Charles King.

From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days



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CHAPTER XI

When the order "Take up" was finally given that afternoon to the array of fire companies that covered the first and second fire districts, most of Pop's boys were still among the swarm of spectators. The fire had broken out soon after nine o'clock, and not until one were some of the companies sent home. Under the system existing in those days every engine, hose, and hook and ladder company whose station was north of Twenty-second or south of Sixtieth Street had had to answer that alarm, – old "Black Joke," Engine Company 33, having to drag their heavy "Carson" machine all the way from the neighborhood of Fifty-ninth Street and Broadway. There was nothing left of the house in which the fire started, and neighboring buildings were badly scorched in places and more or less damaged by water. There were no "chemicals" then. The stable had been in danger several times, and Pop's boys had performed prodigies of valor early in the affair, leading out the affrighted horses and wheeling buggies and wagons into the street. The cars on Fourth Avenue had to stop for over an hour, so numerous were the lines of hose, and both that avenue and Twenty-fifth Street and the roofs and windows of adjoining buildings were thronged with lookers-on. The Doctor was much displeased on his arrival to find his back windows occupied on both floors by total strangers, who made themselves perfectly at home and couldn't be induced to leave by any intimation of the janitor that the principal would like to close up. The Doctor was more than displeased when he heard from Halsey of the filching of the gold. No pupil saw that interview. A few of the smaller boys were at the back widows, but only John noted the two in their grave consultation, and he was promptly ordered to leave the room, and could only guess what was going on until the following day. As the firemen stretched their drag-ropes and started for home Halsey suggested summoning the boys back to their seats and studies, but Pop said no, – it was too late in the day. He wished to think, and, tucking the cash and checks in an inside pocket and his cane under his arm, leaving Halsey to see to the closing up of the rooms, the Doctor went slowly down-stairs and out upon the crowded street. He had had to thread his way through the jam at Twenty-fifth Street, and wanted no more of that. A line of hose stretched along the sidewalk from the hydrant at the corner below, and he looked upon it with stern and scholastic disapproval, but followed its lead and came upon a familiar face. It being a "neighborhood" fire, the Metamora Hose had run over from Fifth Avenue and Twenty-first Street, being almost as soon upon the scene as 61. Taking the hydrant at Twenty-fourth Street, her men had unreeled up the avenue and around the stable, giving their "butt" to Lexington 7, who, with their big double-decker, came speeding over from Third Avenue. And now the prettily painted hose carriage was drawn up close to the curb at Twenty-fourth Street, and half a dozen young fellows were lolling about the wheels and tongue, smoking and talking loudly, with much exaggerated imitation of the Bowery dialect of the day.

But the slangy, swaggering talk came to sudden stop. Two cigars, at least, were tossed or dropped into the flooded gutters, and two or three hats were lifted as Hoover, Briggs, and a "horsey" young man, whose specialties were cock-fights and "canine sports," suddenly recognized the Doctor. With grave dignity Pop lifted his beaver, and his stern eyes gazed in disapprobation upon the party. He knew the others, as he did his own black sheep, at a glance. There were the Hulkers, the flashiest of New York youths, the objects of his especial dislike. He had known their father, a worthy man despite his swiftly acquired wealth, and the boys, too, had spent six months within the Doctor's walls before the death of that lamented financier. But a doting mother had long since withdrawn them from the tyranny and oppression to which her beloved sons were there subjected. The Doctor had his regular habits and his regular route. No boy there had ever known him to turn southward from his school door before this day, and his coming suddenly upon them was a shock so severe that it dashed for the moment even Briggs's effrontery. Hoover turned a sickly yellow, and looked as though he would have been glad to crawl under the hose carriage. Briggs "made a sneak" to get the reel between him and the Doctor's glowering eyes, but Pop halted short and stood with pointed cane, and Briggs saw it was useless and crawled out again. "Smoking!" said the rector, comprehending the sextette in general condemnation. "Idling! Wasting the substance of honest men in forbidden and stolen indulgence. Here, you, sir!" to Briggs, "get you gone out of this. Go home and study, and if you miss a line of to-morrow's lessons I'll pack you out of school." "Pack" as a verb and "copious" as an adjective were pets in the rector's school vocabulary. "The same to you, my horsey young friend, Mr. Brodrick. As for you," he continued, addressing the Hulkers and their companion, who, with hands in pockets and hats tipped back, were striving to keep up appearance of bravado, "I shall reach you through another channel." Then, his manner suddenly changing, he turned on Hoover, now blinking and sidling away through the quickly gathering knot of inquisitive folk. "Hoover, come with me," he said, and Hoover, who looked as though he would give a year of his life to get out of the way, meekly slunk along at the Doctor's side.

Majestically the rector strode across the street and went on southward, vouchsafing no word to the culprit on his left. There were still curious knots of loungers along the avenue. One or two companies were manning the brakes in Twenty-fourth Street, the hose of their engines being carried through the basements of the red brick houses to the rear of the wrecked premises. Furtively Briggs and Brodrick watched the pair until lost to sight, all but the Doctor's hat, in the throngs along the walk. Then an anxious, nervous glance was exchanged, and Brodrick whispered to his freckle-faced schoolmate. "What's he heard, d'you s'pose?" was his query.

"We'd better look up 61 and see what the other fellows know," said Briggs, in low tone, while the Hulkers, now that the rector was well away, resumed their loud laughter. "You go, Brod; I can't show up in that crowd just now." The memory of the assault on Snipe was still fresh in the minds of some of the lads. Very possibly it was this that held the Hulkers and their henchmen so far away from the fire itself and from the spot where, over a block away, 61's white hose-reel and silver lamps could be seen above the crowd. Even now that shame and suspicion attached to George Lawton's name, those fellows, lately his accusers, if not indeed his active assailants, felt it unsafe to venture among a lot of the First Latin.

Brodrick peered up the street and shook his head. "Not if the court knows herself," he said, with the Bowery drawl; then, turning to Hulker, "Sa-ay, Skinny, gimme 'nother seegar." But the Hulker apostrophized as "Skinny" declined.

"You've cleaned me out of the last one. Go buy some if you want 'em."

"I ain't got a dime. Hope to drop dead next minute if I have. Sa-ay, lend me five dollars till Christmas on that watch-chain?" he pleaded, lifting a clumsy production from a waistcoat-pocket. But the next minute he thrust it back in haste and confusion. Beach, with observing eye, came sweeping down upon them. "Mr. Halsey wishes to see you both at once," said he, with scant ceremony. "Lose no time," and, though the message filled them both with uneasiness, neither dare disregard it.

Halsey sat at the old table as they slunk into the school-room. Two or three First Latin men and Second Latin boys were grouped about him; John, the janitor, was dodging about the door. Every boy in the number had on his overcoat, but at least half a dozen others had left theirs hanging on the rack.

"Yes, sir, I know whose they are," Doremus was saying. "There's Beekman's, and there's Bagshot's, and that's Prime's, and those are Second Latin coats," he added, with proper indifference to the infant garments. Halsey thought a moment.

"They must still be somewhere about," he said, tentatively, as Briggs and Brodrick ranged up behind the smaller lads. "Where's Hoover?" he questioned. "He was with you a moment ago."

"Gone with the Doctor, sir," said Briggs, glad enough to have no harder question to answer.

A long hook-and-ladder truck that had been standing for some hours in front of the school was being reloaded with its ladders, and its gong was sounding to recall scattered members of the company. Some small boys had tiptoed to the window to feast their eyes on the unaccustomed sight. "There's some of our fellows over by 61's Hose now, sir," piped a junior, and John was bidden to go and again summon all stragglers into school. Ringing of his bell had only resulted in derisive comment among the firemen. Some company just starting for home was receiving the customary "hi, hi" of the hangers-on about the other machines, and John's mandates produced no immediate effect. At last, however, the boys came straggling up in knots of two or three, and presently perhaps a dozen were added to the group about the master's table. He was listening rather absently to the excited talk. No less than six or eight of the youngsters had personally rescued as many horses apiece, despite the fact that there never were more than twenty of those quadrupeds, all told, in the adjoining stable. Halsey made Briggs repeat his statement as to Hoover and seemed disappointed. "Is this all you can find?" he finally said to the janitor, and John declared it was.

"Didn't you tell me Prime was down there, somewhere?" asked Halsey of Doremus.

"He's sure to be, sir. His coat's here yet."

So again the janitor was sent forth, and again came back to say he could see nothing of the lad, and at last the master decided to keep the others no longer. Bagshot took his coat and left. There were only two remaining on the rack when the usual hour for closing school drew nigh. The occupants of the rear windows by this time had satisfied their curiosity and departed, and John had been ordered to keep the doors closed and to admit no more. For some reason Halsey seemed to hang on to Briggs to the very last, and he and Brodrick were still fretting about the benches, awaiting the master's permission to retire and glancing apprehensively at each other from time to time.

At last Halsey beckoned them to his side.

"Where were you when the class followed me into the other room?" asked he of Briggs.

"With 'em, sir!" said Briggs, with eagerness. "Wasn't I, Brodrick? We were among the first to follow."

"Yes, sir," asseverated Brodrick as positively. "We chased right in after you."

"How long did you stay in there?" asked Halsey. "I'm told you were among the first to bolt down-stairs – before school was dismissed."

"A minute or two, anyhow," declared Briggs. "I thought school was dismissed or I wouldn't 'a' run."

"Did the whole class follow? Did any remain?" he asked, searching the anxious features before him. He and Beach had already talked this over among themselves. John, too, had been examined, but further testimony was needed. Briggs reflected.

"Hoover was there, sir, and Shorty Prime."

"When you came out, do you mean?"

"Ye-ye-yes, sir. 't least Prime was. I didn't see Hoover."

"Where was Prime? Are you sure he was there?"

"Right up at the Doctor's desk, sir, where you were sitting."

"He was there still when you came out?"

"Ye-yes, sir. Wasn't he, Brodrick?"

Brodrick thought so, but couldn't be sure. He had "grabbed his cap and run." "They were all rushing down from the English department up-stairs."

Halsey's dark face was very dark now. His eyes were full of doubt and dread. "I want you to be very careful of what you say, Briggs, and to say nothing to anybody of what you have said." And while they were still in conference steps were heard upon the stairs, and presently in came the two pony members of the First Latin, Prime and Beekman, and Prime was a sight to behold.

"What on earth have you been doing with yourself?" queried Halsey, as he half turned and looked the youngster over from head to foot. Shorty's clothes were wet and bedraggled, his face smudged with soot, but his eyes sparkling with life and animation. He had not looked so much like his old self since Lawton's disappearance.

"Had 28's pipe, sir, the last hour," said the boy, with a grin of pride. "They were only pumping easy to soak down the ruins, and their fellows were tired out and let me and Julian have it."

"Where's Julian?"

"Gone home, sir. He's wet through."

"So are you, but – don't go just yet. That's all, you others," said Halsey, whereat the three slowly vanished, leaving only the janitor staring at the door.

"Go out and shut that door, and keep it shut," said Halsey, shortly, to the open-mouthed servitor, and then he turned on the boy, now warming his hands at the big stove. "Prime," said he, "you were with me at the desk when that alarm came. What became of you? What did you do?"

"I, sir? I went like a streak for 61."

"At once, do you mean? – right after the class ran after me into Mr. Meeker's room?"

"Before the class ran after you," said Shorty, with an injured air. No fireman would waste so many valuable seconds. "I was down-stairs and out of the school before they were fairly off the benches."

"How could you get your cap, sir?"

"Didn't take it, sir! I ran bare-headed to Twenty-sixth Street, hoping to be the first to give 'em a still before I saw 'em coming."

"Give them a still! What's that?"

"A still alarm, sir. Give them a tip to the fire. But it must have been going some minutes. They were spinning down the avenue by the time I got half-way. Then I came back for my cap, and school was coming out."

"Did you speak to any of them? What boys saw you coming back?" asked Halsey, thoughtfully.

"Oh, I don't know, sir," answered the youngster. "Everybody was excited, I suppose, but me. I've always run to fires since I was knee-high. They were all shouting. You were just coming out of Mr. Meeker's room, and I nearly ran into you."

"Do you mean you ran to Twenty-sixth Street and back in that time?"

"More'n that, sir. I ran half-way to Twenty-seventh and out into the street and grabbed hold of 61's rope. There were only six or seven fellows on her, and I ran with 'em to the corner hydrant."

Something of the master's trouble was now reflecting in the pupil's face. Something in the minuteness of Halsey's questioning suggested graver trouble. "I hope nothing's wrong, sir," said Prime, anxiously. "I know I oughtn't to have run when I did without permission, but – we don't have a fire next door every day."

Halsey rose and placed the long, lean hand on the little fellow's shoulder. Two years and more he had known him. He and "Tut" had given him the first touches in Latin and Greek, and, as head-master, Halsey had had many an occasion to reprove or reprimand, for high spirits or mischief led to many a scrape, yet there was kindness, there was even a touch of tenderness, in the master's tone as he answered.

"Perhaps you ought not to have run when you did," said he, "but, as it is, I'm thankful."

And Shorty could have sworn Othello's swarthy hand was trembling.

Two minutes later the master had taken the names of two of 61's men who were on the rope when Shorty joined them. Then, bidding him say nothing of this conversation to any schoolmate until after the Doctor's coming on the morrow, Halsey bade him hurry home and get a rub-down and dry clothes. As Shorty turned to the rack for his overcoat a sudden thought struck the master.

"Where was the letter written – Lawton's letter – that you took to the Doctor this morning?"

"It didn't say, sir. It was postmarked Bridgeport, but – that don't prove anything. Somebody else could have put it in for him there."

Jerking the overcoat from its peg and tossing it carelessly over his arm, something bright came spinning out of the pocket, bounded to the floor, and rolled in easy circle up in front of the master's table, where it struck a crack, spun on edge a second, and then settled with a metallic buzz and bur-r-r, and then lay still and shining opposite the middle bench. Halsey started and stared, with a gleam in his eyes. Shorty, surprised, sped after it, stooped and picked it up, then held it between his thumb and forefinger, gazing at it in astonishment. "Why, Mr. Halsey," he cried, "it's a ten-dollar gold piece!"

"Yes," said Halsey, "I know. See if there are any more."

CHAPTER XII

When school reassembled the following day the First Latin knew to a man by nine o'clock that the cause of Shorty's "late" the previous day was a letter from Lawton. Warned by Jim Hulker that the rector had taken Hoover to the Clarendon, Briggs scouted miserably down the avenue on their trail, filled with no one knew what nervous apprehension of trouble to come, and, dodging in at the office a moment later, ascertained from a bell boy that they had gone into a parlor on the second floor. Briggs knew what that meant. The Doctor was cross-questioning his sullen pupil, and there were all manner of things Hoover might be driven into confessing if closely and scientifically pressed, and what might that not mean for Briggs? Not five minutes later, down they came, the Doctor erect, stately, and deliberate as ever, Hoover slinking wretchedly alongside. A carriage had been called, and into this Hoover was practically hustled by his preceptor, and together they were driven away towards Fourteenth Street, and Briggs was left behind. They were going to see Hoover's father, was the apparent explanation, and it boded ill. A ten-minute walk took Briggs over to the house of the Metamora. The hose carriage had just returned, and was being washed. The Hulkers had dropped off at a certain billiard-hall, said one of the firemen, and thither sped Briggs. It was a resort much frequented by certain of the Columbia students in those days, and there were a dozen or more scattered about the big room at the moment. Over in a corner, whispering together, were the two Hulkers with a brace of followers. Over against them, across the room, ostensibly – even ostentatiously – engaged in a game of billiards, were Joy and Julian, and all the little pluck that Briggs had left went oozing out of his finger-tips at the sight. Quickly he slunk back into the vestibule and crouched there, peering through the glazed doors, uncertain what to do. A bar-boy, coming up from below at the moment with cigars and mixed drinks on a tray, found him peering in through the crack, and knew him at once.

"Sa-ay," whispered Briggs, the moment he discovered who had come. "Tell Mr. Hulker I want to speak to him out here a minute, will you?"

The boy looked hard at him, made no reply, went deliberately in with his tray-load, deposited the glasses on little tables near the big ones, where a jovial party of Columbians were playing, collected his pay, counted it carefully over, then with exaggerated impudence of manner dawdled over to where the Hulker set were in eager conference in their corner, and said something to them. Briggs saw, and so did Joy and Julian, the backward toss of the head, the over-the-shoulder jerk of the thumb towards the entrance, saw the four young fellows start and glance questioningly thither; then presently, hands in pockets and head in air, Hulker major came sauntering out, just as Julian caught sight of a carroty head ducking behind the framework of the doorway.

"There's that sneak Briggs now," he quickly whispered to his chum. "What are those fellows planning, do you s'pose?"

There was a brief confabulation in the hallway without, and then back came Hulker, – no loitering now, – said a word or two to his fellows, and the four picked up their canes and overcoats and started for the door. The bar-boy went running after them.

"I'll pay you to-morrow," Hulker major answered, impatiently; and Julian heard it. The boy was importunate, and glanced at the desk. The clerk came out from behind his barricade.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Hulker, but the manager left strict orders that that account must be settled before you could be served again. You told the boy you would settle everything before you left, and to get those cigars. Now, I've got to take the money out of the till and pay for 'em if you don't."

Angrily, and with ugly words, the elder Hulker turned on the clerk. "I haven't any money just now, I tell you. We've been at that fire all the morning. It's too late to get a check cashed. I'll bring you the money to-night, Billy, I'll swear to – "

But the controversy was cut short by the sudden entrance of the manager himself. He was a man who prided himself on the "respectability" of his place. Order and decorum were things he insisted on. Even the mildest of sherry-cobblers, for which the bar was famous, was forbidden to the student or youth who showed the faintest symptom of over-stimulation. Case-hardened politicians and men about town avoided Martigny's, for the reason that they could never get enough there. Student trade was something he catered to only so long as it came through the well-bred and well-behaved of their number. The Hulker set he much disapproved of and had frequently cautioned, but money was an object, and for a time those young fellows had it and spent it in abundance. Of late there had come a change. Something had occurred to limit their supplies, and within a month they had run up bills at every neighboring bar or billiard-room where they could get credit, and now Martigny, after thrice presenting his account, had drawn the line. Quietly but firmly he told the elder that that bill must be settled then and there or it would be sent by a messenger to his mother at once. It was impossible for the players at the tables not to hear what was going on. There were sly winks and quizzical glances. Columbiads, old or young, fought shy of the Hulkers, but even they were unprepared for the scene that followed.



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