From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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"If there's anything I hate more than a rainy Saturday, call me a tadpole!" said the taller of two boys who, with their chins on their arms and their arms on the top of the window-sash, were gazing gloomily out over a dripping world. It was the second day of an east wind, and every boy on Manhattan Island knows what an east wind brings to New York City, or used to in days before the war, and this was one of them.
"And our nine could have lammed that Murray Hill crowd a dozen to nothing!" moaned the shorter, with disgust in every tone. "Next Saturday the 'Actives' have that ground, and there'll be no decent place to play – unless we can trap them over to Hoboken. What shall we do, anyhow?"
The taller boy, a curly-headed, dark-eyed fellow of sixteen, whose long legs had led to his school name of Snipe, turned from the contemplation of an endless vista of roofs, chimneys, skylights, clothes-lines, all swimming in an atmosphere of mist, smoke, and rain, and glanced back at the book-laden table.
"There's that Virgil," he began, tentatively.
"Oh, Virgil be blowed!" broke in the other on the instant. "It's bad enough to have to work week-days. I mean what can we do for – fun?" and the blue eyes of the youngster looked up into the brown of his taller chum.
"That's all very well for you, Shorty," said Snipe. "Latin comes easy to you, but it don't to me. You've got a sure thing on exam., I haven't, and the pater's been rowing me every week over those blasted reports."
"Well-l, I'm as bad off in algebra or Greek, for that matter. 'Pop' told me last week I ought to be ashamed of myself," was the junior's answer.
And, lest it be supposed that by "Pop" he referred to the author of his being, and thereby deserves the disapproval of every right-minded reader at the start, let it be explained here and now that "Pop" was the head – the "rector" – of a school famous in the ante-bellum days of Gotham; famous indeed as was its famous head, and though they called him nicknames, the boys worshipped him. Older boys, passed on into the cap and gown of Columbia (items of scholastic attire sported only, however, at examinations and the semi-annual speech-making), referred to the revered professor of the Greek language and literature as "Bull," and were no less fond of him, nor did they hold him less in reverence. Where are they now, I wonder? – those numerous works bound in calf, embellished on the back with red leather bands on which were stamped in gold – 's Virgil, – 's Horace, – 's Sallust, – 's Homer? Book after book had he, grammars of both tongues, prosodies likewise, Roman and Greek antiquities, to say nothing of the huge classical dictionary. One could cover a long shelf in one's student library without drawing upon the works of any other authority, and here in this dark little room, on the topmost floor of a brownstone house in Fourteenth Street, a school-boy table was laden at its back with at least eight of Pop's ponderous tomes to the exclusion of other classics.
But on the shelf above were books by no means so scholarly and far more worn.There they stood in goodly array, Mayne Reid's "Boy Hunters," "Scalp Hunters," "The Desert Home," "The White Chief," flanked by a dusty "Sanford and Merton" that appeared to hold aloof from its associates. There, dingy with wear though far newer, was Thomas Hughes's inimitable "Tom Brown's School-Days at Rugby." There was what was then his latest, "The Scouring of the White Horse," which, somehow, retained the freshness of the shop. There were a few volumes of Dickens, and Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. There on the wall were some vivid battle pictures, cut from the London Illustrated News, – the Scots Grays in the m?l?e with the Russian cavalry at Balaklava; the Guards, in their tall bearskins and spike-tail coats, breasting the slopes of the Alma. There hung a battered set of boxing-gloves, and on the hooks above them a little brown rifle, muzzle-loading, of course. The white-covered bed stood against the wall on the east side of the twelve-by-eight apartment, its head to the north. At its foot were some objects at which school-boys of to-day would stare in wonderment; a pair of heavy boots stood on the floor, with a pair of trousers so adjusted to them that, in putting on the boots, one was already half-way into the trousers, and had only to pull them up and tightly belt them at the waist. On the post hung a red flannel shirt, with a black silk neckerchief sewed to the back of the broad rolling collar. On top of the post was the most curious object of all, – a ribbed helmet of glistening black leather, with a broad curving brim that opened out like a shovel at the back, while a stiff, heavy eagle's neck and head, projecting from the top, curved over them and held in its beak an emblazoned front of black patent leather that displayed in big figures of white the number 40, and in smaller letters, arching over the figures, the name, Lady Washington. It was the fire-cap of a famous engine company of the old New York volunteer department, – a curious thing, indeed, to be found in a school-boy's room.
The desk, littered with its books and papers, stood in the corner between the window and the east wall. Along the west wall was a curtained clothes-press. Then came the marble-topped washstand, into which the water would flow only at night, when the demand for Gotham's supply of Croton measurably subsided. Beyond that was the door leading to the open passage toward the stairway to the lower floors. In the corner of the room were the school-boy paraphernalia of the day, – a cricket bat, very much battered, two base-ball bats that the boys of this generation would doubtless scan suspiciously, "heft" cautiously, then discard disdainfully, for they were of light willow and bigger at the bulge by full an inch than the present regulation. Beneath them in the corner lay the ball of the year 1860, very like the article now in use, but then referred to as a "ten shilling," and invariably made at an old shoe-shop at the foot of Second Avenue, whose owner, a veteran cobbler, had wisely quit half-soling and heeling for a sixpence and was coining dollars at the newly discovered trade. All the leading clubs were then his patrons, – the Atlantics, the Eckfords, the Mutuals, the Stars, even the Unions of Morrisania. All the leading junior clubs swore by him and would use no ball but his, – the champion Actives, the Alerts, the Uncas. (A "shanghai club" the boys declared the last named to be when it first appeared at Hamilton Square in its natty uniform of snow-white flannel shirts and sky-blue trousers.) Base ball was in its infancy, perhaps, but what a lusty infant and how pervading! Beyond that corner and hanging midway on the northward wall was a portentous object, an old-fashioned maple shell snare-drum, with white buff leather sling and two pairs of ebony sticks, their polished heads and handles proclaiming constant use, and the marble surface of the washstand top, both sides, gave proof that when practice on the sheepskin batter head was tabooed by the household and the neighborhood, the inoffensive stone received the storm of "drags," and "flams," and "rolls." Lifting the curtain that overhung the boyish outfit of clothing, there stood revealed still further evidence of the martial tastes of the occupant, for the first items in sight were a natty scarlet shell-jacket, a pair of trim blue trousers, with broad stripe of buff, and a jaunty little forage-cap, with regimental wreath and number. Underneath the curtain, but readily hauled into view, were found screwed and bolted to heavy blocks of wood two strange-looking miniature cannon, made, as one could soon determine, by sawing off a brace of old-fashioned army muskets about a foot from the breech. Two powder-flasks and a shot-bag hung on pegs at the side of the curtained clothes-press. A little mirror was clamped to the wall above the washstand. Some old fencing foils and a weather-beaten umbrella stood against the desk. An open paint-box, much besmeared, lay among the books. Some other pamphlets and magazines were stacked up on the top of the clothes-press. Two or three colored prints, one of Columbian Engine, No. 14, a very handsome Philadelphia "double-decker." Another of Ringgold Hose, No. 7, a really beautiful four-wheeler of the old, old type, with chocolate-colored running gear and a dazzling plate-glass reel, completed the ornamentation of this school-boy den. There was no room for a lounge, – there was room only for two chairs; but that diminutive apartment was one of the most popular places of resort Pop's boys seemed to know, and thereby it became the hot-bed of more mischief, the birthplace of more side-splitting school pranks than even the staid denizens of that most respectable brownstone front ever dreamed of, whatever may have been the convictions of the neighborhood, for Pop's boys, be it known, had no dormitory or school-house in common. No such luck! They lived all over Manhattan Island, all over Kings, Queens, and Westchester counties. They came from the wilds of Hoboken and the heights of Bergen. They dwelt in massive brownstone fronts on Fifth Avenue and in modest wooden, one-story cottages at Fort Washington. They wore "swell" garments in some cases and shabby in others. They were sons of statesmen, capitalists, lawyers, doctors, and small shopkeepers. They were rich and they were poor; they were high and they were low, tall and short, skinny and stout, but they were all pitched, neck and crop, into Pop's hopper, treated share and share alike, and ground and polished and prodded or praised, and a more stand-on-your-own-bottom lot of young vessels ("vessels of wrath," said the congregation of a neighboring tabernacle) never had poured into them impartially the treasures of the spring of knowledge. They were of four classes, known as the first, second, third, and fourth Latin, corresponding to the four classes of Columbia and other colleges, and to be a first Latin boy at Pop's was second only to being a senior at Yale or Columbia. As a rule the youngsters "started fair" together at the bottom, and knew each other to the backbone by the time they reached the top. Few new boys came in except each September with the fourth Latin. Pop had his own way of teaching, and the boy that didn't know his methods and had not mastered his "copious notes" might know anybody else's C?sar, Sallust, or Cicero by rote, but he couldn't know Latin. Pop had a pronunciation of the Roman tongue that only a Pop's bred boy could thoroughly appreciate. Lads who came, as come in some rare cases they did, from Eton or Harrow, from the Latin schools of Boston or the manifold academies of the East, read as they had been taught to read, and were rewarded with a fine sarcasm and the information that they had much to unlearn. Pop's school was encompassed roundabout by many another school, whose pupils took their airing under ushers' eyes, to the howling disdain of Pop's unhampered pupils, who lined the opposite curb and dealt loudly in satirical comment. There was war to the knife between Pop's boys and Charlier's around the corner, to the end that the hours of recess had to be changed or both schools, said the police, would be forbidden the use of Madison Square. They had many faults, had Pop's boys, though not all the neighborhood ascribed to them, and they had at least one virtue, – they pulled well together. By the time it got to the top of the school each class was like a band of brothers, and never was there a class of which this could be more confidently asserted than the array of some twenty-seven youngsters, of whom Snipe and his smaller chum, Shorty, were prominent members, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty.
Yet, they had their black sheep, as is to be told, and their scapegraces, as will not need to be told, and months of the oddest, maddest, merriest school life in the midst of the most vivid excitement the great city ever knew, and on the two lads wailing there at the attic window because their fates had balked the longed-for game at Hamilton Square, there were dawning days that, rain or shine, would call them shelterless into constant active, hazardous life, and that, in one at least, would try and prove and temper a brave, impatient spirit, – that should be indeed the very turning-point of his career.
Patter, patter, patter! drip, drip, drip! the rain came pelting in steady shower. The gusty wind blew the chimney smoke down into the hollow of the long quadrilateral of red brick house backs. Three, four, and five stories high, they hemmed in, without a break, a "plant" of rectangular back-yards, each with its flag-stone walk, each with its square patch of turf, each with its flower-beds at the foot of the high, spike-topped boundary fence, few with visible shrubs, fewer still diversified by grape arbors, most of them criss-crossed with clothes-lines, several ornamented with whirligigs, all on this moist November afternoon wringing wet from the steady downpour that came on with the dawn and broke the boys' hearts, for this was to have been the match day between the Uncas and the Murray Hills, and Pop's school was backing the Indians to a man. One more week and winter might be upon them and the ball season at an end. Verily, it was indeed too bad!
With a yawn of disgust, the shorter boy at the open-topped window threw up his hands and whirled about. There on the bed lay the precious base-ball uniform in which he was wont to figure as shortstop. There, too, lay Snipe's, longer in the legs by nearly a foot. "There's nothing in-doors but books, Snipy. There's only one thing to tempt a fellow out in the wet, – a fire, and small chance of that on such a day. We might take the guns up on the roof and shoot a few skylights or something – "
"Shut up!" said Snipe, at this juncture, suddenly, impetuously throwing up his hand. "Twenty-third Street!"
Shorty sprang to the window and levelled an old opera-glass at the summit of an odd white tower that loomed, dim and ghost-like, through the mist above the housetops quarter of a mile away. Both boys' eyes were kindling, their lips parting in excitement. Both were on tiptoe.
"Right! Down comes the lever!" was the next announcement. "Upper Fifth, I'll bet a bat! Listen!"
Suddenly there pealed on the heavy air, solemn and slow, the deep, mellow tones of a great bell. Even as he counted the strokes each boy reached for his cap. One – two – three – four!
"Fourth!" cried Shorty. "Come on!" And, light as kittens, away scurried the two, skimming down three flights of stairs, nearly capsizing a sedate old butler, snatching their top-coats in the hall, letting themselves out with a bang, leaping down the broad flight of brownstone steps to the broader walk below, then spurting away for Union Square, fast as light-heeled, light-hearted lads could run.
A curious thing to look back upon is the old volunteer fire department of New York as it was forty years ago. No horses, no fire-boats, few steamers, no telegraph alarm-boxes, only a great array of practically go-as-you-please companies, averaging forty or fifty men apiece, scattered all over the inhabited parts of the island from Harlem to the Battery. Sixty of these organizations, there or thereabouts, were hose companies, each manning a light, high-wheeled, fancifully painted carriage with its hose-reel perched gracefully above the running-gear, decked out with fancy lamps and jangling bells, – a carriage so light that a boy could start it on the level and a dozen athletic men could make it fairly spin over the paved streets. Then there were fifty engine companies, all but two or three specially favored bands "tooling" hand machines, some of the old "double-deck" Philadelphia pattern, some with long side levers, "brakes" they called them; others still with strange, uncouth shapes, built by some local expert with the idea of out-squirting all competitors. Down in Centre Street was the heavy apparatus of the Exempt Company, only called upon in case of fires of unusual magnitude. Near by, too, was stored a brace of what were then considered powerful steamers, brought out only on such occasions; but two companies that wielded strong political influence proudly drew at the end of their ropes light-running and handsome steam fireengines, and these two companies, Americus 6, – "Big Six" as they called her, – and her bitter rivals of Manhattan 8, were the envied of all the department. Add to these some nineteen hook and ladder companies that ran long, light, prettily ornamented trucks, and you have the New York fire department as it was just before the war. Famous men were its chiefs in those days, and the names of Harry Howard and John Decker, of Carson and Cregier, were household words among the boys at Pop's, most of whom were strong partisans of some company on whose speed and prowess they pinned their faith. Strange, indeed, to-day seems the system by which fire alarms were communicated. There were no electric bells, no gongs, no telephones in the various engine-houses, which were scattered all over the town, generally in groups of two, an engine and a hose company being "located" side by side, though a large number occupied single houses. On the roof of the old post-office at Nassau Street, in a huge frame-work at the rear of the City Hall, and in tall observation-towers of iron tubing or wooden frame, placed at convenient points about the city, were hung big, heavy, deep-toned bells that struck the hour at noon and nine at night, but otherwise were used exclusively for the purpose of giving alarms of fire. The city was divided into eight districts, and the sounding of the tower bells of any number from one to eight, inclusive, meant that a fire had been discovered within the limits of that district, and all companies designated for service therein must hunt it up and put it out. The seventh and eighth districts divided the lower part of the city, a little below Canal Street, evenly between them. Then, as the city broadened there, the great, far-spreading space between the East and North Rivers, south of Twenty-second Street, was parcelled off into the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth districts, beginning from the west. These were quite narrow at the south, but flared out north and eastward. Above them, on the east and west sides of the city respectively, lay the first and second districts, the former extending almost to Harlem, which had on Mount Morris its own bell-tower and at its foot a little department of its own. Night and day a single watcher was perched in the glass-enclosed lookout at the summit of each lofty tower, his sole communication with the world below being a speaking-tube to the engine-house at the base and a single wire that connected his "circuit" with the main office at the City Hall, a circuit so limited in its possibilities that it could only administer a single tap at a time upon the tiny gong-bell over the watcher's desk, and finally the big, booming bell that, hanging midway down in the lofty structure, was yet so high above the neighboring roofs and walls that its sound bellowed forth in unimpeded volume. It was struck by a massive swinging hammer, worked by a long steel lever aloft in the watch-tower, the entire apparatus being the design, as were some of the strange-looking engines, of ex-Chief Carson, and one of the greatest treats that Pop's boys could possibly have was to be piloted of a wintry Saturday afternoon or summer evening, by one of their number who had the open sesame, up, up the winding stairway, up past the huge, silent monster that hung midway. (You may venture to bet they wasted no time there, but scurried past him, full tilt, lest an alarm should come at the instant and he should suddenly boom forth and stun them with his clamor.) Once well past him, they breathed freer, if harder, for the climb was long, and at last, tapping on a little trap-door, were admitted to the sanctum at the summit, and could gaze in delight and wonderment about them and over the busy, bustling world far, far beneath. Once well above the low ground of Canal Street, the city rose, and from the Hudson to the East River, along about the line of Spring Street, the ground was high, and here was established the inner row of Gotham's picket guards against fire: three tall towers, one away over at Essex Market, on the far east side, guarding the sixth district; one on Marion Street, guarding the lower fourth and fifth; one over at McDougal Street, guarding the lower third. The next post to the northward was at Jefferson Market, on Sixth Avenue, a tall white wooden shaft that seemed to pierce the skies, so low were all the surrounding buildings, and from his eerie at its summit Jefferson's ringer watched over the upper third and fourth districts. The next tower was Twenty-third Street, near First Avenue, an open affair of iron, like that at McDougal, and here the guardian looked out over all the lower first and upper fifth districts, as well as having an eye on the northeastern part of the fourth. Then came Thirty-second Street, far over near Ninth Avenue, another open cage; and in the cozy, stove-warmed roost at the top of each, snugly closed against wind and weather, day and night, as has been said, and only one man at a time, the ringer kept his ceaseless vigil. It was his duty to be ever on the alert, ever moving about and spying over the city. If an unusual smoke or blaze manifested itself anywhere, he would at once unsling his spy-glass and examine it. If it lay long blocks or miles away and closer to some other tower, the unwritten law or etiquette of the craft demanded that he should touch the key of his telegraph. This instantly sounded the little bell in the other towers on his circuit, and called upon his fellows to look about them. At no time could he sit and read. He must pace about the narrow confines of his rounded den, or on the encircling gallery outside, and watch, watch, watch. Whenever he discovered a fire, the first thing was to let down his lever and strike one round of the district in which it lay, – fast if the fire was near, slow if at a distance. This was all the neighboring companies had to judge by, as the first arrivals at the engine-house, or the loungers generally sitting about the stove back of the apparatus, or the bunkers who slept there at night, sprang for their fire-caps, raced for the trumpet that stood on the floor at the end of the tongue, threw open their doors, manned the drag-rope, and "rolled" for the street. No company could speed far on its route before meeting some runner or partisan who could tell the exact or approximate location of the fire. The first round from the tower would start every machine in its neighborhood. Then the ringer would spring to his telegraph and rapidly signal to the City Hall two rounds of the district, then add the number of his tower. Then back he would go to his lever and bang another round. If the fire was trivial four rounds would suffice; if a great conflagration ensued he would keep on ringing for half an hour, and if it proved so great that the chief engineer deemed it necessary to call out his entire force, word would be sent to the nearest tower, and a general alarm would result, – a continuous tolling until signalled from the City Hall to cease. Well did Pop's boys remember the one general alarm of 1859, when the magnificent Crystal Palace at Sixth Avenue and Forty-second Street went up in smoke; and all in half an hour! And thrilling and interesting it was to the favored few of their number permitted sometimes to stand watch of an evening with the ringer, and to peer down on the gaslights of the bustling streets and over dim roofs and spires and into many an open window long blocks away! It was joy to be allowed to man the lever with the silent, mysterious hermit of the tower and help him bang the big bell when the last click of the telegraph from the City Hall announced that the second-hand of the regulator at the main office had just reached the mark at nine o'clock. It was simply thrilling to sit and watch the keen-eyed sentinel as he suddenly and intently scanned a growing light about some distant dormer window, reached for his glass, peered through it one instant, then clapped it into its frame, sprang for the lever, and in another moment three or four or five deep, clanging notes boomed out on the night air from below. It was wild delight to lean from the gallery without and watch the rush and excitement in the streets, – to hear the jangle of the bells of the white hose carriage as "she" shot suddenly into view and, with a dozen active dots on the drag-rope, went spinning down the street, closely followed by her next-door neighbor, the engine, with a rapidly growing crew. It was keen excitement to watch the bursting of the blaze, the roll of the smoke from the upper windows, to see it wax and spread and light up the neighboring roofs and chimneys with its glare, to mark from on high the swiftly gathering throngs on the broad avenue, and under the gaslight to see company after company come trotting out from the side streets, curving round into the car-tracks, and the moment the broad tires of their engine, truck, or carriage struck the flat of the rails, up would rise a yell from every throat and away they would go at racing speed. It was thrilling, indeed, to see two rival companies reach the avenue at the same point and turn at once into the tracks. Then to the stirring peal of the alarm the fiercely contending bands would seem fairly to spurn the stones beneath their flying feet, and carts, carriages, "busses," everything except the railway-cars themselves, would clear the track for the rival racers, and the air would resound with their rallying-cries. Time and again, it must be owned, so fierce was the strain for supremacy, that furious rows broke forth between the contestants, and that between many companies there were for months and years bitter feuds that often led to war to the knife, and a fire was sometimes left to look out for itself while the firemen settled their quarrel with fists, stones, and "spanners." As a rule, though, there were so many companies at each fire that there were more than enough to fight the flames, for every company had to run to two districts as well as cover its own neighborhood. Rowdyism was rampant in some of the organizations, but then a benignant "Tammany" guarded the interests of a force so strong in numbers, so potent a factor in politics, and only when a company had become repeatedly and notoriously negligent of its proper duties in order to indulge its love for fight was it actually disbanded. Compared with the system of to-day it was almost grotesque; but in the years when Pop's boys were in their glory the old volunteer fire department was on its last legs, yet was as ignorant of its coming dissolution as of the approach of the great war that should summon so many of its members to meet a foe far harder to down than the hottest fire they had ever tackled. They were still monarchs of all they surveyed, those red-shirted, big-hearted roughs, and many a company had a jolly word of welcome for Pop's boys, who more than once had given some favorite company first notice – "a still alarm" – of a blaze, and thereby enabled the "Zephyrs" of 61 Hose or the "Pacifics" of 28 Engine to be first at the fire, getting a "scoop" on their nearest neighbors of the "Lexington" or the "Metamoras," for every company besides its number had its name, and every company, high or low, its swarm of boy admirers, adherents, and followers, most of them, it must be admitted, street gamins.
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