Bruce, who was of a rather practical turn of mind, was amused at the excitement of his more imaginative companion. Up to this moment he had simply felt a curiosity to learn why it was that the Dexter homestead seemed familiar to him, and it had never occurred to him that he had any particular “rights” to be restored to him, or that any grave question depended on the fancied resemblance of the place to the one pictured in his memory.
“I would like very much to learn something about Mr. Dexter and his old house, but I don’t know how to go about it. I always lived in the country, and, outside the men in our fire company, I have no friends or even acquaintances in New York. You have lived here all your life, and everything seems natural to you, but you’ve no idea what a big, lonely, desolate place this city is to a boy like me who comes here as a stranger.”
“I’ll tell you what,” exclaimed Laura suddenly, “when my papa comes home to-night—you know you’re going to stay to dinner with us—you ask him about Mr. Dexter but don’t tell him that you said a word to me about it. Maybe he’ll tell you something that will be of 74some use to you, but don’t say a word to him about what you told me about your visit there. We must keep that for our own secret, and I shall be mad if you tell him or Harry or anybody else, and if I get mad I won’t help you to find out the mystery of it. Now, you must do just what I tell you or else I won’t like you any more.”
“What secret are you talking about?” demanded some one close beside them in a voice so loud that both Laura and Bruce started in surprise from their seats. It was Harry who had just been released by his tutor and had been, according to his own account, hunting them all over the grounds.
Laura put her finger on her lips and threw a significant glance at Bruce, and so it happened that Harry learned nothing of what they had been talking about for fully half an hour.
At six o’clock, Mr. Van Kuren reached home. He shook hands with Bruce and told him he was glad to see him and thanked him for his kindness to Harry.
Bruce noticed that both children appeared to stand in wholesome awe of their parent, obeying him with the utmost alacrity and conversing only in low tones while he was present. This was not surprising to the young visitor, 75for Mr. Van Kuren impressed him as a stern, silent, self-contained man, who might be very severe if he chose to. But his face was not unkind, and in the few remarks that he addressed to his guest he showed a certain interest in his welfare and a desire to make him feel as much at home as it was possible for a shy, country boy, unaccustomed to the ways of society, to feel in a splendid house like the one in which he found himself now. But all idea of asking him about the Dexter mansion left his mind, and although he found himself alone with him for a few moments before dinner was announced, he simply did not dare to broach the subject that was uppermost in his mind.
The dinner to which he sat down seemed to Bruce a very grand affair. It was served in a large, square room, wainscoted in dark wood and furnished in a rich, simple and tasteful fashion. The round table was covered with a white damask cloth of beautiful texture and the glass and silver seemed to have been polished with wonderful care. Colored wax candles with silk shades shed a soft light. Besides Mr. Van Kuren and his two children there were two other persons in the company; Mr. Reed, the tutor, a tall, grave young man who talked but little, and seemed to watch 76Harry with much care, and a delicate, nervous lady, a sister of Mr. Van Kuren’s, whom the children called Aunt Emma, and who retired to her apartment as soon as the cloth was removed.
For such a fine dinner it seemed to Bruce that every thing moved very easily and quietly. There were two men in black coats and white ties who went about noiselessly serving the guests and removing the dishes. Mr. Van Kuren, Miss Van Kuren and Mr. Reed drank wine, but there were no glasses at either Harry’s or Laura’s plate. Mr. Van Kuren asked Bruce if he would like a little claret, and he declined. He began to explain why he did not wish any, but stopped suddenly, feeling perhaps that he was saying too much, but Mr. Van Kuren helped him out with a kindly, smiling inquiry, and he went on: “Chief Trask of my battalion advised me not to drink anything, because he told me that when it was known of a young fireman that he did not take a drop of anything it was a great aid to him and helped him to get along.”
“Very good indeed,” said Mr. Van Kuren approvingly, “at any rate you’re too young now to need it.”
77At first, the young visitor was not quite sure of himself and did not know exactly what to do with all the forks that he found beside his plate, but by carefully watching his host he managed to acquit himself with credit; and when they arose from the table he realized that he had not made one single “bad break” as Harry would have called it.
“Did you ask Papa about the Dexter house?” whispered Laura at the first opportunity.
“No,” replied the boy simply, “I was too much afraid of him; after what you told about his getting mad, I wouldn’t have said anything about Mr. Dexter for a hundred dollars.”
Soon after dinner Bruce took his leave, having promised his new friends that he would pay them another visit as soon as he could. Ashe was saying good-bye, Laura slipped into his hand a small piece of paper, and when he opened it in the elevated train he found the following note:
“I have a splendid idea and will let you know about it very soon. I think it will help you to solve the mystery of the haunted house.
One afternoon Mr. Peter Dewsnap was seated in the great library in which he passed most of his leisure time, busily engaged on a work in which he had taken a great deal of interest. A tap on the door interrupted his labor, and in response to his invitation Bruce Decker entered the room, cap in hand, and saluted him.
“Ah, it’s you, young Decker, is it?” said the old gentleman, as he rose to greet his visitor. “Well, how is the chief to-day?”
“He’s very well,” answered the boy, in hesitating tones, “and the fact is it was at his advice that I accepted your invitation to come up and see your library.”
“Very glad to see you, indeed, my young friend,” responded the old gentleman, cordially. “As you said yourself the other day I’m an old fire crank, and I like nothing better than talking to young men of your age about what I think is the most important branch of public service in the country. Sit down here, Decker, and if you’ve an hour to spare it won’t do you any harm to hear an old man talk about a subject that’s nearest to his heart.”
Bruce seated himself in one of the big leather arm-chairs and glanced about the room. He had never seen as many books in handsome bindings in all his life, and he was particularly struck with the fact that one side of the room was completely filled with oaken shelves containing only books bound in red morocco. About the room were also scattered a number of old colored prints representing, for the most part, pictures of fires and of engines.
“Those books in red constitute my fire library,” said Mr. Dewsnap, “and I am proud to say that it is one of the best, if not the very best, in this country. I have books in French, German and English, for you know that the service has a much greater literature than most people have any idea of.”
Then Mr. Dewsnap lit a cigar, puffed thoughtfully at it for a moment or two, and went on: “The trouble with most of the boys who want to become firemen is that they are so carried away with the idea of jumping out of bed at a moment’s notice and tearing away through the streets at full gallop, and then turning streams on the flames and climbing up ladders and all the rest of it, that they entirely 80forget the fact that there is a serious side to it all, and that being a good fireman involves more in the way of training, both physical and mental, than almost any other public career that is open to them.
“As I told you the other day, people have been in the habit, or to speak more correctly, were in the habit during the ante-bellum days, of regarding firemen as a lot of toughs and loafers who got together to have a good time and a big hurrah, and sometimes even for political purposes, and comparatively few really knew what a fireman’s life meant. Well, when you look at those books there, many of which were written by people of the highest eminence in science or literature, you realize that there must be something in the art of overcoming the most destructive and dangerous of all the elements to excite the attention and enlist the brains of these men. Now take this book for example and glance through it.”
Bruce took a large flat volume which Mr. Dewsnap handed him, opened it, and glanced attentively at some of its copper plates. They represented men in quaint, old-fashioned costumes, engaged in putting out fires by the most primitive of means, chiefly by leather buckets passed from hand to hand. The book, 81as Mr. Dewsnap explained, was printed in 1735 in Holland by Jan vander Heiden, the first inventor of flexible hose. It was an exhaustive treatise on conflagrations and the art of extinguishing them.
“What did they make the hose of in those days?” asked Bruce, as he studied the old-fashioned prints with deep attention.
“Leather,” replied Mr. Dewsnap. “And leather continued to be used until forty years ago. In fact, it’s used to a great extent to this very day in the smaller towns and cities where fires are of rare occurrence. There are some men who claim that it is better than rubber because it lasts longer and does not rot so easily, but I just showed you that book because its pictures would give you some idea of the enormous advancement that has been made in the last century and a half. Here’s another book written in German that is devoted entirely to the burning of the Theatre Comique in Paris a few years ago. Four books in all have been written and published on that subject alone, but strange to say, no book has yet been written in regard to the burning of the Brooklyn Theatre, which was a catastrophe involving an infinitely greater loss of life. It is interesting, by the way, to know that every great fire 82teaches us some important lesson, and the direct result of the Brooklyn Theatre fire was a number of new laws which govern the construction of theatres, and provides for various improvements and appliances for safety that had never been thought of before.”
“Why is it,” inquired Bruce, “that so many of these books seem to be by French, German or English authors, instead of by Americans? It seems to me that as we have the best department in the world, the best books on the subject ought to be by American writers.”
Mr. Dewsnap smiled broadly at the boy’s remark. “That’s a very pertinent question, my lad,” he said, “and the answer to it is simply this: Those foreigners are more given to writing and talking and thinking than we are. Here we go ahead and do things without stopping to write books about them. I’m expecting some foreigners here within a short time, and when they come I shall take them down to call on Chief Trask. If you see them, you will understand what I mean when I speak of the difference between Americans and either Germans or Englishmen.”
“What do you consider the greatest improvement that has been made in the department in your recollection?” asked the boy.
83“Well, to my mind, though I would not have admitted it twenty years ago, I think that the fact that politics has been eliminated from the department is one of the chief things that we have to be thankful for, and I believe that it is almost the first time in the history of the world that a fire department has been run without mixing it with political affairs. Why, before the birth of Christ, the Emperor Pompey once refused to allow a new fire company to be formed in Rome because he knew that it was merely an excuse to get together a new crowd of his political opponents, and in the old days when I used to run with a company, politics and the fire department were very much mixed up. I could give you the names of dozens of men who have reached the highest offices in the city and have climbed all the way up by means of their connection with the fire department. Some of these were good men and others were not. But nowadays when a lad like yourself enters the service he sees nothing ahead of him except that service, and the consequence is if he stays in it he devotes himself to his duties with no object in view except to become chief of the department. At least that’s what he ought to do.
84“But for all its politics and its toughs, the members of the old department had just as much pluck and were just as ready to take the hose nozzle in hand and go right into a burning building as they are to-day. I’ve shown you these books, my boy, because I wanted you to feel that there was a dignity in the service to which you intend to devote yourself, and if you want to rise in it, it must be by hard work, obedience to orders, and constant study. Don’t be afraid to borrow some of these books of me to read when you have nothing else to do. There are plenty of them that are in English that you could learn something from. It’s education nowadays that tells. But I’ve a project in my mind that both Mr. Trask and I have devoted considerable time to, and I hope to live to see the day when it will be carried out. I want to see a school established in which boys like yourself can be trained for the fire department just as they are trained for the navy. My idea would be to take a number of boys every year from the public schools in the city and give them a regular course of training in gymnastics and special scientific studies so that by the time they were twenty-one they would be much better prepared to fight fire than are the young men that usually join the department at that age.”
85“That’s a magnificent idea!” cried Bruce with an enthusiasm that was so hearty and genuine that the old gentleman was delighted, “and I can tell you one thing, and that is you wouldn’t have any difficulty in getting scholars for it. It seems to me that every boy in New York is just as crazy to run to fires as I was when I lived in the country. Why, do you know sir, that every time we start out of quarters there’s such a swarm of young ones in the street that it’s a wonder we don’t run over two or three of them. And besides, boys seem to me to be tougher and more supple than men. There are lots of things I can do in an athletic way that Tom Brophy can’t and he’s twenty-five years old.”
“Well,” said the old gentleman pleasantly, “you ask some of the lads of your acquaintance how they’d like to join such a school as that and put down on paper any ideas you may have regarding it. Then the next time I see you we will talk them over.”
As Bruce walked slowly homeward after one of the pleasantest hours he had spent since his arrival in the city, he felt a new pride which he had never known before, in the great department which it was his wish to serve. The fact that fire departments had existed since the 86earliest times had never occurred to him, and he determined to devote all his leisure time to a study of Mr. Dewsnap’s pet scheme of a training school in the hope that he might be able to render the kindly old gentlemen some service which he would appreciate.