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The Birthday of Our Nation by Sarah J. Prichard

Tale of the American Revolution

Bellman Grey and Blue-Eyed Boy were hurrying up Chestnut street; the man carried a large key, the boy a new broom.

It was a very warm morning in a very warm month of a very warm year; in fact it may as well be stated at once that it was the Fourth day of July, 1776, and that Bellman Grey and Blue-Eyed Boy were in haste to make ready the State House of Pennsylvania for the birth of the United States of America. No wonder they were in a hurry.

In fact, everybody seemed in a hurry that day; for before Bellman Grey had whisked that new broom over the floor of Congress Hall, in walked, arm-in-arm, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” said Bellman Grey. “You'll find the dust settled in the committee-room. I'm cleaning house a little extra to-day for the expected visitor.”

“For the coming heir?” said Mr. Adams.

“When Liberty comes, She comes to stay,” said Mr. Jefferson, half-suffocated with the dust; and the two retreated to the committee-room.

Blue-Eyed Boy was polishing with his silken duster the red morocco of a chair as the gentlemen opened the door. He heard one of them say, “If Cæsar Rodney gets here, it will be done.”

“If it's done,” said the boy, “won't you, please, Mr. Adams, won't you, please, Mr. Jefferson, let me carry the news to General Washington?”

The two gentlemen looked either at the other, and both at the lad, in smiling wonder.

“If what is done?” asked Mr. Adams.

“If the thing is voted and signed and made sure,” (just here Blue-Eyed Boy waved his duster of a flag and stood himself as erect as a flagpole;) “if the tree's transplanted, if the ship gets off the ways, if we run clear away from King George, sir; so far away that he'll never catch us.”

“And why do you, my lad, wish to carry the news to General Washington?” asked Mr. Jefferson.

“Because,” said the boy, “why—wouldn't you? It'll be jolly work for the soldiers when they know they can fight for themselves.”

Just here Bellman Grey shouted for Blue-Eyed Boy, bidding him come quick and be spry with his dusting, too.

Before the hall was cleared of the accumulated dust of State-rooms above and Congress-rooms below, in came members of the Congress, one-by-one and two-by-two, and in groups. The doors were locked, and the solemn deliberations began. Within that room, now known as Independence Hall, sat, in solemn conclave, half a hundred men, each and every one of whom knew full well that the deed about to be done would endanger his own life.

On a table lay a paper, awaiting signatures. A silver ink-stand held the ink that trembled and wavered to the sound and stir of John Adams's voice, as he stated once more the why and the wherefore of the step America was about to take.

This final statement was made for the especial enlightenment of three gentlemen, new members of the Congress from New Jersey, and in reply to the reasons given by Mr. Dickinson why the Declaration of Independence should not be made.

In the meantime Bellman Grey was up in the steeple, “seeing what he could see,” and Blue-Eyed Boy was answering knocks at the entrance doors; then running up the stairs to tell the scraps of news that he had gleaned through open door, or crack, or key-hole.

The day wore on; outside a great and greater crowd surged every moment against the walls; but the walls of the State House were thick, and the crowd was hushed to silence, with intense longing to hear what was going on inside.

From his high-up place in the belfry, where he had been on watch, Bellman Grey espied a figure on horseback, hurrying toward the scene; the horse was white with heat and hurry; the rider's “face was no bigger than an apple,” but it was a face of importance that day.

“Run!” shouted Bellman Grey from the belfry. “Run and tell them that Mr. Rodney comes.”

The boy descended the staircase with a bound and a leap and a thump against the door, and announced Cæsar Rodney's approach.

In he came, weary with his eighty miles in the saddle, through heat and hunger and dust, for Delaware had sent her son in haste to the scene.

The door closed behind him and all was as still and solemn as before.

Up in the belfry the old man stroked fondly the tongue of the bell, and softly said under his breath again and again as the hours went: “They will never do it; they will never do it.”

The boy sat on the lowest step of the staircase, alternately peeping through the key-hole with eye to see and with ear to hear. At last, came a stir within the room. He peeped again. He saw Mr. Hancock, with white and solemn face, bend over the paper on the table, stretch forth his hand, and dip the pen in the ink. He watched that hand and arm curve the pen to and fro over the paper, and then he was away up the stairs like a cat.

Breathless with haste, he cried up the belfry: “He's a doing it, he is! I saw him through the key-hole. Mr. Hancock has put his name to that big paper on the table.”

“Go back! go back! you young fool, and keep watch, and tell me quick when to ring!” cried down the voice of Bellman Grey, as he wiped for the hundredth time the damp heat from his forehead and the dust from the iron tongue beside him.

Blue-Eyed Boy went back and peeped again just in time to see Mr. Samuel Adams in the chair, pen in hand.

One by one, in “solemn silence all,” the members wrote their names, each one knowing full well, that unless the Colonists could fight longer and stronger than Great Britain, that signature would prove his own death-warrant.

It was fitting that the men who wrote their names that day should write with solemn deliberation.

Blue-Eyed Boy peeped again. “I hope they're almost done,” he sighed; “and I reckon they are, for Mr. Rodney has the pen now. My! how tired and hot his face looks! I don't believe he has had any more dinner to-day than I have, and I feel most awful empty. It's almost night by this time, too.”

At length the long list was complete. Every man then present had signed the Declaration of Independence, except Mr. Dickinson of Pennsylvania.

And now came the moment wherein the news should begin its journey around the world. The Speaker, Mr. Thompson, arose and made the announcement to the very men who already knew it.

Blue-Eyed Boy peeped with his ear and heard the words through the key-hole.

With a shout and a cry of “Ring! ring!” and a clapping of hands, he rushed upward to the belfry. The words, springing from his lips like arrows, sped their way into the ears and hands of Bellman Grey. Grasping the iron tongue of the old bell, backward and forward he hurled it a hundred times, its loud voice proclaiming to all the people that down in Independence Hall a new nation was born to the earth that day.

When the members heard its tones swinging out the joyous notes they marvelled, because no one had authorized the announcement. When the key was turned from within, and the door opened, there stood the mystery facing them, in the person of Blue-Eyed Boy.

“I told him to ring; I heard the news!” he shouted, and opened the State House doors to let the Congress out and all the world in.

You know the rest; the acclamation of the multitude, the common peals (they forgot to be careful of powder that night in the staid old city), the big bonfires, and the illuminations that rang and roared and boomed and burned from Delaware to Schuylkill.

In the waning light of the latest bonfire, up from the city of Penn, rode our Blue-Eyed Boy—true to his purpose to be the first to carry the glad news to General Washington.

“It will be like meeting an old friend,” he thought; for had he not seen the commander-in-chief every day going in and out of the Congress Hall during his visit to Philadelphia only a month ago?

The self-appointed courier never deemed other evidence of the truth of his news needful than his own “word of mouth.” He rode a strong young horse, which, early in the year, had been left in his care by a southern officer when on his way to the camp at Cambridge; and that no one might worry about him, he had taken the precaution to intrust his secret to a neighbor lad to tell at the home-door in the light of early day.

The journey was long, too long to write of here. Suffice it to say, that on Sunday morning Blue-Eyed Boy reached the ferry at the Hudson river. The old ferryman hesitated to cross with the lad.

“Wait at my house until the cool of the evening,” he urged.

But Blue-Eyed Boy said, “No, I must cross this morning, and my pony: I'll pay for two if you'll take me.”

The ferryman crossed the river with the boy, who, on the other side, inquired his way to the headquarters of the general.

Warm, tired, hungry, and dusty, he urged his pony forward to the place, only to find that he whom he sought had gone to divine service at St. Paul's church.

Blue-Eyed Boy rode to St. Paul's. In the Fields (now City Hall Park) he tied his faithful horse, and went his way to the church.

Gently and with reverent mien, he entered the open door, and listened to the closing words of the sermon. At length the service was over and the congregation turned toward the entrance where stood the young traveler, his heart beating with exultant pride at the glorious news he had to tell to the glorious commander.

How grand the General looked to the boy, as, with stately step, he trod slowly the church aisle accompanied by his officers.

Now he was come to the vestibule. It was Blue-Eyed Boy's chance at last. The great, dancing, gleeful eyes, that have outlived in fame the very name of the lad, were fixed on Washington, as he stepped forward to accost him.

“Out of the way!” exclaimed a guard, and thrust him aside.

“I will speak! General Washington!” screamed Blue-Eyed Boy, in sudden excitement. The idea of anybody who had seen, even through a key-hole, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, being thrust aside thus!

General Washington stayed his steps and ordered, “Let the lad come to me.”

“I've good news for you,” said the youth.

“What news?”

Officers stood around—even the congregation paused, having heard the cry.

“It's for you alone, General Washington.”

The lad's eyes were ablaze now. All the light of Philadelphia's late illuminations burned in them. General Washington bade the youth follow him.

“But my pony is tied yonder,” said he, “and he's hungry and tired too. I can't leave him.”

“Come hither, then,” and the Commander-in-chief withdrew with the lad within the sacred edifice.

“General Washington,” said Blue-Eyed Boy, “on Thursday Congress declared us free and independent.”

“Where are your dispatches?” leaped from the General's lips, his face shining.

“Why—why, I haven't any, but it's all true, sir,” faltered the boy.

“How did you find it out?”

“I was right there, sir. Don't you remember me? I help Bellman Grey take care of the State House at Philadelphia, and I run on errands for the Congress folks, too, sometimes.”

“Did Congress send you on this errand?”

“No, General Washington; I can't tell a lie, I came myself.”

“How did you know me?”

Blue-Eyed Boy was ready to cry now. To be sure he was sturdy and strong, and nearly fourteen, too; but to be doubted, after all his long, tiresome journey, was hard. However, he winked once or twice violently, and then he looked his very soul into the General's face, and said: “Why, I saw you every day you went to Congress, only a month ago, I did.”

“I believe you, my lad. Get your horse and follow me.”

Blue-Eyed Boy followed on, and waited in camp until the tardy despatches came in on Tuesday morning, confirming every word that he had spoken.

The same evening all the brigades in and around New York were ordered to their respective parade-grounds.

Blue-Eyed Boy was admitted within the hollow square formed by the brigades on the spot where stands the City Hall. Within the same square was General Washington, sitting on horseback, and the great Declaration was read by one of his aids.

It is needless to tell how it was received by the eager men who listened to the mighty truths with reverent, uncovered heads. Henceforth every man felt that he had a banner under which to fight, as broad as the sky above him, as sheltering as the homely roof of home.