Authors: James Lincoln Collier
James Lincoln Collier and
Copyright Â© 1981 by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. All Rights Reserved.
First ebook edition copyright 2012 by AudioGO. All Rights Reserved.
Library ISBN: 978-0-7927-9096-9
Trade ISBN: 978-1-62064-200-9
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I crept up the cellar stairs in the dark, with the bundle of hay in my arms, going as quiet as I could. I figured it was about four in the morning. The door at the top of the stairs was closed, and it was black as black could be, but I'd gone up and down those cellar stairs thousands of times, and I knew them like my own hand.
I had a plan to steal my daddy's money back from Mrs. Ivers. Mrs. Ivers wasn't scared of much, but she was sure scared of fire. She'd talk back to anybody as nasty as could be when she felt like itâthe minister, Captain Ivers, anybody. I even saw her talk back to Mr. William Samuel Johnson, who was our delegate to Congress. But she wouldn't talk back to a fire. She was deathly afraid of it, always shrieking at me to be careful with the candles lest I set the curtains on fire and burn the house down or some such. So knowing that, I figured if she thought the house was on fire, she'd run outdoors as fast as she could go, and I'd be able to steal my daddy's money back.
I reached the top of the stairs and laid my hand on the door, just to make sure where it was. The wood was cool on my palm. Even though it was June, it was cool at night down in the cellar where I slept with Mum.
I ran my hand along the wood until I hit the latch, and lifted it up. Then I pushed on the door. It gave a little squeak. I wished I'd thought to grease the hinges the night before with a little tallow or bacon fat. If I wasn't so ignorant I might have thought of it. Probably a white boy would have. But I was black and wasn't as smart as white folks. Leastwise, that's what Mr. Learning, the minister, always said, although when you got down to it, my daddy was pretty smart, and he was black.
Anyway, I wished I'd thought of greasing the hinges, but there was no help for that now. I had to open the door before I could go through it. So I pushed a little more until it squeaked again, and stopped; and pushed some more, and stopped; and finally I had it open about a foot and I squeezed through into the kitchen.
It was clouded over and there wasn't any moonlight or starlight at all out in the yard. But there was still a few bits of wood glowing in the fireplace, so the hearth was lit up a littleâjust enough light so I could make out the shapes of the chairs and tables round about the room. For a moment I stood there by the cellar door, back out of the light from the hearth, listening. A couple of times I thought I heard Mrs. Ivers move around in her sleep, but I wasn't sure. Her room was just off the kitchen, backed up against the fireplace. Usually Captain Ivers would have been in there, too, but he was down at the harbor on the brig.
My daddy's money was in the bedroom. Actually, it wasn't real money. It was in soldiers' notes. My daddy got them for fighting in the Revolution. They was worth six hundred dollarsâleastwise they would be if Congress voted to pay them off.
A few weeks back, when we found out that my daddy drowned at sea, Mum went and got them out of his safe box. We hadn't hardly come back from the funeral when Mrs. Ivers made Mum give them to her. She said it was for safekeeping, but we knew better than that. Mum should never have let Mrs. Ivers know she'd got them out of my daddy's safe box. My daddy would never have given them over to Mrs. Ivers, but Mum and me belonged to the Iverses and had to do as we was bidden.
I slipped over to the fireplace, moving as quiet as I could, dropped down to my knees on the hearth, and set the bundle of hay down. There was some warmth coming off the fireplace bricks, and it felt good in the cool of the June night. I was plenty scared, though. My arms felt weak and my belly was cold.
My daddy's soldiers' notes was hidden in Mrs. Ivers's Bible, which she kept by her bedside so as to pray over it before she went to bed. It was a stroke of luck for us to find them. A couple of days before, Mum was coming out of the cow shed with the milk. Mrs. Ivers was in the kitchen with Captain Ivers. Just as Mum got up to the door, she heard Captain Ivers say, “Where are they?” and Mrs. Ivers told him, “I put them in the big Bible.” Right away Mum knew what they was talking about.
I wished I'd been able to think up a safer plan for stealing them back, though. If I'd have been white, I might have. But there wasn't nothing I could do about that. I knew that black folks were supposed to be more stupid than white folks; that was God's way, the minister said. Black folks were meant to do the work, and white folks the thinking. If God had made black folks smart, they'd have got restless about doing the hard work. Although truth to tell, it never seemed to me that I liked doing the hard work no more than white folks did.
But it was too late to worry about whether my plan would work. I picked up the bundle of hay, and just then I heard a bump from Mrs. Ivers's bedroom. I dropped the hay and jumped up and stood there all scared and frozen. It came to me that maybe I ought to forget about stealing my daddy's money back and all, and creep on back down the cellar before Mrs. Ivers got out of bed and caught me. There probably wasn't much use in it, anyway. The soldiers' notes wasn't going to be worth nothing if Congress didn't vote to change them for real money.
But when I'd got about that far along in my thoughts, a picture of my daddy came into my head. I saw him standing there, tall and stern, and about the bravest man there was until he got drowned at sea, and when I saw him in my head looking down at me there wasn't any way I was going to creep back down those cellar stairs to my bed.
So I listened for a bit, and when I didn't hear anything more from Mrs. Ivers's room, I took a soft breath and knelt down on the hearth again. The first thing I did was to divide the bundle of hay in two. I shoved one piece of it up the chimney to block off the smoke from going out. The other bunch I dropped on the glowing coals. The hay cut off the light, making it near pitch dark. I was glad of that, for I felt safer in the dark. Then I leaned forward and began to blow down into the hay to where the coals were, so they'd flare up a little and make the hay catch fire. I kept my mouth down real low and close to the hay so I could blow soft and not make any noise.
The hay began to catch. I didn't want it to flame up, just smolder and give off a lot of smoke, so I reached my hand into the fireplace and clumped it together. By the light from the coals I could see the smoke start to ooze out of the hay in milky curls. I leaned back a little and waved with my hand. The smoke began to waver out into the room. Some of it went up my nose. It burned a little in my throat. I stood up and backed off from the fire, so as not to choke and start coughing. I didn't want to wake up Mrs. Ivers yet.
Mum was down in the cellar, waiting for me to shout. I wondered what she was thinking. For us, those soldiers' notes of my daddy's was freedom. That was the idea of it. My daddy, he got his freedom for fighting in the war, and he figured he'd use his soldiers' notes to buy me and Mum our freedom, too. But the way it turned out, the soldiers' notes wasn't going to be worth anything until Congress decided to give gold or silver for them. So my daddy went to sea to save up some money to buy us free. And then he got drowned, and the only hope we had was the soldiers' notes. Mum figured if we took them down to New York, where Congress was, maybe we could get something for them. We figured Mr. William Samuel Johnson would know what to do, being as he was our delegate and lived here in Stratford.
The smoke was beginning to fill the room pretty good. It was stinging my nose and my lungs a lot, and I knew that in a moment I'd start coughing. So I waited, and held back on the coughs, and then when the room was filled with smoke I let go a good cough as loud as I could. Then I headed across the room, bumping into chairs, and began to bang on Mrs. Ivers's door. “Mrs. Ivers,” I shouted. “Wake up, the house is afire.”
There came a bumping and a banging, and about two seconds later the door jerked open, and there was Mrs. Ivers with a candle in her hand and her nightcap all twisted on her head. “What's this noise, Daniel?” Then she smelled the smoke. She gave a shriek and busted past me out through the kitchen door into the barnyard.
I slid into her bedroom, waving my arms in front of me so as not to bump into the furniture. I swung around where I figured the bed was, but I guessed wrong and smacked my leg on something. It smarted pretty good.
Outside I could hear Mrs. Ivers tearing around the house to the road, shouting “Fire, fire,” to wake up the men down on the brig. I knew she wouldn't come back into the house until she got somebody with her, but the way she was hollering and shouting, she'd wake the dead, and it wouldn't be long before the men on the brig would come running up.
I felt for the bed with my hand and then worked my way around it to the bedside table. The Bible was there. It was big and heavy. I ran my fingers across the pages, and in a minute I hit a crack in them. I flipped the Bible open and felt between the pages, and in a moment I had the notes tucked down under my shirt. Then I felt my way around the bed again and made my way back through the door into the kitchen.
The smoke was pretty thick, making it hard to breathe. My heart was thumping and my hands felt weak and shaky. The hay was beginning to burn now, making that white smoke shine red. I jumped over to the fireplace, pulled the bunch of hay out of the chimney, and dropped it on the fire. Then I grabbed the poker and stirred the hay up to loosen it. In a minute it was flaming up good, and the smoke was being sucked out of the room up the chimney.
I heard somebody say, “Daniel.” Mum was standing at the top of the cellar stairs with the door partway open, peeking out. I reached my hand under my shirt, pulled out the notes, and gave them to her. “Good boy,” she said. She took the notes, pulled the door closed, and went on down the cellar stairs.
I went outside to clear my lungs. “Mrs. Ivers,” I shouted. “Mrs. Ivers, it's all right. The house ain't on fire.”
She came up through the dark and peered past me into the house. “Thank God,” she said. She was breathing hard, so I knew she was pretty scared. “I was near frightened to death. What on earth happened?”
“It wasn't nothing,” I said. “Just an old bird's nest fell down the chimney and begun to smolder.”
“My heart's still pounding,” she said.
“It wasn't nothing,” I said. “Just an old bird's nest.
My name is Daniel Arabus. I was born in 1773, which made me fourteen in 1787. My daddy was born in 1747. His name was Jack Arabus, and he was a great hero. Once during the war he helped George Washington cross a stream. The way it happened was General Washington was riding along and he came to a stream that had got flooded and risen pretty high and was cutting along fast and muddy over the bottom. The officers figured they'd better dismount and wade across, in case the horses lost their footing.
General Washington, he was about to climb down off his horse, but my daddy was right there and he said, “Sir, I know this stream, it ain't as deep as it looks.” He took General Washington's horse by the bridle and led it across the stream. General Washington didn't get so much as his feet wet. When they was on the other side, General Washington said to my daddy, “Good work, soldier.” And my daddy saluted, and General Washington saluted back.
Honest, it really happened. I heard my daddy tell about it lots of times. George Washington signed my daddy's discharge himself, that's how much he thought of him. I know, because I've seen the discharge myself.
Oh, my daddy, he knew lots of famous men. One of them was Black Sam Fraunces. Mr. Fraunces was a victualler for the army during the Revolution. He bought food for the men. My daddy met Black Sam Fraunces at the Battle of Trenton. They got to be friends. The funny thing was, nobody was sure if Black Sam was a darky or wasn't. He came from the West Indies and spoke French, and he went around bold as you please, the way most darkies wouldn't do. But still, he was black, my daddy said. And he said that someday, after he'd bought my freedom, we'd sign on to a ship headed for New York and he'd take me to meet Black Sam. Black Sam was his friend and would be glad to see him.