“E.A.D.” is an act of creative engagement with the archive based upon a manuscript novel written in the hand of Evert Augustus Duyckinck (1816-78). In August 2016 I transcribed portions of the novel and intend to publish it in sections over the next year. All of the characters and plot come from Duyckinck. Stylistic and conceptual decisions, as well as the occasional historical digression, are my own. Enjoy.
The source text is held by the Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.
Chapter 1st Introduction to the Family.
“Some more of that old stuff, you know; I say, eh!”
It was a cold December night in New York.
The few saps in the streets, pursued by a devilish frost, hurried to their Five Point hovels and Fifth Avenue palaces. Some remained without, owing to the compulsions of business or duty. The policeman, secure in the reflection that neither thief nor assassin would brave a cold which paralyzed the arm of violence and chilled the blood of desire, had long since, with early consciousness of the severity of the night, concealed himself in the groggery and, while inhaling the feverish heat of the red-hot stove, was alternately imbibing flames of strong brandy and exchanging warm political sentiments with a group of ward politicians who were nightly frequenters of that place. The last omnibuses rattled fast through the main thoroughfares of the great city; their drivers now stirring to beat their chilled arms and torpid fingers into sensibility as they dropped their passengers here and there. They whipped their horses to run with impatience to escape the rapid encroachments of the frost. In the less frequented but fashionable quarters of the city, the general stillness was broken by a smart carriage whose muffled coachman, mist-breathing horses, and rattling movement indicated a lively consciousness of the cold.
The great houses of stone, but indistinctly revealed by the dim light glimmering through the gas lamps, appeared like two monstrous walls bordering the street, as if resolutely determined to resist all futile approach from port or any foe for that matter. Here and there, however, the blaze of light flared into the dark street and a burst of music broke the stillness (for fashion, with giddy head and nimble feet, encouraged new melodies). The dance and the feast boldly defying fierce winter nights. The rich scum by their warm firesides talked of the severity of the season and wept imaginary tears over those exposed to its trials, namely, the poor in rags & immigrants who necessarily felt cold in all its bitterness. These misers called the winter a hard one, and almost despaired of a change; the fashionable world wrapped in Russia furs (in future days, synthetic fibers) flushed with the fervid delights of luscious pleasure declared it was the gayest season they had ever known in New York. Cold, yes, but only to heighten interior pleasures.
It was a cold night—a fact of which Mrs. Stirrall became lately conscious when startled by the decline of the book which slipped from her lap. She awoke with a perceptible shiver within the ample folds of her moire robe from one of the lazy slumbers (thinking of Voltaire) with which she never failed to soften her faculties, sorely tried as they were, by her well intentioned but vain efforts to read about the wonders of lithography. Mrs. Stirrall, quite conscious that her lady-like position, as wife of one of the wealthiest merchants in New York and mistress of a Fifth Avenue palace & all its affordances of fine furniture & society—assumed that literature was becoming more worldly and insignificant by the minute. It was therefore necessary that, in the absence of love, there should be at least a show of it. Accordingly, when after dinner Mr. Stirrall had gone to the library to smoke a cigar & to sleep over his illustrated newspaper, Mrs. Stirrall settled herself for the evening in the drawing room in her luxurious damask (recalling Voltaire) in order to sustain appearances. She never failed to keep book at hand. It mattered little whether it was Doddridge, Byron, or Dickens, which to do her justice she strove to read in parts while relying mainly upon her knitting needle, which could easily thrust aside the distraction of the few wakeful moments which disturbed her usual evening slumbers.
The encounter with Time is a desperate one, but Mrs. Stirrall braved it with a fierce resoluteness which might have conquered a less persistent enemy than she. She was a skillful confidence artist; warding off the attacks of her obstinate antagonist, she did not fail to avail herself of all the resources of art. So ready was she in the use of appliance, so quick in meeting any effort of her foes, that the world was hardly conscious of the harried resistance which was hourly taxing her skill & vigour. In spite of all external defenses, however, the enemy was pursuing a system of sapping and mining, which though masked to the eye of the casual observer was fast destroying her whole structure. In a word, in spite of paint, powder, fake hair, crinoline, tonic draughts, and all the other artifices of perfume, coiffeur, milliner, weaver and maid, Mrs. Stirrall could not, however she might deceive the world, delude herself or her maid. Both knew that that semblance of youth (with its borrowed lock of brown hair) was but the counterfeit presentation of decrepit age, with grizzled pale skeleton skin to boot. The part she played before the world with more or less success was that of perpetual youth; behind the scenes at home she exhibited a truer character of the old woman conscious of the feebleness of age.
Heterochronicity: old, young, age and agedness. Stirrall’s encounter with Time, of course, depended upon the luxury of having time to age and to fret about it.
Mrs. Stirrall now fully awake and instinctively adjusted fallen book, muffled silk, and displaced attention, gave a nervous twitch of the bell to which Patrick (her husband’s “man” as he called himself, but who was little more than the Irish footman of the house) at once responded.
“Patrick have you let the furnace out?” sharply asked Mrs. Stirrall. (She was cold in spite of the drawn curtains, the ankled depths of tapestry carpet, the glaring gas, the blazing grate, and numerous other precautions.) “No marm it is chock full of coal as it will hold, warm but marm I’ll put more in, if you say so, marm.” “Never mind then Patrick, get thee to the library and tell Mr. Stirrall I want to see him directly, directly, Patrick.”
Yes marm. Cunt.
The faithful Patrick having promptly executed his mission, Mr. Stirrall with uncanny promptitude presented himself, extending his scant grey whiskers and shriveled visage with one rubbing hand as with timid step he entered the room, and with the other nervously tugging the watch chain which hung across black satin waistcoat. His wife, after a quick reconnaissance through her glasses, began the attack almost spontaneously.
“Do you know what time it is? I’m sure you don’t, for how should you when you’ve been fast asleep ever since dinner! You needn’t say you’ve been reading the paper, for I don’t believe a word of it.” To this he repaid with fire of smoke, rubbing those hands—as always—with a spasmodic briskness and making a faint attempt at a diversion. He answered: “My dear! How terribly cold it is to-night!”
Would it be worth the trouble to kill him in his sleep? Mrs. Stirrall, however, being an old tactician and appreciating at once her husband’s pathetic ruse, contemptuously let the stupid remark pan unnoticed until finding that Mr. Stirrall was edging towards the door with the view of beating a retreat. She arrested his movements with thunderous questioning, demanding: “Where are you going? Don’t you know it is past twelve o’clock and time to go for Hetty? She is tired enough by this time of them Smyths, I gaen.”
Them Smiths they treated without respect to grammar, diction, or person because them were particularly obnoxious to Mrs. Stirrall just now, for by inviting her daughter to the party of that night they ignored her own claims to perennial youth by passing her by, on the plea that it was to be merely a dance for young folks. She would have prevented her daughter from going, but Hetty having an unfortunate will of her own liked the Smiths, for “they gave such nice parties.” She wasn’t disposed to sacrifice her pleasure on the painted altar of mother’s struggle with time.
With a glance at the clock on the mantle piece & confirming look at his watch, Mr. Stirrall was not disposed to dispute the fact that “it was time to go for Hetty.” He prepared by a preliminary thrashing of his left arm across his narrow chest. At the same time, with a mingled expression of paternal anxiety & regard for his fellow man, he inquired of his wife: “Where’s Tom?”
“Where’s Tom! Indeed! You are always thinking of that poor boy. He’s no worse than you were at that age, I guess. Leave Tom alone, he knows how to take care of himself, & hurry yourself home.”
Mrs. Stirrall, though naturally combative, was so focused on his constant defects and on his inability to cope with the present that she was ever on the alert to attack him however innocent he might be of intentionality. He was therefore glad to retire & preferred facing the fierce cold without having to enduring the rude assaults within. Muffling himself in coat & shawl & jumping into the hackney coach, which, with a sorry regard for the wellbeing of John (his coachman) & John’s horses on that cold night, he sallied forth. Mr. Stirrall soon reached them Smiths. Merriment flared through the thick curtains—for every window dispelled the darkness of the street—as sounds of cheerful music mingled with the beat of dancing feet & lively hum of voices.
The whole house thrilled. Its door opened now & again for coming & going guests, releasing gales of hot air laden with the smell of wine & odour of savory meats. Such smells, for a moment, burst upon the crowd of awaiting coachman without whom no one dared the journey home. Taxi drivers of later centuries held similar roles, one supposes, before the sharing economy made them just as obsolete as motorcar replaced coach and buggy.
Dazzled by the glare of light, bewildered by stirring music and the quick transition across his view of the whirling dancers and lounging fair sex, circling here in “serried ranks” of the nubile horde, Mr. Stirrall spontaneously lost all mastery of sense & motion. He blindly played into the motions before him, like the foam of an agitated sea, & now he dashed through a line of meager dandies who encircled a beauty. There he jostled the drooping elbow of an old dowager (upsetting ice-cream & brandied peach, alas). There he dispelled the statue of a flattered belle with a clumsy step upon her satin slipper and tender foot, and there, by an unlucky intrusion of his grizzled pale and wrinkled face between a budding mustache and a blooming cheek, checked the rising charms of several tender confidences.
Mr. Stirrall soon recovered his usual self-possession & with a scrutinizing glance through the crowded room succeeded at last in catching sight of his daughter. She however was so involved in the giddy while, & her view so obstructed by the close proximity of the smooth whiskers of her partner, that her father’s patience was well nigh exhausted before Miss Hetty recognized his gestures. Discovering at last the familiar nod, she whirled into the corner where Mr. Stirrall momentarily sought refuge from the crushing crowd. Arresting her partner, whose arm still encircled her nubile form while her own hung upon his panting shoulder, she turned towards her father.
“Oh papa! You’ve come too soon; you will wait.” Beat her little foot for a moment to the music and then was sallying again in close embrace into the current of whirling dancers.
Mr. Stirrall neither angered nor felt surprise at this petulant exhibition of willfulness. For he was too conscious of his daughter’s will to expect obedience & too indulgent of her caprices to exact it, so he watched the beautiful girl as she glided away & saw only, in a father’s twinkling view, a future bride with charms which the palm of beauty & grace discovered beyond all expectation. Thus absorbed, he was suddenly torn from paternal admiration by the thrust of a heavy arm within his own & the familiar view of Algernon Smith exclaiming loudly:
“Come, Come! Sirrah, leave the girls alone to their own kind; I’ve got something that will do an old fellow like you much good this cold night. We’ll have a glass of the O.P. together, the old stuff you know!”
Stirrall wished both to have a taste of the O.P. (which he knew to be of the best, as his old friend was in the wholesale grocery line), as well as to take another turn towards the whirling dancers. That said, whatever bad liquor Smith might deluge the market with, he always took care to reserve a stock of the oldest & the purest for private use. Stirrall allowed himself to be led without resistance into the supper room. Here fallen pyramids of ice, tumbled jellies, scattered oysters, crumbling galantines, & empty decanters of bourbon lay upon the long table amid an intoxicated corpus of uncorked wine bottles & dirty glass, china, & silverware of all kinds. Most of the guests fled the room & the beaux belles were returning the dance with frank rigour under the influence of their late regale. A few fast youth, however, where still longing to see the last of Old Smith’s wine & some few bachelors were hanging about each other, tossing off drams upon drams and hiccupping their admiration of the evening. Unsteady others took step & with thickened tongue sidled up the waiters, calling for “some more of that old stuff, you know; I say, eh!”
Stirrall, in company of the master of the house, found what with fresh relays of grilled oysters & larded partridge & draughts of the ever flowing O.P. that the time proved so agreeably that he lost all consciousness of its forward movement until he received the announcement that his daughter was awaiting him in the hall. There he found Miss Hetty wrapped in furs and loaded with bouquets & in a drab opera cloak amid a crowd of departing guests. She remained the chief object of attraction. The gallants grouped about her were offering a prodigality of services of all kinds, to the manifest envy of certain neglected suitors and less-favoured belles who did not think that “that flashy yellow thing was at all” becoming to Miss S’s complexion, which was entirely too dark & really made her look like a fucking gypsy.
“Don’t you think, mamma, that her manners are very free?” “Yes my dear,” says a Mrs. Brown. “She has been badly brought up; she has not had the advantages you’ve had; come Augustus, sister & I await.”
Augustus, a budding dandy, did not share his mother’s or sister’s opinions of Miss Stirrall, but on the contrary was one of her most ardent worshippers, received the summons with an impatient “O Botheration!” and was only goaded into filial obedience by the sarcastic Harry White, whose mustaches had some six months advance in growth of young Brown & who like him was one of the dandies before the shrine of the idol of the evening.
“It’s time for boys to go home.” Suggested the formidable White, turning his mustaches with conscious civility. (I’ll catch up to him yet, or better yet, I’ll surpass all other men, thought young Augustus with budding ressentiment.)
“Confound you what d’y’e mean?” Augustus replied (discomfited & blushing), hissing words between his teeth so silently as to be only heard by himself, while he slithered away to join his mother & sister & vent his temper upon them.
“Come! Papa, I’m tired waiting; I want to go; you’ve kept me ever so long” exclaimed Miss Hetty as soon as Mr. Stirrall presented himself. The group made way for her as if she had been born a queen. Although the expression of his impatience to depart was not very flattering to their powers of attraction, there was not one of them gay cavaliers who, even if he had been bright enough to apply to himself Miss Hetty’s remark, would have been dispensed to complain, so absolute was the dominion of her beauty, and so abject the obedience of those subjects to its power. This was, after all, a monarchical age.
The sudden transition from the brilliancy and fragrance of the ballroom to the dark & dingy interior of a hacking coach on a cold night extinguished every spark of Hetty’s animal spirits, however inflamed by the previous excitement. That Miss Hetty therefore should have remained silent to the repeated questions of her father, whose tongue (warmed by friend Smith’s good cheer) moved with unusual glibness, was not extraordinary. It was not while she had reached her own room & was within the cheering influence of its luxurious affordances that her spirits again warmed. Who knew where fingers went in these later hours, as the excitement of the evening came back to her in a full tide of pleasurable recollection? It was in vain that the maid reminded her of the lateness of the hour & besought her to seek repose, for she “must be tired.”
No! no! She was not tired—she repeated again and again—and checked the importunate efforts of the impatient Harriet to silence her. She seemed to think that the least change in her dress would destroy the sweet illusions with which the remembrance of her triumphs so agreeably excited her. From one end to the other, she paced her chamber, now surveying that graceful figure reflected in her long toilette glass & glancing again with conscious sense of beauty at those charming features mirrored over the glowing fireplace. At each moment she would give those skillful touches to her person of which the cunning hand of woman alone is capable; with light abandon, checking here a strayed lock of hair and there smoothing the ribbon ruffled. In contemplation of her own natural attractions she was anxious, as if surrounded by a crowd of dandies, that no clumsiness or neglect of art, should mar them.
Beautiful women are not unconscious of their beauty, though the admiration it excites in all who behold it begins with themselves, among the first not only to discover but to worship. Nor must it be supposed that they value it solely as if it excites the love of the male sex & the envy of their own. Female beauty has primitive claims for its possessor & a woman like Hetty could ponder her own loveliness as Champollion did the tablets of Egypt. In both cases that enjoyment is different from that excited by beautiful pictures or graceful statues; it has something of the character, though neither the intensity nor the perfection of that which belongs to sexual love. Hetty was among the most cast out and earnest worshippers at her own shrine, but remained undecided as to whether her appearance spoke in natural symbols or was composed of arbitrary code. She could be under no delusion; she knew her mirror externalized her own eyes & those of all who saw her, boring witness to the charmed fact of this circumstance. There was not only delight of the pretentions of beauty but pride of possession ambiguously verging onto enjoyment of art. This daily resulted in pale enjoyment of her own beauty. Though only seventeen years of age, her charms had the ripeness of womanhood. Her temperament was that which is seen more generally in warmer climates & with it the usual accompaniment of full and premature development. With profoundly dark hair, large oval eyes of the darkest jet, intensely brilliant under excitement & which (even when floating tranquilly beneath the shade of their long lashes) indicated force; with oval face, regular features & animated expression in repose; with the complexion of a brunette, though of that delicate texture which shews the pumping blood rise to the surface and gives rich warm glow to the exterior; with full form, minded limb yet dignified in the way of voluptuous & almost indolent, yet newly stamped, which belongs to grace in action. Miss Hetty had the look of a Castilian princess. She deserved her fame as one of the most beautiful of the beautiful.
Excited by the pleasures & triumphs of the night, and stirred by the intimate circumstances of her attractions, the beautiful girl continued to pace about. Her excitement increased its intensity: face flushed, eyes glared wildly and even her rectum pulsated with every beating of her heart. Vague desires & unsatisfied longings, the natural results of religious indulgence, now began to distort the current of pleasing emotions, and encourage a train of discordant images and trembling thoughts. Aware at once of the change, though unconscious of its cause, Miss Hetty threw herself resolutely upon the lounge & plucking away with the yellow ribbon that adorned her hair, she patiently submitted to the officious services of her maid. She sought to sleep, a refuge from the tempest of thought and passion she could neither understand nor subdue.
Chapter 2nd Isn’t she a beauty?
“Isn’t she a beauty!”
Tom Stirrall exclaimed this as he paused from rubbing and polishing & looked with proud satisfaction at the brilliant surface of the hue upon which he had been expending all his force, health, and muscle, and which reflected (from its many glistening faces) a multiplicity of Stirralls of all sizes & shapes. There a brawny nabob he was all whiskers, here on polished plate all red flannel shirt, there again on smooth surface standing with the firemen, mirrored in all the manly proportions of his handsome person, amongst his fellows.
Two years older than his sister, Thomas Stirrall was now nineteen years aged. His naturally vigorous frame had been developed & knit by the muscular exercise in which he delighted (lithe and sinewy as a young Indian). His was a fine specimen of animal beauty, tall & well proportioned, active & capable of endurance. The lowness of his forehead, by stroke of luck, was hardly perceptible from the curls of black hair which thickly crowned & gave his brow the appearance of being higher than it truly was. A well browned complexion, dark eyebrows arched above a pair of erratic black eyes, a neatly sculptured nose, pale black mustache (which in its sweep partly spoiled the ruddy, somewhat thick & sensuous lips and beard which flowed down until it touched his broad chest)—these were just the obvious features of a face the character of which could be discovered at first sight.
His dress was far from unbecoming, though it would have been hardly admirable in mother’s drawing room. The loose red shirt open at the neck revealed a natural play of the muscles & permitted free scope to their actions. A band about the waist tightening the reins displayed the elastic curve of his back & brought out the shoulder’s width in stronger contrast. The fashionably cut trousers, the neat boot, gold watch chain, and diamond ring upon the finger proved Tom was not averse to a little dandyism. He was rich enough to indulge when he not busy playing with the firemen.
His physical nature, the exuberance of which was not tainted by any manual labour or intellectual turn, demanded muscular activity. And animal excitement. The family wealth freed him from the necessity of any regular effort, or young Stirrall might have liberally put his shoulder to the wheel and made a very respectable mechanic or any thing else requiring a willing spirit, a strong arm, stout leg, and broad back. Even if he had been naturally capable of a job suitable to his position in life, that would be superfluous unless Stirrall thought for himself whether he would ever have obtained more than the elementary education he procured, as his father was too indulgent, too indifferent, too lazy, or too ignorant to provide the proper training of his children. Tom Stirrall, it is true, had been to school, had even entered college, and was now nominally one of the clerks of the Stirrall Company, but for all that his accomplishments hardly surpassed three of his father’s footmen. Worse still, his literary talents were fully satisfied by a daily perusal of the police and casualty columns of the evening papers. The lair of his skull knew little beyond such morning rituals of little consequence. Without much regard to territory or empire, Tom’s world took concrete form in the street, in local displays of deference, authority, and spontaneous gestures.
Tom Stirrall, searching for animal excitement, lately became erratic & often his wanderings threw those at home completely off-scent. “Where’s Tom?” was not an unusual inquiry in the Fifth Avenue house. Father, though long indifferent, at last became naturally anxious in consequence of the son’s frequent absences from work and from intersubjective life. Though young Stirrall was familiar company at many billiard, oyster & drinking establishments & corner places, it is but justice to acknowledge that he preferred the quotidian excitement of a trot on the avenue and a run with his “cart” to the unworthy stimulants of merely sensual indulgences. His supreme pleasure was in the company of firemen & his beloved No. 40, and here at this moment we find him with bared arms giving a last rub to the machine, after sundry sweaty washings, to which Tom & his red-shirted coadjutors have been submitting it until brighter than the polished mirrors of their hated drawing rooms at home.
The scene of labour and the depot of the highly favoured No. 40 was like a great frat house, worthy scene of muscular Christianity, with large folding door opening to the street & secured by a lock to which each of the initiated had his pass key with which he could let himself in at any hour of day or night. The floor of the room was cleanly washed and rubbed like the kitchen of the bustling housewife; long hose hung in fathoms on the walls (like an enormous boa-constrictor, limp & flaccid before dinner), axes stored like swords in an armory, red-stained lanterns suspended about, snug lockers stuffed with oakum, sponges & oil-cans piled in corners, and a general odour of grease mixed with the smell of segar smoke pervaded the place.
Up a flight of narrow steps a passage led to an upper room, the inner sanctuary where the red-sleeved brotherhood held council and sought in jovial companionship all relief from mere labour. Several cots & bunks stood against the walls for the more weary or indulgent members of the company not content with real homes most of their days, and hence spending many nights in this surrogate house. A gay carpet, a gay paper, some gay sporting pictures, talk of the latest flash news, polished spittoons, and a grate of blazing coal showed regard to comfort, danger—a taste, though not very fastidious—for lurid enjoyment. Great leather caps and heavy coats with exaggerated buttons hung here & there, the thick long boots scattered about, and a general assortment of chairs half hidden in heaps of broad-cloth, flannel shirts, and every possible article of masculine attire, indicated the plebian habits of the youthful frequenters of the place. Those like Stirrall thrilled to the pleasures of downward social mobility suggested by this man cave.
Having perfected polish of “the machine,” young Stirrall (always fecund in work or pleasure) shouted out “Come boys, let’s have a drink!” and was at once followed by a trooping crowd to the upper room. Here negro Tom, who served the double purpose of trunk-bearer as well as servant of all work in the engine room, provided sundry bottles of whiskey & cognac, foaming pitchers of lager beer, and a glistening group of glasses. The “boys” were a thirsty a crowd and were not long detained in disposing their drink. As they sipped their cups they discoursed amongst themselves in the usual tangled attitudes of our countrymen in repose, about the blazing fire, prolonging their enjoyment with cuds of honeydew and puffs of the fragrant Havanah, prepared to expend the evening in pleasant fellowship.
“Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” sounded the great bell of City-Hall, catching the war-alert ear of Stirrall in spite of the noisy talk of his associates. Soon the firemen took note as well. (Negro Tom looked forward to their departure, counting the moments till sweet freedom. We leave Tom to this lovely silence.)
“One-two-three! Stop your noise boys! And let one count!” exclaimed an eager Stirrall vexed with the frequent interruption of “One-two-three!—One-two-three!” He blindly reiterated “One-two-three!” He was harmoniously echoed by all.
“Its our district, let’s be off” was now the cry, and in a moment every man was at his post below, where a crowd of fresh-comers summoned by the alarm had already arrived. The lanterns lighted, door thrown open, rope uncoiled and seized with eager hands, No. 40 was at once in the street a-going in the supposed direction of the fire. On it rushed, disturbing the quiet of the night with the rumble of its wheels, the toll of its swinging bell, and the loud shouts of the tugging crew. Now it spun round the corner, and a rival team seen in advance with a cry of “pull away, boys!” Each man bends to work with renewed force & dashes ahead at racing pace; now a sudden halt in order to take bearings of the light which flared upon the evening sky, and again all spring to their places and madly driving on as before. On! On! They go, down one street, up another, still guided by the fire’s glare, which as they approached discovered more & more the darkness of night until the whole neighborhood is benighted/blighted.
Though Tom & his companions were among the earliest upon the ground, the fire already made great headway. The house where it began was first in a row of tenement buildings separated, from each other, by partitions so flimsy that the destruction of one rendered that of the rest almost inevitable. Two already in ruins & beyond all hope of rescue, though the beams which projected from their crumbling walls were still in a blaze. The flames blown by the wind were licking up the whole row, and there seemed, in spite of the effort of the firemen gathering on the spot and falling with a ready will to their respective work, no little danger of communication to the buildings beyond!
The light of the conflagration shone brightly up the street and revealed the totality with distinctness of day. Above, the flames swept great clouds of smoke and threw ominous shadows over the doomed neighborhood, rolling away in monstrous wave, after monstrous wave, until lost in the outer distances and the darkness of the night.
In the street thronged an excited crowd. Every act & movement of each person might be clearly discerned in the bright glare of the fire. Idling spectators were looking on. Men & women, hurrying here and there, gathering in heaps their scattered furniture, disjointed bed sheets, broken glasses, & disheveled bundles saved from the general ruin; others were wandering about in bewildered search for a purpose for the babes they held in tightened embrace. Their frightened little ones clung cowering to their skirts. Firemen busy at work—here forcing their engines with all their muscled might—here clambering up ladders—here with axe dashing to pieces resisting doors or severing burning timbers—there with hose in hand striving to check the devastating flames with deluge of water. Fight as they might, however, in disbelief at each step of the merciless element they were fain to acknowledge themselves outmatched and give up all hope of saving the row of houses where fire commenced, and which was now wrapped in one sheet of flame.
Was this the Great Fire of 1845 all over again? On that fateful Saturday morning, a conflagration brandished its memorable death’s head, all started by a devilish quantity of saltpetre. The latter material, unluckily stored in the neighborhood, caused a tremendous explosion scattering flames in every direction. The fire extended to Broadway, consuming the Waverley Hotel, sundry dry goods stores, and also the Adelphi, with several buildings beyond also charred beyond recognition. We remember how it crossed Broadway and consumed Mr. Ray’s Granite House and the fine marble building next below. Brick and stone went like wood. A great number of buildings burnt, even Pearl Street was thought done for but for an Easterly wind which drove the flames towards the North River. Our building was quite out of the range of the fire. The narrator was making my way downtown about 9 & first heard of the fire then raging in the omnibus before he penned this very manuscript!
The view. So sublime, that huge, thickening mass of hell with blazing tunnels. Dante could have taken a thing from it, just as later firemen borrow from Dante. Searching for material for another novel, I passed days later round to the Battery, which, truth be told, resembled an Eastern fair—piles of boxes of teas under the trees, cotton, merchandise, toys, poor families, children asleep in the shade. Every gate protected by a soldier who admits no one strictly, but I managed to get myself & the Mrs. inside, but—would you believe the nerve?—in our midst a fat citizen in a paper cap was swinging himself in a rocking chair reading (of all things) a yellow novel. Damn fool, he’ll be the ruin of this youthful republic. Next to him a beautiful boy asleep on a mattress. In the bowling green still other boys came navigating a half sunken bed from some godforsaken morass. Next, a man sitting astride a chair taking a sketch. Horrible, horrible life, not unworthy of one of Irving’s exhibitions or Barnum’s sketches. By twelve o’clock, the night previous—I’ve lost all time in this endeavor—the fire was completely suppressed, now several others advanced within to their homes, & the jaded firemen have done their duty nobly.
That one was second only to the fire of 1835. It was very smoky and salty, then, in the lower part of city…but we digress and will do so again.
Beyond this Tome Stirrall spies a lower building which, from its apparently more solid structure & its want of direct connection with the doomed row, gave some hopes of checking the fire. To this row shall be directed every effort. The numerous inmates of the building, which served as a hotel or boarding house, confident in their distance from the first house which had burned, had been little alarmed and were at this late moment hurrying from within, loaded down with their effects.
Planting their long ladders against the building, the eager firemen were clambering up with hose, hooks, and axes in hand, when by a cry from the crowd below they were suddenly aware of their imminent danger from a wall which towered high above the top of the house to which they were ascending. This last remnant of the burning row stood at a great elevation. As it tottered (bending before the wind the flames which swept directly upon it from the blazing timbers) it threatened at each moment to fall upon the lower & yet untouched building & crush it and the exposed firemen in common ruin. Bold as they were, the crew with instinctive alarm shrunk from a fate awaiting them and hurriedly descended to the ground.
In the meantime, by the delay that had ensued, the building they sought to protect caught and jets of blaze stalked here and there from the wooden cornice. At this moment a female figure suddenly appeared at one of the upper windows and a cry was heard: “Oh! Save us! Save us!” It was impossible for the crowd to not shout again & again words of encouragement and promises of help. They were not needed, since the frightened woman continued her anguishing cry. “Oh! Save us! Save us! Won’t you save us?” Some of the boldest of the firemen, with Tom Stirrall at the head, made a rush for the door, but they were soon driven back by the fierce heat & the stifling smoke, for the staircase was in flames & it was impossible to gain admittance. Tom nothing daunted, now determined to brave the dangers of the threatening wall & ascended the ladder again with the aid of some comrades. He clambered up to the rescue of the poor wretch who was still at the window crying distractedly for help and seemed as if about to throw herself amid the crowd below. Clapped hands standing in silent despair.
None dared follow their leader, for the high wall still swayed to and fro before the wind and at each bend seemed about to break and o’erwhelm anyone within reach of its crushing view. Tom however, saw only the object which had awakened all his human sympathies. Neither looking at the dangers above, nor listening to the cowering suggestions of comrades below, he resolved by hazard to accomplish his humane purpose. The crowd, with beating hearts and stifled voice, looked up silenced. Not a word was uttered until Tom just reached the window when a cry of warning—“it’s coming! Take cover!”—broke upon his ear, followed by the crushing sound of cascading brick & the sudden sensation of his legs having lost the support of their leader, and their ladder, dangling in thin air! The intrepid fellow, however, held a strong grasp upon one of the iron bars of the window and with steady muscular effort (significantly aided by the gentle touch of a female hand) drew himself up and sprung within. Only a small part of the wall had fallen towards the front & this had brought down with it the ladder; the larger portion still remained and teetering more fearfully than ever threatened by its fate—expected at each moment to crush the upper portions of the house over which it impended, if it did not bring down the whole structure in total ruin.
As soon as the crowd began to see anew through the fallen brick & mortar, realizing Tom’s miraculous escape was secured, an exulting huzzah was loudly shouted by this very same crowd!
Tom, as soon as he could tear himself away from the grateful embraces of the young girl who swooned in the presence of her gallant protector, lost all further anxiety. He at first took a rapid glance at the interior & the inmates and then hastened to provide a means of genteel escape. The room was an ordinary hotel bed-chamber; trunks & carpetbags lay open here and there crammed full with a confused medley of female apparel which had been evidently thrust in with excited haste; on the bed reclined a woman, whose grey bonnet, embroidered silk shawl & full dress (as was shown by their troubled aspect) had been put on in the hurry of the moment, presenting a startling contrast to her pale face, languid expression and almost lifeless posture, which indicated the effects of long illness. It was clear from her pale attire that an effort had been made by the poor creature to prepare to sally out with the rest of the inmates of the hotel, and that her weakness had forced her back to her bed where she now lay prostrate. The younger called the elder woman mother and although she spoke to her in a foreigner’s language, she addressed Tom in pure English, though with an accent that was different from what he daily heard.
Tom Stirrall, with his usual quick sensibility to female charms, had at first glance, in spite of the present danger which so greatly absorbed his attention & required all his ingenuity of resources & manliness of spirit, been struck with the attractions of the young girl. His speech and demeanor, ordinarily adenoidally high, at once assumed a tenderly tone and gentler bearing as he soothed and aided her with a delicate & devotionate kindness which proved he looked upon her with an admiration akin to fondness.
It was not the proper occasion for the indulgences of sentiment. Tom found that his position and those whose fate of life or death was by his heroic devotion now bound up with his own demanded all the fertility of resource, force, and strength of muscle he could summon. It was just the occasion to develop the peculiar grace of a character whose energies required the stimulus of physical exertion to amaze them into activity. In a purely mathematical difficulty to be solved only by the judgment, Tom was helpless as a child. He was then so little the master of himself and so much the slave of others that he yielded without effort at resistance to the caprices of the sovereign other. Where material opposition alone was to be overcome by force of will and muscles, he showed a more ready and persistent spirit and wielded the stronger arm.
At this moment Tom Stirrall’s animal nature displayed all its rich exuberances. With his heated look flushing to the surface and heightening the colour, with his muscles swelling with effort and starting into action, with his eye brightening at the prospect of a struggle in which he delighted, and with his mouth wound in pure resolve, he was like that Roman gladiator who with watchful glance and alert force springs to meet his antagonist in deadly encounter. Such a man in such occasions hears in his very aspect the prestige of victory and gives to every spectator a confident anticipation of success. It was thus that the young girl so lately paralyzed with fear and sad with foreboding of death had now in the presence of he who had come to her rescue recovered not only her composure, but a natural cheerfulness. Trusting to the strong arm of Tom and relying with confidence upon his resolute bearing she no longer despaired of safety and prepared with a ready intelligence to aid in any plan of escape that might offer. Services were put at once into requisition. By the direction of Tom she collected portions of the bedding and such loose clothing as were at hand and began stuffing the opening of the fire-places, the window above the door, the glass of which had cracked & fallen into pieces by the heat, to prevent the ingress of yon hot smoke now pressing in and threatening soon to be no longer endurable. Tom called aloud upon his comrades and the crowd in the street to bring a ladder to the window, but in vain, as each man fearful of falling walls stood aloof and either did not hear or did not heed. The staircase he knew to be in a blaze of fire, since the crackling of the flames as they licked up fresh portions of the dry wooden wall could be distinctly heard. There was no safe issue to be got therefore through door or window. His only hope was now to break through room to room & escape through the wall which separated the house from the contiguous building. This was necessarily a labour which would require time. The danger was that before it should be accomplished they might be smothered with the smoke, burnt alive by the fire, or crushed to death in the ruins of the wall of which those in the street stood in such sweet awe.
While there was but a spark of hope, Tom was not the man to lose faith in his star & give up in despair, and he now bent all energies to that purpose the accomplishment of which he had resolved to attempt. Trying with all his strength the iron bars, which, as in the higher rooms of most houses, stretched, across the lower part of the window, he found, with a satisfaction that gave a fresh bit of fuel to hope, one of them deemed to yield. To this after loosening with his great knife the brick & mortar to which it was attached, he applied his might and succeeded in wrenching it from its place. Thus armed with one vigorous throw he broke through the thin partition of lathe and plaster and tearing away with his hands (as night slept) the crumbling mortar and brittle wood, soon made an opening sufficiently large for him to pass. Naturally, Tom was first to spring through, eager to begin at once his more formidable labour upon the thick wall of brick which separated the burning house from its neighbor—a barrier between life and death. The young girl paid a hurried visit to her mother, who in her prostration seemed almost indifferent to results, but soon followed. Tom quickly into the other room and, after throwing open the window, began with ready hand to aid her labours in keeping out the smoke, which was coming through faster & faster, thicker & thicker.
Tom was plying his iron bar with all his might. With bared and uncovered head he belaboured the thick wall with quick weighty strokes, each muscle tensed in key, each sinew contracted & hugging the limb with an embrace of a band of iron, and each tendon tightened like a stretched bow string. Great beads of sweat started out every pore & worked downstream. The young girl beheld such heroic efforts, warmed with grateful admiration for a rescuer, and joined in active sympathy with his efforts, pulling away the loose brick with her tender hands, in her eagerness of will, so violently that her torn fingers dripped blood. Now she hastened with draughts of water to cool the heated likes of Tom and again in the excitement of the common struggle tenderly wiped away the moisture from his heated forehead and smoothed his tired curls with gentle touch.
In spite of Tom’s almost superhuman efforts his progress was slow, and the approach of the fire rapid. There was but little prospect of escape. However, even if he doubted she did not despair & both went valiantly to work, now bringing down a ringing stroke which vibrated through the whole structure and now thrusting with fierce violence into the crevices of the wall, again striving to pry out the brick with the whole pressure of weight & all the strain of great muscular force so that the iron instrument thus wielded verily bent and threatened to break!
The fire, in the meantime, evidently made greater headway. The smoke became so thick and irritating to the eyes & throat that Tom could scarcely see or talk. The young girl, trying to grope her way to her mother, had fallen & lay without attempt to right herself, perhaps overcome with heat or asphyxiated with smoke. The crackling of the flames sounded more & more distinctly; the heat became so intense that the iron bar in Tom’s hand was almost too hot to hold, and now the sheeting which had been thrust over the door burst into flames, showing that the fire had extended to the upper part of the stairs & was spreading to the adjoining rooms of the hotel. Tom hastily threw aside the cloth (how?) with the hope of checking awhile the burning of the door, and emptied the pitcher of water at hand upon the heated and blistered wood.
Tom had hardly resumed work when a sound of blows, which he supposed were merely reverberations of his own, struck upon his ear. He paused & clapped his head to the wall; there could now be no doubt; the great strikes in great succession were distantly heard and Tom knew that success was at hand. He shouted out, “hurry boys for God’s sakes,” but they needed no provocation to their manly efforts, for they were his comrades & were doing their fraternal utmost to hasten the rescue. Provided with axes and crowbars they soon broke through the brick, for Tom’s unceasing labours equally facilitated theirs. Now the first small hole is made. Then all sides of the opening crumbling edifice of brick & mortar clatter down and in a moment’s passage all’s clear.
Tom, in the meantime, led the girl & her mother to the wall and they were drawn through at once into the other room where in cooler circumstances they were duly attended. Tom was last to leave, and he saw clearly the fate he had barely escaped, for just as he exited the door of the room burst into flames, as the fire had been suddenly enlivened by the draught of air through the broken wall and filled the whole interior with a hot stifling smoke. To breath this would have been certain death.
Tom with the aid of his comrades carried the sick woman & her daughter to comfortable quarters in a neighboring house and lingered by their sides until the night was so far advanced. He was not around to listen to the eloquent expression of the young girl’s gratitude, and her earnest appeals to him not to go. The moment of danger, spent together, had effected more than another of a more convivial acquaintance.
Tom, feeling disposed, went directly home that night. “Isn’t she a beauty?” was his last thought upon closing his eyes, and as it was his first on awakening in the morning.
No. 40 had a rival for Tom’s affections.