but there was still enough of its flickering light to permit her, when her eyes grew accustomed to it, to see the dim outline of Reuben's figure sitting on a stool at the door of the north chamber. In order to reach the garret from this part of the house she must go directly down the hall to where it parted at the L, where the stairs reaching the garret were shut off by a door, on the other aide of which was a square landing, where you could turn down and descend directly from the garret to the buttery. Once past Reuben, she would feel comparatively safe, for although Oliver's room was opposite he was too weary to be wakeful. It took scarcely a minute to creep toward Reuben, and Betty drew a quick breath of relief when she perceived that the farmer-bred lad, unaccustomed to night watches, and feeling that his prisoner was secure behind the bolted door, had fallen fast asleep. Another minute and she had fairly flown through the hall and reached the door of the garret stairs; she recollected that the latch had a troublesome creak occasionally; indeed, she had noticed it only that very day, as she and Sally Tracy had mounted to their eyrie in the big dormer window of the garret, where safe from all ears they were wont to confide their girlish secrets to each other.

"Pray Heaven it creak not to-night," said Betty to herself as she gently and steadily pulled the handle of the latch and saw the dreaded door open to her hand. Inside stepped Betty, and made breathless pause while she closed it, and the amiable latch fell softly down again into its place. Swift as a flash the girlish figure flitted up the winding narrow stairs, and gasping but triumphant Betty seated herself on the lowest step of the trap-ladder to await the coming of Geoffrey Yorke.

In the bedroom below, Miss Moppet, whose soul was thrilling with mingled delight and terror at being an actor in a "real story," waited as she was told until she heard the deep voice of the clock, sounding rather more awful than usual, say "one, two, three!" and then tiptoeing over the bare floor she opened with small trembling fingers the tiny aperture and whispered, "Are you there?" starting back half frightened as the instant answer came, close beside her:

"Yes, is it time?"

"Betty is in the garret by now," she faltered. "Oh, sir, be careful and fare you well!"

For answer Geoffrey Yorke bent down, and taking the small cold fingers extended to him, pressed a kiss on them, and with a soft "farewell" began his passage up the chimney.

It was no such very difficult task he found, to his satisfaction, for Betty was right, and by feeling carefully with his hands he perceived the friendly pegs which Reuben had inserted, and of which Oliver had no knowledge, else he would not have trusted so agile and strong a prisoner within their reach. Geoffrey's broad shoulders were the only sufferers, but the rough homespun which covered them was a better protection than his uniform would have been, and he again blessed the good fortune which had thrown the disguise in his way as he left Fairfield four days before.

Betty, sitting on the ladder step, straining her ears to catch the first sound, became conscious of a light sound as Geoffrey swung himself from the chimney top to the roof, and she sped up the ladder to unhook the door of the trap just as he reached it.

"Speak not a word," she said in his ear, as he set his foot on the ladder, "but fasten the hook lest they discover that the door has been opened. Now, give me your hand," and in the darkness the strong, manly hand closed firmly over her dainty fingers with a clasp which, strangely enough, inspired her with fresh courage.

"Stop," said Betty suddenly, as they were at the top stair, "you must remove your boots: the slightest creak might wake the sleepers at the end of the hall."

It took but a second of time to follow her directions; and then very softly, with many pauses, the pair crept down the winding stairs, and Betty involuntarily held her breath until the last step was safely passed and she raised the latch of the buttery door.

"If Miss Bidwell has locked it," came the swift thought,-but, no! like everything else that dreadful night, fortune seemed to favor Betty, and with a long-drawn sigh she drew her companion across the threshold and instantly shot the bolt behind her.

A faint glow of dawn crept through the pantry windows, and Betty paused a moment and regarded the rows of milk pans which adorned the shelves of the small room with grave intentness.

"Had you not better take a glass of milk?" she said. "You may have to travel far without food, although I am sure that should you ask for it at any of our Connecticut farmhouses you would be cheerfully supplied," and raising the neat dipper she filled it and handed it to Geoffrey, who took it gratefully from her hand.

"And now put on your boots, for freedom lies beyond that door," she said, still in softest tones, as she unbolted the other door which led directly outside. "I must go with you as far as the barn, for you will need my mare to take you out of danger of pursuit."

"No, no," answered Geoffrey, speaking for the first time as they sped rapidly over the grass, "I will not take her; you have dared much for me, and I fear censure and harm may come to you for releasing me should you be discovered."

"Censure," said Betty, throwing back her small head haughtily, "wherefore? Do you think I shall conceal my share in this night's work? Oliver is but a hot-headed boy; had my father been at home it would have been different, and to him I shall make my confession, that I have given liberty to-oh, I cannot say a foe, after what you have done for me-to a British officer who comes to slay my countrymen!"

"Never your foe, Betty," cried Yorke, confronting her with face as pale as her own, and in his admiration of her spirit and nobility forgetting all else. "Say, rather, your adoring friend, who one day, God willing, hopes to prove to you that there are British hearts which are true and honest as yours, and that none will be more loyal to you than mine own."

A hot wave of color flashed up over Betty's charming face; her lips trembled, but no words came from them. What was this impetuous young man daring to say to her?

"The dawn is breaking over yonder hills," Geoffrey rushed on, "and before the sun rises I must be as many miles away as my feet can carry me. Farewell, farewell!-may God bless and keep you always. Go back straightway into the mansion; I shall not stir step until I see you safe." And through her brimming tears Betty realized that his kisses were falling on her hands, as without a word she turned and fled toward the open door. But when she reached it some new-born impulse tearing madly at her heart made her pause, and looking back she saw Geoffrey lift something from the grass at his feet which he waved toward her as he sped down the path, and raising her hand to her gown she knew that he had carried with him her breast-knot of rose-colored ribbon.

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