Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Two Lanterns, Pages 117-119


     Having dragged his trailing leg awkwardly through his opened bedroom window, Robert Newman lowered himself onto the roof of the abutting shed. For a good twenty seconds he listened. Across and down the roof he then proceeded, slowly -- silently, he prayed -- lest he be heard by the British officers downstairs at their game of whist. He had excused himself from the general company ten minutes earlier, telling his mother that he was tired and wanted to retire. At the edge of the roof, listening, staring, he detected no one in the street. Carefully, soundlessly, he lowered himself, his shoes reaching the top of an upright, empty flour barrel. Crouched atop the barrel, he extended his left leg until the toe of his shoe touched the pavement.

     Had they heard him? Stiff as a grave marker, he listened.

     The dark shape of Christ Church dwarfed him. He moved quickly across the street into its shadow. A young man, twenty-three, he was the church sexton. His older brother was the organist. Times were hard; Newman did not like his job; too bad. When Paul Revere had explained to him what he had wanted, Newman had been eager to participate. Afterward, he had reckoned the peril.

     Hearing footsteps on the cobblestones, he stepped behind the church’s corner. John Pulling emerged from the darkness. “Sssst! Over here!” Newman whispered.

     Pulling was a church vestryman. Revere had recruited him to be Newman’s lookout.

     “Not here yet?” Pulling asked.

     “He didn't say when. Any time, I suspect.” He was right. Soon they heard aggressive footsteps. Paul Revere’s broad figure approached.

     “Nervous?” Revere asked, joining them at the church’s darkest corner.

     Newman nodded.

     “You become accustomed to it.” For perhaps ten seconds Revere gazed at the deserted street.

     Newman was taken by the silversmith’s air of confidence.

     “The British soldiers are in the boats,” Revere informed. “Go easy. Take your time. But do your work to its completion. If I’m arrested, our fortune may rest entirely upon what you accomplish.” He patted Newman’s left shoulder. “I must prepare to leave. God be with you.”

    Newman listened to Revere’s footfalls and then, too soon, but the night sounds.

    It was too late to renege.

   “All right,” he said, raising angrily his hands. He pulled out of his side coat pocket a ring of keys. He inserted a long key into the lock of the side entrance door. He turned the key and pushed open the door. Pulling nodded. Newman closed the door, locked it, and in darkness felt his way to a closet. Leaving it, carrying two lanterns, he moved to the stairway that led to the belfry.

    Past the bell loft he climbed, the eight great bells within somnolent. He reached the highest window. To the north he saw in the moonlight the shoulder of Copp's Hill. Beyond lay the mouth of the Charles River and the glimmering lights of the Somerset, a moving, ethereal flicker.

    He reached downward, lit the lanterns, and raised them chest high. Somewhere amid the lights of Charlestown, beyond the Somerset, Sons of Liberty were watching. They would now know that Gage’s soldiers were crossing the Back Bay.

    Having counted to twenty, he set the lanterns down below the window. He extinguished them. Such a short while they had glowed, but Mr. Revere had assured him that patriots of Liberty would be watching. He had not wanted others, especially sailors on the man-of-war, to see them!

    Other people, however, just might! An officer, taking a brisk walk along Snow Street. Newman imagined others: a soldier at the burying ground engaging a whore, sentries idling at the Charlestown Ferry. How swiftly might the source of that strange illumination be determined? How soon might soldiers be dispatched to investigate?

    He heard unnatural sounds in the street! Sounds loud enough to startle him. What was Pulling doing? His heart thumped.

    He waited a full minute.

    He imagined Pulling arrested, soldiers posted silently outside the main entrance. Impeded by doubt, by anxiety, he tarried.

    Ashamed of his cowardice, he willed himself down the dark stairway. He returned the lanterns to the closet. Then, to the opposite end of the church he walked, stopping to listen after each step. Eventually, he reached the window farthest from the main entrance. He opened it, not without some noise, listened again to silence, climbed through it, and placed his shoes on firm soil.

    Five minutes later he was standing on the roof of the shed adjacent to his bedroom window. He eased himself soundlessly over the sill. Leaving his outer garments on the floor, he climbed into his bed. For at least an hour he lay still, his agitated mind imagining frightful consequences.

    Below, concluding a most delightful evening, the officers jested and guffawed