Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

A Quakeress Patriot

In Philadelphia, on Second Street below Spruce, formerly stood an antiquated mansion, known by the name of "Loxley's House," it having been originally the residence of Lieutenant Loxley, who served in the artillery under Braddock, and took part in his celebrated defeat. During the Revolution this house was the scene of an interesting historical incident, which is well worth relating.

At that time it was occupied by a Quaker named Darrah, or perhaps we should say by his wife Lydia, who seems to have been the ruling spirit of the house. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, when patriots and royalists alike had to open their mansions to their none too welcome guests, the Darrah mansion was used as the quarters of the British adjutant-general. In that day it was somewhat "out of town," and was frequently the scene of private conferences of the higher officers, as being somewhat secluded.

On one chill and snowy day, the 2d of December, 1777, the adjutant-general appeared at the house and bade Mrs. Darrah to prepare the upper back room for a meeting of his friends, which would take place that night.

"They may stay late," he said, and added, emphatically, "be sure, Lydia, that your family are all in bed at an early hour. When our guests are ready to leave the house I will give you notice, that you may let us out and extinguish the fire and candles."

Mrs. Darrah obeyed. Yet she was so struck by the mystery with which he seemed inclined to surround the projected meeting, that she made up her mind to learn, if possible, what very secret business was afoot. She obeyed his orders literally, saw that her people were early in bed, and, after receiving the officers, retired herself to her room, but not to sleep. This conference might presage some peril to the American cause. If so, she wished to know it.

When she deemed the proper time had come, she removed her shoes, and in stocking feet stole softly along the passage to the door of the apartment where the officers were in consultation. Here the key-hole served the purpose to which that useful opening has so often been put, and enabled her to hear tidings of vital interest. For some time only a murmur of voices reaches her ears. Then silence fell, followed by one of the officers reading in a clear tone. She listened intently, for the document was of absorbing interest. It was an order from Sir William Howe, arranging for a secret attack on Washington's camp at Whitemarsh. The troops were to leave the city on the night of the 4th under cover of the darkness, and surprise the rebels before daybreak.

The fair eavesdropper had heard enough. Rarely had key-hole listener been so well rewarded. She glided back to her room, and threw herself on her bed. She was none too soon. In a few minutes afterwards steps were heard in the passage and then came a rap upon her door. The fair conspirator was not to be taken unawares; she feigned not to hear. The rap was repeated a second and a third time. Then the shrewd woman affected to awake, answered in a sleepy tone, and, learning that the adjutant-general and his friends were ready to leave, arose and saw them out.


The Old State House, Philadelphia.

Lydia Darrah slept no more that night. The secret she had learned banished slumber. What was to be done? This thought filled her mind the night long. Washington must be warned; but how? Should she trust her husband, or some other member of her family? No, they were all leaky vessels; she would trust herself alone. Before morning she had devised a plan of action, and for the first time since learning that eventful news the anxious woman gave her mind a moment's rest.

At early dawn she was astir. Flour was needed for the household. She woke her husband and told him of this, saying that she must make an early journey to Frankford to supply the needed stores. This was a matter of ordinary occurrence in those days, the people of Philadelphia being largely dependent upon the Frankford mills for their flour, and being obliged to go for it themselves. The idea of house-to-house delivery had not yet been born. Mr. Darrah advised that she should take the maid with her, but she declined. The maid could not be spared from her household duties, she said.

It was a cold December morning. The snow of the day before had left several inches of its white covering upon the ground. It was no very pleasant journey which lay before Mrs. Darrah. Frankford was some five miles away, and she was obliged to traverse this distance afoot, and return over the same route with her load of flour. Certainly comfort was not the ruling consideration in those days of our forefathers. A ten-mile walk through the snow for a bag of flour would be an unmentionable hardship to a nineteenth-century housewife.

On foot, and bag in hand, Mrs. Darrah started on her journey through the almost untrodden snow, stopping at General Howe's head-quarters, on Market Street near Sixth, to obtain the requisite passport to leave the city. It was still early in the day when the devoted woman reached the mills. The British outposts did not extend to this point; those of the Americans were not far beyond. Leaving her bag at the mill to be filled, Mrs. Darrah, full of her vital mission, pushed on through the wintry air, ready to incur any danger or discomfort if thereby she could convey to the patriot army the important information which she had so opportunely learned.

Fortunately, she had not far to go. At a short distance out she met Lieutenant-Colonel Craig, who had been sent out by Washington on a scouting expedition in search of information. She told him her story begged him to hasten to Washington with the momentous tidings and not to reveal her name and hurried back to the mill. Here she shouldered the bag of flour, and trudged her five miles home, reaching there in as reasonably short a time as could have been expected.

Night came. The next day passed. They were a night and day of anxious suspense for Lydia Darrah. From her window, when night had again fallen, she watched anxiously for movements of the British troops. Ah! there at length they go, long lines of them, marching steadily through the darkness, but as noiselessly as possible. It was not advisable to alarm the city. Patriot scouts might be abroad.

When morning dawned the restless woman was on the watch again. The roll of a drum came to her ears from a distance. Soon afterwards troops appeared, weary and discontented warriors, marching back. They had had their night's journey in vain. Instead of finding the Americans off their guard and an easy prey, they had found them wide awake, and ready to give them the hottest kind of a reception. After manoeuvring about their lines for a vulnerable point, and finding none, the doughty British warriors turned on their track and marched disconsolately homeward, having had their labor for their pains.

The army authorities were all at sea. How had this information got afoot? Had it come from the Darrah house? Possibly, for there the conference had been held. The adjutant-general hastened to his quarters, summoned the fair Quakeress to his room, and after locking the door against intrusion, turned to her with a stern and doubting face.

"Were any of your family up, Lydia," he asked, "on the night when I had visitors here?"

"No," she replied; "they all retired at eight o'clock."

This was quite true so far as retiring went. Nothing was said about a subsequent rising.

"It is very strange," he remarked, musingly. "You, I know, were asleep, for I knocked at your door three times before you heard me; yet it is certain that we were betrayed. I am altogether at a loss to conceive who could have given Washington information of our intended attack. But on arriving near his camp we found him ready, with troops under arms and cannon planted, prepared at all points to receive us. We have been compelled to turn on our heels, and march back home again, like a parcel of fools."

As may well be surmised, the patriotic Lydia kept her own counsel, and not until the British had left Philadelphia was the important secret of that signal failure made known.

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