Bruce Decker was grit clear through, but all at once there came into his mind the thought of his father and of the great fire in which he had lost his life. He had gone in among the smoke and the flame on that fateful day with a length of hose under his arm, and he had never come out. For one brief moment his son wondered if he too were doomed to perish in a like manner. Then, by a strong effort of will, he drove the thought from his mind, and the bright face of Laura Van Kuren came up before him and nerved him to do his best.
Taking a tight grip on the hose, which quivered like a thing of life as the swift stream of water rushed through it, the boy stumbled blindly on through the heavy smoke. He could see nothing, for, with his lack of experience, he did not know, as the older firemen did, how to protect his eyes. He had lost his cap, too, and a hot cinder falling on his head made him wish that he had on one of the heavy fireman’s caps which he used to think so 158cumbrous. He made no pretense of dragging the hose now. It was dragging him, and he had not gone far before he was thrown with sudden force against some obstruction, and fell at full length on a narrow flight of stairs. As he struggled to his feet he heard the hoarse word of command somewhere above him, and the hose came to a standstill. The men had made their way through the room and upstairs to the floor above. He could hear them plainly, tramping about and shouting in the darkness. He could hear the hissing of the flames, too, as the water fell upon them, and already there was a thick stream flowing in a series of miniature cascades down the narrow flight of steps.
There was nothing for him to do now but follow on, until he reached his old place twenty-five feet behind the man in front of him, and so he groped his way up the steps, and crawling on all fours with the hose under him, followed the long, black, quivering trail until he could see dimly the forms of the other men. Then he stopped, and, not knowing what else to do, lifted the line from the floor, and stood with it under his arm awaiting further orders.
By this time the well directed streams from without and within the building had had their effect 159on the flames, and a strong wind, entering through the windows which had been broken by the firemen, was driving out the black clouds of smoke, and leaving a purer and clearer atmosphere in their stead. This enabled him to see the group of men who stood about twenty feet in front of him, with the captain among them, and the water still rushing from the brass pipe which he held in his hand. Then there was another sharp order, the captain moved on and the men, gathering up the slack hose, followed in a long line as before, with Bruce at the rear. Through an open window they went, one after another, still carrying the hose, and dropping on a tin roof beneath them.
“Let the last man stand in the window and look out for the hose!” was the order given in stentorian tones that reached Bruce’s ear as the men climbed, one after another, into a window that opened out on a roof just opposite him.
“Aye, aye, sir,” he shouted in reply, as he took up his position just inside the open window, and, by the exercise of every particle of his strength, managed to keep the hose from being injured by nails or sudden jets of flames as it was dragged rapidly across the sill. He saw the other men appear at a window above the one they had entered, and lift the hose up 160to it by means of a piece of rope. Then they disappeared, the hose moving after them for a few minutes, when it stopped and remained suspended from one window to the other about six feet above the low tin roof over which the captain and his men had passed.
Then, for the first time since the Captain had thundered back his order, Bruce looked about him and was dismayed to find the smoke pouring up the staircase in much denser and blacker clouds than before, filling the room so as to completely shut out every thing from his sight, and pouring out of the upper part of the window by which he stood, in a dark stream, which was growing thicker and darker every moment. A little gust of wind swept some of the smoke into his face and made him turn, gasping and with smarting eyes, to the fresh air.
Leaning far out across the window ledge, he gazed at the opposite window to which the hose led, and called aloud to Captain Murphy. But no reply was wafted back to him from the smoke and the flames, and the horrible thought came across him that perhaps his mates had forgotten him. But with characteristic pluck and self-reliance, he fought back the idea before it had fairly taken lodgment in his brain, and turned his attention to making a careful survey 161of his surroundings. Behind him was a great room that was so filled with a dense, black smoke that it would be impossible, if the worst came to the worst, for him to cross it and make his way down the narrow staircase. And even if he did find the staircase and descended in safety, what would he find at the foot of it? He was likely to find the lower floors all ablaze and ready to collapse as he walked across them. Then he looked down at the tin roof beneath the window, and saw that in two or three places the metal had melted, and thin jets of flame were beginning to burst through.
That his life was in extreme peril he could no longer doubt, and that there was still a chance of saving it by deserting his post he well knew. He could leap down, make a dash for it across the roof and through the window and easily find the others by simply following the line of the hose, and for a moment he stood irresolutely with one leg thrown across the ledge and the other foot resting across the floor. But he did not hesitate long; he had been told to remain at the window, and what would Captain Murphy and Chief Trask think of a boy who had lost his head and disobeyed orders the very first time he was assigned to an important and dangerous duty? It might 162be, after all, that the danger was not as great as he imagined, and he comforted himself with that assurance, at the same time carefully nourishing his faith in Captain Murphy, who would not, he was positive, go off and leave his youngest subordinate to face death alone.
There was nothing dramatic or imaginative about the hero of this story; he was simply a plain, straightforward, courageous American boy, who could always be depended upon to act rather than to talk or pose. And in this moment of supreme danger it did not occur to him that his position between the black smoke that was rolling up behind him and the red flames that were bursting out before and under his very eyes, was an unusual or heroic one. It had been his ambition ever since his arrival in New York to take an active part in the work of the fire department, and now for the first time he had realized his ambition and had an opportunity, if not to distinguish himself, at least to show what sort of stuff he was made of.
It was an opportunity in which he gloried, with a sense of exaltation such as he had seldom known in the whole course of his life, and he resolved then and there that neither smoke nor flames should drive him from his post unless 163he first received orders from his superior officers.
And it happened that just as he uttered this resolution to himself Captain Murphy, working with his men in the other building to which the hose was stretched, exclaimed: “What’s become of that boy Decker? Has anything happened to him?”
Then he remembered that he himself had ordered Bruce to remain at the window, and knowing the lad’s firmness of character and tenacity, the thought occurred to him that possibly he was still there, waiting further orders, although when he gave his command he had only intended to have him remain there so long as the line was moving. Handing the brass pipe to one of his men the captain dashed across the floor, looked through the window and saw Bruce with his jacket tied around his head, lying with his body stretched half way across the sill.
“Come over here quick!” he yelled, and Bruce, only too glad to obey, leaped down to the roof and started across. But to his horror he felt the hot metal sagging beneath his feet like thin ice after a February thaw. The flames were bursting out in a dozen places, and by this time the captain realized the danger 164and called to him to make haste. Above his head swung the hose, and ten feet further, provided the roof held up, would bring him to a point where it sagged so low as to be within his reach. He was just in time, for as he caught it a great sheet of flame burst up in exactly the place across which he had passed, and then a portion of the roof went down in front of him and a cloud of smoke and cinders, interspersed with darting tongues of flame, rose up and shut out Captain Murphy from his sight.
With the agility of a cat the boy swung himself up on the line, wound his jacket still more closely about his head, and, encouraged by the shouts of the officer whom he could no longer see, started to crawl along his frail bridge through the thick curtain of smoke and fire. The heat was awful, his clothing was afire in half a dozen places, and he knew that the hose could not hold out much longer against the flames. At one time it seemed as if he could go no further, but must let go and drop into the fiery chasm beneath him. Then by a final effort he called to his aid all his reserve force of courage, obstinacy and determination, crawled blindly along the line, found himself in a clearer and cooler air, heard the captain’s voice close to him, and then a strong hand 165clutched him by the shoulder and dragged him through the window.
And just at that moment the hose yielded to the intense heat and burst, discharging a stream of water into the flames beneath. The end to which Bruce still clung as the captain dragged him through the window hung down like a lifeless thing, but the other end was thrashing about like a wounded serpent, and hurling thick streams of water in every direction.
Once inside the window the boy collapsed altogether and fell upon the floor, but Captain Murphy lifted him up as if he had been a baby and bore him rapidly to a window on the other side of the building from which he took him, by means of a thirty-five foot ladder, to the street below, placed him tenderly on the sidewalk, and then returned to his post as a familiar voice exclaimed: “I’ll look after the lad.”
It was Peter Dewsnap who bent down over the blackened and apparently lifeless form of the boy as he lay on the pavement, and, as the old gentleman raised his head after listening a moment at the lads left side, he said:
“Thank God, he is alive, but there’s no telling how badly he’s hurt. Have you rung for an ambulance?”
166Yes, that had been done already, and in a few minutes the vehicle, with its uniformed driver and surgeon and its sharp clanging bell, was making its way through the crowd, which by this time had reached enormous proportions. It drew up near the curbstone, the surgeon leaped to the ground and knelt down beside the unconscious boy. Mr. Dewsnap was sitting in the gutter beside him, regardless of his fine clothes, and briskly rubbing his hands in the hope of restoring the circulation. Chief Trask, who had lingered a moment to assure himself that the lad was still alive, had returned to his duties, but the reporters had gathered about and, in a quick, business-like way, were questioning Mr. Dewsnap and the surgeon.
“Does anybody know the boy’s name or how he happened to get hurt?” asked a pleasant faced young chap, who had a note-book and pencil in his hand.
“Bruce Decker is his name,” replied the old gentleman, “and he’s not regularly in the department but helps the chief down at headquarters. Why, his father was killed in that Broadway apartment house fire some time ago.”
“I remember all about it,” rejoined the young man, and then turning to his companions, 167he said: “Don’t you remember that Frank Decker, the fireman who was lost when that apartment house burned down? I covered that fire and I remember all about it.”
“Just give me a hand, will you, I think I’ll take this young man right up to the hospital,” said the surgeon, who had been making a superficial examination of Bruce’s injuries. “I took a young kid up there from this very fire half an hour ago.”
Then, with Mr. Dewsnap’s assistance, he deposited Bruce on the spring mattress inside the ambulance, resumed his seat behind him and told the driver to go on.
Mr. Dewsnap stood watching the departing vehicle with an anxious, troubled face and then, turning to the reporter with whom he had spoken before, he said: “That young lad whom they have just carried off is the worthy son of a good father, and if it hadn’t been for him, that other boy that the surgeon spoke of wouldn’t have been saved. He found him lying on the floor up there, and I myself saw him carry him down the ladder and then go right back to his work again. That’s a pretty good record for a boy to make at his first fire, isn’t it.”
The reporters listened attentively to what Mr. Dewsnap said, and made frequent entries 168in their note-books. Most of them knew the old gentleman as a fire-crank, frequently encountered at fires, and one who was always ready to furnish them with any information they required. It was he to whom they usually went if any one was hurt, for he knew the names and histories of all the important men in the department as well as those of the subordinate firemen employed in Chief Trask’s battalion, in which he claimed a sort of honorary membership.
Bruce awoke at a very early hour in the morning and found himself in a clean, white, comfortable bed, which was not his own. His eyes were dim and there was a soreness in his lungs when he tried to breathe. He was conscious, moreover, of dull pains in his arms and legs, and he felt as weak as if he had just recovered from a long fit of illness. He did not know where he was and he did not care, his only wish being to lie perfectly quiet and if possible to go to sleep again. He closed his eyes for a moment or two and then his natural instincts seemed to return, so he opened them again and stared curiously about him. He was in a long, high room, with plenty of light and air in it and a row of tall windows stretching along one side of it. There were other cots similar to his own in the room, and each one had its occupant.
For some time he rested quietly on his back, moving his head slightly, from time to time, in order to see everything in the room and wondering the while, whether he were asleep or 170awake. Then an indistinct remembrance of the exciting events of the day before returned to him, and it seemed as if he were still breathing the hot smoke which had filled the burning building.
“How do you feel this morning?”
These words were uttered in a soft, womanly voice, and on turning his head, he saw standing by his bedside one of the prettiest young ladies he had ever seen. Her dress was of a quiet Scotch plaid, and she wore over her dark hair a most becoming little white cap, of a style that was perfectly new to him.
“I feel queer,” was his simple answer and then he asked, with a faint show of interest: “How did I get here, and where am I?”
“You’re in good hands and you’ll soon be well again, Bruce, but you must be careful not to move about too much in your bed or to worry yourself unnecessarily,” was the young lady’s reply, but although it was uttered in the gentlest and most reassuring tones, he could not help noticing its evasive nature, so he repeated his question, “Where am I?”
“You’re in an hospital, and you must stay here until you are well enough to go out again,” said the young lady, and then as she saw a look of dismay coming to the boy’s face, 171she continued, “But you needn’t be afraid, for it is a very nice hospital, indeed, and you will have everything that is good for you, and I am sure that you will get well very fast. Now shut your eyes again and try to go to sleep, and by and by I will bring you some breakfast.”
The young lady with the white cap inspired so much confidence in the young boy that he dismissed all anxiety and curiosity from his mind, closed his eyes and was soon in a deep sleep, from which he did not awaken until nearly all the rest of the sleepers in the big room were either sitting up in bed or dressed and walking about. He felt much more refreshed now, and as he stared about him, he wondered what had become of the young lady, and how soon she would bring his breakfast to him.
“Hay, boss, wot place is dis?” said a piping voice close beside him, and as Bruce turned his head, he saw in the cot next to his a face that seemed familiar, and was connected in his mind in some way with the fire and smoke and excitement of the day before. It was the face of a boy, and a very homely little boy at that. It was a boy with a freckled face, turned up nose, and a pair of sharp, small, blue eyes, which looked at him from under a thick mat of coarse 172red hair which hung down over his forehead in rebellious locks, and added measurably to the foxy expression of his face.
“Who are you, anyhow?” demanded Bruce.
“I’m Skinny de Swiper, an’ I’d like ter know wot dey brung me here fer.”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said the other, and then he added with a smile “I don’t even know what I’m doing here myself, but where do you come from? Where do you live when you’re home?”
“Sometimes one place, and sometimes anudder; last week I got a job in a factory over in 18th Street, but dere was a fire dere, an’ I guess I muster got burned up. I kin just remember a bloke collarin’ me an’ and trowin’ me down a ladder; he muster been a fireman.”
The boy’s simple explanation cleared some of the cobwebs out of Bruce’s mind, and he suddenly recalled his entrance, with the hose under his arm, into the burning building and the boy whom he had dragged through the window and down the ladder to the street. “I guess,” he remarked, “that I’m the bloke that carried you out.”
“Come off!” said the boy in a tone of mingled scorn and incredulity, “dere ain’t no kids 173like you in de fire department, an’ I guess I’d oughter know.”
“Very well then,” replied Bruce, annoyed at the other’s contemptuous words, “maybe I’m not in the department, but I helped to put that fire out all the same. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t be here now.”
He would have said more if he had not been interrupted by the young lady with the white cap, who came up to him at this moment in company with another young lady dressed exactly like herself and with the same gentle manner and soft voice. The second young lady was the day-nurse and the other nurse was telling her about the cases that had been brought into the ward during the night. In a few words she explained the injuries which the two boys were suffering from and then asked them if they would like something to eat. They were both hungry and in a few minutes a tray with coffee, toast, and an egg was placed on each bed. Skinny ate his breakfast without any assistance, but Bruce had to be helped by the day-nurse, a process which he did not object to in the slightest degree. As he ate he noticed half a dozen other patients who were also breakfasting in bed while others were walking about the ward, or sitting in reclining chairs, reading or 174talking with one another. Some of these had crutches with them, while others wore bandages or limped along with the aid of canes. Bruce, looked all around him in a vain search for some well man, and then innocently asked the nurse how it happened that everybody in the room seemed to be lame or disabled in some way. The nurse smiled at his simplicity and then replied: “They’re brought here because they are disabled, for this is a hospital, where broken limbs are set and the sick made well again. You’ll have to stay here until you are cured; and if you lie quiet now, in a few days you will be able to walk about like the others you see there.”
Then, having advised the young sufferer not to talk or exert himself in any way, she departed with the breakfast tray and Bruce, fatigued by the slight exertion of eating, closed his eyes and was soon sound asleep.
It was after ten o’clock when he awoke suddenly and found the nurse and two or three gentlemen standing at the foot of his bed. One of these gentlemen had a long white beard, gold spectacles, and an exceedingly benevolent air.
“And so this is the brave little fire-lad, is it?” he remarked, with a very kindly smile, as 175the nurse whispered something in his ear, and in another moment a tall, white screen was placed about the bed, the blanket and sheet drawn up and then Bruce felt shooting pains through his right leg as the head surgeon and his assistants removed the bandages to see how his wounds were getting on. He fully believed that they were cutting his leg off, and after a pain a little sharper than the others he asked, “isn’t it most off yet?”
They all smiled at his words and the old gentleman answered in reassuring tones, “no, my son, that leg of yours will be as good as ever in three weeks and you’ll live to be a first class fireman yet or I’m very much mistaken.”
Then the bandages were quickly replaced, the bed-clothing drawn up, and, when the attendant had removed the screen, Bruce saw the physicians gathered around Skinny the Swiper. The boy set his teeth hard, but uttered no sound, as the bandages were taken from his arm and shoulder and fresh liniment applied to the wounded parts. Bruce could see him watching the faces of the doctors with sharp, eager eyes, very much as a squirrel might regard any object in which it had some special interest; but nevertheless he did not ask a single question or utter the slightest moan, although once 176his face turned white with pain and the doctor, knowing that the boy was suffering, remarked in his gentle, professional voice, “one moment more, my boy, and it will be all over. There, now, we’ll put the bandages on again and the pain will soon go.” Then the doctors continued their tour of the ward, and, as soon as they were out of hearing, Skinny turned to Bruce and said, “maybe dat didn’t hurt when der bloke pulled dem rags off.”
“Look here!” returned the other, “if you don’t think I’m the fireman that carried you out of that building, you’d better ask that tall gentleman with the white whiskers; he knew who I was, the minute he saw me and didn’t wait to be introduced either.”
“Say boss, is dat on de level?” asked the boy as he raised his head slightly from his pillow and fixed his eyes with the same sharp, searching, squirrel look on Bruce’s face.
“It is,” said the other.
For a few moments, the boy who had grown up in the streets continued to regard the one who had saved his life with a fixed, eager look, but he said nothing. There were undoubtedly things in his mind that he wanted to say, but for the utterance of which his vocabulary was totally inadequate. So he said nothing but 177“hully gee!” which might have been taken to mean almost anything, but which Skinny the Swiper intended as an expression of gratitude, admiration, and esteem combined with a solemn oath of loyalty, all condensed into two words, neither one of which can be found in Webster’s dictionary.
But Bruce had had experience enough with the boys who swarmed about the door of the quarters to know what Skinny meant, and to him the slangy phrase passed for part at least of what the younger lad had wished to express. He said nothing more, but closed his eyes, which were still red and sore, and when he opened them again a few minutes later, the doctors had departed, half a dozen visitors were in the ward, and John Trask was standing beside his bed and calling him by name.
Now it so happened that at the very moment when Bruce was lying on his back in a ward of the New York hospital, a very pretty young girl, whose name might have been on his lips at that painful point of his career, was walking along a shady garden path, with her arms about the waist of a young girl of her own age and equally pretty. One of these young girls, as the least intelligent of my readers may guess, was Laura Van Kuren; the other was her particular friend, Kitty Harriott. As they walked they turned their heads toward one another and seemed engrossed in an eager conversation.
“Hush!” exclaimed Kitty, as she laid a warning hand on her friend’s arm. “Harry might be around somewhere, and I wouldn’t have him hear us for the world.”
“Harry’s upstairs finishing his lessons, so you’ll have to put up with me until Mr. Reed lets him loose. He got kept in to-day as usual, but I dare say if he knew you were here he’d climb out of the window and come down into the garden as he did last week.”
179Kitty colored slightly at Laura’s words, and then observed with a show of carelessness, “I’m sure it’s a matter of perfect indifference to me whether I see him or not. Boys are nuisances anyway, and besides I wouldn’t have him hear what we’re saying for all the money in the world.”
What Laura and Kitty were talking about will probably never be known, at any rate it does not materially concern the readers of this book. They were discussing some affairs of their own, and there are no secrets or mysteries in the world which are invested with the solemn importance that young girls of fourteen or fifteen bestow upon those which they whisper about as they walk through a garden arm and arm, and with heads bent close together. They were so absorbed in their talk that they were startled to hear a familiar voice calling to them from one of the upper windows of the house, and they looked up to see Harry climb over the sill and then descend like a young monkey to the ground, by means of the wisteria vine, to the great terror of Kitty, who had no brothers of her own and who fairly screamed with fright when Harry pretended to miss his hold of the vine, dropped two or three feet and then caught himself cleverly and slid down the rest of the way, with ease and rapidity.
180“Mercy!” cried Kitty to Laura who had watched her brother with apparent indifference, “I don’t see how you can stand there like that and look at him. Suppose he should fall and break his head, how would you feel then?”
“Pshaw!” exclaimed Laura carelessly, “he only does that to show off because you’re here. I knew he’d be out here the minute he caught sight of us. Got your lessons yet, Harry?” she continued, addressing herself to her brother as he joined them.
“Bother the lessons!” was the boy’s reply, “I’ve got something a great deal more interesting, that I might tell you about if I wanted to. It’s something that you, particularly, Miss Laura, would be glad to know.”
“Well, what is it?” asked his sister indifferently, “is it anything very important?”
“Important enough to be in the newspaper and for me to go right down town to see about it,” rejoined her brother.
“Tell me, what it is, Harry, won’t you please?” said Kitty, in the pleading way which she knew he could not resist, and in reply Harry produced a copy of the New York Herald, which he had been hiding behind his back, carefully folded it, and then, holding it in front of the young girls’ faces, permitted them 181to read a single sentence before he snatched the paper away again. What they read was: “The name of the injured fireman is Bruce Decker. He was removed to the New York hospital, where he now lies in a precarious condition.”
Kitty turned toward Laura, whose face was white and whose teeth were tightly clinched. “Isn’t it dreadful?” she cried, as she threw her arm about her friend’s waist.
“Let me see the rest of it, Harry!” cried Laura, imperiously, trying to take the paper from her brother’s hand.
“No, you don’t!” cried the boy, resolutely, as he held the Herald out of her reach, “not until you find that ball of mine you said you lost yesterday.”
“Harry!” called a stern voice near them, and the boy turned sharply round to find his tutor, Mr. Reed, advancing rapidly toward him. “Go back to your room at once, Harry!” said Mr. Reed, sternly; and before the boy could reply his sister tore the paper from his grasp and ran off with it at the top of her speed.
“Come back with that!” cried her brother, as he started in pursuit, but the angry voice of his tutor recalled him before he had gone 182twenty paces, and he marched into the house very red in the face, and casting angry glances behind him at the two girls, who were now sitting in the summer-house, eagerly reading the long account of the fire at which Bruce had so nearly lost his life. When they had finished it Laura drew a long breath, and then burst into tears.
“Don’t cry, dear,” said Kitty, as she wiped a tear or two from her own face, “I’m sure he’s not badly hurt and will be all right again in a very few days.”
“It would be dreadful if he were to die without ever finding out the mystery of his birth,” wailed Laura. “Oh, dear, if I only knew where to find him I would write him a letter or go down to see him.”
“The paper says he’s at the New York hospital,” said Kitty. “Why don’t you go down there this very day? I think it would be just too romantic and interesting for words.”
Laura sprang to her feet and wiped the tears from her eyes with a swift movement of her hand. “I’ll do it,” she said. “I’ll find out where the New York hospital is and how to get there, and I’ll start this very minute. Harry thought he was so smart because he read it in the paper first, and was going down 183there himself all so bold and gay, but he’ll find out when he does get there that I’ve been there before him.”
Kitty’s face flushed with excitement. She thought it the most romantic thing in the world that Laura should run the risk of displeasing her father by making a long journey all by herself to an unknown part of the town simply to sit by the bedside of a daring young fireman who had been injured while going into a burning building to save a human life. The paper said that he was lying in a “precarious condition,” but neither one of the two girls knew what that long word signified, and they did not dare to ask anyone.
“Come up to my room with me, I’m going to get ready now,” said Laura, as she led the way into the house.
A quarter of an hour later Harry, who was moodily poring over his Latin grammar and wondering whether Bruce had been severely hurt or not, saw from his seat by the window the two girls crossing the garden and disappearing through a side gate. He wondered idly where they were going to, and then he fell to thinking about how to get even with his sister for the trick she had played him that morning, and he was engaged in this manner when Mr. Reed 184suddenly entered the room and asked him what progress he was making with his lessons. The boy took up his book again with a sigh that was so deep that the tutor asked him if he was sick or if anything serious had happened.
“No,” he replied, “nothing has happened to me, but I’m afraid something awful has happened to Bruce.” And then he told the tutor what he had read in the Herald, and Mr. Reed becoming very much interested went out and found the paper where the young girls had dropped it in the summer house, and then returned to his pupil’s room and said, “I’m afraid he’s badly injured and I’m very sorry for it, for he was a very manly, polite young man, and I should judge from the account in the newspaper that he had showed himself to be a brave one as well. I really think you ought to go down to the hospital and see how he is getting along.”
Harry leaped to his feet, but Mr. Reed restrained him by saying firmly, “not until your lessons are finished. If you can recite them to me within an hour, we will start at once.”
With this incentive to work, Harry returned to his task with such industry and enthusiasm, that when his tutor returned at the close of the hour he found his pupil able to recite his lessons 185without a single mistake, which was altogether an unusual condition of things with him. Then putting on his hat, Mr. Reed told Harry to accompany him and they started for the elevated railroad together.
“I’ll not shake hands with you, Bruce, but I’d like to, and so would all the men at the quarters,” was Mr. Trask’s greeting as he seated himself beside the bed of the injured boy. “I don’t think that arm of yours will stand much shaking for some weeks to come, but we’re all proud of you nevertheless.” The boy’s face flushed with pleasure, and his eyes grew dim for the chief had never spoken to him in such a strain before, and besides he had fancied for a month or two past that his superior rather looked down upon him as a boy who was good for nothing except to bed down horses and make himself generally useful about the quarters. To be sure he did not quite understand why Mr. Trask should say that all the men wanted to shake hands with him, for he had but a hazy remembrance of the events of the previous day, and did not know that his name had been published in the papers with an account of his bravery in saving a boy’s life. He did not know what to say, so he simply remarked, “thank you sir.”
187The chief was silent for a moment and then went on, “well I suppose you’ve had enough of the fire department by this time, but when you get well I’ll see to it that you don’t lose anything by what you did yesterday. I had a talk with Mr. Dewsnap, and he’ll find a good position somewhere in case you don’t want to come back to the quarters again.”
Bruce’s lips quivered and an expression of dismay came into his face: “What!” he cried piteously, “leave the department the minute I begin to like it! Why, chief, what have I done that you should want to treat me in that way?”
“Then you’re not scared of the service by finding yourself laid up in a hospital, are you?” said the chief inquiringly.
“Scared out of it?” echoed the boy, “Why should I be scared out of it? I don’t remember everything that happened yesterday but I know that fire was the grandest thing I was ever at in my life. Why, I wouldn’t take all the money in the world for my experience yesterday.
“I used to hear my father tell about fires, and going into burning buildings and up on the tops of high roofs but I never had any idea of what the service really was until I found myself following the men with that big, cold, 188clammy hose in my hand. Please Chief Trask, let me stay at the quarters. I’ll do anything you want, if you’ll only let me go to fires with the men.”
“That’s right, my boy!” cried the chief heartily. “I like to hear you talk that way. I’ve been thinking for some time past that you were getting tired of the monotony of the thing and were looking out for a chance to better yourself, and then when you got hurt yesterday, I was afraid it had taken all the ambition out of you. But don’t be afraid, you can stay with us as long as you like, and as soon as you’re well again, I’ll see to it that you go out on the truck along with the rest of the men.
“That’s all I ask for, Chief,” said Bruce, eagerly, trying to raise his head from the pillow as he spoke, and then letting it fall again from sheer weakness. “The work was getting rather tiresome down there and I hated to be left alone when all the men were away at fires. But if you’ll only let me go with them, I won’t ask anything more of you.”
Then Chief Trask went away promising to come again soon, and Skinny, who had watched him closely through his small squirrel eyes, now turned and said: “Hay boss, dat was de chief of de bat’lion, I’ve seen him lots 189of times.” And it was evident from the boy’s manner that he regarded his friend and preserver with much greater respect than before.
A church clock in the neighborhood had just finished striking eleven, when Miss Ingraham the day-nurse, came to Bruce’s bedside and said, “There’s a young lady down stairs who wishes to see you; do you feel well enough to talk any more?”
A young lady to see him! Bruce wondered, who could it possibly be, and then a look came into his face that made the young lady in the white cap and plaid dress smile, for she guessed from it that it was someone in whom he was deeply interested, so she simply said “I’ll send for her to come up,” and three minutes later Bruce’s heart gave a great bound and then seemed to stand almost still as he saw Laura Van Kuren pause for a moment in the doorway and then walk directly towards his bed.
“Bruce,” she said, as she bent down beside him, “are you very much hurt? Oh I was so, so sorry when I read in the paper that you were precarious, and so I came right down to see you.”
Of course Bruce had not the slightest idea of what she meant by his being precarious, for 190he did not know that his exploit had been mentioned in the papers at all, but then Laura often used long words which she found in her favorite books, and he had become accustomed to this peculiarity of hers, and seldom inquired what she meant when the language happened to seem vague and unintelligible.
“No, I’m not badly hurt,” he answered cheerfully, “but I say, though, it was splendid of you to come down and see me and I’m ever so much obliged to you. Did you come all alone? Where’s Harry?”
“I came down here all alone,” replied the young girl solemnly, “and you mustn’t tell Harry a word about it, because I’d get into awful trouble if you did. Now promise you’ll never say a word about it.”
Bruce promised readily enough, and then Laura went on: “It would be awful if you had died without finding out the secret of your birth. Only think, you might go to Heaven and never know your own relations when you saw them there and they might be the very nicest people there too.”
Laura visits Bruce in the hospital.—Page 190.
191Bruce could not help laughing at the young girl’s serious manner of talking about what she persisted in calling the mystery of his birth. His mind was full of the fire department just then, and of the bright prospects which Chief Trask had opened to him by promising to allow him to go to all the fires just as if he were a regular member of the company. So he told Laura that at that moment he had no opportunity to pursue the investigations in which she seemed to take so much interest, but he assured her that the moment he found himself well enough to leave the hospital he would continue his search for the tall dark man with the scar across his face whom they both agreed was in some way identified with his early life.
At the end of fifteen minutes Laura went away promising to write him a letter as soon as possible, and leaving him with the cheering assurance that Harry would be down as soon as he had either learned his lessons or escaped from his tutor. Indeed during the whole of her visit she was haunted by an awful fear that her brother had clambered down the wisteria vine and might enter the door at any moment.
Harry did not appear until an hour or more after his sister had gone. Mr. Reed was with him, and they had stopped to buy a basket of fruit as a present for the injured boy. Harry was overflowing with sympathy, and Mr. Reed was very much more cordial than he had ever been before.
192“I suppose,” said the tutor as he and his pupil were taking their leave, “that you have not many friends in town to come to visit.”
“Oh, I’ve had two callers already this morning before you came,” replied Bruce; “Chief Trask came first and then—”
The boy stopped short, colored, hesitated, and then went on, “and there was another friend of mine who came. She just went away a little while ago.”
Both his visitors noticed his hesitation and Harry wondered if it could be possible that his sister had been down there ahead of him, but he said nothing to Mr. Reed of his suspicions. He resolved however to get at the truth of the matter so that he might have something fresh to taunt his sister with the next time they quarrelled.
It is doubtful if the whole city of New York contained a happier boy than the one who was lying, sorely wounded and with his eyes inflamed and almost blinded, in a narrow white cot in a common hospital ward. The sun was shining brightly through the tall windows, and the distant hum and roar of the great city sounded faintly in his ears. He knew that it would be many weeks, perhaps months, before he could hope to resume the career which had 193been interrupted so suddenly the day before, and to a boy who had never known a day’s illness in his life the prospect of a long, irksome confinement was anything but pleasant. Nevertheless, Bruce Decker felt that he had a great deal to make him happy just then.
First of all he realized that he had done his duty in facing danger the first time that he was called upon, and Chief Trask’s encouraging words had sounded more agreeably in his ears than anything that he had ever heard before. Moreover, the fact that not only the chief but Harry and Laura Van Kuren had come at once to his bedside was another reason for his contented state of mind. But beside all this the memory of the exciting events of the day before filled his mind. There had come over him while he stood with a hose in his hand amid the smoke and blaze of the burning building an overwhelming sense of the importance and dignity of his calling, and it had seemed to him at that moment that he was no longer a mere boy, tolerated at the quarters because he could run errands and take care of horses, but a fireman in the truest sense of the word—one whose duty it was to go without fear wherever his chief led him, and to be ready, if necessary, to sacrifice his life (as his father had done before him) to 194save another’s. And now as he rested quietly in his bed the soldierly feeling had full possession of his soul. If he had ever cherished any serious thought of leaving the department and seeking employment in some other walk of life, that feeling was now entirely submerged by one of loyal devotion to the department which he had served, and to which he would return as soon as he could leave his bed, with a steadfast purpose far deeper than the enthusiasm which had influenced him before.
Taking all these things into consideration, it is not to be wondered at that a right-minded, brave young lad like Bruce Decker should have been positively happy in spite of his hurts as he lay there, one of twenty-four patients in the casualty ward. But although he did not know it, he had another reason for thankfulness, for he had attached to himself a new friend—a friend who was bound to prove of infinite service to him in untangling some of the threads which had caused him so much anxious thought of late. That new friend was lying in the cot next to him, silently watching him through a pair of sharp blue eyes.
Skinny the Swiper was a child of the New York streets, one of those boys who could not remember having had any home or kindred, 195and who, from his earliest recollection, had been living as best he could by selling papers, blacking boots, or doing anything that he could turn his hand to. His wits, naturally sharp, had been developed to a remarkable degree of precocity by his rough contact with the world until they had made him more than a match for any of the lads with whom he consorted. He had known very little kindness in his dozen years of life, and possibly it was for that reason that his heart went out in gratitude to the boy who had saved him, but Skinny was a lad of few words, and although he looked searchingly at the other and probably thought a great deal, it was not until late in the afternoon that he ventured to speak of what was uppermost in his thoughts. Then he raised himself slightly on his elbow and said: “Hay, boss, I seen dat young lady before, onct.”
Bruce did not like the idea of discussing such a superior being as Laura Van Kuren with a grimy little boy of the streets, and besides he did not believe that Skinny had ever seen her, so he answered rather curtly, “No, I guess you’re mistaken; that young lady doesn’t live in the same street with you.”
196“Who said she did?” demanded the boy. “But I seen her all de same. Besides I don’t live in no street at all.”
“Well, where did you see her then?”
“I seen her way up near de Harlem. Her folks has got a big house dere, an’ one day when I was walkin’ by I stopped ter look troo de railin’ and she come up and gimme some grapes. She’s a jim dandy, dat young lady is.”
“But how came you away up there?” inquired Bruce, in some amazement.
“I went up dere fer a man wot useter git me to run errands onct in a while, and dat’s de way I seen her,” replied Skinny.
“What sort of errands did you have to do up there? I should think that would be pretty far out of your beat,” continued Bruce, with an idle curiosity to learn something of his new friend.
“Oh! I went up dere lots o’ times on most partick’ler business,” responded Skinny. “Dere was a bloke useter send me ter carry letters to a big house dat had evergreens in front of it and a porch over de door. Deres was an’ old gent lived dere, but now he’s gone ter Yurrup or Africky or some place or nudder.”
197And now it was Bruce’s turn to be interested. “Was there a side door to the house, with vines hanging over it?” he asked.
“Cert,” replied Skinny, “an’ an old gent dat giv me a quarter two or tree times. An’ twict he sent me in de kitchen an’ de lady wot cooked dere gimme a steak an’ pertaters an’ coffee. Dey never watched me needer, an’ I mighter swiped some spoons on’y dey used me so white.”
Bruce’s head, which had been lifted slightly from the pillow during this conversation, now fell back from sheer weariness, and for a few moments the boy remained absolutely quiet, wondering if it could be possible that he had found in this street Arab someone who could enlighten him in regard to the mystery which had puzzled him so much and awakened such a deep interest in the heart of Laura Van Kuren.
“Who was the man who used to send you up there on errands?” inquired Bruce, after a brief silence.
“I never knowed his name. He was a bloke dat useter hang out at a place in Eldridge street, and he seen me around dere an’ gimme a job now an’ den. We useter call him Scar-Faced Charley.”
198“Well, what sort of a looking man was he?” persisted Bruce, trying not to betray the deep interest that he felt.
“He was a tall feller, an’ had a black beard an’ a scar acrost his face,” said Skinny.
Bruce asked no more questions, and the young newsboy soon after fell into a doze, leaving the other free to pursue his thought. It seemed to him now that he had at last found a clue to the identity of the man who had known his father, and whom he never doubted for a moment was the same one who had sent Skinny on errands to Mr. Dexter’s house. The more he thought of it the more excited he became, and in his weak condition the excitement soon made itself manifest in his face, so that Miss Ingraham, pausing for a moment beside his cot, noticed the condition of her patient, felt of his pulse, and then called the doctor to see if any change for the worse had taken place. The boy seemed to be on the verge of a fever, so the doctor gave him a quieting draught and bade him compose his mind, if possible, and go to sleep.
The next day Bruce awoke feeling calmer and refreshed. The fever of the day before had left him, and when Miss Ingraham made her morning rounds she found him looking so 199much better that she smiled encouragingly upon him, and told him that he was on the high road to recovery.
“Is there anything you would like me to do for you?” said the nurse, kindly.
“Yes,” replied the boy timidly, “if it is not too much trouble for you, I would like to have you write me a letter. I can’t use my hands yet and there’s a friend of mine to whom I wish to write.”
The nurse, who was accustomed to requests of this sort, brought pen and paper to his bedside, sat down and said: “Well, what shall I write?”
“You may begin with Dear Miss Laura,” said Bruce and Miss Ingraham smiled to herself as she wrote it. The letter, which was concocted between them, read as follows:
“Dear Miss Laura:
Something happened just after you went away yesterday that I thought would interest you. In the bed next to mine is a small boy whom I pulled out of the building that was on fire. As soon as you had gone he told me that he had seen you before, but I did not believe him. I asked him where and he said up near the Harlem river where you live. Then I asked him how he came to be up there, and he said that a man used to send him on errands to a house which I am sure from his description is Mr. Dexter’s. I asked him who the man was but he did not 200know. All he could tell me was that he was a tall, dark man with a black beard and a scar across his face. What do you think of that? It looks to me as if I could run him down with the help of Skinny, the boy who told me that, and as soon as I get well again I will start after him.
Thanking you for your great kindness in coming to see me, I am,
Yours very respectfully,
Then, having cautioned Miss Ingraham not to reveal to anybody the contents of his letter, he begged her to stamp and mail it to the address which he gave her, and this she readily promised to do.
Mr. Van Kuren was seated at the breakfast table when the morning mail arrived and the servant placed the letters and papers in his hand. Glancing hurriedly at them, he noticed that one envelope bore the inscription of the New York hospital and was addressed to Miss Laura Van Kuren. The children had told him about Bruce’s misfortune and he guessed at once that the letter was from him. A cloud came across his face at once for he rightly considered his daughter too young to write to and receive letters from young boys, especially those of whom he knew as little as he did of Bruce. He said nothing at the time but slipped the letter into his pocket and as soon as breakfast was over bade Laura follow him into the library.
“Here is a letter for you, my daughter,” he said quietly, “and you may read it now.”
The young girl colored up to the roots of her hair as she opened the letter and hastily read it. Then she handed it to her father to read and she knew from the expression of his face 202that its contents were anything but pleasing to him. When he had finished it he said to her sternly: “I am surprised indeed, Laura, that you should discuss family secrets which you do not yourself comprehend, with a boy who is a complete stranger to us all, and I am grieved to learn that you went down to the hospital to visit him without saying anything about it to me or to your aunt. How did you ever come to mention the name of Mr. Dexter to this boy and how did he ever learn anything about this dark bearded man with the scar? Years ago, as you and Harry know perfectly well, you were both forbidden to go near the Dexter house or ask any questions concerning him or his family. I had excellent reasons for not discussing with you matters which you are still too young to understand. Now tell me how you came to seek information from this young rascal with whom you are carrying on a secret correspondence.”
Laura, who had listened to her father’s words with downcast eyes, bit her lips angrily when she heard Bruce called “a young rascal.” She did not wish to tell her father the secret which she felt belonged by right not to her but to Bruce, and yet she knew that she must make some sort of reply, so she answered after a moment’s hesitation: “He knew Mr. Dexter because he was sent up there on an errand that day that he found Harry with his sprained ankle and brought him home. So we got to talking about him and I told him that Harry and I had been forbidden to go near the house.”
Then Laura began to cry.—Page 203.
203Then Laura began to cry and her father, having peremptorily ordered her not to reply to Bruce’s letter, started for his office, stopping a moment to tell Mr. Reed what had happened, and to bid him put a stop at once to the intimacy with the young fireman who had, as he imagined, transgressed the law of hospitality by writing letters to the young girl.
It was a dreary day for the brother and sister when they learned from the lips of the tutor that their father had forbidden them to have anything further to do with their new friend whom they both liked so much. Harry was particularly displeased because he declared that it was all Laura’s fault for sneaking off by herself to visit him and then getting him to write letters to her, which she should have known was altogether improper. Laura on her part declared that if Harry had not been so hateful she would never have thought of doing anything to spite him and ended the discussion by declaring angrily, that she thought boys a 204nuisance and she was never going to have anything more to do with any of them so long as she lived. That afternoon Kitty Harriott came to see her, and on learning the dreadful news, proceeded to console her as well as she could, assuring her friend that it would all come out right after all just as it did in the story books of which they were so fond.
During the first few days of his confinement in the hospital, Bruce found that the time hung very heavy on his hands, that his wounds were painful, his spirits low, and if it had not been for the occasional visits of his friends from the quarters, it is possible that he would have come to the conclusion that after all a fireman’s life was not a happy one. He was rather surprised that the Van Kuren children neither came to see him again nor wrote to him, but the truth was that Harry and Laura who were, in spite of their many faults, tactful children and thoughtful of the feelings of others, had decided that it would be best to keep their friend in ignorance of their father’s commands. “Because,” they argued, “he has a hard enough time of it now, lying there all day in the hospital, and if he learns that our father has put a stop to our friendship with him, it may make him 205worse, and it will certainly not make him any happier than he is.”
Bruce, of course, knew nothing about this, but imagined that the children would come to see him or write him again at the first opportunity. As he grew better he found himself taking an interest in the events of the ward in which he lay, and it was not long before he had made the acquaintance of a few of the patients who were well enough to walk about and gossip with the occupants of the different beds. Most of the people in the casualty ward were working men who had met with accidents, and he noticed to his surprise that some of them seemed in no hurry to get well, and always limped in the most grievous fashion when any of the doctors were about.
It was Skinny the Swiper who explained this phenomenon to him by remarking that these invalids lived better in the hospital than they did at home and at much less expense, and were therefore perfectly willing to stay there all winter and board at the expense of the city without doing any hard work.
There were other men, however, who took their confinement much to heart and had no anxiety save to get out again and go to work for their wives and families. Bruce noticed, 206also, that the most intelligent men about him always yielded to the wishes of the physicians, took the medicines that were given them, and reposed faith in the wisdom of the medical practitioners, while the more ignorant ones did not hesitate to affirm that the doctors did not know their business, and that they themselves were capable of determining what medicine they should take and how their wounds should be treated. Having very little to do but lie on his back, and notice what went on about him, the boy acquired no small knowledge of human life and nature by his observations in the hospital ward.
As to Skinny the Swiper, he proved an uncomplaining patient and, although rather taciturn from force of habit, was at times very entertaining in his accounts of life in what he called “de Fort’ ward” where he lived, and his comments on the people about him.
It was Skinny who awakened a burst of laughter one morning by suddenly calling out to one of the patients who had no desire to leave the hospital and return to his work, “Cheese it, Welch, you’re limpin’ on de wrong leg this morning! De doctor’ll drop to yer.” And it was Skinny who learned to imitate the voices of the other men and would often break 207the silence of the early night with his monkey-like drollery. He regarded Bruce as his preserver, and although he said but little in token of his gratitude, the other soon began to feel that he could rely upon the tough little news boy to render him any service that he might ask of him. And as day succeeded day, he carefully studied the character of his new friend, in order to determine whether it would be safe to trust him with the secret which as yet he had shared with no one but Laura. Then he remembered his promise to the young girl and determined that no matter what might happen he would say nothing without first obtaining her permission.
At last the day came when the house surgeon, pausing in front of the boys’ beds, remarked: “Well, you two young men seem to be doing quite nicely, so I think you can get ready to leave here at the end of the week.” By this time both boys had progressed so far that they were able to walk about the ward and eat their meals in the dining room instead of having them brought to their bedside. They were not strong by any means, but it was no longer necessary for them to remain in the hospital and their beds were needed for other patients. Bruce was delighted at the prospect of going 208and instantly wrote to Chief Trask to tell him the news. But Skinny heard the doctor’s words with passive indifference and did not seem to care much whether he went or stayed.
“Where are you going to when you leave here?” said Bruce to his companion as he folded up his letter and addressed the envelope.
“Dunno,” was the laconic reply.
Bruce paused in his work and looked at the other with surprise. “Do you mean to tell me that you haven’t any place to go to after you leave here?” he demanded.
“No place in partick’lar,” answered Skinny. “Mebbe I’ll go down to der Newsboy’s Home an’ brace de boss for a week’s lodgins, an’ a couple of dimes fer ter buy extrys wid.”
The boy announced his intentions in a matter-of-fact way that showed plainly what his manner of life had been, but Bruce was amazed to think that anyone could leave a sick bed and go out without friends to face the world as coolly and calmly as if he were going to a comfortable home. All this time the boys had been sitting in extension chairs beside their beds and when Bruce had sealed his letter he went out to the closet in which his clothes and a few 209things that Chief Trask had sent him were kept, took from an inside vest pocket his pocket-book and found that it contained just eight dollars and forty-four cents. Taking exactly half of his fortune, he went back to where Skinny was seated and placed it in his lap.
“There,” he remarked, “that’s just half my pile, Skinny, and perhaps the time will come when I shall want you to divide your pile with me.”
Skinny looked at the money in his lap and then picked it up, carefully counted it, and rung one of the silver dollars with his teeth as if in doubt of its being genuine. Then he fixed his keen little blue eyes on Bruce and seemed to be trying to find some ulterior motive for his generosity. It was seldom, indeed, that anyone had reposed confidence in Skinny to the extent of lending him nearly five dollars, and he could not understand why anyone should do such a thing unless he had some object to gain. But his scrutiny of the boy’s clear, honest face failed to reveal to him any secret or sinister design, and so, after a moment’s hesitation, he said cautiously “Is dis on de level?”
“That’s all right,” remarked Bruce, who had winced perceptibly under the boy’s squirrel like gaze, “You’re welcome to that as long as you choose to keep it.”
210“Say, boss,” continued Skinny after another pause, during which he carefully thumbed over his suddenly acquired wealth, “dat’s de white ting ter do, and I’ll hump meself when I gets well to pay it off.”
Bruce had winced under the boy’s sharp look because he felt that he suspected him of some ulterior motive, and he knew that he had an ulterior motive, which was to place Skinny under still further obligations to him in order that he might be depended upon to aid him in his search for the man who had once known his father. Never since the morning when the newsboy recognized Laura Van Kuren had Bruce referred in any way to the mysterious scarred and bearded stranger by whom the boy had been employed. He did not wish to exhibit any interest in him. The time would come for that, he said to himself, when he had left the hospital, and it was with this object in view that he had devoted a great deal of his time during his convalescence to cultivating an intimacy with Skinny and deepening in the heart of that young vagabond the feelings of gratitude and regard which he already felt for the gallant young fire laddie who had carried him from the burning building.
211It was Saturday morning when the boys said good-bye to Miss Ingraham and their fellow patients in the casualty ward, and went out once more into the open street. Together they trudged along Fifteenth Street to Broadway where Bruce took a car for the quarters, not feeling strong enough to walk any further, and Skinny kept on toward Third Avenue, intending to go down to the Newsboys’ Home. Just before they parted, Skinny surprised his friend by saying in a careless way, “Boss, you reck’lect that party I was speakin’ of as sent me on de errands? Well, I kin fin’ him any time yer want him. Dat’s all.” Then he nodded his head and slouched across the street, a grotesque, ragged figure, while Bruce climbed into the horse-car and wondered how on earth the boy could ever have discovered that he felt any interest whatever in the man of whom they had spoken but once. But Bruce did not know how contact with the rough side of city life sharpens the senses of the young, nor did he know that, during those long days in the hospital ward, he had been very closely watched and studied by the little vagabond beside him.
Meantime things had not been going on smoothly at the home of the Van Kuren children. Mr. Van Kuren, although a devoted and careful father, was so much engrossed in his business that he had comparatively little time to devote to his children, and since the death of their mother, their education had necessarily been left largely in the hands of tutors, governesses and instructors of all sorts. The discovery that the young boy from the fire department whom he had been inclined to regard with so much favor had taken advantage of his intimacy with the children to conduct a clandestine correspondence with the daughter of the house, annoyed Mr. Van Kuren excessively, and he determined to take immediate steps to prevent any repetition of the offense or continuance of the friendship. It was chiefly for this purpose that he finally made up his mind to do what he had long contemplated, and one morning he summoned both children to his study, and threw them into a fever of excitement and delight by bidding them prepare at once for a trip to Europe.
213“But must we start to-morrow?” demanded Laura. “Why, I never can get ready in the world.”
“Very well,” replied her father with a smile. “If you’re not ready, you may remain at home while Harry, your aunt, Mr. Reed and I will take the trip. Shall I send word to the steamship office that we only need tickets for four?”
“No, no, no,” cried Laura, jumping up and down excitedly, “don’t do that. I’ll go right away now and get ready. I’d die if I had to stay home while you and Harry went off.”
Then both children set about the work of packing up their things and of writing one or two good-bye letters to the friends whom they where leaving behind.
“Did papa say how long we were to remain away?” asked Laura as she paused in the middle of a letter.
“No,” answered her brother carelessly, “but probably quite a while. I don’t care how long we stay. It will be lots of fun over there, and ever so much better than learning stupid lessons and staying in one place all the time. I guess I’ll write a letter to Bruce and tell him that we’re going to Europe to-morrow. I won’t say anything about papa getting hold of 214that letter, and when we come back maybe we’ll be allowed to ask him up here again.”
So Bruce learned the next day, at the very moment when the steamer was leaving her dock, that his friends had sailed away across the ocean and did not know when they would see him again. Europe seemed so far away to the young boy, and a trip across the ocean such a formidable undertaking, that it seemed to him that he had said good-bye to them forever, and that if they did come back at all, they would never be the same.
Now Mr. Van Kuren had purposely said nothing to his children about the probable length of their stay, but he had really determined to remain with them abroad for at least a year, with the intention of carrying on their education, at the same time giving them the advantages of travel in foreign lands. Once across the ocean, he was satisfied that his daughter would forget the young fireman for whom he feared she cherished a childish liking, and so, as soon as the steamer had passed Sandy Hook, he dismissed Bruce altogether from his mind, and busied himself with thoughts of the days that lay before him.
Harry’s letter to his young friend proved a genuine shock, and for fully twenty-four hours 215after receiving it, Bruce walked about the quarters, or sat in his accustomed seat in the corner, in a condition of dejection that did not escape the notice of Tom Brophy or the chief, for they both spoke of it, and both of them hoped that after distinguishing himself as he had, the boy would not allow himself to fall back into the state of discontent and indifference that had previously annoyed them.
At the end of twenty-four hours, however, the boy suddenly regained his good spirits. During his period of gloom he had argued with and succeeded in convincing himself that, after all, the departure of his two cherished friends for Europe was the very best thing that could have happened to him. “It made me sore,” he acknowledged to himself, “to go up there to their big house and see all the nice things they had, and then come back to my work again. If a fellow has got to work for his living as I have, he’d much better keep away from rich folks, and not have any friends who can spend a dollar where he can spend a cent. Everybody says I’ve made a good beginning, and now I am going to keep right on. If I have any spare time, I’ll spend it with that Skinny, working up what Laura calls the mystery of my birth.”
216He smiled as he thought of the deep interest with which she used to discuss his affairs, and then a shade of sadness crossed his face as he remembered that she was at that moment out on the ocean, and that he might never see her again. Then his good sense acted as a tonic to his resolution, and he went about his duties determined that when she did return, she would find him changed and improved almost beyond recognition.
His confinement in the hospital had left him in no condition to do a full day’s work, and so at the chief’s suggestion he spent a good part of his time out-of-doors, either walking about the streets near the quarters, or else riding up to Central Park, and strolling about in its pleasant paths, where he could enjoy the bright sunshine and the clear, fresh air to his heart’s content.
It was during one of these rambles that he determined to devote some of his leisure time, and he had a great deal of it now owing to his state of health, to seek out his new boy friend and asking him to aid him in his work of investigation. Bruce was by nature a deliberate, slow-thinking boy, who seldom acted on the impulse of the moment, and had a habit of devoting a great deal of thought to whatever 217he went about. He was naturally secretive, too, and up to this time, he had made a confidant of nobody except Laura Van Kuren; not even to Chief Trask or Tom Brophy had he spoken a single word in regard to the important matter which had taken up such a large share of his thoughts.
Having once made up his mind that Skinny was a boy to be depended on, he did not start off at the very instant of his decision to seek him out, but with characteristic reserve waited until the next morning, and then, having obtained a leave of absence until the afternoon, started for the lower part of the city. In front of a tall brick building, not far from what was once Chatham Street, but is now Park Row, he paused and looked up. It was the Newsboys’ Lodging House, and the gentleman who stood in the doorway and asked him what he wanted, was the superintendent.
Bruce made known his errand, and the superintendent shook his head doubtfully. “I don’t know where you’ll find that boy Skinny,” he replied, “he turned up here some time ago with a story about having been in the hospital, and I must say he looked as if he’d been through some trouble or other, put up here for 218a while and then disappeared, and I haven’t seen him since.”
“Well, he told the truth about being in the hospital,” rejoined the visitor stoutly, “for I was there with him, and now I’d like to find him for a very particular reason.”
“I guess,” replied the superintendent, “there are a good many people would like to find him for some particular reason, but I don’t know where he is, unless he’s selling papers around City Hall Square. I’ll ask the other boys to-night if they know anything about him, and then if you can drop around to-morrow, I may be able to tell you something.”
Bruce turned away dejected and distrustful. He was afraid that Skinny would drift out of his ken. “I was foolish to let him have that money,” he said to himself, “because he’ll never show up again for fear of being asked for it.”
And now let us return to the newsboy, and trace his footsteps from the time he left his benefactor on the corner of Broadway. He stood on the street corner watching with his small, sharp eyes the street car until it was out of sight, then he turned and trudged on to Third Avenue, where he swung himself on board another car and was carried down to the lower part of the city. He went direct to the lodging-house, and, as the superintendent had said, told what was regarded at the time as an invention of his own, about his mishap at the fire, and his experience in the hospital, and was finally allowed to become a lodger for a short time on credit. He said nothing about the four dollars and twenty-two cents that Bruce had loaned him, and which he still had in his pocket. He had already determined to devote that sum to a special purpose, and to depend upon what he could pick up by selling newspapers or running errands to defray his expenses. He had often slept and eaten in the lodging 220house before, and, when the boys came trooping in just before supper time, there were many among them who knew him and came over to ask him where he had been. The general opinion among the boys, and it was shared by the superintendent also, was that Skinny had been sent to Blackwell’s Island for some misdemeanor, and had simply invented the hospital and fire story to shield his good name.
“Dat’s what happens to me fer goin’ ter work reg’lar,” said the boy to himself. “Before I was in dat factory a day it took fire, an’ I hadn’t even had de time to learn de way out.” That night the boy sat down to supper with a hundred or more lads representing a dozen races and nationalities and innumerable callings, though the bulk of them made their living by selling newspapers and blacking boots. Supper over, they repaired to a big schoolroom on the floor above, and there, with slates and pencils and spelling books, endeavored to master the rudiments of an education. Skinny sat down at his desk with the others, and for an hour worked diligently. But every once in a while the remembrance of his friend, the fireman, would come into his mind. He knew intuitively that Bruce was interested in the young girl who had come to see him, and the tall, 221dark man who must be, the boy reasoned, connected with her in some way. He would make it his business to seek out this man, and all that he could learn about him he would place at the service of his new friend.
Born and brought up in the slums, having learned his trade in the streets and in the face of the sharp, juvenile competition which goes on there, Skinny was well suited to prosecute a search of the kind that now engrossed his attention. The next morning he was up at daybreak with the rest of the boys, and after breakfast betook himself to the big newspaper buildings where the presses were turning out the damp, freshly printed sheets by the thousands. Withdrawing from his hoarded capital half a dollar, Skinny invested it in a stock of morning papers, and then stationed himself near the entrance to the Bridge. By nine o’clock his stock was exhausted, and he had also secured about twenty papers which he had begged from passers-by who had read and were about to discard them. These he had also disposed of, and he was now more than half a dollar richer than he had been the night before. Satisfied with his morning’s work, he returned to the lodging house and rested there until it was time to resume business with the 222afternoon papers as his stock in trade. The various editions of these kept him busy during the afternoon, and netted him half a dollar. Then he went home, exhausted with his hard work, ate his supper, spent an hour in the schoolroom, and then went to bed.
For several weeks he labored industriously, and then beginning to tire of newspaper selling, he determined to find some other job.
Early one morning he bent his steps in the direction of Chatham Square, whence he walked along the Bowery till he came to Grand Street, and then, turning to the east, walked on until he found himself in the Jewish quarter of the town. As he walked he cast furtive and suspicious glances about him from time to time, for the exigencies of his life had taught him to be sharp and cunning, and distrustful of other people. It was seven o’clock by this time, and the street was full of girls hurrying toward the factories in which they worked. Turning into a side street the boy slunk along the pavement, and finally stopped and fixed his eyes on an old ramshackle building, the upper stories of which were occupied as a tenement house, while the ground floor was used as a sort of office. For some time the boy stood looking intently at this building from the opposite 223side of the street, and then seeing no sign of life in the office on the ground floor, he walked away, made a circuit of the neighborhood, and at the end of an hour returned once more; this time he found the office open and within it a small, dried up old man, who was writing in a big leather-bound book. To him the boy addressed himself:
“Want any errands run to-day, boss?” he inquired.
“No!” replied the old man, shortly.
“Hey, boss,” went on Skinny, “I used ter do odd jobs for dat bloke wid de black whiskers dat wuz here before, and I always done right by him.” The old bookkeeper fixed his spectacles on his nose, and looked sharply down at the lad who stood before him with upturned face and with his hat on the back of his head.
“Are you the boy that he used to send up town last winter?” demanded the clerk, suspiciously.
“Yes, I used ter take letters fer him way up above de bridge,” replied the other.
“Where have you been keeping yourself of late? If you’d been here a few days ago you might have earned a dollar or so, but you boys are never around when you are wanted,” continued the bookkeeper, speaking in sharp, stern tones.
224“Well, ain’t dere no chance for me now, boss? I wuz burned out of a factory, carried down de ladder by a mug dat found me burnin’ up, and den dey took me to de hospital, and here I am. But where’s his nibs gone ter?”
“Yes,” said the bookkeeper, scornfully, “you’ve been to the hospital, no doubt, but I guess it was a judge sent you there. But you come in here at twelve o’clock, and perhaps there’ll be a little work for you.”
“Dat’s it all de time,” said Skinny to himself, as he walked away. “Wot’s de use of doin’ de right ting when nobody won’t believe yer, and tinks all de time yer been up to der Island? Dat’s wot comes of goin’ to work reg’lar,” he added, and he shook his head with a determination never to do any business in the future except on his own account.
Twelve o’clock found him standing once more in the little office on the side street, and when he entered, the old bookkeeper, who was still making entries in the big leather-bound volume as if he had been at it without a second’s interruption all the morning, scarcely raised his eyes, while he said to him: “Do you remember going up to a house above the Harlem river, one day, to take a letter to an old gentleman who lived there?”