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Chapter 19


Of course I do not mean to tell what the town was as men knew it, but only as it appeared to the boys who made use of its opportunities for having fun. The civic centre was the court-house, with the county buildings about it in the court-house yard; and the great thing in the court-house was the town clock. It was more important in the boys' esteem than even the wooden woman, who had a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. Her eyes were blinded; and the boys believed that she would be as high as a house if she stood on the ground. She was above the clock, which was so far up in the air, against the summer sky which was always blue, that it made your neck ache to look up at it; and the bell was so large that once when my boy was a very little fellow, and was in the belfry with his brother, to see if they could get some of the pigeons that nested there, and the clock began to strike, it almost smote him dead with the terror of its sound, and he felt his heart quiver with the vibration of the air between the strokes. It seemed to him that he should never live to get down; and he never knew how he did get down. He could remember being in the court-house after that, one night when a wandering professor gave an exhibition in the court-room, and showed the effects of laughing-gas on such men and boys as were willing to breathe it. It was the same gas that dentists now give when they draw teeth; but it was then used to make people merry and truthful, to make them laugh and say just what they thought. My boy was too young to know whether it did either; but he was exactly the right age, when on another night there was a large picture of Death on a Pale Horse shown, to be harrowed to the bottom of his soul by its ghastliness. When he was much older, his father urged him to go to the court-house and hear the great Corwin, whose Mexican War speech he had learned so much of by heart, arguing a case; but the boy was too bashful to go in when he got to the door, and came back and reported that he was afraid they would make him swear. He was sometimes in the court-house yard, at elections and celebrations; and once he came from school at recess with some other boys and explored the region of the jail. Two or three prisoners were at the window, and they talked to the boys and joked; and the boys ran off again and played; and the prisoners remained like unreal things in my boy's fancy. Perhaps if it were not for this unreality which misery puts on for the happy when it is out of sight, no one could be happy in a world where there is so much misery.

The school was that first one which he went to, in the basement of a church. It was the Episcopal church, and he struggled for some meaning in the word Episcopal; he knew that the Seceder church was called so because the spire was cedar; a boy who went to Sunday-school there told him so. There was a Methodist church, where his grandfather went; and a Catholic church, where that awful figure on the cross was. No doubt there were other churches; but he had nothing to do with them.

Besides his grandfather's drug and book store, there was another drug store, and there were eight or ten dry-goods stores, where every spring the boys were taken to be fitted with new straw hats; but the store that they knew best was a toy-store near the market-house, kept by a quaint old German, where they bought their marbles and tops and Jew's-harps. The store had a high, sharp gable to the street, and showed its timbers through the roughcast of its wall, which was sprinkled with broken glass that glistened in the sun. After a while the building disappeared like a scene shifted at the theatre, and it was probably torn down. Then the boys found another toy store; but they considered the dealer mean; he asked very high prices, and he said, when a boy hung back from buying a thing that it was "a very superior article," and the boys had that for a by-word, and they holloed it at the storekeeper's boy when they wanted to plague him. There were two bakeries, and at the American bakery there were small sponge-cakes, which were the nicest cakes in the world, for a cent apiece; at the Dutch bakery there were pretzels, with salt and ashes sticking on them, that the Dutch boys liked; but the American boys made fun of them, and the bread at the Dutch bakery was always sour. There were four or five taverns where drink was always sold and drunkards often to be seen; and there was one Dutch tavern, but the Dutchmen generally went to the brewery for their beer, and drank it there. The boys went to the brewery, to get yeast for their mothers; and they liked to linger among the great heaps of malt, and the huge vats wreathed in steam, and sending out a pleasant smell. The floors were always wet, and the fat, pale Dutchmen, working about in the vapory air, never spoke to the boys, who were afraid of them. They took a boy's bottle and filled it with foaming yeast, and then took his cent, all in a silence so oppressive that he scarcely dared to breathe. My boy wondered where they kept the boy they were bringing up to drink beer; but it would have been impossible to ask. The brewery overlooked the river, and you could see the south side of the bridge from its back windows, and that was very strange. It was just like the picture of the bridge in "Howe's History of Ohio," and that made it seem like a bridge in some far-off country.

There were two fire-engines in the Boy's Town; but there seemed to be something always the matter with them, so that they would not work, if there was a fire. When there was no fire, the companies sometimes pulled them up through the town to the Basin bank, and practised with them against the roofs and fronts of the pork-houses. It was almost as good as a muster to see the firemen in their red shirts and black trousers, dragging the engine at a run, two and two together, one on each side of the rope. My boy would have liked to speak to a fireman, but he never dared; and the foreman of the Neptune, which was the larger and feebler of the engines, was a figure of such worshipful splendor in his eyes that he felt as if he could not be just a common human being. He was a storekeeper, to begin with, and he was tall and slim, and his black trousers fitted him like a glove; he had a patent-leather helmet, and a brass speaking-trumpet, and he gave all his orders through this. It did not make any difference how close he was to the men, he shouted everything through the trumpet; and when they manned the breaks and began to pump, he roared at them, "Down on her, down on her, boys!" so that you would have thought the Neptune could put out the world if it was burning up. Instead of that there was usually a feeble splutter from the nozzle, and sometimes none at all, even if the hose did not break; it was fun to see the hose break. The Neptune was a favorite with the boys, though they believed that the Tremont could squirt farther, and they had a belief in its quiet efficiency which was fostered by its reticence in public. It was small and black, but the Neptune was large, and painted of a gay color lit up with gilding that sent the blood leaping through a boy's veins. The boys knew the Neptune was out of order, but they were always expecting it would come right, and in the meantime they felt that it was an honor to the town, and they followed it as proudly back to the engine-house after one of its magnificent failures as if it had been a magnificent success. The boys were always making magnificent failures themselves, and they could feel for the Neptune.

"The artist seemed satisfied with himself"

Before the Hydraulic was opened, the pork-houses were the chief public attraction to the boys, and they haunted them, with a thrilling interest in the mysteries of pork-packing which none of their sensibilities revolted from. Afterwards, the cotton-mills, which were rather small brick factories, though they looked so large to the boys, eclipsed the pork-house in their regard. They were all wild to work in the mills at first, and they thought it a hardship that their fathers would not let them leave school and do it. Some few of the fellows that my boy knew did get to work in the mills; and one of them got part of his finger taken off in the machinery; it was thought a distinction among the boys, and something like having been in war. My boy's brother was so crazy to try mill-life that he was allowed to do so for a few weeks; but a few weeks were enough of it, and pretty soon the feeling about the mills all quieted down, and the boys contented themselves with their flumes and their wheel-pits, and the head-gates that let the water in on the wheels; sometimes you could find fish under the wheels when the mills were not running. The mill-doors all had "No Admittance" painted on them; and the mere sight of the forbidding words would have been enough to keep my boy away, for he had a great awe of any sort of authority; but once he went into the mill to see his brother; and another time he and some other boys got into an empty mill, where they found a painter on an upper floor painting a panorama of "Paradise Lost." This masterpiece must have been several hundred feet long; the boys disputed whether it would reach to the sawmill they could see from the windows if it was stretched out; and my boy was surprised by the effects which the painter got out of some strips of tinsel which he was attaching to the scenery of the lake of fire and brimstone at different points. The artist seemed satisfied himself with this simple means of suggesting the gleam of infernal fires. He walked off to a distance to get it in perspective, and the boys ventured so close to the paints which he had standing about by the bucketful that it seemed as if he must surely hollo at them. But he did not say anything or seem to remember that they were there. They formed such a favorable opinion of him and his art that they decided to have a panorama; but it never came to anything. In the first place they could not get the paints, let alone the muslin.

Besides the bridge, the school-houses, the court-house and jail, the port-houses and the mills, there was only one other public edifice in their town that concerned the boys, or that they could use in accomplishing the objects of their life, and this was the hall that was built while my boy could remember its rise, for public amusements. It was in this hall that he first saw a play, and then saw so many plays, for he went to the theatre every night; but for a long time it seemed to be devoted to the purposes of mesmerism. A professor highly skilled in that science, which has reappeared in these days under the name of hypnotism, made a sojourn of some weeks in the town, and besides teaching it to classes of learners who wished to practise it, gave nightly displays of its wonders. He mesmerized numbers of the boys, and made them do or think whatever he said. He would give a boy a cane, and then tell him it was a snake, and the boy would throw it away like lightning. He would get a lot of boys, and mount them on chairs, and then tell them that they were at a horse-race, and the boys would gallop astride of their chairs round and round till he stopped them. Sometimes he would scare them almost to death, with a thunder-storm that he said was coming on; at other times he would make them go in swimming, on the dusty floor, and they would swim all over it in their best clothes, and would think they were in the river.

There were some people who did not believe in the professor, or the boys either. One of these people was an officer of the army who was staying a while in the Boy's Town, and perhaps had something to do with recruiting troops for the Mexican War. He came to the lecture one night, and remained with others who lingered after it was over to speak with the professor. My boy was there with his father, and it seemed to him that the officer smiled mockingly at the professor; angry words passed, and then the officer struck out at the professor. In an instant the professor put up both his fists; they flashed towards the officer's forehead, and the officer tumbled backwards. The boy could hardly believe it had happened. It seemed unreal, and of the dreamlike quality that so many facts in a child's bewildered life are of.

There were very few places of amusement or entertainment in the Boy's Town that were within a boy's reach. There were at least a dozen places where a man could get whiskey, but only one where he could get ice-cream, and the boys were mostly too poor and too shy to visit this resort. But there used to be a pleasure-garden on the outskirts of the town, which my boy remembered visiting when he was a very little fellow, with his brother. There were two large old mulberry-trees in this garden, and one bore white mulberries and the other black mulberries, and when you had paid your fip to come in, you could eat all the mulberries you wanted, for nothing. There was a tame crow that my boy understood could talk if it liked; but it only ran after him, and tried to bite his legs. Besides this attraction, there was a labyrinth, or puzzle, as the boys called it, of paths that wound in and out among bushes, so that when you got inside you were lucky if you could find your way out. My boy, though he had hold of his brother's hand, did not expect to get out; he expected to perish in that labyrinth, and he had some notion that his end would be hastened by the tame crow. His first visit to the pleasure-garden was his last; and it passed so wholly out of his consciousness that he never knew what became of it any more than if it had been taken up into the clouds.

He tasted ice-cream there for the first time, and had his doubts about it, though a sherry-glass full of it cost a fip, and it ought to have been good for such a sum as that. Later in life, he sometimes went to the saloon where it was sold in the town, and bashfully gasped out a demand for a glass, and ate it in some sort of chilly back-parlor. But the boys in that town, if they cared for such luxuries, did not miss them much, and their lives were full of such vivid interests arising from the woods and waters all about them that they did not need public amusements other than those which chance and custom afforded them. I have tried to give some notion of the pleasure they got out of the daily arrival of the packet in the Canal Basin; and it would be very unjust if I failed to celebrate the omnibus which was put on in place of the old-fashioned stage-coaches between the Boy's Town and Cincinnati. I dare say it was of the size of the ordinary city omnibus, but it looked as large to the boys then as a Pullman car would look to a boy now; and they assembled for its arrivals and departures with a thrill of civic pride such as hardly any other fact of the place could impart.

My boy remembered coming from Cincinnati in the stage when he was so young that it must have been when he first came to the Boy's Town. The distance was twenty miles, and the stage made it in four hours. It was this furious speed which gave the child his earliest illusion of trees and fences racing by while the stage seemed to stand still. Several times after that he made the journey with his father, seeming to have been gone a long age before he got back, and always so homesick that he never had any appetite at the tavern where the stage stopped for dinner midway. When it started back, he thought it would never get off the city pave and out from between its lines of houses into the free country. The boys always called Cincinnati "The City." They supposed it was the only city in the world.

"My boy remembers coming from Cincinnati in the stage"

Of course there was a whole state of things in the Boy's Town that the boys never knew of, or only knew by mistaken rumors and distorted glimpses. They had little idea of its politics, or commerce, or religion that was not wrong, and they only concerned themselves with persons and places so far as they expected to make use of them. But as they could make very little use of grown persons or public places, they kept away from them, and the Boy's Town was, for the most part, an affair of water-courses, and fields and woods, and the streets before the houses, and the alleys behind them.

Nearly all the houses had vegetable gardens, and some of them had flower-gardens that appeared princelier pleasaunces to my boy than he has ever seen since in Europe or America. Very likely they were not so vast or so splendid as they looked to him then; but one of them at least had beds of tulips and nasturtiums, and borders of flags and pinks, with clumps of tiger-lilies and hollyhocks; and in the grassy yard beside it there were high bushes full of snow-balls, and rose-trees with moss-roses on them. In this superb domain there were two summer-houses and a shed where bee-hives stood; at the end of the garden was a bath-house, and you could have a shower-bath, if you were of a mind to bring the water for it from the pump in the barn-yard. But this was all on a scale of unequalled magnificence; and most of the houses, which were mostly of wood, just had a good big yard with plum-trees and cherry-trees in it; and a vegetable garden at one side that the boy hated to weed. My boy's grandfather had a large and beautiful garden, with long arbors of grapes in it, that the old gentleman trimmed and cared for himself. They were delicious grapes; and there were black currants, which the grandfather liked, because he had liked them when he was a boy himself in the old country, but which no Boy's Town boy could have been induced to take as a gracious gift. Another boy had a father that had a green-house; he was a boy that would let you pull pie-plant in the garden, and would bring out sugar to let you eat it with in the green-house. His cleverness was rewarded when his father was elected governor of the state; and what made it so splendid was that his father was a Whig.

Every house, whether it had a flower-garden or not, had a woodshed, which was the place where a boy mostly received his friends, and made his kites and wagons, and laid his plots and plans for all the failures of his life. The other boys waited in the woodshed when he went in to ask his mother whether he might do this or that, or go somewhere. A boy always wanted to have a stove in the woodshed and fit it up for himself, but his mother would not let him, because he would have been certain to set the house on fire.

Each fellow knew the inside of his own house tolerably well, but seldom the inside of another fellow's house, and he knew the back-yard better than the front-yard. If he entered the house of a friend at all, it was to wait for him by the kitchen-door, or to get up to the garret with him by the kitchen-stairs. If he sometimes, and by some rare mischance, found himself in the living-rooms, or the parlor, he was very unhappy, and anxious to get out. Yet those interiors were not of an oppressive grandeur, and one was much like another. The parlor had what was called a flowered-carpet or gay pattern of ingrain on its floor, and the other rooms had rag-carpets, woven by some woman who had a loom for the work, and dyed at home with such native tints as butternut and foreign colors as logwood. The rooms were all heated with fireplaces, where wood was burned, and coal was never seen. They were lit at night with tallow-candles, which were mostly made by the housewife herself, or by lard-oil glass lamps. In the winter the oil would get so stiff with the cold that it had to be thawed out at the fire before the lamp would burn. There was no such thing as a hot-air furnace known; and the fire on the hearth was kept over from day to day all winter long, by covering a log at night with ashes; in the morning it would be a bed of coals. There were no fires in bedrooms, or at least not in a boy's bedroom, and sometimes he had to break the ice in his pitcher before he could wash; it did not take him very long to dress.

I have said that they burned wood for heating in the Boy's Town; but my boy could remember one winter when they burned ears of corn in the printing-office stove because it was cheaper. I believe they still sometimes burn corn in the West, when they are too far from a market to sell it at a paying price; but it always seems a sin and a shame that in a state pretending to be civilized food should ever be destroyed when so many are hungry. When one hears of such things one would almost think that boys could make a better state than this of the men.

William Dean Howells

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