Ballad of Sweet P

by VIRGINIA WOODWARD CLOUD (1861-1938)

Christmas night, 1776.

Mistress Penelope Penwick, she
Called by her father, “My Sweet P,”
Painted by Peale, she won renown
In a clinging, short-waisted satin gown;
A red rose held by her finger tips,
And a smile held back from her roguish lips

William Penwick, the jolly wight,
In clouds of smoke, night after night,
Would tell a tale in delighted pride,
To cronies who came from far and wide,
Always ending,–with candle he,–
“And this is the picture of my Sweet P!

The tale?–“Twas how Sweet P did chance
To give to the British a Christmas dance.
Penwick’s house an outpost stood,
Flanked by the ferry and banked by the wood;
Hessian and British quartered there
Swarmed through chamber and hall and stair.

Fires ablaze and candles bright,
Soldier and officer feasted that night.
The enemy? Safe, with a river between,
Black and deadly and fierce and keen,
A river of ice and a blinding storm,–
So they made them merry and kept them warm.

But while they mirth and roistering made
Up in her dormer window stayed
Mistress Penelope Penwick apart,
With fearful thought, and sorrowful heart.
Night after night her candle’s gleam
Had sent through the dark its hopeful beam.

But the nights they came and passed again
With never a sign from her countrymen;
For where beat a heart so brave, so bold,
As to baffle the river’s bulwark cold?
Penelope’s eyes and her candle’s light
Were mocked by the storm that Christmas night.

But harken! Suddenly a missile stung
And shattered her casement pane, and rung
At her feet! ‘Twas a word from the storm outside,
She opened her dormer window wide.
A wind-swept figure halted below,
The ferryman, old and bent and slow,
And a murmur rose upward, only one,
Thrilling and powerful,– “Washington!”

With jest and laughter and candles bright,
It was two by the stairway clock that night
When Penelope Penwick tripped her down,
Dressed in the short-waisted satin gown;
With a red rose cut from her potted bush;–
There fell on the rollicking crowd a hush.

And she stood in the soldiers’ midst, I ween,
The daintiest thing they e’er had seen!
She swept their gaze with her eyes most sweet,
And patted her little slippered feet;
“Tis Christmas night, sirs,” quoth Sweet P,
“And I wish to dance!– Will you dance with me?”

O but they cheered! Ran to and fro,
Each for the honor bowing low;
But with smile and charm and witching grace
She chose him pranked with officer’s lace,
And shining buttons, and dangling sword,—
I’ll warrant he strutted him proud as a lord!

Doffed was enmity, donned was glee,–
0 she was charming, that Sweet P!
When it was over and blood aflame,
Came the eager cry, “A game!” “A game!”
“We’ll play at forfeits,” Penelope cried,
“If one holds aught in his love and pride.

“Let him lay it down at my feet in turn,
And a fine from me shall he straightway earn!”
What held each one in his love and pride?–
Quick flew a hand unto every side,
Each man had his sword and nothing more,
And the swords they clanged in a heap on the floor.

Standing there in her satin gown,
With candlelight on her yellow crown,
And at her feet was a bank of steel,–
I’ll wager the look was caught by Peale!
Penelope held her rose on high,
“I fine each one for a leaf to try!”

She plucked the petals and blew them out,
A rain of red they fluttered about.
Over the floor and through the air,–
Rushed the officers here and there,
When hark! A crv! The door burst in!
“The enemy!” Tumult, terror and din!

Flew a hand unto every side,–
Swords?– Penelope, arms thrown wide,
Leaped that heap of steel before,
The swords behind her upon the floor,
And faced her countrymen staunch and bold,
Who dared a river of death and cold,
Who swept them down on a rollicking horde
And found they never a man with a sword!

And so it happened,–but not by chance–
That in ’76 was given a dance,
By a witch with a rose and a satin gown,
Painted in Philadelphia town,
Mistress Penelope Penwick, she
Called by her father “My Sweet P.”

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