“Diamond Courage,” Part 18




The Basement

September, 1862

We reached Georgetown at about the time to eat, and I expected we would go straight to the dining room and there have our meal. Eleanor, however, had other plans. Arthur greeted us at the door. “Welcome home, Madame. Welcome home, Lieutenant.” He turned to her. “Will you be dining at the usual hour?”

“Thank you, Arthur. I will not be dining just yet. I need you to take Caleb into the basement. I will join you there shortly.”

“Very well, m’am.” He turned to me. “If you will follow me, please sir.”

I was still in my Confederate uniform, and as we started down the stairs, he said, “We shall have to procure another uniform for you to take the place of the one you have on. It would not go well for you if you appeared on the streets of the Capital wearing that.”

“I can only imagine. Thank you, Arthur.”

“‘Tis my service, sir.”

Arthur lit a lantern and led the way. I had never been in the basement before. Its stone walls were whitewashed, and it was mercifully free from the dampness and smell that plague so many cellars and other underground rooms. Arthur put the lamp down. There were a few chests, which I assumed Eleanor used for travel, and some boxes. Otherwise the space was bare except for some manacles attached to chains and bolted into the way. I had a strange feeling that there were to figure into my punishment.

A few minutes later, Eleanor came down the stairs, holding a large key. It looked as if it would fit the manacles.

“Caleb, you have run like a common slave, so I am going to treat you as one. You will be chained here with only bread and water to eat until you promise me on your oath that you will not try to run again. Do I make myself understood?”

“Yes, m’am.” I thought that I would sooner starve than promise not to run again. Well, we would see.

She held out the key to Arthur. “Arthur, would you fasten Caleb to the wall? I am going upstairs for supper, and I shall have the door left open so that you can smell the delicious odors of the wonderful food I am eating. When you have had enough and are ready to swear, please tell Arthur, and he will set you free. I hope you decide to do this soon. I am not certain how long you will live on the meager portions of bread I give you. Do you have anything to say?”

I looked at her, and thought how she had separated me from my family and threatened them and would not leave us alone, and something snapped in me. “Yes, I do have something to say, Eleanor.  You and your money and your spying and your society and your wicked ways can all go to hell, where they belong. And that is all I will say to you.”

She began laughing.

“Why are you laughing?”

“I am laughing because you are in no position to make threats. I hold all the power, and I will use it to the extent that I find necessary. Remember that, Caleb.” She came over and tried to kiss me. I twisted away.

“The day will come when you will long for that kiss to relieve your misery.” She turned to Arthur. “Come, Arthur. Let us go up stairs. There you may serve me, and then you may eat your own meal, which is nearly as delicious and fragrant as mine, and almost as good to make a man without food willing to do anything I ask.” She smiled at me archly, and then she and Arthur went upstairs.

And so I was left there all night. I tried various means to make myself more comfortable, to little avail. I must have slept some, but what I had of that was brief and poor. I awoke, and a small window told me when the dawn was coming, but I could not say that was a relief to me, for it meant that Eleanor would be coming down the stairs. Sure enough, I heard steps only a few minutes after I had these thoughts.

I expected to see her slipper appear first on the stairs, so I was surprised to witness a boot on the steps. They did not appear to be riding boots such as Eleanor would wear, so unless she had taken to wearing men’s clothing (which I doubted), the boots had to belong to a man. The answer was soon revealed, as Arthur came down the stairs, carrying a carpet bag and bearing a key that I thought I recognized as the one Eleanor used to fasten my manacles. “Arthur! What are you doing here?”

He put his finger to his lips and whispered, “We must be very quiet. I am here to help you make your escape.” He put the key into the lock and I was free. I rubbed my wrists.

“How do you propose to do that?”

He listened for a moment, and then said, “There is a wagon at the back door, in the alley, which had made a delivery to the house. I will go with you, and we will go to the train station. There I have arranged for someone to go with you as close to Leesburg as may be done. That individual will escort you through the lines, and then you will be on your own again.”

“How can I ever thank you?”

He looked at me. “Knowing you are free is thanks enough for me. For a while now I have felt that Mrs. Perry is not right mentally, and her treatment of you was uncalled for and repugnant to the laws of men and of heaven. Here, change into your lieutenant’s uniform.

I quickly put on the uniform, and he handed me the carpet bag. “This bag contains some food and a Confederate uniform you will have to put on once you are past the lines. We must move quickly and use the back stairs to get to the wagon.”

We went upstairs, listening for any signs of life from the rest of the house, and finally reached the back door. Arthur took me by both shoulders. “I wish you the best of luck. Were it not for my aged and infirm mother, I would have quit this job long ago. Mrs. Perry is the most despicable kind of woman, taking advantage and visiting cruelties at every opportunity upon people who cannot defend themselves. I wish I were going with you.”

I shook his hand. “I hope we shall meet again. You are a good man, Arthur.”

“Thank you. Now go!”

I stepped out into the alley to see the wagon as promised, and driven by an elderly Negro. He said nothing, but indicated that I should hide myself in the straw that lay piled in the back. Trusting myself entirely to his mercies, I climbed into the back and covered myself as best I could, hoping the job I did would be adequate.

My driver clucked softly to the horse and we rolled off. We had not gone far, however, when the wagon stopped and I heard the Negro talking with someone. I could not make out what they were saying, but could ascertain that the other speaker was a man. I feared it as a policeman or soldier, but if Eleanor had discovered my absence, would I not be able to hear her cries of alarm? I heard nothing, and so took heart. Then someone began disturbing the pile of hay. Maybe it was a soldier after all, trying to find out where I was. I lay still and hoped whoever it was would not detect me and go away. Then I felt a hand grasp my ankle. I reflexively kicked out, and heard a soft voice whisper, “Caleb, do not kick me again. It is Albert, and I have decided to go with you.”

“How glad I am to hear your voice, Albert.” I reached down, pulled him further up in the bed, and helped him cover himself with straw. “Welcome to my hiding place.”

“I am right pleased to be here.” With that, we fell into silence, waiting for our driver to release us from our secret place. A few minutes later, the wagon stopped, and we heard our driver talking with someone. I surmised we were about to cross the Potomac on the Chain Bridge, which would take us into Arlington. Apparently the sentry decided that an aged Negro could not be carrying anything of interest to him, so we soon were on our way once again.

We rattled along for about half an hour, and the wagon stopped again. “Yous can come out now,” our driver told us, and we poked our heads up from the straw. He stopped the wagon, and I climbed out, went behind a tree, and changed into my Federal uniform. I would have to “shop” for civilian clothes the way I had done a few times before when we got near the lines. I didn’t like doing that, but I would have liked meeting a miné ball even less.

With my clothes changed, I returned to the wagon and started to climb on top of the hay in the back when Arthur objected. “Lieutenant, you should ride on the seat. A person of my station should travel back here.”

“Arthur, I don’t care about stations and other social conventions. I insist you ride in front.”

Arthur thought for a moment, and then said, “If you insist, sir.”

“Good. And don’t call me ‘sir’ any more. I call you ‘Arthur,’ so you should call me ‘Caleb.’”

Arthur started to say something, but didn’t, and settled himself on top of the hay. I climbed onto the seat and turned back to him. “There were times when I counted myself fortunate to ride on any part of a wagon. It all gets where it’s going at the same time.” I turned back to our driver. “Do you have a name, sir?”

“Yassuh, and you don’t have to call me ‘sir.’ My name is Elijah.”

“Well, I’m very pleased to meet you.” I put out my hand for him to shake. He hesitated, and it occurred to me that a white person had never wanted to shake his hand before. Then he shook my hand. “Please to meet you, sir.”

“And I, you Elijah. And please call me ‘Caleb,’ for that’s my name.”

Elijah shook his head, as if all this was too much to figure out, but he said, “All right, Mister Caleb.”

“Caleb” is of course my first name, but I did not bother correcting Elijah. He had had enough for one day.

We drove on until we came to a cabin that looked like it deserted, apparently in great haste. “Pull over, Elijah. I need to see if I can find some clothes here.”

“I’ll go with you,” Arthur said.

“I stays with the wagon,” Elijah told us. “You never know who might come along and decide he would want a wagon with a driver.” Elijah was exactly right about that. In both armies, I had heard reports of wagons being stolen with their cargo.

Arthur and I went up to the cabin and pushed open the door. “Anyone home?” I called. Hearing no answer, I went in, followed by Arthur. We looked around. The inside was bare except for a primitive bed, a broken chair and a homemade chest. I went over to the chest and opened it, and found inside some men’s clothes. I held a pair of pants and shirt that looked like they would fit me. As we were going out, Arthur saw a hat hanging on a peg. He handed it to me.

“This completes your shopping trip, Caleb. And since these are spoils of war, you needn’t worry about being accused of stealing.”

I smiled. I had not been accused of stealing when I took other clothes. Of course, I paid when I could, so it wasn’t stealing in the first place. We left the cabin and resumed our journey, bound for Union lines.

We came upon them late that afternoon. Before anyone could recognize me, I had Elijah stop the wagon and I climbed out. “I’ll leave you here,” I told the other two, “and change in those bushes over there. Give me ten minutes and then come over and take the uniform.”

“All right si—I mean, Caleb,” Arthur said. He came down from his seat and shook my hand. “I wish you well, Caleb. Do let us hear from you.”

“Where will you be?”

“I think an officer would like someone as a valet who has been trained as a butler, don’t you?”

“Yes, I agree.”

Elijah joined us. “Elijah, thank you for your part. Without you, I’d still be in that basement chained to the wall.”

He bowed. “I know what it means to be free,” he said. “I gained mine only a year ago. And I know what Mrs. Perry is like. I tangled with her several times.”

I shook Elijah’s hand. “God be with you both.”

“And with you,” they chorused, and I smiled at their response, which sounded like something I might hear in a church. I went over into the bushes, quickly changed my clothes, and left my uniform under a bush. I took one last look at my companions. They had been so good to me. I hoped I could repay them some way. I don’t know how that would happen, but I would certainly try to make it do so. With that, I started to make my way toward the lines.

I had to find a route that avoided sentries, of course, and to do that, I found a patch of briars and struggled through them. I gained some small cuts as a result, but counted those as a small price to pay for my freedom and return to my comrades. I came to a small hill, which I skirted, staying to the tree line, which I suppose offered the best cover. The sounds of the camp receded gradually, so I felt confident that I could make my way through more open areas, still being alert for any stray soldier who might be wandering the woods on a pleasant day.

I met none, and walked on, bound for our encampment at Leesburg. I felt free and confident, knowing I had escaped a horrible captivity.

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