JEROME had scarcely passed the prison-gates, ere he reproached himself for having taken such a step. There seemed to him no hope of escape out of the State, and what was a few hours or days at most, of life to him, when, by obtaining it, another had been sacrificed. He was on the eve of returning, when he thought of the last words uttered by Clotelle. "Be brave and determined, and you will still be free." The words sounded like a charm in his ears and he went boldly forward.
Clotelle had provided a suit of men's clothes and had placed them where her lover could get them, if he should succeed in getting out.
Returning to Mr. Wilson's barn, the fugitive changed his apparel, and again retraced his steps into the street. To reach the Free States by travelling by night and lying by during the day, from a State so far south as Mississippi, no one would think for a moment of attempting to escape. To remain in the city would be a suicidal step. The deep sound of the escape of steam from a boat, which was at that moment ascending the river, broke upon the ears of the slave. "If that boat is going up the river," said he, "why not I conceal myself on board, and try to escape?" He went at once to the steamboat landing, where the boat was just coming in. "Bound for Louisville," said the captain, to one who was making inquiries. As the passengers were rushing on board, Jerome followed them, and proceeding to where some of the hands were stowing away bales of goods, he took hold and aided them.
"Jump down into the hold, there, and help the men," said the mate to the fugitive, supposing that, like many persons, he was working his way up the river. Once in the hull among the boxes, the slave concealed himself. Weary hours, and at last days, passed without either water or food with the hidden slave. More than once did he resolve to let his case be known; but the knowledge that he would be sent back to Natchez kept him from doing so. At last, with lips parched and fevered to a crisp, the poor man crawled out into the freight-room, and began wandering about. The hatches were on, and the room dark. There happened to be on board a wedding party, and a box, containing some ofthe bridal cake, with several bottles of port wine, was near Jerome. He found the box, opened it, and helped himself. In eight days, the boat tied up at the wharf at the place of her destination. It was late at night; the boat's crew, with the single exception of the man on watch, were on shore. The hatches were off, and the fugitive quietly made his way on deck and jumped on shore. The man saw the fugitive, but too late to seize him.
Still in a Slave State, Jerome was at a loss to know how he should proceed. He had with him a few dollars, enough to pay his way to Canada, if he could find a conveyance. The fugitive procured such food as he wanted from one of the many eating-houses, and then, following the direction of the North Star, he passed out of the city, and took the road leading to Covington. Keeping near the Ohio River, Jerome soon found an opportunity to cross over into the State of Indiana. But liberty was a mere name in the latter State, and the fugitive learned, from some colored persons that he met, that it was not safe to travel by daylight. While making his way one night, with nothing to cheer him but the prospect of freedom in the future, he was pounced upon by three men who were lying in wait for another fugitive, an advertisement of whom they had received through the mail. In vain did Jerome tell them that he was not a slave. True, they had not caught the man they expected; but, if they could make this slave tell from what place he had escaped, they knew that a good price would be paid them for the negro's arrest.
Tortured by the slave-catchers, to make him reveal the name of his master and the place from whence he had escaped, Jerome gave them a fictitious name in Virginia, and said that his master would give a large reward, and manifested a willingness to return to his "old boss." By this misrepresentation, the fugitive hoped to have another chance of getting away. Allured with the prospect of a large sum of the needful, the slave-catchers started back with their victim. Stopping on the second night at an inn, on the banks of the Ohio River, the kidnappers, in lieu of a suitable place in which to confine their prize during the night, chained him to the bed-post of their sleeping-chamber. The white men were late in retiring to rest, after an evening spent in drinking. At dead of night, when all was still, the slave arose from the floor, upon which he had been lying, looked around and saw that Morpheus had possession of his captors. For once, thought he, the brandy bottle has done a noble work. With palpitating heart and trembling limbs, he viewed his position. The door was fast, but the warm weather had compelled them to leave the window open. If he could but get his chains off, he might escape through the window to the piazza. The sleepers' clothes hung upon chairs by the bedside. The slave thought of the padlock-key, examined the pockets, and found it. The chains were soon off, and the negro stealthily making his way to the window. He stopped, and said to himself, "These men are villains; they are enemies to all who, like me, are trying to be free. Then why not I teach them a lesson?" He then dressed himself in the best suit, hung his own worn-out and tattered garments on the same chair, and silently passed through the window to the piazza, and let himself down by one of the pillars, and started once more for the North.
Daylight came upon the fugitive before he had selected a hiding-place for the day, and he was walking at a rapid rate, in hopes of soon reaching some woodland or forest. The sun had just begun to show itself, when the fugitive was astounded at seeing behind him, in the distance, two men upon horseback. Taking a road to the right, the slave saw before him a farmhouse, and so near was he to it that he observed two men in front of it looking at him. It was too late to turn back. The kidnappers were behind him--strange men before him. Those in the rear he knew to be enemies, while he had no idea of what principles were the farmers. The latter also saw the white men coming, and called to the fugitive to come that way. The broad-brimmed hats that the farmers wore told the slave that they were Quakers.
Jerome had seen some of these people passing up and down the river, when employed on a steamer between Natchez and New Orleans, and had heard that they disliked slavery. He, therefore, hastened toward the drab-coated men, who, on his approach, opened the barn-door, and told him to "run in."
When Jerome entered the barn, the two farmers closed the door, remaining outside themselves, to confront the slave-catchers, who now came up and demanded admission, feeling that they had their prey secure.
"The can't enter my premises," said one of the Friends, in rather a musical voice.
The negro-catchers urged their claim to the slave, and intimated that, unless they were allowed to secure him, they would force their way in. By this time, several other Quakers had gathered around the barn-door. Unfortunately for the kidnappers, and most fortunately for the fugitive, the Friends had just been holding a quarterly meeting in the neighborhood, and a number of them had not yet returned to their homes. After some talk, the men in drab promised to admit the hunters, provided they procured an officer and a search-warrant from a justice of the peace. One of the slave-catchers was left to see that the fugitive did not get away, while the others went in pursuit of an officer. In the mean time, the owner of the barn sent for a hammer and nails, and began nailing up the barn-door.
After an hour in search of the man of the law, they returned with an officer and a warrant. The Quaker demanded to see the paper, and, after looking at it for some time, called to his son to go into the house for his glasses. It was a long time before Aunt Ruth found the leather case, and when she did, the glasses wanted wiping before they could be used. After comfortably adjusting them on his nose, he read the warrant over leisurely.
"Come, Mr. Dugdale, we can't wait all day," said the officer.
"Well, will thee read it for me?" returned the Quaker.
The officer complied, and the man in drab said,--
"Yes, thee may go in, now. I am inclined to throw no obstacles in the way of the execution of the law of the land."
On approaching the door, the men found some forty or fifty nails in it, in the way of their progress.
"Lend me your hammer and a chisel, if you please, Mr. Dugdale," said the officer.
"Please read that paper over again, will thee?" asked the Quaker.
The officer once more read the warrant.
"I see nothing there which says I must furnish thee with tools to open my door. If thee wants a hammer, thee must go elsewhere for it; I tell thee plainly, thee can't have mine."
The implements for opening the door are at length obtained, and, after another half-hour, the slave-catchers are in the barn. Three hours is a long time for a slave to be in the hands of Quakers. The hay is turned over, and the barn is visited in every part; but still the runaway is not found. Uncle Joseph has a glow upon his countenance; Ephraim shakes his head knowingly; little Elijah is a perfect know-nothing, and, if you look toward the house, you will see Aunt Ruth's smiling face, ready to announce that breakfast is ready.
"The nigger is not in this barn," said the officer.
"I know he is not," quietly answered the Quaker.
"What were you nailing up your door for, then, as if you were afraid we would enter?" inquired one of the kidnappers.
"I can do what I please with my own door, can't I," said the Quaker.
The secret was out; the fugitive had gone in at the front door and out at the back; and the reading of the warrant, nailing up of the door, and other preliminaries of the Quaker, was to give the fugitive time and opportunity to escape.
It was now late in the morning, and the slave-catchers were a long way from home, and the horses were jaded by the rapid manner in which they had travelled. The Friends, in high glee, returned to the house for breakfast; the man of the law, after taking his fee, went home, and the kidnappers turned back, muttering, "Better luck next time."