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Nancy Hanson's Project by Howard Pyle


It was in the old Quaker town of Wilmington, Delaware, and it was the evening of the day on which the battle of Brandywine had been fought. The country people were coming into town in sledges, and in heavy low carts with solid wheels made of slices from great tree trunks, loaded with butter, eggs, milk, and vegetables; for the following day was market-day. Market-day came every Fourth-day (Wednesday) and every Seventh-day (Saturday). Then the carts drew up in a long line in Market Street, with their tail-boards to the sidewalk, and the farmers sold their produce to the town people, who jostled each other as they walked up and down in front of the market carts—a custom of street markets still carried on in Wilmington.

Friend William Stapler stopped, on his way to market in his cart, at Elizabeth Hanson's house, in Shipley Street, to leave a dozen eggs and two pounds of butter, as he did each Tuesday and Friday evening. Elizabeth came to the door with a basket for half a peck of potatoes. William Stapler took off his broad-brimmed hat, and slowly rubbed his horny hand over his short-cut, stubbly gray hair.

"Ah! I tell thee, Lizabeth, they're a-doin' great things up above Chadd's Ford. I hearn th' canning a-boomin' away all day to-day. Ah, Lizabeth, the world's people is a wicked people. They spare not the brother's blood when th' Adam is aroused within them. They stan' in slippery places, Lizabeth."

"Does thee think they're fighting, William?"

"Truly I think they are. Ah! I tell thee, Lizabeth, they're differen' 'n when I was young. Then we only feared the Injuns, 'n' now it's white men agin white men. They tuck eight young turkeys of mine, 'n' only paid me ten shillin' fer 'em."

"But, oh, William, I do hope they're not fighting! I expect my son-in-law, Captain William Bellach, and his friend Colonel Tilton, will stop here on their way to join General Washington; and they may arrive to-night."

"Ah, Lizabeth, I've lifted up my voice in testimony agin the young men goin' to the wars an' sheddin' blood. 'F a man diggeth a pit an' falleth into it himself, who shall help him out thereof? Half a peck o' potatoes, did thee say, Lizabeth?"

During the evening rumors became more exciting, and it was said that the Americans had been defeated, and were retreating toward Philadelphia. Late that night Captain Bellach and Colonel Tilton arrived at Elizabeth Hanson's house.

"I've heard the rumors, mother," said Captain Bellach. "I don't believe 'em; but even if there was a file of British at the door here, I would be too tired to run away from them."

Pretty Nancy Hanson spoke up. "But, Billy, they would not only send thee and thy friend to the hulks if they caught thee, but they might be rude to us women were they to find thee here."

"Yes, sister-in-law, if I thought there was any danger, I would leave instantly; but the British, even if they have beaten us, will be too tired to come here to-night."

"I agree with my friend Will, Mistress Nancy," said Colonel Tilton. "Moreover, our horses are too tired to take us farther to-night."

About two o'clock in the morning the silence of the deserted streets of the town was broken by a rattling and jingling of steel, the heavy, measured tread of feet, and sharp commands given in a low voice.

Nancy Hanson awakened at the noise, and jumping out of bed, ran to the window and looked out into the moon-lit street beneath. A file of red-coated soldiers were moving by toward the old Bull's Head Tavern. The cold moonlight glistened on their gun-barrels and bayonets as they marched. Nancy ran to her mother's room and pounded vigorously on the door.

"Mother! mother! waken up!" she cried; "the British are come to town, sure enough!"

The family were soon gathered around the dull light of a candle, the gentlemen too hastily awakened to have their hair en queue, the ladies in short gowns and petticoats; Elizabeth Hanson wore a great starched night-cap perched high upon her head.

"You were right, sister-in-law," said Captain Bellach, "and I was wrong. The best thing we can do now is to march out and take our chances."

"So say I," assented the Colonel.

"It's all well enough for thee, Billy, to talk of marching out and taking thy chances," said Nancy; "thee has thy black citizen's dress; but Colonel Tilton is in uniform."

"True; I forgot."

"It does not matter," said the Colonel.

"Yes, but it does," cried Nancy. "Stay now until morning, and I think I can get thee citizen's clothes. I have a project, too, to get thee off. For mother's sake, though, we must hide thy uniform, for if it is found here, she will be held responsible. Billy, thee will have to go with thy friend back to the bedroom and bring us his things as soon as he can take them off. Thee must lie abed, Colonel Tilton."

Nancy's plans were carried into execution. The bricks in one of the up-stairs fire-places were taken up, the sand beneath them removed, and the Colonel's uniform deposited in the vacant place, over which the bricks were carefully replaced.

In the gray of the morning Peggy Allison and Hannah Shallcross, on their way to market, each with a basket on her arm, met in front of Elizabeth Hanson's house. A company of soldiers had halted in Shipley Street, and their arms were stacked before Elizabeth's door. The red-coated soldiers were lounging and talking and smoking. Some officers sat around a fire near by warming their hands, for the morning was chill.

"'Tis a shame!" said Hannah Shallcross, vigorously—"'tis a shame to see these redcoats parading our streets as bold as a brass farthing. I only wish I was John Stedham the constable; I'd have 'em in the Smoke-House or the stocks in a jiffy, I tell thee!"

She spoke loudly and sharply. A young British officer, who was passing, stepped briskly up, and tapped her on the arm.

"Madam," said he, "do you know that you are all prisoners? Be advised by me, and return quietly home until the town is in order."

However patriotic Hannah might be, she did not think it advisable to disregard this order, and both dames retreated in a flutter. As the young officer stood looking after them, the house door opposite him opened, and Nancy Hanson appeared upon the door-step. She had dressed herself carefully in her fine quilted petticoat and best flowered over-dress, and looked as pretty and fresh as an April morning.

"Friend," said she, in a half-doubtful, half-timid voice. The young officer whipped off his cocked hat, and bent stiffly, as you might bend a jackknife.

"Madam, yer servant," he answered. He spoke with a slight brogue, for he was an Irish gentleman.

"We have a friend with us," said Nancy, "who hath been compelled for a time to keep his bed. He was brought here last night on account of the battle, and was too weary to go further. Our neighbor Friend John Stapler, across the street, hath thick stockings, and I desire to get, if I can, a pair from him, as, thee may know, in cases of dropsy the legs are always cold. I am afraid to cross the street with these soldiers in it. Would thee escort me?"

"Madam, you do me infinite honor in desiring me escort," said the young officer, bowing more deeply than before; for Nancy was very pretty.

Friend John Stapler was a very strict Friend, and as such was inclined to favor the royalist side; still, he was willing to do a kindly turn for a neighbor. He was a wrinkled, weazened little man, whose face, with its pointed nose and yellowish color, much resembled a hickory nut.

"Hum-m-m!" ejaculated he, when Nancy, who had left the officer at the door, stated the case to him—"hum-m-m! thus it is that intercourse with the world's people defileth the chosen. Still, I may as well help thee out o' the pother. Hum-m-m! I suppose my small-clothes would hardly be large enough, would they?" and he looked down at his withered little legs.

"I hardly think so," said Nancy, repressing a smile, as she pictured to herself the tall dignified Colonel in little John Stapler's small-clothes.

"Well, well," said he, "I'll just step out the back way, and borrow a suit from John Benson. He's the fattest man I know."

He soon returned with the borrowed clothes, which they wrapped up in as small a bundle as possible, after which Nancy rejoined the officer at the door.

"'Tis a largish bundle of stockings," observed he, as he escorted her across the street again.

"They are thick stockings," she answered, demurely.

When they reached home, she invited her escort and his brother officers, who were gathered around the fire near by, to come in and take a cup of coffee—an offer they were only too glad to accept, after their night march.

"Gentlemen," said Nancy, as they sat or stood around drinking their hot coffee, "I suppose you have no desire to retain our afflicted friend a prisoner? The doctor, who is with him at present, thinks it might benefit him to be removed to the country. I spoke to my friend whom I saw this morning, and he promised to send a coach. May he depart peaceably when the coach comes?"

"Faith," said the young Irish officer, "he may depart. He shall not be molested. I command here at present."

"What is the matter with the invalid?" inquired another officer.

"He appeareth to have the dropsy," answered Nancy, gravely.

In about half an hour an old-fashioned coach, as large as a small dwelling-house, and raised high from the ground on great wheels, lumbered up to the door. The steps were let down, or unfolded, until they made a kind of step-ladder, by which the passenger ascended to the coach which loomed above. The door stuck, in consequence of being swelled by the late rains, and was with difficulty opened. The officers stood around, waiting the appearance of the invalid, and the young Irishman who had been Nancy's escort waited at the door to help her in, for she was to accompany her afflicted relative to the ferry.

The house door opened, and she appeared, bearing a pillow and blanket to make the sick man comfortable. She arranged these, and stepped back into the house to see him moved. Then, with a shuffling of feet, the pretended victim of dropsy appeared, dressed in plain clothes, and so enormously puffed out that there was scarcely room for him in the passageway. The so-called doctor, dressed in black, and wearing a pair of black glass spectacles, assisted the invalid on one side, and Nancy supported him on the other. The dropsical one groaned at every step, and groaned louder than ever as they pushed, squeezed, and crowded him up the steps and into the coach. Nancy and the doctor followed, and the Irish officer put up the steps and clapped to the door, while Nancy smiled a farewell through the window to him as the great coach rumbled away toward the Christiana River.

"Oddzooks!" exclaimed one of the officers, "that is the fattest Quaker I ever saw."

He would have been surprised if he had seen the fat Quaker draw a stout pillow from under his waistcoat after the coach had moved away, while the doctor stripped some black court-plaster from the back of his spectacles, and instead of the invalid and the physician appeared two decidedly military-looking gentlemen.

The coach and its occupants had lumbered out of sight for some time, and the young officer still remained lounging near the door of Mistress Hanson's house, when an orderly, splashed with mud from galloping over yesterday's battle-field, clattered up to the group.

"Which is Major Fortescue?" he asked, in his sharp military voice.

"I am," answered the young Irish officer.

"Order for you, sir;" and he reached the Major a folded paper, sealed with a blotch of wax as red as blood. He opened it, and read:

"You will immediately arrest two men, officers in the rebel army, known respectively as Colonel Tilton and Captain Bellach. Information has been lodged at head-quarters that they are now lying concealed at Mistress Elizabeth Hanson's in Wilmington town. You will report answer at once. By order of

Colonel Robert Wycherly, R. A.,
Com. 5th Div. H. M. A.
in the Province of Pennsylvania.

To Major Allan Fortescue,
Commander at Wilmington,
in the Lower County of Newcastle."

"Stop them!" roared Major Fortescue, as soon as he could catch his breath. He gave a sharp order to the soldiers lounging near; they seized their arms, and the whole party started at double quick for the ford of the Christiana River, half a mile away, whither the coach had directed its course.

Meanwhile the fugitives had arrived at the bank of the river, where they found that the ferryman was at the other side, and his boat with him. He was lying on the stern seat, in the sun, and an empty whiskey bottle beside him sufficiently denoted the reason of his inertia. When the Colonel called to him, he answered in endearing terms, but moved not; and when the officer swore, the ferryman reproved him solemnly. Affairs were looking gloomy, when Captain Bellach, who had been running up and down the embankment that kept the river from overflowing the marsh-lands that lay between it and the hill on which the town stood, gave a shout which called the Colonel and Nancy to him. They found that he had discovered an old scow half hidden among the reeds; it was stuck fast in the mud, and it was only by great exertions that the two gentlemen pushed it off the ooze into the water. The Colonel then took Nancy in his arms, and carried her across the muddy shore to the boat, where he deposited her; then pushing off the scow, he leaped aboard himself.

"Lackaday for my new silk petticoat, all spotted and ruined!" cried Nancy. "I'd rather have been taken prisoner at once!" And she looked down ruefully upon the specks of blue marsh mud that had been splashed upon that garment.

Neither of the men answered. The boat leaked very badly when it was fairly out in the water, and the Colonel was forced to bail it out with his hat. The Captain sat in the middle of the boat, paddling it with a piece of board. His hat had blown off, and his black silk small-clothes were covered with mud. The tide was running strongly, and as the boat drifted down the stream, it was swung round and round in spite of the Captain's efforts to keep it straight, while the leak gained on them, until Nancy, with a sigh, was compelled to take her best beaver hat, ribbons and all, and help the Colonel bail.

They were scarcely more than half across when Major Fortescue and his squad of soldiers dashed up to the bank. They ran along the embankment, keeping pace with the boat as it drifted with the tide.

"Halt!" cried the officer; but no one in the boat answered. "Halt, or I shoot!" But Captain Bellach only paddled the harder.

"Make ready! Take aim!—"

"Down, for your life!" cried Colonel Tilton, sharply, dragging Nancy down into the bottom of the boat, where Captain Bellach flung himself beside them. It was the work of a moment. The next instant—"Fire!" they heard the royalist order, sharply, from the bank.

"Cra-a-a-ack!" rattled the muskets, and the bullets hummed venomously around the boat like a swarm of angry hornets.

None of the fugitives were hurt, though two of the bullets struck the side of the boat; but Nancy's petticoat was entirely ruined by the mud and water in the bottom. Before the redcoats could reload, they had reached the further shore, and run into a corn field near by, in which they were entirely hidden. Captain Bellach wanted to go up the stream and thrash the drunken ferryman; but the Colonel and Nancy dissuaded him, and they made the best of their way to Dover, which they reached after a very weary journey. There Nancy, who considered it safer to absent herself from home while the British retained possession of Wilmington, found herself the heroine of the hour; and she was fêted and dined and made much of, until it would have completely turned a less sensible little head than hers.

In after-years, when her husband presented her to President Washington, "Ah, Mistress Tilton," said his Excellency, "your husband should indeed value an affection that not only endangered a life, but even sacrificed a fine silk petticoat, for his sake."





April's tears are happy tears.
Joy when the arbutus sweet
Creeps about her dancing feet,
When the violet appears,
When the birds begin to sing,
When the grass begins to grow,
Makes her lovely eyes o'erflow.
She's a tender-hearted thing,
Bonny daughter of the spring.