There would be less, a good deal, with the hard winter at the door, and with 'Liza to keep and the many mouths to fill. Still, he wouldn't have minded it so much but for mother fretting and worrying herself sick at home, and all along o' Jim, the eldest boy, who had gone away mad and never come back. Many were the dollars he had paid the doctor and the druggist to fix her up, but it was no use. She was worrying herself into a decline, it was clear to be seen.
Joe heaved a heavy sigh as he thought of the strapping lad who had brought such sorrow to his mother. So strong and so handy on the wagon. Old 'Liza loved him like a brother and minded him even better than she did himself. If he only had him now, they could face the winter and the bad times, and pull through. But things never had gone right since he left. He didn't know, Joe thought humbly as he jogged along over the rough road, but he had been a little hard on the lad. Boys wanted a chance once in a while. All work and no play was not for them. Likely he had forgotten he was a boy once himself. But Jim was such a big lad, 'most like a man. He took after his mother more than the rest. She had been proud, too, when she was a girl. He wished he hadn't been hasty that time they had words about those boxes at the store. Anyway, it turned out that it wasn't Jim's fault. But he was gone that night, and try as they might to find him, they never had word of him since. And Joe sighed again more heavily than before.
Old 'Liza shied at something in the road, and Joe took a firmer hold on the reins. It turned his thoughts to the horse. She was getting old, too, and not as handy as she was. He noticed that she was getting winded with a heavy load. It was well on to ten years she had been their capital and the breadwinner of the house. Sometimes he thought that she missed Jim. If she was to leave them now, he wouldn't know what to do, for he couldn't raise the money to buy another horse nohow, as things were. Poor old 'Liza! He stroked her gray coat musingly with the point of his whip as he thought of their old friendship. The horse pointed one ear back toward her master and neighed gently, as if to assure him that she was all right.
Suddenly she stumbled. Joe pulled her up in time, and throwing the reins over her back, got down to see what it was. An old horseshoe, and in the dust beside it a new silver quarter. He picked both up and put the shoe in the wagon.
"They say it is luck," he mused, "finding horse-iron and money. Maybe it's my Christmas. Get up, 'Liza!" And he drove off to the ferry.
The glare of a thousand gas lamps had chased the sunset out of the western sky, when Joe drove home through the city's streets. Between their straight, mile-long rows surged the busy life of the coming holiday. In front of every grocery store was a grove of fragrant Christmas trees waiting to be fitted into little green stands with fairy fences. Within, customers were bargaining, chatting, and bantering the busy clerks. Pedlers offering tinsel and colored candles waylaid them on the door-step. The rack under the butcher's awning fairly groaned with its weight of plucked geese, of turkeys, stout and skinny, of poultry of every kind. The saloon-keeper even had wreathed his door-posts in ground-ivy and hemlock, and hung a sprig of holly in the window, as if with a spurious promise of peace on earth and good-will toward men who entered there. It tempted not Joe. He drove past it to the corner, where he turned up a street darker and lonelier than the rest, toward a stretch of rocky, vacant lots fenced in by an old stone wall. 'Liza turned in at the rude gate without being told, and pulled up at the house.
A plain little one-story frame with a lean-to for a kitchen, and an adjoining stable-shed, overshadowed all by two great chestnuts of the days when there were country lanes where now are paved streets, and on Manhattan Island there was farm by farm. A light gleamed in the window looking toward the street. As 'Liza's hoofs were heard on the drive, a young girl with a shawl over her head ran out from some shelter where she had been watching, and took the reins from Joe.
"You're late," she said, stroking the mare's steaming flank. 'Liza reached around and rubbed her head against the girl's shoulder, nibbling playfully at the fringe of her shawl.
"Yes; we've come far, and it's been a hard pull. 'Liza is tired. Give her a good feed, and I'll bed her down. How's mother?"
"Sprier than she was," replied the girl, bending over the shaft to unbuckle the horse; "seems as if she'd kinder cheered up for Christmas." And she led 'Liza to the stable while her father backed the wagon into the shed.
It was warm and very comfortable in the little kitchen, where he joined the family after "washing up." The fire burned brightly in the range, on which a good-sized roast sizzled cheerily in its pot, sending up clouds of savory steam. The sand on the white-pine floor was swept in tongues, old-country fashion. Joe and his wife were both born across the sea, and liked to keep Christmas eve as they had kept it when they were children. Two little boys and a younger girl than the one who had met him at the gate received him with shouts of glee, and pulled him straight from the door to look at a hemlock branch stuck in the tub of sand in the corner. It was their Christmas tree, and they were to light it with candles, red and yellow and green, which mamma got them at the grocer's where the big Santa Claus stood on the shelf. They pranced about like so many little colts, and clung to Joe by turns, shouting all at once, each one anxious to tell the great news first and loudest.
Joe took them on his knee, all three, and when they had shouted until they had to stop for breath, he pulled from under his coat a paper bundle, at which the children's eyes bulged. He undid the wrapping slowly.
"Who do you think has come home with me?" he said, and he held up before them the veritable Santa Claus himself, done in plaster and all snow-covered. He had bought it at the corner toy-store with his lucky quarter. "I met him on the road over on Long Island, where 'Liza and I was to-day, and I gave him a ride to town. They say it's luck falling in with Santa Claus, partickler when there's a horseshoe along. I put hisn up in the barn, in 'Liza's stall. Maybe our luck will turn yet, eh! old woman?" And he put his arm around his wife, who was setting out the dinner with Jennie, and gave her a good hug, while the children danced off with their Santa Claus.
She was a comely little woman, and she tried hard to be cheerful. She gave him a brave look and a smile, but there were tears in her eyes, and Joe saw them, though he let on that he didn't. He patted her tenderly on the back and smoothed his Jennie's yellow braids, while he swallowed the lump in his throat and got it down and out of the way. He needed no doctor to tell him that Santa Claus would not come again and find her cooking their Christmas dinner, unless she mended soon and swiftly.
It may be it was the thought of that which made him keep hold of her hand in his lap as they sat down together, and he read from the good book the "tidings of great joy which shall be to all people," and said the simple grace of a plain and ignorant, but reverent, man. He held it tight, as though he needed its support, when he came to the petition for "those dear to us and far away from home," for his glance strayed to the empty place beside the mother's chair, and his voice would tremble in spite of himself. He met his wife's eyes there, but, strangely, he saw no faltering in them. They rested upon Jim's vacant seat with a new look of trust that almost frightened him. It was as if the Christmas peace, the tidings of great joy, had sunk into her heart with rest and hope which presently throbbed through his, with new light and promise, and echoed in the children's happy voices.
So they ate their dinner together, and sang and talked until it was time to go to bed. Joe went out to make all snug about 'Liza for the night and to give her an extra feed. He stopped in the door, coming back, to shake the snow out of his clothes. It was coming on with bad weather and a northerly storm, he reported. The snow was falling thick already and drifting badly. He saw to the kitchen fire and put the children to bed. Long before the clock in the neighboring church tower struck twelve, and its doors were opened for the throngs come to worship at the midnight mass, the lights in the cottage were out, and all within it fast asleep.
The murmur of the homeward-hurrying crowds had died out, and the last echoing shout of "Merry Christmas!" had been whirled away on the storm, now grown fierce with bitter cold, when a lonely wanderer came down the street. It was a lad, big and strong-limbed, and, judging from the manner in which he pushed his way through the gathering drifts, not unused to battle with the world, but evidently in hard luck. His jacket, white with the falling snow, was scant and worn nearly to rags, and there was that in his face which spoke of hunger and suffering silently endured. He stopped at the gate in the stone fence, and looked long and steadily at the cottage in the chestnuts. No life stirred within, and he walked through the gap with slow and hesitating step. Under the kitchen window he stood awhile, sheltered from the storm, as if undecided, then stepped to the horse shed and rapped gently on the door.
"'Liza!" he called, "'Liza, old girl! It's me—Jim!"
A low, delighted whinnying from the stall told the shivering boy that he was not forgotten there. The faithful beast was straining at her halter in a vain effort to get at her friend. Jim raised a bar that held the door closed by the aid of a lever within, of which he knew the trick, and went in. The horse made room for him in her stall, and laid her shaggy head against his cheek.
"Poor old 'Liza!" he said, patting her neck and smoothing her gray coat, "poor old girl! Jim has one friend that hasn't gone back on him. I've come to keep Christmas with you, 'Liza! Had your supper, eh? You're in luck. I haven't; I wasn't bid, 'Liza; but never mind. You shall feed for both of us. Here goes!" He dug into the oats-bin with the measure, and poured it full into 'Liza's crib.
"Fill up, old girl! and good night to you." With a departing pat he crept up the ladder to the loft above, and, scooping out a berth in the loose hay, snuggled down in it to sleep. Soon his regular breathing up there kept step with the steady munching of the horse in her stall. The two reunited friends were dreaming happy Christmas dreams.
The night wore into the small hours of Christmas morning. The fury of the storm was unabated. The old cottage shook under the fierce blasts, and the chestnuts waved their hoary branches wildly, beseechingly, above it, as if they wanted to warn those within of some threatened danger. But they slept and heard them not. From the kitchen chimney, after a blast more violent than any that had gone before, a red spark issued, was whirled upward and beaten against the shingle roof of the barn, swept clean of snow. Another followed it, and another. Still they slept in the cottage; the chestnuts moaned and brandished their arms in vain. The storm fanned one of the sparks into a flame. It flickered for a moment and then went out. So, at least, it seemed. But presently it reappeared, and with it a faint glow was reflected in the attic window over the door. Down in her stall 'Liza moved uneasily. Nobody responding, she plunged and reared, neighing loudly for help. The storm drowned her calls; her master slept, unheeding.
But one heard it, and in the nick of time. The door of the shed was thrown violently open, and out plunged Jim, his hair on fire and his clothes singed and smoking. He brushed the sparks off himself as if they were flakes of snow. Quick as thought, he tore 'Liza's halter from its fastening, pulling out staple and all, threw his smoking coat over her eyes, and backed her out of the shed. He reached in, and, pulling the harness off the hook, threw it as far into the snow as he could, yelling "Fire!" at the top of his voice. Then he jumped on the back of the horse, and beating her with heels and hands into a mad gallop, was off up the street before the bewildered inmates of the cottage had rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and come out to see the barn on fire and burning up.
Down street and avenue fire-engines raced with clanging bells, leaving tracks of glowing coals in the snow-drifts, to the cottage in the chestnut lots. They got there just in time to see the roof crash into the barn, burying, as Joe and his crying wife and children thought, 'Liza and their last hope in the fiery wreck. The door had blown shut, and the harness Jim threw out was snowed under. No one dreamed that the mare was not there. The flames burst through the wreck and lit up the cottage and swaying chestnuts. Joe and his family stood in the shelter of it, looking sadly on. For the second time that Christmas night tears came into the honest truckman's eyes. He wiped them away with his cap.
"Poor 'Liza!" he said.
A hand was laid with gentle touch upon his arm. He looked up. It was his wife. Her face beamed with a great happiness.
"Joe," she said, "you remember what you read: 'tidings of great joy.' Oh, Joe, Jim has come home!"
She stepped aside, and there was Jim, sister Jennie hanging on his neck, and 'Liza alive and neighing her pleasure. The lad looked at his father and hung his head.
"Jim saved her, father," said Jennie, patting the gray mare; "it was him fetched the engines."
Joe took a step toward his son and held out his hand to him.
"Jim," he said, "you're a better man nor yer father. From now on, you 'n' I run the truck on shares. But mind this, Jim: never leave mother no more."
And in the clasp of the two hands all the past was forgotten and forgiven. Father and son had found each other again.
"'Liza," said the truckman, with sudden vehemence, turning to the old mare and putting his arm around her neck, "'Liza! It was your doin's. I knew it was luck when I found them things. Merry Christmas!" And he kissed her smack on her hairy mouth, one, two, three times.
HEROES WHO FIGHT FIRE
Thirteen years have passed since, but it is all to me as if it had happened yesterday—the clanging of the fire-bells, the hoarse shouts of the firemen, the wild rush and terror of the streets; then the great hush that fell upon the crowd; the sea of upturned faces, with the fire-glow upon it; and up there, against the background of black smoke that poured from roof and attic, the boy clinging to the narrow ledge, so far up that it seemed humanly impossible that help could ever come.
[Footnote 2: Written in 1898.]
But even then it was coming. Up from the street, while the crew of the truck company were laboring with the heavy extension-ladder that at its longest stretch was many feet too short, crept four men upon long, slender poles with cross-bars, iron-hooked at the end. Standing in one window, they reached up and thrust the hook through the next one above, then mounted a story higher. Again the crash of glass, and again the dizzy ascent. Straight up the wall they crept, looking like human flies on the ceiling, and clinging as close, never resting, reaching one recess only to set out for the next; nearer and nearer in the race for life, until but a single span separated the foremost from the boy. And now the iron hook fell at his feet, and the fireman stood upon the step with the rescued lad in his arms, just as the pent-up flame burst lurid from the attic window, reaching with impotent fury for its prey. The next moment they were safe upon the great ladder waiting to receive them below.
Then such a shout went up! Men fell on each other's necks, and cried and laughed at once. Strangers slapped one another on the back, with glistening faces, shook hands, and behaved generally like men gone suddenly mad. Women wept in the street. The driver of a car stalled in the crowd, who had stood through it all speechless, clutching the reins, whipped his horses into a gallop, and drove away yelling like a Comanche, to relieve his feelings. The boy and his rescuer were carried across the street without any one knowing how. Policemen forgot their dignity, and shouted with the rest. Fire, peril, terror, and loss were alike forgotten in the one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin.
Fireman John Binns was made captain of his crew, and the Bennett medal was pinned on his coat on the next parade-day. The burning of the St. George Flats was the first opportunity New York had of witnessing a rescue with the scaling-ladders that form such an essential part of the equipment of the fire-fighters to-day. Since then there have been many such. In the company in which John Binns was a private of the second grade, two others to-day bear the medal for brave deeds: the foreman, Daniel J. Meagher, and Private Martin M. Coleman, whose name has been seven times inscribed on the roll of honor for twice that number of rescues, any one of which stamped him as a man among men, a real hero. And Hook-and-Ladder No. 3 is not especially distinguished among the fire-crews of the metropolis for daring and courage. New Yorkers are justly proud of their firemen. Take it all in all, there is not, I think, to be found anywhere a body of men as fearless, as brave, and as efficient as the Fire Brigade of New York. I have known it well for twenty years, and I speak from a personal acquaintance with very many of its men, and from a professional knowledge of more daring feats, more hairbreadth escapes, and more brilliant work, than could well be recorded between the covers of this book.
Indeed, it is hard, in recording any, to make a choice and to avoid giving the impression that recklessness is a chief quality in the fireman's make-up. That would not be true. His life is too full of real peril for him to expose it recklessly—that is to say, needlessly. From the time when he leaves his quarters in answer to an alarm until he returns, he takes a risk that may at any moment set him face to face with death in its most cruel form. He needs nothing so much as a clear head; and nothing is prized so highly, nothing puts him so surely in the line of promotion; for as he advances in rank and responsibility, the lives of others, as well as his own, come to depend on his judgment. The act of conspicuous daring which the world applauds is oftenest to the fireman a matter of simple duty that had to be done in that way because there was no other. Nor is it always, or even usually, the hardest duty, as he sees it. It came easy to him because he is an athlete, trained to do just such things, and because once for all it is easier to risk one's life in the open, in the sight of one's fellows, than to face death alone, caught like a rat in a trap. That is the real peril which he knows too well; but of that the public hears only when he has fought his last fight, and lost.
How literally our every-day security—of which we think, if we think of it at all, as a mere matter of course—is built upon the supreme sacrifice of these devoted men, we realize at long intervals, when a disaster occurs such as the one in which Chief Bresnan and Foreman Rooney lost their lives three years ago. They were crushed to death under the great water-tank in a Twenty-fourth Street factory that was on fire. Its supports had been burned away. An examination that was then made of the water-tanks in the city discovered eight thousand that were either wholly unsupported, except by the roof-beams, or propped on timbers, and therefore a direct menace, not only to the firemen when they were called there, but daily to those living under them. It is not pleasant to add that the department's just demand for a law that should compel landlords either to build tanks on the wall or on iron supports has not been heeded yet; but that is, unhappily, an old story.
[Footnote 3: Rooney wore the Bennett medal for saving the life of a woman at the disastrous fire in the old "World" building, on January 31, 1882. The ladder upon which he stood was too short. Riding upon the topmost rung, he bade the woman jump, and caught and held her as she fell.]
Seventeen years ago the collapse of a Broadway building during a fire convinced the community that stone pillars were unsafe as supports. The fire was in the basement, and the firemen had turned the hose on. When the water struck the hot granite columns, they cracked and fell, and the building fell with them. There were upon the roof at the time a dozen men of the crew of Truck Company No. 1, chopping holes for smoke-vents. The majority clung to the parapet, and hung there till rescued. Two went down into the furnace from which the flames shot up twenty feet when the roof broke. One, Fireman Thomas J. Dougherty, was a wearer of the Bennett medal, too. His foreman answers on parade-day, when his name is called, that he "died on the field of duty." These, at all events, did not die in vain. Stone columns are not now used as supports for buildings in New York.
So one might go on quoting the perils of the firemen as so many steps forward for the better protection of the rest of us. It was the burning of the St. George Flats, and more recently of the Manhattan Bank, in which a dozen men were disabled, that stamped the average fire-proof construction as faulty and largely delusive. One might even go further, and say that the fireman's risk increases in the ratio of our progress or convenience. The water-tanks came with the very high buildings, which in themselves offer problems to the fire-fighters that have not yet been solved. The very air-shafts that were hailed as the first advance in tenement-house building added enormously to the fireman's work and risk, as well as to the risk of every one dwelling under their roofs, by acting as so many huge chimneys that carried the fire to the windows opening upon them in every story. More than half of all the fires in New York occur in tenement houses. When the Tenement House Commission of 1894 sat in this city, considering means of making them safer and better, it received the most practical help and advice from the firemen, especially from Chief Bresnan, whose death occurred only a few days after he had testified as a witness. The recommendations upon which he insisted are now part of the general tenement-house law.
Chief Bresnan died leading his men against the enemy. In the Fire Department the battalion chief leads; he does not direct operations from a safe position in the rear. Perhaps this is one of the secrets of the indomitable spirit of his men. Whatever hardships they have to endure, his is the first and the biggest share. Next in line comes the captain, or foreman, as he is called. Of the six who were caught in the fatal trap of the water-tank, four hewed their way out with axes through an intervening partition. They were of the ranks. The two who were killed were the chief and Assistant Foreman John L. Rooney, who was that day in charge of his company, Foreman Shaw having just been promoted to Bresnan's rank. It was less than a year after that Chief Shaw was killed in a fire in Mercer Street. I think I could reckon up as many as five or six battalion chiefs who have died in that way, leading their men. The men would not deserve the name if they did not follow such leaders, no matter where the road led.
In the chief's quarters of the Fourteenth Battalion up in Wakefield there sits to-day a man, still young in years, who in his maimed body but unbroken spirit bears such testimony to the quality of New York's fire-fighters as the brave Bresnan and his comrade did in their death. Thomas J. Ahearn led his company as captain to a fire in the Consolidated Gas-Works on the East Side. He found one of the buildings ablaze. Far toward the rear, at the end of a narrow lane, around which the fire swirled and arched itself, white and wicked, lay the body of a man—dead, said the panic-stricken crowd. His sufferings had been brief. A worse fate threatened all unless the fire was quickly put out. There were underground reservoirs of naphtha—the ground was honeycombed with them—that might explode at any moment with the fire raging overhead. The peril was instant and great. Captain Ahearn looked at the body, and saw it stir. The watch-chain upon the man's vest rose and fell as if he were breathing.
"He is not dead," he said. "I am going to get that man out." And he crept down the lane of fire, unmindful of the hidden dangers, seeing only the man who was perishing. The flames scorched him; they blocked his way; but he came through alive, and brought out his man, so badly hurt, however, that he died in the hospital that day. The Board of Fire Commissioners gave Ahearn the medal for bravery, and made him chief. Within a year he all but lost his life in a gallant attempt to save the life of a child that was supposed to be penned in a burning Rivington Street tenement. Chief Ahearn's quarters were near by, and he was first on the ground. A desperate man confronted him in the hallway. "My child! my child!" he cried, and wrung his hands. "Save him! He is in there." He pointed to the back room. It was black with smoke. In the front room the fire was raging. Crawling on hands and feet, the chief made his way into the room the man had pointed out. He groped under the bed, and in it, but found no child there. Satisfied that it had escaped, he started to return. The smoke had grown so thick that breathing was no longer possible, even at the floor. The chief drew his coat over his head, and made a dash for the hall door. He reached it only to find that the spring-lock had snapped shut. The door-knob burned his hand. The fire burst through from the front room, and seared his face. With a last effort, he kicked the lower panel out of the door, and put his head through. And then he knew no more.
His men found him lying so when they came looking for him. The coat was burned off his back, and of his hat only the wire rim remained. He lay ten months in the hospital, and came out deaf and wrecked physically. At the age of forty-five the board retired him to the quiet of the country district, with this formal resolution, that did the board more credit than it could do him. It is the only one of its kind upon the department books:—
Resolved, That in assigning Battalion Chief Thomas J. Ahearn to command the Fourteenth Battalion, in the newly annexed district, the Board deems it proper to express the sense of obligation felt by the Board and all good citizens for the brilliant and meritorious services of Chief Ahearn in the discharge of duty which will always serve as an example and an inspiration to our uniformed force, and to express the hope that his future years of service at a less arduous post may be as comfortable and pleasant as his former years have been brilliant and honorable.
Firemen are athletes as a matter of course. They have to be, or they could not hold their places for a week, even if they could get into them at all. The mere handling of the scaling-ladders, which, light though they seem, weigh from sixteen to forty pounds, requires unusual strength. No particular skill is needed. A man need only have steady nerve, and the strength to raise the long pole by its narrow end, and jam the iron hook through a window which he cannot see but knows is there. Once through, the teeth in the hook and the man's weight upon the ladder hold it safe, and there is no real danger unless he loses his head. Against that possibility the severe drill in the school of instruction is the barrier. Any one to whom climbing at dizzy heights, or doing the hundred and one things of peril to ordinary men which firemen are constantly called upon to do, causes the least discomfort, is rejected as unfit. About five percent of all appointees are eliminated by the ladder test, and never get beyond their probation service. A certain smaller percentage takes itself out through loss of "nerve" generally. The first experience of a room full of smothering smoke, with the fire roaring overhead, is generally sufficient to convince the timid that the service is not for him. No cowards are dismissed from the department, for the reason that none get into it.
The notion that there is a life-saving corps apart from the general body of firemen rests upon a mistake. They are one. Every fireman nowadays must pass muster at life-saving drill, must climb to the top of any building on his scaling-ladder, slide down with a rescued comrade, or jump without hesitation from the third story into the life-net spread below. By such training the men are fitted for their work, and the occasion comes soon that puts them to the test. It came to Daniel J. Meagher, of whom I spoke as foreman of Hook-and-Ladder Company No. 3, when, in the midnight hour, a woman hung from the fifth-story window of a burning building, and the longest ladder at hand fell short ten or a dozen feet of reaching her. The boldest man in the crew had vainly attempted to get to her, and in the effort had sprained his foot. There were no scaling-ladders then. Meagher ordered the rest to plant the ladder on the stoop and hold it out from the building so that he might reach the very topmost step. Balanced thus where the slightest tremor might have caused ladder and all to crash to the ground, he bade the woman drop, and receiving her in his arms, carried her down safe.
No one but an athlete with muscles and nerves of steel could have performed such a feat, or that which made Dennis Ryer, of the crew of Engine No. 36, famous three years ago. That was on Seventh Avenue at One Hundred and Thirty-fourth Street. A flat was on fire, and the tenants had fled; but one, a woman, bethought herself of her parrot, and went back for it, to find escape by the stairs cut off when she again attempted to reach the street. With the parrot-cage, she appeared at the top-floor window, framed in smoke, calling for help. Again there was no ladder to reach. There were neighbors on the roof with a rope, but the woman was too frightened to use it herself. Dennis Ryer made it fast about his own waist, and bade the others let him down, and hold on for life. He drew the woman out, but she was heavy, and it was all they could do above to hold them. To pull them over the cornice was out of the question. Upon the highest step of the ladder, many feet below, stood Ryer's father, himself a fireman of another company, and saw his boy's peril.
"Hold fast, Dennis!" he shouted. "If you fall I will catch you." Had they let go, all three would have been killed. The young fireman saw the danger, and the one door of escape, with a glance. The window before which he swung, half smothered by the smoke that belched from it, was the last in the house. Just beyond, in the window of the adjoining house, was safety, if he could but reach it. Putting out a foot, he kicked the wall, and made himself swing toward it, once, twice, bending his body to add to the motion. The third time he all but passed it, and took a mighty grip on the affrighted woman, shouting into her ear to loose her own hold at the same time. As they passed the window on the fourth trip, he thrust her through sash and all with a supreme effort, and himself followed on the next rebound, while the street, that was black with a surging multitude, rang with a mighty cheer. Old Washington Ryer, on his ladder, threw his cap in the air, and cheered louder than all the rest. But the parrot was dead—frightened to death, very likely, or smothered.
I once asked Fireman Martin M. Coleman, after one of those exhibitions of coolness and courage that thrust him constantly upon the notice of the newspaper men, what he thought of when he stood upon the ladder, with this thing before him to do that might mean life or death the next moment. He looked at me in some perplexity.
"Think?" he said slowly. "Why, I don't think. There ain't any time to. If I'd stopped to think, them five people would 'a' been burnt. No; I don't think of danger. If it is anything, it is that—up there—I am boss. The rest are not in it. Only I wish," he added, rubbing his arm ruefully at the recollection, "that she hadn't fainted. It's hard when they faint. They're just so much dead-weight. We get no help at all from them heavy women."
And that was all I could get out of him. I never had much better luck with Chief Benjamin A. Gicquel, who is the oldest wearer of the Bennett medal, just as Coleman is the youngest, or the one who received it last. He was willing enough to talk about the science of putting out fires; of Department Chief Bonner, the "man of few words," who, he thinks, has mastered the art beyond any man living; of the back-draught, and almost anything else pertaining to the business: but when I insisted upon his telling me the story of the rescue of the Schaefer family of five from a burning tenement down in Cherry Street, in which he earned his rank and reward, he laughed a good-humored little laugh, and said that it was "the old man"—meaning Schaefer—who should have had the medal. "It was a grand thing in him to let the little ones come out first." I have sometimes wished that firemen were not so modest. It would be much easier, if not so satisfactory, to record their gallant deeds. But I am not sure that it is, after all, modesty so much as a wholly different point of view. It is business with them, the work of their lives. The one feeling that is allowed to rise beyond this is the feeling of exultation in the face of peril conquered by courage, which Coleman expressed. On the ladder he was boss! It was the fancy of a masterful man, and none but a masterful man would have got upon the ladder at all.
Doubtless there is something in the spectacular side of it that attracts. It would be strange if there were not. There is everything in a fireman's existence to encourage it. Day and night he leads a kind of hair-trigger life, that feeds naturally upon excitement, even if only as a relief from the irksome idling in quarters. Try as they may to give him enough to do there, the time hangs heavily upon his hands, keyed up as he is, and need be, to adventurous deeds at shortest notice. He falls to grumbling and quarrelling, and the necessity becomes imperative of holding him to the strictest discipline, under which he chafes impatiently. "They nag like a lot of old women," said Department Chief Bonner to me once; "and the best at a fire are often the worst in the house." In the midst of it all the gong strikes a familiar signal. The horses' hoofs thunder on the planks; with a leap the men go down the shining pole to the main floor, all else forgotten; and with crash and clatter and bang the heavy engine swings into the street, and races away on a wild gallop, leaving a trail of fire behind.
Presently the crowd sees rubber-coated, helmeted men with pipe and hose go through a window from which such dense smoke pours forth that it seems incredible that a human being could breathe it for a second and live. The hose is dragged squirming over the sill, where shortly a red-eyed face with dishevelled hair appears, to shout something hoarsely to those below, which they understand. Then, unless some emergency arise, the spectacular part is over. Could the citizen whose heart beat as he watched them enter see them now, he would see grimy shapes, very unlike the fine-looking men who but just now had roused his admiration, crawling on hands and knees, with their noses close to the floor if the smoke be very dense, ever pointing the "pipe" in the direction where the enemy is expected to appear. The fire is the enemy; but he can fight that, once he reaches it, with something of a chance. The smoke kills without giving him a show to fight back. Long practice toughens him against it, until he learns the trick of "eating the smoke." He can breathe where a candle goes out for want of oxygen. By holding his mouth close to the nozzle, he gets what little air the stream of water brings with it and sets free; and within a few inches of the floor there is nearly always a current of air. In the last emergency, there is the hose that he can follow out. The smoke always is his worst enemy. It lays ambushes for him which he can suspect, but not ward off. He tries to, by opening vents in the roof as soon as the pipemen are in place and ready; but in spite of all precautions, he is often surprised by the dreaded back-draught.
I remember standing in front of a burning Broadway store, one night, when the back-draught blew out the whole front without warning. It is simply an explosion of gases generated by the heat, which must have vent, and go upon the line of least resistance, up, or down, or in a circle—it does not much matter, so that they go. It swept shutters, windows, and all, across Broadway, in this instance, like so much chaff, littering the street with heavy rolls of cloth. The crash was like a fearful clap of thunder. Men were knocked down on the opposite sidewalk, and two teams of engine horses, used to almost any kind of happening at a fire, ran away in a wild panic. It was a blast of that kind that threw down and severely injured Battalion Chief M'Gill, one of the oldest and most experienced of firemen, at a fire on Broadway in March, 1890; and it has cost more brave men's lives than the fiercest fire that ever raged. The "puff," as the firemen call it, comes suddenly, and from the corner where it is least expected. It is dread of that, and of getting overcome by the smoke generally, which makes firemen go always in couples or more together. They never lose sight of one another for an instant, if they can help it. If they do, they go at once in search of the lost. The delay of a moment may prove fatal to him.
Lieutenant Samuel Banta of the Franklin Street company, discovering the pipe that had just been held by Fireman Quinn at a Park Place fire thrashing aimlessly about, looked about him, and saw Quinn floating on his face in the cellar, which was running full of water. He had been overcome, had tumbled in, and was then drowning, with the fire raging above and alongside. Banta jumped in after him, and endeavored to get his head above water. While thus occupied, he glanced up, and saw the preliminary puff of the back-draught bearing down upon him. The lieutenant dived at once, and tried to pull his unhappy pipe-man with him; but he struggled and worked himself loose. From under the water Banta held up a hand, and it was burnt. He held up the other, and knew that the puff had passed when it came back unsinged. Then he brought Quinn out with him; but it was too late. Caught between flood and fire, he had no chance. When I asked the lieutenant about it, he replied simply: "The man in charge of the hose fell into the cellar. I got him out; that was all." "But how?" I persisted. "Why, I went down through the cellar," said the lieutenant, smiling, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
It was this same Banta who, when Fireman David H. Soden had been buried under the falling walls of a Pell Street house, crept through a gap in the basement wall, in among the fallen timbers, and, in imminent peril of his own life, worked there with a hand-saw two long hours to free his comrade, while the firemen held the severed timbers up with ropes to give him a chance. Repeatedly, while he was at work, his clothes caught fire, and it was necessary to keep playing the hose upon him. But he brought out his man safe and sound, and, for the twentieth time perhaps, had his name recorded on the roll of merit. His comrades tell how, at one of the twenty, the fall of a building in Hall Place had left a workman lying on a shaky piece of wall, helpless, with a broken leg. It could not bear the weight of a ladder, and it seemed certain death to attempt to reach him, when Banta, running up a slanting beam that still hung to its fastening with one end, leaped from perch to perch upon the wall, where hardly a goat could have found footing, reached his man, and brought him down slung over his shoulder, and swearing at him like a trooper lest the peril of the descent cause him to lose his nerve and with it the lives of both.
Firemen dread cellar fires more than any other kind, and with reason. It is difficult to make a vent for the smoke, and the danger of drowning is added to that of being smothered when they get fairly to work. If a man is lost to sight or touch of his fellows there for ever so brief a while, there are five chances to one that he will not again be seen alive. Then there ensues such a fight as the city witnessed only last May at the burning of a Chambers Street paper-warehouse. It was fought out deep underground, with fire and flood, freezing cold and poisonous gases, leagued against Chief Bonner's forces. Next door was a cold-storage house, whence the cold. Something that was burning—I do not know that it was ever found out just what—gave forth the smothering fumes before which the firemen went down in squads. File after file staggered out into the street, blackened and gasping, to drop there. The near engine-house was made into a hospital, where the senseless men were laid on straw hastily spread. Ambulance surgeons worked over them. As fast as they were brought to, they went back to bear a hand in the work of rescue. In delirium they fought to return. Down in the depths one of their number was lying helpless.
There is nothing finer in the records of glorious war than the story of the struggle these brave fellows kept up for hours against tremendous odds for the rescue of their comrade. Time after time they went down into the pit of deadly smoke, only to fail. Lieutenant Banta tried twice and failed. Fireman King was pulled up senseless, and having been brought round went down once more. Fireman Sheridan returned empty-handed, more dead than alive. John O'Connell, of Truck No. 1, at length succeeded in reaching his comrade and tying a rope about him, while from above they drenched both with water to keep them from roasting. They drew up a dying man; but John G. Reinhardt dead is more potent than a whole crew of firemen alive. The story of the fight for his life will long be told in the engine-houses of New York, and will nerve the Kings and the Sheridans and the O'Connells of another day to like deeds.
How firemen manage to hear in their sleep the right signal, while they sleep right through any number that concerns the next company, not them, is one of the mysteries that will probably always remain unsolved. "I don't know," said Department Chief Bonner, when I asked him once. "I guess it is the same way with everybody. You hear what you have to hear. There is a gong right over my bed at home, and I hear every stroke of it, but I don't hear the baby. My wife hears the baby if it as much as stirs in its crib, but not the gong." Very likely he is right. The fact that the fireman can hear and count correctly the strokes of the gong in his sleep has meant life to many hundreds, and no end of properly saved; for it is in the early moments of a fire that it can be dealt with summarily. I recall one instance in which the failure to interpret a signal properly, or the accident of taking a wrong road to the fire, cost a life, and, singularly enough, that of the wife of one of the firemen who answered the alarm. It was all so pitiful, so tragic, that it has left an indelible impression on my mind. It was the fire at which Patrick F. Lucas earned the medal for that year by snatching five persons out of the very jaws of death in a Dominick Street tenement. The alarm-signal rang in the hook-and-ladder company's quarters in North Moore Street, but was either misunderstood or they made a wrong start. Instead of turning east to West Broadway, the truck turned west, and went galloping toward Greenwich Street. It was only a few seconds, the time that was lost, but it was enough. Fireman Murphy's heart went up in his throat when, from his seat on the truck as it flew toward the fire, he saw that it was his own home that was burning. Up on the fifth floor he found his wife penned in. She died in his arms as he carried her to the fire-escape. The fire, for once, had won in the race for a life.
While I am writing this, the morning paper that is left at my door tells the story of a fireman who, laid up with a broken ankle in an up-town hospital, jumped out of bed, forgetting his injury, when the alarm-gong rang his signal, and tried to go to the fire. The fire-alarms are rung in the hospitals for the information of the ambulance corps. The crippled fireman heard the signal at the dead of night, and, only half awake, jumped out of bed, groped about for the sliding-pole, and, getting hold of the bedpost, tried to slide down that. The plaster cast about his ankle was broken, the old injury reopened, and he was seriously hurt.
New York firemen have a proud saying that they "fight fire from the inside." It means unhesitating courage, prompt sacrifice, and victory gained, all in one. The saving of life that gets into the newspapers and wins applause is done, of necessity, largely from the outside, but is none the less perilous for that. Sometimes, though rarely, it has in its intense gravity almost a comic tinge, as at one of the infrequent fires in the Mulberry Bend some years ago. The Italians believe, with reason, that there is bad luck in fire, therefore do not insure, and have few fires. Of this one the Romolo family shrine was the cause. The lamp upon it exploded, and the tenement was ablaze when the firemen came. The policeman on the beat had tried to save Mrs. Romolo; but she clung to the bedpost, and refused to go without the rest of the family. So he seized the baby, and rolled down the burning stairs with it, his beard and coat afire. The only way out was shut off when the engines arrived. The Romolos shrieked at the top-floor window, threatening to throw themselves out. There was not a moment to be lost. Lying flat on the roof, with their heads over the cornice, the firemen fished the two children out of the window with their hooks. The ladders were run up in time for the father and mother.
The readiness of resource no less than the intrepid courage and athletic skill of the rescuers evoke enthusiastic admiration. Two instances stand out in my recollection among many. Of one Fireman Howe, who had on more than one occasion signally distinguished himself, was the hero. It happened on the morning of January 2, 1896, when the Geneva Club on Lexington Avenue was burnt out. Fireman Howe drove Hook-and-Ladder No. 7 to the fire that morning, to find two boarders at the third-story window, hemmed in by flames which already showed behind them. Followed by Fireman Pearl, he ran up in the adjoining building, and presently appeared at a window on the third floor, separated from the one occupied by the two men by a blank wall-space of perhaps four or five feet. It offered no other footing than a rusty hook, but it was enough. Astride of the window-sill, with one foot upon the hook, the other anchored inside by his comrade, his body stretched at full length along the wall, Howe was able to reach the two, and to swing them, one after the other, through his own window to safety. As the second went through, the crew in the street below set up a cheer that raised the sleeping echoes of the street. Howe looked down, nodded, and took a firmer grip; and that instant came his great peril.
A third face had appeared at the window just as the fire swept through. Howe shut his eyes to shield them, and braced himself on the hook for a last effort. It broke; and the man, frightened out of his wits, threw himself headlong from the window upon Howe's neck.
The fireman's form bent and swayed. His comrade within felt the strain, and dug his heels into the boards. He was almost dragged out of the window, but held on with a supreme effort. Just as he thought the end had come, he felt the strain ease up. The ladder had reached Howe in the very nick of time, and given him support, but in his desperate effort to save himself and the other, he slammed his burden back over his shoulder with such force that he went crashing through, carrying sash and all, and fell, cut and bruised, but safe, upon Fireman Pearl, who grovelled upon the door, prostrate and panting.
The other case New York remembers yet with a shudder. It was known long in the department for the bravest act ever done by a fireman—an act that earned for Foreman William Quirk the medal for 1888. He was next in command of Engine No. 22 when, on a March morning, the Elberon Flats in East Eighty-fifth street were burned. The Westlake family, mother, daughter, and two sons, were in the fifth story, helpless and hopeless. Quirk ran up on the scaling-ladder to the fourth floor, hung it on the sill above, and got the boys and their sister down. But the flames burst from the floor below, cutting off their retreat. Quirk's captain had seen the danger, and shouted to him to turn back while it was yet time. But Quirk had no intention of turning back. He measured the distance and the risk with a look, saw the crowd tugging frantically at the life-net under the window, and bade them jump, one by one. They jumped, and were saved. Last of all, he jumped himself, after a vain effort to save the mother. She was already dead. He caught her gown, but the body slipped from his grasp and fell crashing to the street fifty feet below. He himself was hurt in his jump. The volunteers who held the net looked up, and were frightened; they let go their grip, and the plucky fireman broke a leg and hurt his back in the fall.
"Like a cry of fire in the night" appeals to the dullest imagination with a sense of sudden fear. There have been nights in this city when the cry swelled into such a clamor of terror and despair as to make the stoutest heart quake—when it seemed to those who had to do with putting out fires as if the end of all things was at hand. Such a night was that of the burning of "Cohnfeld's Folly," in Bleecker Street, March 17, 1891. The burning of the big store involved the destruction, wholly or in part, of ten surrounding buildings, and called out nearly one-third of the city's Fire Department. While the fire raged as yet unchecked,—while walls were falling with shock and crash of thunder, the streets full of galloping engines and ambulances carrying injured firemen, with clangor of urgent gongs; while insurance patrolmen were being smothered in buildings a block away by the smoke that hung like a pall over the city,—another disastrous fire broke out in the dry-goods district, and three alarm-calls came from West Seventeenth Street. Nine other fires were signalled, and before morning all the crews that were left were summoned to Allen Street, where four persons were burned to death in a tenement. Those are the wild nights that try firemen's souls, and never yet found them wanting. During the great blizzard, when the streets were impassable and the system crippled, the fires in the city averaged nine a day,—forty-five for the five days from March 12 to 16,—and not one of them got beyond control. The fire commissioners put on record their pride in the achievement, as well they might. It was something to be proud of, indeed.
Such a night promised to be the one when the Manhattan Bank and the State Bank across the street on the other Broadway corner, with three or four other buildings, were burned, and when the ominous "two nines" were rung, calling nine-tenths of the whole force below Central Park to the threatened quarter. But, happily, the promise was not fully kept. The supposed fire-proof bank crumbled in the withering blast like so much paper; the cry went up that whole companies of firemen were perishing within it; and the alarm had reached Police Headquarters in the next block, where they were counting the election returns. Thirteen firemen, including the deputy department chief, a battalion chief, and two captains, limped or were carried from the burning bank, more or less injured. The stone steps of the fire-proof stairs had fallen with them or upon them. Their imperilled comrades, whose escape was cut off, slid down hose and scaling-ladders. The last, the crew of Engine Company No. 3, had reached the street, and all were thought to be out, when the assistant foreman, Daniel Fitzmaurice, appeared at the fifth-story window. The fire beating against it drove him away, but he found footing at another, next adjoining the building on the north. To reach him from below, with the whole building ablaze, was impossible. Other escape there was none, save a cornice ledge extending halfway to his window; but it was too narrow to afford foothold.
Then an extraordinary scene was enacted in the sight of thousands. In the other building were a number of fire-insurance patrolmen, covering goods to protect them against water damage. One of these—Patrolman John Rush—stepped out on the ledge, and edged his way toward a spur of stone that projected from the bank building. Behind followed Patrolman Barnett, steadying him and pressing him close against the wall. Behind him was another, with still another holding on within the room, where the living chain was anchored by all the rest. Rush, at the end of the ledge, leaned over and gave Fitzmaurice his hand. The fireman grasped it, and edged out upon the spur. Barnett, holding the rescuer fast, gave him what he needed—something to cling to. Once he was on the ledge, the chain wound itself up as it had unwound itself. Slowly, inch by inch, it crept back, each man pushing the next flat against the wall with might and main, while the multitudes in the street held their breath, and the very engines stopped panting, until all were safe.
John Rush is a fireman to-day, a member of "Thirty-three's" crew in Great Jones Street. He was an insurance patrolman then. The organization is unofficial. Its main purpose is to save property; but in the face of the emergency firemen and patrolmen become one body, obeying one head.
That the spirit which has made New York's Fire Department great equally animates its commercial brother has been shown more than once, but never better than at the memorable fire in the Hotel Royal, which cost so many lives. No account of heroic life-saving at fires, even as fragmentary as this, could pass by the marvellous feat, or feats, of Sergeant (now Captain) John R. Vaughan on that February morning six years ago. The alarm rang in patrol station No. 3 at 3.20 o'clock on Sunday morning. Sergeant Vaughan, hastening to the fire with his men, found the whole five-story hotel ablaze from roof to cellar. The fire had shot up the elevator shaft, round which the stairs ran, and from the first had made escape impossible. Men and women were jumping and hanging from windows. One, falling from a great height, came within an inch of killing the sergeant as he tried to enter the building. Darting up into the next house, and leaning out of the window with his whole body, while one of the crew hung on to one leg,—as Fireman Pearl did to Howe's in the splendid rescue at the Geneva Club,—he took a half-hitch with the other in some electric-light wires that ran up the wall, trusting to his rubber boots to protect him from the current, and made of his body a living bridge for the safe passage from the last window of the burning hotel of three men and a woman whom death stared in the face, steadying them as they went with his free hand. As the last passed over, ladders were being thrown up against the wall, and what could be done there was done.
Sergeant Vaughan went up on the roof. The smoke was so dense there that he could see little, but through it he heard a cry for help, and made out the shape of a man standing upon a window-sill in the fifth story, overlooking the courtyard of the hotel. The yard was between them. Bidding his men follow,—they were five, all told,—he ran down and around in the next street to the roof of the house that formed an angle with the hotel wing. There stood the man below him, only a jump away, but a jump which no mortal might take and live. His face and hands were black with smoke. Vaughan, looking down, thought him a negro. He was perfectly calm.
"It is no use," he said, glancing up. "Don't try. You can't do it."
The sergeant looked wistfully about him. Not a stick or a piece of rope was in sight. Every shred was used below. There was absolutely nothing. "But I couldn't let him," he said to me, months after, when he had come out of the hospital, a whole man again, and was back at work,—"I just couldn't, standing there so quiet and brave." To the man he said sharply:—
"I want you to do exactly as I tell you, now. Don't grab me, but let me get the first grab." He had noticed that the man wore a heavy overcoat, and had already laid his plan.
"Don't try," urged the man. "You cannot save me. I will stay here till it gets too hot; then I will jump."
"No, you won't," from the sergeant, as he lay at full length on the roof, looking over. "It is a pretty hard yard down there. I will get you, or go dead myself."
The four sat on the sergeant's legs as he swung free down to the waist; so he was almost able to reach the man on the window with outstretched hands.
"Now jump—quick!" he commanded; and the man jumped. He caught him by both wrists as directed, and the sergeant got a grip on the collar of his coat.
"Hoist!" he shouted to the four on the roof; and they tugged with their might. The sergeant's body did not move. Bending over till the back creaked, it hung over the edge, a weight of two hundred and three pounds suspended from and holding it down. The cold sweat started upon his men's foreheads as they tried and tried again, without gaining an inch. Blood dripped from Sergeant Vaughan's nostrils and ears. Sixty feet below was the paved courtyard; over against him the window, behind which he saw the back-draught coming, gathering headway with lurid, swirling smoke. Now it burst through, burning the hair and the coats of the two. For an instant he thought all hope was gone.
But in a flash it came back to him. To relieve the terrible dead-weight that wrenched and tore at his muscles, he was swinging the man to and fro like a pendulum, head touching head. He could swing him up! A smothered shout warned his men. They crept nearer the edge without letting go their grip on him, and watched with staring eyes the human pendulum swing wider and wider, farther and farther, until now, with a mighty effort, it swung within their reach. They caught the skirt of the coat, held on, pulled in, and in a moment lifted him over the edge.
They lay upon the roof, all six, breathless, sightless, their faces turned to the winter sky. The tumult on the street came up as a faint echo; the spray of a score of engines pumping below fell upon them, froze, and covered them with ice. The very roar of the fire seemed far off. The sergeant was the first to recover. He carried down the man he had saved, and saw him sent off to the hospital. Then first he noticed that he was not a negro; the smut had been rubbed from his face. Monday had dawned before he came to, and days passed before he knew his rescuer. Sergeant Vaughan was laid up himself then. He had returned to his work, and finished it; but what he had gone through was too much for human strength. It was spring before he returned to his quarters, to find himself promoted, petted, and made much of.
From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a little step. Among the many who journeyed to the insurance patrol station to see the hero of the great fire, there came, one day, a woman. She was young and pretty, the sweetheart of the man on the window-sill. He was a lawyer, since a state senator of Pennsylvania. She wished the sergeant to repeat exactly the words he spoke to him in that awful moment when he bade him jump—to life or death. She had heard them, and she wanted the sergeant to repeat them to her, that she might know for sure he was the man who did it. He stammered and hitched—tried subterfuges. She waited, inexorable. Finally, in desperation, blushing fiery red, he blurted out "a lot of cuss-words." "You know," he said apologetically, in telling of it, "when I am in a place like that I can't help it."
When she heard the words which her fiance had already told her, straightway she fell upon the fireman's neck. The sergeant stood dumfounded. "Women are queer," he said.
Thus a fireman's life. That the very horses that are their friends in quarters, their comrades at the fire, sharing with them what comes of good and evil, catch the spirit of it, is not strange. It would be strange if they did not. With human intelligence and more than human affection, the splendid animals follow the fortunes of their masters, doing their share in whatever is demanded of them. In the final showing that in thirty years, while with the growing population the number of fires has steadily increased, the average loss per fire has as steadily decreased, they have their full share, also, of the credit. In 1866 there were 796 fires in New York, with an average loss of $8075.38 per fire. In 1876, with 1382 fires, the loss was but $2786.70 at each. In 1896, 3890 fires averaged only $878.81. It means that every year more fires are headed off than run down—smothered at the start, as a fire should be. When to the verdict of "faithful unto death" that record is added, nothing remains to be said. The firemen know how much of that is the doing of their four-legged comrades. It is the one blot on the fair picture that the city which owes these horses so much has not seen fit, in gratitude, to provide comfort for their worn old age. When a fireman grows old, he is retired on half-pay for the rest of his days. When a horse that has run with the heavy engines to fires by night and by day for perhaps ten or fifteen years is worn out, it is—sold, to a huckster, perhaps, or a contractor, to slave for him until it is fit only for the bone-yard! The city receives a paltry two or three thousand dollars a year for this rank treachery, and pockets the blood-money without a protest. There is room next, in New York, for a movement that shall secure to the fireman's faithful friend the grateful reward of a quiet farm, a full crib, and a green pasture to the end of its days, when it is no longer young enough and strong enough to "run with the machine."
JOHN GAVIN, MISFIT
John Gavin was to blame—there is no doubt of that. To be sure, he was out of a job, with never a cent in his pockets, his babies starving, and notice served by the landlord that day. He had travelled the streets till midnight looking for work, and had found none. And so he gave up. Gave up, with the Employment Bureau in the next street registering applicants; with the Wayfarers' Lodge over in Poverty Gap, where he might have earned fifty cents, anyway, chopping wood; with charities without end, organized and unorganized, that would have sat upon and registered his case, and numbered it properly. With all these things and a hundred like them to meet their wants, the Gavins of our day have been told often enough that they have no business to lose hope. That they will persist is strange. But perhaps this one had never heard of them.
Anyway, Gavin is dead. But yesterday he was the father of six children, running from May, the eldest, who was thirteen and at school, to the baby, just old enough to poke its little fingers into its father's eyes and crow and jump when he came in from his long and dreary tramps. They were as happy a little family as a family of eight could be with the wolf scratching at the door, its nose already poking through. There had been no work and no wages in the house for months, and the landlord had given notice that at the end of the week, out they must go, unless the back rent was paid. And there was about as much likelihood of its being paid as of a slice of the February sun dropping down through the ceiling into the room to warm the shivering Gavin family.
It began when Gavin's health gave way. He was a lather and had a steady job till sickness came. It was the old story: nothing laid away—how could there be, with a houseful of children—and nothing coming in. They talk of death-rates to measure the misery of the slum by, but death does not touch the bottom. It ends the misery. Sickness only begins it. It began Gavin's. When he had to drop hammer and nails, he got a job in a saloon as a barkeeper; but the saloon didn't prosper, and when it was shut up, there was an end. Gavin didn't know it then. He looked at the babies and kept up spirits as well as he could, though it wrung his heart.
He tried everything under the sun to get a job. He travelled early and travelled late, but wherever he went they had men and to spare. And besides, he was ill. As they told him bluntly, sometimes, they didn't have any use for sick men. Men to work and earn wages must be strong. And he had to own that it was true.
Gavin was not strong. As he denied himself secretly the nourishment he needed that his little ones might have enough, he felt it more and more. It was harder work for him to get around, and each refusal left him more downcast. He was yet a young man, only thirty-four, but he felt as if he was old and tired—tired out; that was it.
The feeling grew on him while he went his last errand, offering his services at saloons and wherever, as he thought, an opening offered. In fact, he thought but little about it any more. The whole thing had become an empty, hopeless formality with him. He knew at last that he was looking for the thing he would never find; that in a cityful where every man had his place he was a misfit with none. With his dull brain dimly conscious of that one idea, he plodded homeward in the midnight hour. He had been on the go since early morning, and excepting some lunch from the saloon counters, had eaten nothing.
The lamp burned dimly in the room where May sat poring yet over her books, waiting for papa. When he came in she looked up and smiled, but saw by his look, as he hung up his hat, that there was no good news, and returned with a sigh to her book. The tired mother was asleep on the bed, dressed, with the baby in her arms. She had lain down to quiet it and had been lulled to sleep with it herself.
Gavin did not wake them. He went to the bed where the four little ones slept, and kissed them, each in his turn, then came back and kissed his wife and baby.
May nestled close to him as he bent over her and gave her, too, a little hug.
"Where are you going, papa?" she asked.
He turned around at the door and cast a look back at the quiet room, irresolute. Then he went back once more to kiss his sleeping wife and baby softly.
But however softly, it woke the mother. She saw him making for the door, and asked him where he meant to go so late.
"Out, just a little while," he said, and his voice was husky. He turned his head away.
A woman's instinct made her arise hastily and go to him.
"Don't go," she said; "please don't go away."
As he still moved toward the door, she put her arm about his neck and drew his head toward her.
She strove with him anxiously, frightened, she hardly knew herself by what. The lamplight fell upon something shining which he held behind his back. The room rang with the shot, and the baby awoke crying, to see its father slip from mamma's arms to the floor, dead.
For John Gavin, alive, there was no place. At least he did not find it; for which, let it be said and done with, he was to blame. Dead, society will find one for him. And for the one misfit got off the list there are seven whom not employment bureau nor woodyard nor charity register can be made to reach. Social economy the thing is called; which makes the eighth misfit.
A HEATHEN BABY
A stack of mail comes to Police Headquarters every morning from the precincts by special department carrier. It includes the reports for the last twenty-four hours of stolen and recovered goods, complaints, and the thousand and one things the official mail-bag contains from day to day. It is all routine, and everything has its own pigeonhole into which it drops and is forgotten until some raking up in the department turns up the old blotters and the old things once more. But at last the mail-bag contained something that was altogether out of the usual run, to wit, a Chinese baby.
Pickaninnies have come in it before this, lots of them, black and shiny, and one pappoose from a West Side wigwam; but a Chinese baby never.
Sergeant Jack was so astonished that it took his breath away. When he recovered he spoke learnedly about its clothes as evidence of its heathen origin. Never saw such a thing before, he said. They were like they were sewn on; it was impossible to disentangle that child by any way short of rolling it on the floor.
Sergeant Jack is an old bachelor, and that is all he knows about babies. The child was not sewn up at all. It was just swaddled, and no Chinese had done that, but the Italian woman who found it. Sergeant Jack sees such babies every night in Mulberry Street, but that is the way with old bachelors. They don't know much, anyhow.
It was clear that the baby thought so. She was a little girl, very little, only one night old; and she regarded him through her almond eyes with a supercilious look, as who should say, "Now, if he was only a bottle, instead of a big, useless policeman, why, one might put up with him;" which reflection opened the flood-gates of grief and set the little Chinee squalling: "Yow! Yow! Yap!" until the Sergeant held his ears, and a policeman carried it upstairs in a hurry.
Downstairs first, in the Sergeant's big blotter, and upstairs in the matron's nursery next, the baby's brief official history was recorded. There was very little of it, indeed, and what there was was not marked by much ceremony. The stork hadn't brought it, as it does in far-off Denmark; nor had the doctor found it and brought it in, on the American plan.
An Italian woman had just scratched it out of an ash barrel. Perhaps that's the way they find babies in China, in which case the sympathy of all American mothers and fathers will be with the present despoilers of the heathen Chinee, who is entitled to no consideration whatever until he introduces a new way.
The Italian woman was Mrs. Maria Lepanto. She lives in Thompson Street, but she had come all the way down to the corner of Elizabeth and Canal streets with her little girl to look at a procession passing by. That, as everybody knows, is next door to Chinatown. It was ten o'clock, and the end of the procession was in sight, when she noticed something stirring in an ash barrel that stood against the wall. She thought first it was a rat, and was going to run, when a noise that was certainly not a rat's squeal came from the barrel. The child clung to her hand and dragged her toward the sound.
"Oh, mamma!" she cried, in wild excitement, "hear it! It isn't a rat! I know! Hear!"
It was a wail, a very tiny wail, ever so sorry, as well it might be, coming from a baby that was cradled in an ash barrel. It was little Susie's eager hands that snatched it out. Then they saw that it was indeed a child, a poor, helpless, grieving little baby.
It had nothing on at all, not even a rag. Perhaps they had not had time to dress it.
"Oh, it will fit my dolly's jacket!" cried Susie, dancing around and hugging it in glee. "It will, mamma! A real live baby! Now Tilde needn't brag of theirs. We will take it home, won't we, mamma?"
The bands brayed, and the flickering light of many torches filled the night. The procession had gone down the street, and the crowd with it. The poor woman wrapped the baby in her worn shawl and gave it to the girl to carry. And Susie carried it, prouder and happier than any of the men that marched to the music. So they arrived home. The little stranger had found friends and a resting-place.
But not for long. In the morning Mrs. Lepanto took counsel with the neighbors, and was told that the child must be given to the police. That was the law, they said, and though little Susie cried bitterly at having to part with her splendid new toy, Mrs. Lepanto, being a law-abiding woman, wrapped up her find and took it to the Macdougal Street station.
That was the way it got to Headquarters with the morning mail, and how Sergeant Jack got a chance to tell all he didn't know about babies. Matron Travers knew more, a good deal. She tucked the little heathen away in a trundle-bed with a big bottle, and blessed silence fell at once on Headquarters. In five minutes the child was asleep.
While it slept, Matron Travers entered it in her book as "No. 103" of that year's crop of the gutter, and before it woke up she was on the way with it, snuggled safely in a big gray shawl, up to the Charities. There Mr. Bauer registered it under yet another number, chucked it under the chin, and chirped at it in what he probably thought might pass for baby Chinese. Then it got another big bottle and went to sleep once more.
At ten o'clock there came a big ship on purpose to give the little Mott Street waif a ride up the river, and by dinner-time it was on a green island with four hundred other babies of all kinds and shades, but not one just like it in the whole lot. For it was New York's first and only Chinese foundling. As to that Superintendent Bauer, Matron Travers, and Mrs. Lepanto agreed. Sergeant Jack's evidence doesn't count, except as backed by his superiors. He doesn't know a heathen baby when he sees one.
The island where the waif from Mott Street cast anchor is called Randall's Island, and there its stay ends, or begins. The chances are that it ends, for with an ash barrel filling its past and a foundling asylum its future, a baby hasn't much of a show. Babies were made to be hugged each by one pair of mother's arms, and neither white-capped nurses nor sleek milch cows fed on the fattest of meadow-grass can take their place, try as they may. The babies know that they are cheated, and they will not stay.
THE CHRISTENING IN BOTTLE ALLEY
All Bottle Alley was bidden to the christening. It being Sunday, when Mulberry Street was wont to adjust its differences over the cards and the wine-cup, it came "heeled," ready for what might befall. From Tomaso, the ragpicker in the farthest rear cellar, to the Signor Undertaker, mainstay and umpire in the varying affairs of life, which had a habit in The Bend of lapsing suddenly upon his professional domain, they were all there, the men of Malpete's village. The baby was named for the village saint, so that it was a kind of communal feast as well. Carmen was there with her man, and Francisco Cessari.
If Carmen had any other name, neither Mulberry Street nor the Alley knew it. She was Carmen to them when, seven years before, she had taken up with Francisco, then a young mountaineer straight as the cedar of his native hills, the breath of which was yet in the songs with which he wooed her. Whether the priest had blessed their bonds no one knew or asked. The Bend only knew that one day, after three years during which the Francisco tenement had been the scene of more than one jealous quarrel, not, it was whispered, without cause, the mountaineer was missing. He did not come back. From over the sea The Bend heard, after a while, that he had reappeared in the old village to claim the sweetheart he had left behind. In the course of time new arrivals brought the news that Francisco was married and that they were living happily, as a young couple should. At the news Mulberry Street looked askance at Carmen; but she gave no sign. By tacit consent, she was the Widow Carmen after that.
The summers passed. The fourth brought Francisco Cessari, come back to seek his fortune, with his wife and baby. He greeted old friends effusively and made cautious inquiries about Carmen. When told that she had consoled herself with his old rival, Luigi, with whom she was then living in Bottle Alley, he laughed with a light heart, and took up his abode within half a dozen doors of the alley. That was but a short time before the christening at Malpete's. There their paths crossed each other for the first time since his flight.
She met him with a smile on her lips, but with hate in her heart. He, manlike, saw only the smile. The men smoking and drinking in the court watched them speak apart, saw him, with the laugh that sat so lightly upon his lips, turn to his wife, sitting by the hydrant with the child, and heard him say, "Look, Carmen! our baby!"
The woman bent over it, and, as she did, the little one woke suddenly out of its sleep and cried out in affright. It was noticed that Carmen smiled again then, and that the young mother shivered, why she herself could not have told. Francisco, joining the group at the farther end of the yard, said carelessly that Carmen had forgotten. They poked fun at him and spoke her name loudly, with laughter.
From the tenement, as they did, came Luigi and asked threateningly who insulted his wife. They only laughed the more, said he had drunk too much wine, and shouldering him out, bade him go look to his woman. He went. Carmen had witnessed it all from the house. She called him a coward and goaded him with bitter taunts until mad with anger and drink he went out in the court once more and shook his fist in the face of Francisco. They hailed his return with bantering words. Luigi was spoiling for a fight they laughed, and would find one before the day was much older. But suddenly silence fell upon the group. Carmen stood on the step, pale and cold. She hid something under her apron.
"Luigi!" she called, and he came to her. She drew from under the apron a cocked pistol, and, pointing to Francisco, pushed it into his hand. At the sight the alley was cleared as suddenly as if a tornado had swept through it. Malpete's guests leaped over fences, dived into cellar-ways anywhere for shelter. The door of the woodshed slammed behind Francisco just as his old rival reached it. The maddened man tore it open and dragged him out by the throat. He pinned him against the fence, and levelled the pistol with frenzied curses. They died on his lips. The face that was turning livid in his grasp was the face of his boyhood's friend. They had gone to school together, danced together at the fairs in the old days. They had been friends—till Carmen came. The muzzle of the weapon fell.
"Shoot!" said a hard voice behind him. Carmen stood there with face of stone. She stamped her foot. "Shoot!" she commanded, pointing, relentless, at the struggling man. "Coward, shoot!"
Her lover's finger crooked itself upon the trigger. A shriek, wild and despairing, rang through the alley. A woman ran madly from the house, flew across the pavement, and fell panting at Carmen's feet.
"Mother of God! mercy!" she cried, thrusting her babe before the assassin's weapon. "Jesus Maria! Carmen, the child! He is my husband!"
No gleam of pity came into the cold eyes. Only hatred, fierce and bitter, was there. In one swift, sweeping glance she saw it all: the woman fawning at her feet, the man she hated limp and helpless in the grasp of her lover.
"He was mine once," she said, "and he had no mercy." She pushed the baby aside. "Coward, shoot!"
The shot was drowned in the shriek, hopeless, despairing, of the widow who fell upon the body of Francisco as it slipped lifeless from the grasp of the assassin. The christening party saw Carmen standing over the three with the same pale smile on her cruel lips.
For once The Bend did not shield a murderer. The door of the tenement was shut against him. The women spurned him. The very children spat upon him as he fled to the street. The police took him there. With him they seized Carmen. She made no attempt to escape. She had bided her time, and it had come. She had her revenge. To the end of its lurid life Bottle Alley remembered it as the murder accursed of God.
IN THE MULBERRY STREET COURT
"Conduct unbecoming an officer," read the charge, "in this, to wit, that the said defendants brought into the station-house, by means to deponent unknown, on the said Fourth of July, a keg of beer, and, when apprehended, were consuming the contents of the same." Twenty policemen, comprising the whole off platoon of the East One Hundred and Fourth Street squad, answered the charge as defendants. They had been caught grouped about a pot of chowder and the fatal keg in the top-floor dormitory, singing, "Beer, beer, glorious beer!" Sergeant McNally and Roundsman Stevenson interrupted the proceedings.
The Commissioner's eyes bulged as, at the call of the complaint clerk, the twenty marched up and ranged themselves in rows, three deep, before him.
They took the oath collectively, with a toss and a smack, as if to say, "I don't care if I do," and told separately and identically the same story, while the Sergeant stared and the Commissioner's eyes grew bigger and rounder.
Missing his reserves, Sergeant McNally had sent the Roundsman in search of them. He was slow in returning, and the Sergeant went on a tour of inspection himself. He journeyed to the upper region, and there came upon the party in full swing. Then and there he called the roll. Not one of the platoon was missing.
They formed a hollow square around something that looked uncommonly like a beer-keg. A number of tin growlers stood beside it. The Sergeant picked up one and turned the tap. There was enough left in the keg to barely half fill it. Seeing that, the platoon followed him downstairs without a murmur.
One by one the twenty took the stand after the Sergeant had left it, and testified without a tremor that they had seen no beer-keg. In fact, the majority would not know one if they saw it. They were tired and hungry, having been held in reserve all day, when a pleasant smell assailed their nostrils.
Each of the twenty followed his nose independently to the top floor, where he was surprised to see the rest gathered about a pot of steaming chowder. He joined the circle and partook of some. It was good. As to beer, he had seen none and drunk less. There was something there of wood with a brass handle to it. What it was none of them seemed to know. They were all shocked at the idea that it might have been a beer-keg. Such things are forbidden in police stations.
The Sergeant himself could not tell how it could have got in there, while stoutly maintaining that it was a keg. He scratched his head and concluded that it might have come over the roof, or, somehow, from a building that is in course of erection next door. The chowder had come in by the main door. At least one policeman had seen it carried upstairs. He had fallen in behind it immediately.
When the Commissioner had heard this story told exactly twenty times the platoon fell in and marched off to the elevated station. When he can decide what punishment to inflict on a policeman who does not know a beer-keg when he sees it, they all will be fined accordingly, and a doorman who has served a term as a barkeeper will be sent to the East One Hundred and Fourth Street station to keep the police there out of harm's way.
DIFFICULTIES OF A DEACON
It is my firm opinion that newspaper men should not be deacons. Not that there is any moral or spiritual reason why they should abstain—not that; but it doesn't work; the chances are all against it. I know it from experience. I was a deacon myself once.
It was at a time when they were destroying gambling tools at Police Headquarters. I was there, and I carried away as a memento of the occasion a pocketful of red, white, yellow, and blue chips. They were pretty, and I thought they would be nice to have around. That was the beginning of the mischief. I was a very energetic deacon, and attended to the duties of the office with zeal. It was a young church; I had helped to found it myself; and at the Thursday night meetings I was rarely missing. The very next week it was my turn to lead it, and I started in to interpret the text to the best of my ability, and with much approval from the brethren.
I have a nervous habit, when talking, of fingering my watch, keys, knife, or whatever I happen to fish out of my pocket first. It happened to be the poker chips this time. Now, I have never played poker. I don't know the game from the smallpox. But it seems that the congregation did. I could not at first account for the enthusiasm of the brethren as I laid down the law, and checked off the points successively on a white, a red, and a yellow chip, summing the argument up on a blue. I was rather flattered by my success at presenting the matter in a convincing light; and when the dominie leaned over and examined the chips attentively, I gave him a handful for the baby, cheerfully telling him that I had plenty more at home.
The look of horror on the good man's face remained a puzzle to me until some of the congregation asked me on the train in the morning, in a confidential kind of way, where the game was, and how high was the ante. The explanation that ensued was not a success. I think that it shook the confidence of the brethren in me for the first time.
It occurs to me now, looking back, that the fact that I had a black eye on that occasion may have contributed in a measure to this result. Yet it was as innocent an eye as those chips; in fact, it was distinctly an ecclesiastical black eye, if I may so call it. I was never a fighter, any more than I was a gambler. Only once in my life was I accused of fighting, and then most unjustly. It was when a man who had come into my office with a hickory club to punish me for a wrong, as he insisted upon considering it,—while in reality it was an act of strictest justice to him,—happened to fall out of a window, taking the whole sash with him. The simple fact was that I didn't strike a blow. He literally fell out. However, that is another story, and a much older one.
This black eye was a direct outcome of my zeal as deacon. Between the duties it imposed upon me, and my work as a newspaper man, I was getting very much in need of exercise of some sort. The doctor recommended Indian clubs; but the boys in the office liked boxing, and it seemed to me to have some advantages. So we clubbed together, and got a set of gloves, and when we were not busy would put them on and have a friendly set-to. It was inevitable that our youthful spirits should rise at these meetings, and with them occasionally certain lumps, which afterward shaded off into various tints bordering more or less on black until we learned to keep a leech on hand for emergencies. You see, what with the spirit of the contest, the tenderness of our untrained flesh, and certain remembered scores which were thus paid off in an entirely friendly and Christian manner, leaving no bad blood behind,—especially after we had engaged the leech,—this was not only reasonable, but inevitable. But the brethren knew nothing of this, and couldn't be persuaded to listen to it; and, in fairness, it must be owned that the spectacle of a deacon with a black eye and a handful of poker chips expounding the text in prayer-meeting was—well, let us say that appearances were against me.
Still, I might have come through it all right had it not been for Mac. Mac was the dog. It never rains but it pours; and just at this time midnight burglars took to raiding our suburban town, and dogs came into fashion. Mac came into it with a long jump. He had been part of the outfit of a dog pit in a low dive on the East Side which the police had broken up. Sergeant Jack had heard of my need, and gave him to me for old acquaintance' sake, warranting him to keep anybody away from the house. Upon this point there was never the least doubt. We might just as well have lived on a desert island while we had him. People went around the next block to avoid our house. It was not because Mac was unsociable; quite the contrary. He took to the town from the first, especially to the other dogs. These he generally took by the throat, to the great distress of their owners. I have never heard that bulldogs as a class have theories, and I am not prepared to discuss the point. I know that Mac had. He was an evolutionist, with a firm belief in the principle of the survival of the fittest; and he did all one dog could do to carry it into practice. His efforts eventually brought it down to a question between himself and a big long-haired dog in the next street. I think of this with regret, because it was the occasion of my one real slip. The dog led me into temptation.