And the electricity flashing along the wire from the headquarters up-town entered the silent truck house ruled by Chief Trask, and with one stroke of the gong transformed it into a scene of activity. The men who were on watch on the ground floor, sprang from their seats by the stove, and the horses, released by the electric current, bounded to their places, three in front of the heavy truck, and one between the shafts of the chief’s red wagon.
And the same alarm which rang out in the lower floor, sounded also in the room above, where the men lay sleeping. Bruce heard it just as he was dreaming of the old days in the village beside Lake Ontario, and he sprang to the floor, and struggled into his turnout, before he fairly realized that he was in New York, and not in the country. But, quick as he was, he was not a second ahead of the other men, and as he slid down one of the shining poles, he found that fully half the company had got down before him. By this 344time the horses were all in their places, and the men had just finished hitching. The alarm was still ringing on the gong, and although Charley Weyman leaped to his place in the driver’s seat, the company did not start. It was a first alarm, but not one on which they were due. For a few moments they waited, while the horses tugged and strained at their bits, and stamped on the wooden floor in their eagerness to be off. Then the second alarm came, and Tom Brophy, who was at the wheel, drew on a pair of heavy woolen mittens, while the men pulled their thick caps down over their heads, and Weyman exclaimed, “Look out, fellows, we’ll get a third for that, sure!”
Bruce had watched these preparations with considerable excitement, and at the suggestion of one of the men, had pulled on a heavy skull-cap, and buttoned his thick overcoat close up to his neck. He was trembling violently, but whether it was from the cold or excitement he did not know. He had never been out on a third alarm before, and the thought that the very next minute might send him out into the biting storm on an errand such as the one that had cost his father his life, sent the blood tingling through his veins.
345“Jump in, Bruce!”
It was Chief Trask who said this. And as the boy made answer he continued in his sharp soldierly voice, “If we get a third alarm I want you to come with me in the wagon.”
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the brass gong sounded for a third time, and almost instantly the doors were thrown back with a roar and rumble, there was a rattle of the ropes which supported the harness, as Weyman pulled his reins with a sharp and sudden jerk, and Bruce, who by this time was seated in the chief’s wagon with his superior officer beside him, felt the horse bounding forward, and the next moment was out in the blinding storm.
Strange to say he had kept his wits about him and knew in what part of the town the alarm-box from which the signal had come was situated. As they passed over the threshold, Chief Trask turned the horse sharply to the left, and then without a word, placed the reins in the boy’s hands, stooped down and drew his helmet from under the seat of the wagon, and put it on, and then buttoned his jacket tightly about his neck and peered forward through the falling snow trying to catch a glimpse of the distant fire.
346“And now my chance has come,” said Bruce Decker to himself, for what with the cold air in his face and the necessity for careful driving, his excitement had vanished, and he felt as cool as one of the snowflakes that settled on his cheek. “I’m going to a big fire now, and I’m going to make a record if it costs me a leg.”
And he drove on through the snow with Chief Trask sitting in silence by his side, and the hook and ladder company thundering along close behind them.
“Turn here?” he said to his superior as they drew near a broad thoroughfare leading up-town.
“Yes, and hurry up too,” was the reply, and as he pulled the horse’s head around at the intersection of the two streets, he saw several blocks ahead of him a brilliant, ruddy glare on the white snow that showed where the conflagration was. He knew at once that it was a big fire, and just then Charley Weyman, who had been rapidly gaining on him, turned his horses to the left and attempted to go by him. This was something the boy had not been looking for; he well knew that bad as it was to be beaten in the race to a fire by a rival company, it would be 347still worse to be passed on the way by his own truck which he was supposed to lead. Charley was driving the three strong horses that belonged to the apparatus, and Bruce held the reins over a sturdy black that had been recently added to the quarters for the chief’s special use. In an instant he had grasped the whip from its socket, and brought it down on the broad, snowflaked back in front of him, causing the animal to bound forward at a slightly increased gait, but not fast enough to prevent Charles Weyman’s team from creeping slowly up to him. Again he swung his whip, and they raced along, the boy driving with so much vigor and skill that he soon forged ahead, and took a lead of fully twenty yards, which he maintained until they reached the scene of the disaster. Then he pulled up. The chief leaped to the ground, and just then the truck thundered along with the captain standing on the turntable close to the driver into whose ears he had been shouting his orders.
As the chief leaped from his wagon, Bruce realized for the first time the extent of the conflagration which they had been called upon to subdue. From the upper windows of the hotel streams of smoke were issuing, while in others he could see the half-clad forms of men and women who were looking out and shouting to those in the street below for assistance.
The sidewalk in front of the main entrance was already thronged with people, many of whom were only partly dressed, and had evidently been aroused from their beds by the alarm of fire. One or two of them carried bundles in their hand, and there were some who had dragged their trunks down the stairs and out into the roadway, and were now sitting on them, regarding, in a bewildered fashion, the progress of the fire.
And now the people in the windows above began to throw satchels and other light articles out into the street, and one or two of them fell near enough to the spot where 349Bruce was sitting in his wagon to make it apparent to him that he had better move away. His horse was panting and sweating from the exertion of his run, and so the boy threw a heavy blanket over him, and then hitched him to a lamp-post a block away. Then he returned to the truck, and stood for a moment watching the streams of water which the firemen were turning on the hotel.
Chief Trask, who, at the moment of his arrival had reported to the deputy in charge of the fire, now appeared and ordered his men to come up at once and open the roof; and, in obedience to this command, some of them seized axes and others hooks and endeavored to force an entrance into the building next door to the hotel. But the door resisted their attempts, and then Chief Trask briefly ordered them to get the ram.
The ram, a heavy-headed iron shaft, with handles projecting on either side, was brought from the truck, and in the hands of three or four of the strongest men of the company, soon proved formidable enough to demolish the heavy front door, and afford the firemen means of access to the building. In they went, with roof-ropes and hoisting tools, Bruce 350following with his iron hook in his hand; and as soon as they had broken their way to the staircase, they went up on a swift run and were not long in reaching the skylight. In an instant they had unfastened the scuttle and were out on the roof in the midst of the wind and the snow. Beside them towered the wall of the hotel, fully twenty-five feet above the roof, on which they were standing.
“Cap, get up a thirty-five-foot ladder for that roof, as quick as you can!” commanded the chief; and in a moment a long rope was uncoiled, and one end thrown over the edge of the building to the men below. To these the chief shouted his directions, lying at full length on the snow-covered roof, and bending his head down over the cornice in a difficult attempt to make himself heard. Then a thirty-five-foot ladder, with the end of the rope tied around its sides and under its middle rounds was reared against the wall, and with a strong pull the chief and his followers pulled it up until it was within their reach.
Once on the roof, the ladder was speedily raised, and placed as securely as it was possible to place it against the wall of the burning hotel. Then, with the chief leading and 351Bruce bringing up the rear, the men made the ascent, and stood at last on the parapet of the building, from which they descended to the tin roof. The smoke was rising about them now in dense clouds, and the chief knowing that the hotel itself must be filled with it, ordered his men to begin at once the task of breaking skylights and ventilators and cutting a hole in the tin roof to serve as a vent.
To this task the firemen bent themselves with characteristic energy, cutting a big square hole with their axes, and then turning back the tin with their hooks. This done, it was an easy matter to break through the boards and plaster that formed the ceiling, and thus give a vent to the smoke and flames. In the meantime other axemen had demolished one of the scuttles, so that dense clouds, enlivened here and there by brilliant tongues of fire, were pouring out through the two huge openings.
As the men stood resting after their labors, and waiting for further orders from the chief, Bruce crept along to the edge of the roof, and leaning over it looked down into the street below. He could see that fully a dozen fire-engines were at work now. He could hear the noise they made, and it sounded like 352the distant strokes of so many pile-drivers. The police had arrived by this time, and driven the crowd back from in front of the hotel, leaving none there but the firemen and some of the escaping guests. The snow which lay so white and pure on the roofs and in the other streets that were within his range of vision, was trampled into a black slush, while the heat of the flames had already melted some of the drifts that lay close at hand.
A fire-escape, connecting the different stories of the burning building, attracted his attention, and it seemed to him to be crowded with frightened people who were hurrying down it as fast as they could, some carrying bags or bundles, while others who had not even taken time to dress, were in their night clothes, and apparently perfectly oblivious of the awful storm of wind and snow that raged about them. And as he noted all these things he saw coming down the broad avenue a fire-engine driven at the top of the horses’ speed and belching out a column of black smoke from its funnel, while the red-hot cinders, falling from the ash-pan, sizzled and then went out in little breaths of steam in the snow that lay thick on the streets. And now a sudden 353shout arose from the men and women on the fire-escape, and was echoed by those in the street underneath. The boy looked down, startled by the loud cries, and saw the flames bursting out of the building at the sixth story, completely enveloping the frail iron stairway on which the hapless guests were going down, and cutting off the escape of those who still lingered on the upper floors. He saw at once the danger in which these people were, and realized that in their half-crazed condition they were liable to throw themselves to the ground.
“Chief!” he cried, running over to the scuttle where that officer stood, “there are a lot of people on the fire-escape and the flames are coming out right under them. Can’t we save them?” In an instant Chief Trask had run to the edge of the roof, and thrown himself at full length on the snow covered surface so that he could look down as the boy had a few moments before.
“Hold on there!” he yelled to those who found themselves cut off, and who seemed ready to take the most desperate chances to save their lives. “Don’t jump! Stay right where you are and we’ll save you in a couple of minutes.”
354His words and the authoritative way in which they were uttered made an instant impression on the frightened men and women to whom they were addressed, and when these looked up above them and saw the helmet of a fireman extended beyond the cornice, they felt assured that succor was at hand, and despite their awful position of peril they gave vent to a feeble cheer.
“Go back into the hotel!” screamed Chief Trask at the top of his lungs, for the wind was blowing so fiercely that it was with great difficulty he could make himself heard.
“We can’t go back! We were driven out by the smoke!” yelled a man in stentorian tones.
“I tell you to go back at once and I’ll come down with my men and take you out of the building,” rejoined the fireman in stern, commanding tones, which left the frightened guests no alternative but to obey. Accordingly they climbed in at the windows from which they had escaped, and found that the rooms were no longer filled with smoke, as they had been before, because, although they did not know it, the open skylight and holes made in the roof by the firemen had drawn most of the smoke out of the building, and 355made it possible for people to move about in the upper stories without fear of suffocation.
Having seen that his orders were obeyed, Chief Trask lifted a scuttle which had not previously been touched by the firemen, and finding that very little smoke came up through the open hatchway, and also that the volumes that were pouring through the other apertures were not nearly as dense or as black as they were before, he summoned his men, and, leading the way himself, bade them follow into the interior of the hotel. Bruce went with him, leaving the scuttle open behind him.
Meantime the firemen outside the building had not been idle. There were twelve fire-engines on the ground, four hook and ladder companies and a water-tower, and of these four engine companies had been ordered to enter the hotel by the main entrance, while four more had gone around to the side and rear entrances, and the others were at work in the streets throwing water against the burning wall and also upon the roofs of the buildings adjoining. As for the hook and ladder companies, some of them were in the building helping to tear down partitions and ceilings, 356while others had put up their scaling ladders and were going from window to window in order to save any people who might be imprisoned in the rooms. Others had ascended to the roofs of the neighboring houses, and were lending efficient aid to the firemen by helping to haul the long lengths of hose up from the street.
At this critical moment, and when the fire seemed to be making steady headway in spite of the desperate and diligent efforts of those who were fighting it, the sharp clang of a gong was heard on the street, and immediately the crowd which had gathered, despite the awful storm that was raging, parted in the middle. The policemen on guard saluted, and a wagon, drawn by a panting and sweating horse, dashed through the fire-lines and drew up suddenly at the curbstone. The tall, grizzled, and soldierly looking man who alighted was evidently a person of importance, for in an instant the deputy chief in command of operations appeared before him and saluted him in military style.
The newcomer was tall and well built. He wore a thick fireman’s overcoat and a helmet. His face was grave and stern, and smooth shaved, save for a grey moustache.
357“What have you sent out?” he demanded curtly of his deputy, as with a quick glance of his practiced eye he took in all the details of the scene in which he found himself.
Once more the chief of the fire department surveyed the burning building before him. Then, without a word, he turned on his heel and walked rapidly to the corner of the street, where he could have a better view of the fire and of its exposure on all sides. He was back again in less than a minute, and ordered his subordinate to send out a special call for two engines and a truck company, in order to locate more companies on the north side of the fire. Then he ordered the immediate erection of a water-tower on the eastern side, and stood silently regarding the men, as they placed it in position.
About this time the fuel-wagons sent out by the companies which had arrived on the first and second alarms, began to come in loaded with cans of coal, and with small boys sitting on them ready to lift them to the ground and make themselves as useful as possible, simply for the sake of being inside the fire-lines and imagining themselves to be firemen. There is no fire in New York, no 358matter at what time of the day or the night, that does not attract its swarm of boys, who are only too anxious to load and unload the fuel-cans, in order to get into the thick of the excitement.
Meanwhile our young hero—for hero he was truly showing himself to be—was following the chief into the interior of the dark and burning hotel. Groping their way along through the corridors, sometimes finding the smoke so thick and black that they were obliged to crawl along on their hands and knees, they made the best of their way to the place where the fire was raging. As they crawled along, they encountered a number of frightened guests, some of whom had come in from the fire-escape at the chief’s command, while nearly all of them were too much terrified to fairly understand what they were about. One lady, who had thrown a black silk dress over her night-clothes, carried a barking poodle-dog under her arm, while another clung tenaciously to a bird-cage, in which was a green parrot, although, as it afterwards transpired, she had left her gold watch and casket of jewels under the pillow of her bed. Some of these people cried, while others were silent, and one man, on 360whom they stumbled, was lying at full length in an open doorway, unconscious from the effects of the smoke.
At the chief’s command two firemen carried him at once to the window, where the fresh air soon revived him, and he was lowered by means of a life-line, tied under his arms, to the ground below. By the same method several other guests were saved, though others, including the two woman already named, positively refused to go down in such an undignified manner.
While this was going on, Bruce, carrying his hook, and still following the members of his company, descended to the floor below, and then, hearing voices below him, went down one more flight of stairs, and encountered Captain Murphy’s men, who had made their way up from the lower entrance. At the chief’s command, Bruce and two other men went into one of the bedrooms, threw open a window, and, lowering a long line, called upon the men below to attach their hose to it, so that they might draw it up.
Chief Trask had often told Bruce that in the work of fighting a fire the most important thing is to discover the location of the flames, and not only subdue them but prevent them 361from spreading to other parts of the building. In order to do this, it is necessary to cover all exposed parts, and to saturate with water everything of an inflammable nature that lies near the seat of the conflagration. In this particular case, the snow which covered the roofs of the adjacent buildings prevented anything like danger from flying sparks and cinders, but had the fire taken place during dry, summer weather, one of the first duties of the firemen would have been to throw water on every roof and wall that lay within possible reach of the longest tongue of flame.
Working in the interior of the hotel, the firemen, under Chief Trask’s direction, bent their energies toward arresting the possible spread of the flames, which had already gained such headway by means of the elevator shaft that it seemed to an inexperienced young fire-lad, like Bruce, an almost hopeless task to attack them. But with the aid of the hose which had been hauled up through the window, all the partitions, floors and ceilings were speedily saturated with water, while the men tore down with their hooks a number of frame partitions, in order to prevent the spread of fire through the lath and plaster.
“Bruce!” cried Brophy, coming up suddenly 362to where the boy was standing, “the chief says for you to go right down and tell Captain Murphy’s engineer to give us more pressure.”
“All right,” replied the boy promptly, and pulling his helmet well down and his coat collar up about his mouth, he started down the winding marble staircase that led to the lower floor. It was a perilous journey, for the smoke filled the air, and through the darkness he could see shooting tongues of flame and showers of sparks, showing that the fire was eating its way into the woodwork and consuming both walls and floors with terrible persistence. But Bruce was not the boy to be daunted by heavy smoke and crumbling floors, and besides, he felt that he was a full-fledged fireman now, for had he not received his baptism of fire a year ago? So he stumbled down the stairs, clinging to the balustrade, and soon the atmosphere grew clearer and the light stronger, and then he stepped on a marble floor covered with at least six inches of water, and realized that he was standing in what had been but a few hours before the gorgeous entrance to one of the most sumptuous hotels in New York. Clerks and servants were running to and fro, carrying 363out different articles of value, and Bruce noticed three or four red-helmeted insurance patrolmen, who were going about placing covers over some of the more costly fittings, in order to protect them from the deluge of water from above.
Through the entrance the boy rushed out into the street, and looked about him for Captain Murphy’s engine. The snow was still falling, but it was so trampled under foot that the street looked like one huge puddle of black, filthy water, filled with enormous twisting and writhing serpents. These were the lengths of hose which were scattered about in all directions.
The reporters had arrived by this time and passed the fire-lines, and he could see them darting about, with their note-books in their hands, jotting down bits of description and facts of interest regarding the fire, while one or two of them were sending messengers down-town, in order that their city editors might issue extra editions of the newspapers if they deemed the fire of sufficient importance.
Bruce soon found the company he was in search of. The engineer, on receipt of the chief’s orders, proceeded to lock his relief-valve, 364and give his fire an extra shake with his “slice-bar,” as he called the long iron poker used for stirring up the coal. Then he opened his throttle a little wider, at the same time placing his foot upon the hose leading to the roof, and giving it a sharp, vicious stamp, to find out if the increased pressure had made it any harder.
Bruce stood beside him, an observant watcher of everything he did; and then remarked, as he turned his eyes to the burning building, “It looks as if it were getting away from them.”
“Well, it does look somewhat that way,” rejoined the engineer, unconcernedly, as he threw more coal into his engine. He was an old fireman, and had seen too many big blazes to be particularly stirred up by such an one as this.
Bruce turned away, wishing that he could go to a fire in the same calm, professional mood, and bent his steps toward the building adjoining the hotel, through which Chief Trask’s company had first ascended to the roof. He had found the passage by the hotel staircase too perilous and difficult to be attempted again, particularly as the flames seemed to be making such fearful headway, 365despite the utmost exertions of the men who were fighting them. But as he was crossing the street he turned his eyes upward, and caught a glimpse of Chief Trask climbing down the long ladder that stood against the side of the hotel. Bruce knew at once what it meant. His company had been ordered to abandon their position and return to the street. And so he determined to wait until they came down. He was standing on the corner, still undecided as to what course he should pursue, when he heard a faint scream, and on looking up he saw in one of the windows on the fifth floor, a slender, white-robed figure. Some one, a young girl it seemed to him, was in imminent danger, and it looked as if she were preparing to climb over the sill and throw herself into the street.
“Don’t jump! stay where you are!” yelled the young fire-lad at the top of his lungs.
The young girl in the window heard him, for she paused and shouted some unintelligible answer, to which he replied—for a sudden idea had taken possession of him—“Stay where you are! I’ll be with you in a minute!”
There was no time for hesitation or reflection now. Trained as he was to the immense 366value which the smallest fraction of time possesses in the eyes of a true fireman, he realized, for the first time in his life, how precious even a single second may be. A hook and ladder truck stood within ten feet of him, and it seemed to the boy that within one of these precious seconds he had reached it, and seized one of the light scaling ladders that hung at its side. With this in his hands he rushed toward the hotel, attached the hooks at the ladder’s end to the sill of a window directly under that in which the white-robed young girl was standing, and had just placed his foot on the lower rung, when some one seized him by the shoulder.
“Hold on there! You’ve forgotten something!”
It was one of the reporters, and as Bruce heard him he realized that he had forgotten to put on a belt and provide himself with a life-line. There was the belt with its big iron hook attached to the ladder, and while he was fastening it about his waist, the reporter ran to the truck, and came flying back with a life-line coiled about his arm.
“Up with you!” he cried, as he handed it to the boy, and added, as Bruce, with his eyes fixed on the window above him, and the life-line 367held firmly in his hand, began the ascent, “and may God bless you!”
Then the reporter jumped back to the other side of the street, and, lifting his voice above the noises that filled the air, cried, “Stay where you are! he’s coming right up to you!” But even as he spoke the room in which the young girl stood was lit up with a flash of light, and then the smoke came in through the blazing door, and began to pour out of the window above her head in a dark, heavy stream.
On went Bruce to the top of his ladder. Then, throwing his leg over the window-sill, he hastily pulled up his frail wooden stairway, and by the exercise of all the coolness, skill and rapidity at his command, fastened the hooks over the window-sill of the room to which he was climbing. Then on and up again through the smoke, which was gaining strength every moment, and was whirled into his face by the pitiless storm of wind. The heat was terrible, and the side of the building so hot that it blistered his hands to touch it. But he gave no thought to smoke, flame or heat. His only hope was to reach that window above him before it was too late. And to the young girl who stood there in peril of 368her life, every second seemed a full hour, until at last the helmeted head rose above the level of the sill.
Bruce had all his wits about him now, for he knew that he stood in need of every particle of nerve and courage and decision that he possessed, and that a single slip or false step on his part meant death, perhaps, to them both—to him as well as to the white-robed, slender girl, who was leaning, half fainting, against the window-frame, her fair hair falling in a wild tangle down her shoulders, her hands clasped, and her lips moving as if in prayer.
With a quick bound the young fireman scrambled over the window-sill and into the room. Then taking his life-line, he began to uncoil it, and, stretching out his arms to the young girl, said, in a calm, steady voice: “Don’t be frightened!” It was then that their eyes met for the first time, and Bruce Decker found himself standing face to face with Laura Van Kuren, while the storm of wind and snow was raging outside and the smoke and flame were creeping up behind him.
His clothing was torn and soiled, his face and hands grimy with sweat and smoke. The snow and the ashes had fallen upon him unheeded, and the flames had singed and burnt his clothing in a dozen places. But never did the bravest, handsomest soldier on parade seem to any one as heroic and courageous and manly as did Bruce to the young girl who almost fell into his outstretched arms, while she murmured, “Oh! Bruce, it is you! I thought you would never come.”
But the boy uttered never a word, and a sharp pang pierced Laura’s heart as she remembered their last meeting in the street, when she had been ashamed of him. She was not ashamed of him now, and as she rested in his strong arms, with her cheek against his wet coat, she thanked Heaven that it was he, and not the little French boy, Victor, who had come to save her. And now Bruce had slipped the life-line around her, and tied it firmly under her arms, and, having taken a turn or two of the slack about his belt-hook, disengaged her clinging arms from about his neck, and prepared to lower her to the sidewalk.
“Aren’t you coming too, Bruce?” she asked, faintly.
“Afterwards,” was all he said. And then she was swung off into mid-air, and felt herself 370going down through the smoke and the flames and the storm, and she knew no more until she found herself in the arms of a brawny fireman on the pavement.
Her first thought was of the boy who had saved her. But when she looked up at the window from which she had come she could see nothing, for the flames had burst out from beneath it, cutting off every hope of escape.
“Has he come down? Is he safe?” she asked. But there was no reply, for those that stood about her looked at one another with expressive glances and shook their heads, and then turned their eyes toward the awful flames which were sweeping with resistless force up the side of the building.
Laura closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands, and just then a mighty shout rent the air. The boy had appeared at another window—he had made his line fast to the sill and thrown the loose end down into the street! And now he was climbing out of the window, and a great silence fell upon the crowd as, with one look at what lay before him, he deftly twisted the frail rope about his belt-hook, and, with a firm grasp on the line below, plunged into the whirlwind of flame and smoke beneath him.
371“The boy’s all right, miss; he’s just come down from another window. He’s standing there on the pavement,” were the words that fell upon the young girl’s ear. She heard them, but made no response—her overtaxed strength had given way.
And now it became apparent to others beside Captain Murphy’s engineer that the great hotel was doomed. The chief of the department, who had been a silent and apparently unmoved spectator of all that has just been described, realized it, too, and uttered the simple command: “Back out!” The order was given none too soon, and as the long lines of hose were withdrawn, the firemen broke them up into convenient lengths and attached them to the four-inch stand-pipe on the deck of the water-tower, while others made preparations to take positions on the adjacent buildings, in order to operate the siamese streams. Then the men swarmed up and through the houses nearby bearing hose-hoists and roof-ropes, and in a few minutes they were hauling long lines of pipe up over the eaves of the houses, and fastening them securely, by means of the roof-ropes, to chimney and scuttle. Two, three, and four way siamese connections were 372quickly placed in position, and connected with the huge brass stand-pipe with incredible rapidity, and from these great volumes of water were poured against and into the doomed building and upon the roofs of the houses next to it.
And now an awful crash, and a huge pyramid of smoke, sparks and flames told the watchers that the roof had fallen in. Soon afterwards the front wall fell, and then the two side walls went down, leaving a huge mass of cinders, bricks and ashes, where the great hotel had stood when the sun went down.
The new day was just beginning to dawn, when the welcome order came from Chief Trask to the various companies which had been operating under him, “Report to the Chief,” and each captain went at once to where the officer stood, surveying the scene of desolation, and repeating the chief’s order.
“Take up,” was the silent man’s rejoinder, and the wearied men gathered up their hose, placed it in well-ordered layers in the hose wagon, unblanketed the horses, and, carefully picking their way among the lengths of hose which were still lying on the ground, returned to their quarters.
373Meantime, under orders of the chief of the department, three or four spare battalion engines moved into advantageous positions, and to these were attached the lines of the companies at work. A detail of engineers and men was quickly made, and then the brief order to “take up” sent the others away from the scene of the fire. As the day broke, men and women going to their daily toil stopped to look at the smoking heap, on which two or three streams were falling from the spare engines. By noon the snow had fallen upon the ruins, and but a single hydrant line remained in operation.
Mr. Van Kuren arose at a very early hour the next morning and came down stairs to the dining room with the intention of taking a hasty breakfast and departing at once for his office. But despite the unseasonable hour his host was there before him, looking so pale and worn that his guest inquired anxiously if he had passed a sleepless night or if anything unusual had happened to disturb him.
“My dear Horace,” said Mr. Dexter with great earnestness, “I hardly slept at all last night, for not only have I been completely upset by these matters which we have already discussed, but this morning about two o’clock I noticed a bright glare on the southern skies which soon assumed such proportions that I knew there must be a very large fire somewhere in the heart of the city. As a general thing fires do not cause me any uneasiness but what could I think of last night except that hotel in which your daughter was sleeping, with none of her own flesh and blood near her? For fully three hours I sat watching the light of 375that conflagration, which must have been a very large one, and I could think of nothing but Laura. I got up early hoping to find something in the newspapers that might rid my mind of worry; but the servant tells me that the snow has fallen so as to make the streets almost impassable, and the boy who supplies us has not yet appeared. If he does not come very soon I shall send my own man to the nearest news-stand for I assure you that I have been very much worried.”
“My dear old friend,” said Mr. Van Kuren gently as he placed his hand affectionately on the old gentleman’s shoulder, “you really must not allow such trivial things to worry you and keep you awake. I went to that hotel principally because I was assured that it was thoroughly fire-proof and you may depend upon it that that fire last night was miles further down town. However, you may rest assured that if anything alarming has happened, I will send you word at once. But whatever you do,” he added, “be sure you say nothing of this to my sister. The shock or the anxiety might prove a very serious matter to her in her present condition of health.”
“I have another request to make of you, Horace,” continued Mr. Dexter speaking with 376even more earnestness than before, “and that is that you go to the engine house in which that young man Decker is employed and learn from his own lips all that you can in regard to his family. If you find that what Sam hinted at is true, bring him here without a moment’s delay. I am a very old man, Horace, but this is a matter which must be settled at once for I can bear the suspense no longer.”
Mr. Van Kuren readily gave the required promise, and having eaten a light breakfast he entered Mr. Dexter’s carriage and was driven off in the direction of the Elevated railroad. Purchasing a copy of a morning paper, he entered the car and settled himself in a corner to read the news. As he unfolded the damp sheet his eye fell upon a headline in heavy black type which told him at once that something exciting had occurred. The next moment the color left his cheeks and his hands began to shake so that he could scarcely read. The great hotel in which he and his family had lodged had been destroyed by fire and a number of the guests were known to have perished. There was no list of the missing or of the saved, and he realized that it would be impossible for him to learn any further details without going himself to the scene 377of the disaster. He read the short description of the fire through, and then the paper slipped from his hands and fell unheeded to the floor of the car, while he sat literally stunned by what he had just learned and apparently unable to collect his thoughts or make up his mind what to do.
Other people about him, who had noticed the bright glare on the sky the night before were talking about the fire, and discussing the probable number of the missing. It was this that roused him from his stupor and he sat bolt upright in his seat, picked up the paper again and once more carefully perused the account of the conflagration. He was still fully two miles from 42d St., the station nearest to the great heap of cinders, bricks and ashes in which perhaps his own daughter was buried.
The train seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace and it was in vain that he tried to divert his attention, from what he had just learned by reading the other portions of the newspaper. Again and again his eyes would turn to the awful black headline on the front page, and finally he threw the sheet to the floor in despair, folded his arms across his breast and endeavored to think of something else. But there was one figure which he could not blot out of his mind. 378It was that of his daughter standing by an open window with clothes and hair ablaze and screaming for some one to save her.
At last the train stopped at 42d St., and the distracted father flew down the steps to the sidewalk, called to a hack-man who was standing near and bade him drive him at full speed to the scene of the fire. The snow was still falling when he reached his destination and a large crowd had gathered to view the smoking ruin. A number of firemen were there and there were still two or three streams in operation. Three well dressed gentlemen were standing on the corner of the street watching everything attentively, and as Mr. Van Kuren alighted from his cab he recognized one of the group as Mr. Peter Dewsnap, an old acquaintance of his.
“Big fire this,” exclaimed Mr. Dewsnap as the other approached him, “and I’m afraid there are a good many bodies down there under that heap of bricks and mortar. There, they’re bringing a body out now,” he went on eagerly, never thinking what his words meant to the man whose only daughter had been a guest in the hotel the night before. The crowd parted to make way for four men who bore between them a rough stretcher on which lay a shapeless object covered with a blanket.
379“What’s that?” demanded Mr. Van Kuren, hoarsely, as he placed a detaining hand on the arm of one of the bearers, “a man, or a woman, or a child?”
“Man, sir,” was the answer.
“Thank God for that!” exclaimed the father so fervently that Mr. Dewsnap glanced at him with a sudden apprehension and exclaimed, “Did you have any friends or relatives in the hotel?”
“My daughter slept here last night, and I do not know whether she is alive or not this morning,” was the reply uttered in tones of heart-rending despair that had an instant effect upon Mr. Dewsnap’s kindly and sympathetic heart.
“What!” he exclaimed, “your daughter in that hotel and you do not know whether she was saved or not? Was she a young lady or merely a child?”
“Between the two,” replied Mr. Van Kuren sadly.
“I wonder if it could have been that young girl who was saved by that young friend of yours,” exclaimed one of Mr. Dewsnap’s companions, none other than the honorable Mr. Rupert Doubter who has already been introduced to our readers, and was now an enthusiastic 380admirer of and believer in the New York Fire Department.
“Very likely, indeed,” cried Mr. Dewsnap excitedly. “She seemed to be a young girl of about fifteen, and she was lowered from a window in the fifth floor by a young friend of mine and very proud we all are of him, too. The child had been left in the care of her governess, who slept in an adjoining room and was found lying on the floor unconscious from the effect of the smoke. She had probably started to go into the next room and awaken her young charge and had fallen down, overcome by the dense clouds of smoke. Both she and the young girl were taken to that hotel on the next block and are probably there now, but really, if you could have seen the way that boy—” but Mr. Van Kuren was already on his way to the hotel and out of hearing.
Ten minutes later he was standing in one of the rooms in the hotel with his child clasped tightly in his arms and she was saying to him: “Oh, papa, if it had not been for him I would have been burnt up. I had just given myself up for lost when he came up the ladder, put a rope around my waist and let me down. I cannot bear to think of the way we have treated him and especially the way I treated him when 381I met him in the street the other day.” And Laura hid her head in her father’s breast and sobbed aloud.
“Treated whom? My darling,” demanded Mr. Van Kuren. “Who was it that saved you?”
“Why, Bruce Decker, papa. Who else could it be?”
Down at Chief Trask’s quarters Bruce was quietly resting after the excitement and fatigue of the night before, when to his surprise he saw Mr. Van Kuren cross the threshold, and he was even more surprised when that gentleman seized him by the hand and with an emotion that showed itself in his voice as well as his face, thanked him for his heroism in saving Laura from the flames. The young boys cheeks burned as he listened to the older man’s expressions of praise and gratitude. He had been so accustomed to hearing of and sometimes seeing deeds of gallantry that it had not occurred to him that he had done anything remarkable. That it had been his good fortune to render a great service to Laura Van Kuren was enough for him, and he wanted no other reward than her gratitude.
“And now, Bruce,” said Mr. Van Kuren, “there is a matter of some importance which I wish to discuss with you. Will you please tell me what you know about your father’s family, and what sort of a looking man your father was.”
383Bruce replied as best he could, and then Mr. Van Kuren went on: “Do you remember if your father had a little grey patch on the back of his head?”
“Yes, sir, and so have I,” replied the boy readily, as he took off his hat and turned partly around.
Mr. Van Kuren then gazed intently not only at the slight patch of grey, but also at the boy’s honest, intelligent face and continued: “If you had a picture of your father—”
“Why there’s one here, sir,” exclaimed Bruce, as he led the way to a large photograph of a group of firemen, in which his father was one.
“There is no sort of a doubt about it,” said Mr. Van Kuren as his eye fell upon the portrait of Frank Decker, “and I am very glad to congratulate you, my boy, on your good fortune.”
“I wish you would tell me what all this means,” exclaimed Bruce excitedly, “for to-morrow I’m going to start for England, and if I have any good fortune I would like to enjoy it at once.”
“I can tell you in a very few words my boy,” replied Mr. Van Kuren. “Your father’s name was Dexter, not Decker. And he was 384the son of an old gentleman who lives not far from me in the upper part of the city and whom you have met I believe. Through the cunning and deceit of one of the most treacherous scoundrels whom I have ever known your father became estranged from your grandfather, and I suppose took the name of Decker because he did not wish to have his old friends know what he was doing. He and I were boys together and although it is more than twenty years since I last saw him, I can readily recognize him in that picture. It was through the merest accident that your grandfather came to suspect your identity and the fact that you can dimly remember the house and grounds uptown, convinces me that you must have been taken there in your early childhood. Very likely your father went up there from time to time in order to re-visit unobserved the scenes of his boyhood. Well, you must come at once for your grandfather is waiting to see you.”
To say that Bruce was surprised at what he heard is but a mild way of expressing the sensations that filled his breast as he listened to the words of his father’s old friend. It would be nearer the truth to say that he was stunned by the recital. He said nothing however, but put 385on his coat in a dazed manner and was about to accompany Mr. Van Kuren uptown without even stopping to obtain permission of his superior, when he stopped suddenly and said, “But I am going away to-morrow to England to get a fortune that was left to my father and which through his death has come to me. Perhaps you can tell me what relatives I have over there.”
“Relatives in England!” cried Mr. Van Kuren, “I know your family, root and branch, my boy, and you have absolutely no connections in England, that is to say not on your father’s side. Who told you about this fortune and advised you to go and get it?”
“I was told about it by a man whose real name I think is Dexter, and who keeps a sort of a loan office in Eldridge Street.”
“I think I understand it all now,” said Mr. Van Kuren significantly, “that man was the same one who made the trouble between your father and all his friends, and I have no doubt he will be very glad to get you out of the way in order that he may inherit all of your grandfather’s property. Did he kindly offer to pay your fare to England?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the boy, “and he told me it might be necessary for me to stay there a 386month or two, during which time he would pay all my expenses.”
“Yes, it would serve his purpose very well to get you out of the way for two or three months and then levy blackmail on your grandfather. But thank Heaven there is time to put a stop to that.”
“Hey, boss,” said a piping voice, and Bruce turned round to find Skinny the Swiper standing beside him with his face and clothes as grimy as if he had been working all night at a fire. He was panting with the exertion of a swift run, and as soon as he could regain his breath he said, “I was up ter dat hotel fire last night, an’ dat Scar-faced Charley got burnt up. Dey jest dragged him outter de ashes an’ I seen his body.”
“What, dead!” exclaimed Bruce, and then turning to Mr. Van Kuren he said, “that man who wanted me to go to England was burnt up in the big fire last night. I never knew that he lived in that hotel.”
“He probably went there when his uncle turned him out of doors,” explained Mr. Van Kuren, and then added, “Well, he is dead now and it is best to let his faults be buried with him. We will go up now and see your grandfather.”
387The meeting between the fine old gentleman and his newly found grandson was an affecting one. Mr. Dexter’s eyes brightened and his cheeks flushed when he heard of Bruce’s bravery at the fire, and it was with no small pride that he introduced the boy to his friends and the members of his household as his grandson, the son of his dearly beloved son, Frank.
“And now, my boy,” said the old gentleman, after they had had a long and affectionate talk together, “if you will go into the drawing-room you will find someone there, I think, who wishes to see you.”
Bruce did as he was desired, and as he entered the room a young girl rose from her seat by the window and came towards him holding out both hands. “Can you ever forgive me, Bruce, for the way I treated you that day?”
Those who have followed the fortunes of the young fire lad as described in this book do not need to be told that there was no room in his magnanimous heart for any feeling of resentment toward the young girl who stood before him now. Nor is it necessary to say that the whole of the Van Kuren family received Bruce with every manifestation of gratitude and with assurances that henceforth he was to consider himself as one of their own flesh and blood. 388But in his new sphere, as the grandson and heir of the aristocratic and kindly old gentleman whose name he was now to bear, Bruce did not forget the friends who had been kind to him during his days of service at the Hook and Ladder quarters. And one of the first things that he did after he had been installed in the big house near the Harlem River was to send substantial tokens of his regard to Chief Trask, Charley Weyman, Tom Brophy and Mr. Dewsnap.
Nor was Skinny the Swiper forgotten. And when the little newsboy started for the Wolcott homestead dressed in a neat new suit of clothes and wearing, for perhaps the first time in his life, a new and fashionable hat, very few of those who had associated with him in New York would have recognized him.
“Well,” remarked Chief Trask to Tom Brophy as the two sat together at the quarters, “the boy deserves all his good luck, but you mark my words, you’ll see him back in the department again before he’s a year older. He’s just like his father, a fireman born and bred.”