Chapter 26

THE HERO OF A NIGHT

 

MOUNTED on a fast horse, with the Quaker's son for a guide, Jerome pressed forward while Uncle Joseph was detaining the slave-catchers at the barn-door, through which the fugitive had just escaped. When out of present danger, fearing that suspicion might be aroused if he continued on the road in open day, Jerome buried himself in a thick, dark forest until nightfall. With a yearning heart, he saw the splendor of the setting sun lingering on the hills, as if loath to fade away and be lost in the more sombre hues of twilight, which, rising from the east, was slowly stealing over the expanse of heaven, bearing silence and repose, which should cover his flight from a neighborhood to him so full of dangers.

Wearily and alone, with nothing but the hope of safety before him to cheer him on his way, the poor fugitive urged his tired and trembling limbs forward for several nights. The new suit of clothes with which he had provided himself when he made his escape from his captors, and the twenty dollars which the young Quaker had slipped into his hand, when bidding him "Fare thee well," would enable him to appear genteelly as soon as he dared to travel by daylight, and would thus facilitate his progress toward freedom.

It was late in the evening when the fugitive slave arrived at a small town on the banks of Lake Erie, where he was to remain over night. How strange were his feelings! While his heart throbbed for that freedom and safety which Canada alone could furnish to the whip-scarred slave, on the American continent, his thoughts were with Clotelle. Was she still in prison, and if so, what would be her punishment for aiding him to escape from prison? Would he ever behold her again? These were the thoughts that followed him to his pillow, haunted him in his dreams, and awakened him from his slumbers.

The alarm of fire aroused the inmates of the hotel in which Jerome had sought shelter for the night from the deep sleep into which they had fallen. The whole village was buried in slumber, and the building was half consumed before the frightened inhabitants had reached the scene of the conflagration. The wind was high, and the burning embers were wafted like so many rockets through the sky. The whole town was lighted up, and the cries of women and children in the streets made the scene a terrific one. Jerome heard the alarm, and hastily dressing himself, he went forth and hastened toward the burning building.

"There,--there in that room in the second story, is my child!" exclaimed a woman, wringing her hands, and imploring some one to go to the rescue of her little one.

The broad sheets of fire were flying in the direction of the chamber in which the child was sleeping, and all hope of its being saved seemed gone. Occasionally the wind would life the pall of smoke, and show that the work of destruction was not yet complete. At last a long ladder was brought, and one end placed under the window of the room. A moment more and a bystander mounted the ladder and ascended in haste to the window. The smoke met him as he raised the sash, and he cried out, "All is lost!" and returned to the ground without entering the room.

Another sweep of the wind showed that the destroying element had not yet made its final visit to that part of the doomed building. The mother, seeing that all hope of again meeting her child in this world was gone, wrung her hands and seemed inconsolable with grief.

At this juncture, a man was seen to mount the ladder, and ascend with great rapidity. All eyes were instantly turned to the figure of this unknown individual as it disappeared in the cloud of smoke escaping from the window. Those who a moment before had been removing furniture, as well as the idlers who had congregated at the ringing of the bells, assembled at the foot of the ladder, and awaited with breathless silence the reappearance of the stranger, who, regardless of his own safety, had thus risked his life to save another's. Three cheers broke the stillness that had fallen on the company, as the brave man was seen coming through the window and slowly descending to the ground holding under one arm the inanimate form of the child. Another cheer and then another, made the welkin ring, as the stranger, with hair burned and eyebrows closely singed, fainted at the foot of the ladder. But the child was saved.

The stranger was Jerome. As soon as he revived, he shrunk from every eye, as if he feared they would take from him the freedom which he had gone through so much to obtain.

The next day, the fugitive took a vessel, and the following morning found himself standing on the free soil of Canada. As his foot pressed the shore, he threw himself upon his face, kissed the earth, and exclaimed, "O God! I thank thee that I am a free man."

 

 

 


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