The Principle of the Thing
In which disillusioned Youth learns that the path of glory leads to the woodshed
AW-RIGHT, aw-right!’’ Chester Chamberlain warned his chums. “You and Bony go on and eat ’em, then you’ll see apenaceetus.”
“Who said coupla little ole green apples ’ud give you apenaceetus?” Eddie Smeeton demanded.
“I said so, and I guess I know," Chester retorted. As a nephew of the first citizen of Mapleton to be operated on for appendicitis Chester spoke as one in authority. Thirty years ago, to have an uncle who had been operated on for this new disease was an honor no boy could afford to ignore.
Even Bony Hicks was impressed. He eyed the capful of unripe harvest apples Eddie was carrying, and might have heeded Chester’s warning had not Eddie been so scornful.
“Betcha they won’t hurt a fella,” the latter countered. “Anyhow, it’s a free country, isn’t it?”
“Sure it’s a free country, an’ I don’t got to poison my system just on account you say so,” Chester declared.
Eddie was about to answer when an arresting sound reached them. The trio stood in the roadway, expectant and a little awed. It was the town-hall bell clanging its fire signal. Above the bell the boys heard the rumbling staccato of wheels and hoofs on the Main Street bridge.
“Mister Snider coming a-whoopin',” Bony exclaimed.
“Bet it's Geordie Lunn,” Eddie challenged with partisan fervor.
Chester advised his chums to “shut their traps.” They did so, not because of Chester, but because they too wanted to count the final strokes of the bell which would tell from what part of town the call for help had come.
The thud of hoofs and rumble of a careening wagon reached them a second time. Eddie grimaced at Bony. And even Bony, who was a strong Snider supporter, could not deny that this heavier sound was from his favorite’s heavier wagon.
Mapleton, in the early years of the century, took a keen personal interest in fires. Today the town has motor-driven apparatus and a paid brigade, but compared to those of thirty years ago, fires today are scarcely worth crossing the street to see.
Then each fire meant two breakneck races instead of one. First there was the race to the town hall where the equipment was kept; then there was the race to the fire. The first delivery man to hook his horse to the hose wagon was voted the tidy sum of one dollar at the next regular council meeting. Snider and Lunn were the principal Ben Hurs of Mapleton.
The clanging had stopped. The bell gave its last measured strokes. "One two . . three . . . ,” they counted “Ward three: crost the river near the egg factory.”
With Bony in the lead they rounded the corner and five minutes later were within sight of the bridge. A score of running men were strung out ahead of them.
The boys were overhauling most of these adults when a bareheaded man appeared at the far end of the bridge. He was coming toward them and they recognized Gus Hofler, a recently joined member of the fire brigade.
“ ’S matter with him?” Chester panted. “He’s going the wrong way.”
Men on the bridge waved their arms. “Whoa! Fire’s near the egg factory,” they bawled. Hofler flapped one hand to show he knew all about that and kept on running.
“Don’t that beat the Dutch!” an old man standing in the road exclaimed. He waved his stick and when Gus paid no heed, the old man snorted that “Hofler never did have sense enough to pound sand."
Near the middle of the bridge a friend ran out to stop Gus. GUS waved his arm toward the row of “rough cast” cottages beyond the bridge. “Got to change outa my good clothes,” he panted.
The boys could hardly believe their ears. That a fireman, a potential hero, would be so petty as to delay answering the call to change his clothes was both disillusioning and disgusting. “Just wish I was a fireman,” Eddie gasped as they ran on.
As they turned down River Street, at w'hose end the “egg factory” stood, they could see much smoke.
“Looks like a ring-tailed snorter,” a man shouted.
“Bad fire all right,” Bony corroborated.
Eddie, almost winded, made a confirmatory sound. It did indeed look like a bad fire, but the three boys were bearing up splendidly. Mapleton had had a dearth of fires lately, and those there had been had taken place so late in the evening as to be practically wasted. They were hoping for better luck today.
But half an hour later they saw they were not going to have it. The “egg factory”—an old stone mill used as a storage place by a firm of produce dealers—was too damp and too solidly built to flare. Having elbowed to the front rank of spectators, the boys watched smoke billow lazily from the upper window's.
People were starting to go away. Even the efforts of the fire brigade were hidden from the crow'd, and those which the boys did see lacked the rush and vigor they had come to expect of fire fighters. , Eddie and Chester and Bony Hicks were among the last to leave and it was supper time when they straggled homeward over Main Street bridge.
From the spectators’ standpoint the egg factory fire had been a sorry fizzle, and it was not until Chester heard his father talking about it at the supper table that he learned, in the matter of fires, appearances can be deceiving.
“Produce people’ll have to stand quite a loss, I hear,” Mr. Chamberlain told his wife. “Lot of stock ruined. Smoke and water.”
“What a pity!” Mrs. Chamberlain exclaimed.
“Worst of it is, the damage could have been cut down if the brigade had turned out promptly. Poor management somewhere. Why, they even tell me Gus Hofler ran all the way home from the Depot hotel to change his clothes before he answered the call.”
“Sure, I seen him,” Chester broke in. “Not ‘seen’ him—‘saw’ him,” his mother corrected. “How absurd!” she went on. “Of course, you know what Mrs. Hofler is. Poor Gus can hardly call his soul his own.” “He shouldn’t be a fireman then. Anyway, it’s the principle of the thing. For a fireman, duty should come first.”
AFTER supper, as Chester went out to ■T*the back gate and down the lane he still thrilled at his father’s words: “For a fireman, duty should come first.” Yep, that was the principle of the thing all right, all right, and Chester vowed that when he grew up and . . . But his reverie was
broken by Eddie beckoning to him from the door of the Smeeton barn. As Chester drew near he could see by his chum’s face that Eddie was “up to something.”
“Know what?” Eddie began. “The fire was a bad one after all. My dad said the brigade was slow’s molasses.”
“Mine said the brigade was old stick-in-the-muds. No get-up-an’-go to them. Says they need young blood somewheres. If a house up here on the hill catched fire it’d be bad.”
“Yep, you bet,” Chester agreed. “Tell you, Eddie, it’d make a person good and sick to see their very own house going up in smoke and that ol’ brigade jes’ crawlin’ up the hill.”
“And maybe childrun crying out the windows till they sizzled.” Eddie was intense, grave. “There’s people who could beat that brigade all hollow, runnirg and climbing ladders and such—”
“You don’t mean ?” Chester ventured, awed
and stirred by Eddie’s audacious hint. He knew whom Eddie meant but he was avid to hear names.
“I mean me and you and Bony and a bunch more,” Eddie announced dramatically. “Ches, old sock, I got it all worked out slick, app’ratus and all. We’ll get up the Boys’ Fire Brigade.” As the inspired Eddie unfolded his plan, Chester felt the glow of a crusader. He could see harried householders going to bed at night, worried no longer, but lulled by knowing that the demon fire would be held at bay by gallant youths, no matter what hour of the day or night it might rear its lurid head.
As Eddie talked, Chester could see it all. The sudden alarm, the frantic women, and then, with hose cart gong clanking, the brigade of heroes dashing up with their apparatus. Every boy would have a blue jacket with brass buttons and a fireman’s hat. He could see men and women standing rapt and worshipful while he and his nimble chums scaled the building, drenched the fire and made deprecating gestures at the praise showered on them.
“It was nothing, Missus So-and-so. The Boy’s Brigade will ever be on hand when duty calls. Duty comes first. It is the principle of the thing. Call us any old time your children are in danger of such awful death.” That’s what he would tell them.
And now, skilled promoter that he was, Eddie was following up his emotional appeal by a practical setting forth of fact.
“We got the old pony cart. It’s got lamps ’n everythin’. They’s lots of old hose lying round and any house we get called to will lend us some extry.”
“Yep. But what about uniforms?” Chester urged. “You said—”
“They’ll be blue, like the firemen’s I saw sitting round the fire halls when I was in Trawnta, Exhibition time. Blue with brass buttons. We’ll buy six sets, hats and all.”
“With the money we’re gonna get paid us,” Eddie eyed his chum sternly. “Looky here, Ches Chamberlain, don’t you get to thinking we’re going to risk our good ol’ lives for nothing. You bet people will be glad to pay us.”
“Will they? Well, I should say! We’ll get twentyfive cents from every house round here. There’s mebbe twenty dollars right there.”
“But s’pose they won’t pay any twenty-five cents.”
“We’ll let their old house burn up. We’ll have a list here in the fire hall and anybody that hollers for help and hasn’t paid up will be sorry to their dying day.”
Chester was convinced. He could see Eddie, obdurate, repelling, palm dramatically upraised against some pleading householder whose house was aflame but who had not paid for protection. It seemedlhard and Chester hoped Eddie would not be too severe. It was dusk and Mrs. Chamberlain was calling “Ches . . . ter,” in a sweetly persistent voice before the plans for the morrow had been drawn up.
NEXT morning, as soon as Eddie’s wonderful plan for safeguarding the lives and property of residents on the hill became known, there was a rush of volunteers to the Smeeton barn. Because of the cost Eddie had decided to limit the brigade to six. Wheedling candidates failed to make him go beyond that, but instead of turning them away hostile, Eddie enlisted their support by what was little less than a stroke of diplomatic genius.
“Course we’ll always be needing more men,” he said.
“Fellas getting hurt and maybe killed. So anybody who helps round the fire hall won’t have long to wait to step into a uniform.” They were thrilled by his sombre prediction. Eagerly they obeyed his orders to wash the pony cart and coil a length of discarded garden hose in it.
“This ord'nary hose is just for a start,” Eddie explained. “When people see the stuff we’re made of, they’ll go after the Town Council hot an’ heavy and make them get us reg’lar hose.”
Next, that vital fixture of every juvenile fire hall, the sliding pole, was put up. This was actually a length of old water pipe pushed through the trapdoor into the mow and lashed to the rafters. If there had been any lack of enthusiasm among the boys on the waiting list it vanished with the erection of the pole. But for the brigade’s founder there was more essential work that morning.
“You an’ me and Bony’s got to get out collecting,” he told Chester privately. “Hunkie and the bunch can look after the hall till we get back.”
Chester was attracted by the sliding pole, but he knew Eddie was right and so, after delivering parting orders, Captain Smeeton and his two lieutenants went down the lane.
All three agreed they had better go to Captain Carruther’s house first. Other people might be cool when asked to share in some juvenile enterprise, but the retired master mariner always gave a fair hearing. A boy or girl selling needle books, scented soap, or tickets for Sunday-school conceits always went there first. No one knew how often the grizzled old gentleman had bought diamond rings for thirty cents, or the first of three thousand cakes of soap which must be sold before the vendor could claim a bicycle as a premium. Obviously, in so important a matter as fire protection, Captain Carruthers must be waited upon first.
The delegation found him leisurely mowing his lawn, and as they approached along the gravel walk he stopped and rested his elbows on the handle of the mower. His face was grave but there were wrinkles at the corners of his grey, farseeing eyes. He was wondering what the lads were up to this time.
The trio straggled across the lawn to him, their elaborate nonchalance evidence that the errand was an important one. They came up, halted and waited awkwardly. Chester nudged Eddie savagely, while Bony tried to overcome his embarrassment by beheading a dandelion between his bare toes.
“Pretty hot day, Cap’n Carruthers,” Eddie ventured anxiously.
The boys were immensely relieved to hear the Captain agree that it was hot.
Chester gave a mirthless cackle. “Sure is hot all right, all right. Guess it’s the hottest day this summer.”
Bony could stand the suspense no longer. “Go on, spout it out,” he blurted, giving Eddie a push.
Eddie glared, gulped and took the plunge.
“Us fellas, we was wondering if you’d pay us to fight fires for you. We got a fire brigade.”
As the Captain heard the flow of details he told himself that here at last was “an entirely new tack,” and he gave the spokesman an encouraging nod.
“We’ll protec’ your house for twenty-fi’ cents a year . . . any old house you got,” Eddie declared. If he had been offering to take the entire property off the Captain’s hands at a handsome profit his manner could not have been more generous.
Captain Carruthers removed his battered panama, wiped his forehead and replaced the hat slowly. Obviously he was hesitating.
“Us fellas are quick. No house in town we can’t climb. All the time climbing some old thing. Eh, Bony? Eh, Ches?”
“Your proposition is interesting, boys,” he told them, “but having to wait around for calls will take up too much of your time, won’t it?"
“Ho, we got scads of time. Anyway we like to do it,” Bony insisted.
“But a year’s a long time. Another thing, I don’t like to take advantage of friends. My house is frame and bigger than most. How would it do to wait till you’ve practised on something smaller? You may not have long to wait. As you say, the weather’s hot.” What the Captain could not tell them was his suspicion that the parents of the boys would not want this scheme encouraged. In their reckless haste to prove how agile they were at “climbing any old thing,” one of them might easily get a nasty fall.
Bony’s bare feet scuffled in the gravel, but the Captain did not wait for him to speak.
“Yes, I think that’s the best way,” he went on. “You try your hand at a small fire. Then if you still want to take on my house I’ll pay you double. Yes, and I’ll pay twenty-five cents for the woodshed.”
“Woodsheds! Huh! We’d protec’ woodsheds for fifteen cents,” Eddie offered, hoping to clinch the deal by cut-rate methods.
But the Captain’s mind was made up and as he wheeled the lawn mower into line for the next swath they knew the conference was over.
“Putting us off, that’s all he’s doing,” Bony asserted, hunching his shoulders and jamming his fists into his pockets.
Eddie turned from carefully latching the Carruthers’ gate and looked scornfully at his lieutenant’s póse of moody disillusionment. Had he been the manager of a high-pressure selling crew “pepping up” a faint-hearted worker his denial could not have been more vigorous.
“If you was a man with a great big frame house you’d think twict before you ast people to risk their lives, eh, wouldn’t you?” he demanded.
Bony looked back. Because of one small window in the attic the Carruthers’ house could be called a three-story building. The egg factory was only that high.
"Another thing,” Eddie went on. “If
By the time they reached the fire hall, all Bony’s doubt had gone. The matter of a further canvass was not mentioned, and Eddie proceeded to “swear in” the members.
the Cap’n paid us, where would we get a three-story ladder? If flames was a-roaring and walls a-falling and we didn’t do something, what would he have to do? He’d have to say, ‘Boys, I paid up, didn’t I? Well, then, no more of your didoes. Skin up to that roof and get to work.’ ”
He pointed to an old dinner horn he had hung on a nail inside the barn door. “That there’s the sire-een. When that goes, no matter what you’re doing you got to come arunning. Eating a bang-up dinner, seeing a circus or anything, we all got to come. It's all our duty. See?” “Principle of th' thing, sorta,” Chester muttered, still fascinated by the halfunderstood phrase he had heard his father use. The other members signified that they were willing to put duty above all else, and so after crossing their hearts, holding up their right hands and expectorating vigorously, Eddie declared them duly sworn members of the Boys’ Fire Brigade.
Continued on page 46
The Principle of the Thing
Continued from page 19
For the next hour, while some of the solemnity of the “swearing in” lingered in their minds, the reserve members worked willingly, although Eddie had several times to order younger reservists “for the love of Mike to leave that pole alone and do something.” But as noon approached and the day's heat made itself felt they seemed more relieved than disappointed that they at least would be free to go up the river swimming that afternoon instead of working round a hot barn waiting for a “sire-een” to blow. They trooped home to dinner as soon as the noon factory whistles along the river began to sound.
“See you fellas after dinner,” Eddie told the departing Bony, Chester, Hunky and the rest.
“Sure, see you after dinner,” they agreed.
"DUT at one o’clock Eddie and Chester U were the only two on duty. “Mebbe they got chores to do,” Eddie ventured anxiously as they sat against the shady side of the barn to wait. They had not been there long before Chester’s mother called him from up the lane and the captain of the brigade was left alone.
Eddie sat on the bench against the barn wall—the bench he had placed there in imitation of Toronto fire halls—and waited an hour without sight or sound of any of his men.
"What she want to butt in on Ches like that for?” he muttered, glaring at the Chamberlain house through the trees. When another ten minutes had passed and no brigade member appeared, Eddie could stand his growing doubts no longer and went around the corner and up the street to see if he could see Bony or Chester or any of the rest. He was amazed to find Chestei seated on the Chamberlain gate post and more amazed to find him dressed in his Sunday clothes.
"What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I got to go down town with . her,” and he jerked his head rebelliously toward the house.
“Got to go to the stores?” Eddie’s sympathy was roused by memories of a recent harrowing afternoon when he had been convoyed by his own mother to boot and clothing stores along Main Street.
If Chester had been condemned to have a tooth pulled he could not have looked down more glumly on his chum. “Got to have my pitcher took,” he blurted shamefacedly.
"You do not!" Eddie was incredulous.
“Aw-right, aw-right. Call me a liar and be done with it! Me and her’s going to Sleeman’s Ate-leer. I guess I know,” Chester added ominously.
The shame of it left both Eddie and Chester speechless. Mr. Sleeman was known as Mapleton’s most “elegant" photographer. It was agreed by mothers that he “had a way with children;” little girls were thrilled to see their pictures in his window, but by every boy who dreaded the label of “sissy” he was looked upon as an archenemy. Even to be the chum of a boy who had his picture in Sleeman’s window was abhorrent to Eddie Smeeton.
“You were swore in and she’s got no right to do it, Ches,” he grated. “Golly, I’d like to hit that Sleeman such a kick.”........... . . . . “I just wisht his place would ketch fire,” Chester exclaimed. “No old sire-een would make me put it out even if he paid a million twenty-five centses.”
Eddie looked up, startled, then stood as if paralyzed by the idea Chester’s words had given him. “Cross my heart and hope to die,” Chester had said with the rest that morning when they had taken the oath. If there should be a fire, even a small grass fire, and Chester did not answer the siren it would be his mother’s fault if a speedy death overtook him for his breach of trust. What business had Mrs. Chamberlain or anybody else
to drag a fireman off to Sleeman’s atelier? He looked anxiously at the house, then took a step nearer Chester.
“You swore an oath, Ches Chamberlain, and you got to keep it no matter what,” he stated with forceful solemnity. Here was a chance, a last chance, to rally the flagging loyalty of the brigade and at the same time to save his chum from the clutches of Mr. Sleeman. Then, before the astounded Chester could verify his suspicions of his chum’s purpose, Eddie started up the street.
DOR the next ten minutes Chester ■k remained on the gatepost. Eddie’s disgust over the appointment with Mr. Sleeman had increased his own aversion to the point of nausea. Once his picture was in the atelier window, Chester was positive he would be the object of the pity and amusement of every boy in Mapleton. This conspiracy between his mother and the photographer was more than he could bear. His fist delivered uppercuts upon the imaginary face of Mr. Sleeman. A burning, rebellious fury possessed him and then . . he heard the siren. He leaped from his perch and at that same instant heard his mother calling him.
“Chester Chamberlain, you come back here right this minute,” he heard her command.
“I swore a oath,” he yelled, and then with head up and elbows working like pistons he passed from her sight and hearing.
By that complicated mental process of self-justification which is the despair of every parent, Chester, by the time he reached the fire hall, had convinced himself that he was doing the only right, the only noble thing. He even made himself believe that much as he wanted to spend a pleasant half hour with Mr. Sleeman, the dangerous, unwelcome duty of fire fighting must come first.
He almost bumped into Eddie who, single-handed, was trundling out the pony cart. Seizing a shaft each, he and his captain sped down the lane at whose end they encountered the breathless Bony. “This way,” Eddie panted and turned the
cart along the side street at whose ena was a vacant, weed-infested lot known as “The Jungle.”
Swirls of smoke were rising from the thickest patch of weeds when they reached the scene, and to Eddie’s alarm the flames were spreading quickly toward the board fence across the lane.
At the sight Eddie seemed to lose his head. “Gee, we better beat it,” he gasped, but his chums, unaware of his guilt, scarcely heard him. Whipping off his jacket, Chester led them into the smoke and began dealing blows to left and right on the burning grass. A fanatical recklessness was upon him. He knew he had on his Sunday clothes—he had never liked that suit so much as now—and yet, in glad surrender he was sacrificing it on the altar of duty. Into the heart of the fire he beat his way. Singed eyebrows, blackened clothes—such things could not deter him. And when, after five minutes' work, a housewife who stood at one of the back gates watching with some concern, commended him for his zeal, he saw himself as others saw him—a hero!
On the way home they met Hunkie and several others returning from the swimming hole. The delinquents’ chagrin and admiration when they heard the epic story of the battle with the flames, gave Eddie hope that he could yet revive their flagging morale. As willing hands backed the cart into the fire hall after a smart run home, he was full of plans. His ruse had worked and Chester, good old Chester, had become a hero and the envy of every boy in the neighborhood. Eddie’s sure sense of the dramatic told him he must make the most of that. All too well he knew the fickleness of fame, and anything he could do to stress Chester’s heroism would strengthen his hold on the more flighty members.
“Another thing we got to have is a first-aid kit,” he announced. “Lookit Ches’s face. Eyebrows nearly frizzled off. I’ll get some vas’line from the house—”
“Nope,” Chester protested modestly. “I’ll mosey on home.” He knew he must get the worst over with his mother before his father came home from work.
“We’ll go with you,” Bony declared, not wanting to lose this chance to escort a hero up the street.
“It’s best I go alone,” Chester insisted theatrically.
“I better go,” Eddie ruled. “Youse all clean up the app’ratus till we get back. Look bad for the brigade if Ches was overcome with fumes or somethin,’ walking home from a fire.”
Chester, averse as he was to witnesses of his homecoming, yet seeing he must choose between Eddie or all of them, turned and went up the lane with his chum.
They were entering the back gate when Mr. Chamberlain came down the summer kitchen steps and caught sight of his son. He strode down the path.
“Well, what have you got to say for yourself?” His voice was businesslike, the voice of a male parent about to go into conference with his son ... in the woodshed.
Then and there Chester knew that his father, in that odd way parents have, had heard about the afternoon’s transgressions. “Fella’s got to do his duty, doesn’t he?” he floundered. It dismayed him that the righteous justification he had felt at the fire had deserted him. “Fella didn’t ought to be like Mister Hofler. You said, on account, on account the principle of th’ thing,” he blurted.
“Don’t you principle-of-the-thing me,” his father retorted.
In a flash Chester knew that instead of a justification, his pet phrase had become a petard and that he was going to be hoist with it. Mr. Chamberlain glanced pointedly from Eddie to the gate. Eddie discreetly withdrew.
DEJECTEDLY the brigade’s captain started down the lane. In his heart of hearts he knew his chum deserved the spanking, and yet it seemed that everything was conspiring to disband the brigade. With Chester at the fire hall to be glorified and envied, no self-denial, no drudgery, was too great to ask of the others. And now Chester was with his father—in the woodshed. Whatever would he tell the boys? The truth would be a deadly anticlimax. And then in a blaze of inspiration, he had it. He was walking briskly when he reached the barn.
“Where’s Ches?” Hunky asked as he came in. Other boys left their tasks to listen. It was apparent from their faces that Chester’s nonappearance was a disappointment.
Eddie paused dramatically. Then when every eye was on him, and every ear waiting for his words, he told them. “Mighty good thing I did go with him. Good ol’ Ches. If folks knew how he fought that fire his name would be in the paper tomorrow, you bet. He never said anything, never complained, nor nothing. But he won’t be able to fight fires for mebbe a week.”
He paused. Then in a way which made every boy long to follow in their hero’s footsteps, Eddie added, “Just as we got in the back gate, poor Ches, he was sorta . . sorta overcome with