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The Fireman's Dream

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"'Twas in the fitful fashion of a dream." Grenville Mellen.3

Chapter I.

"Young he was and vigorous, And just on the third seventh of his age— With many virtues and some vices too, But both such as we love. Indeed my liege, An excellent man of a most excellent class." Old Play.4

"What shall I do with myself to-day?" was the thought that first sprang in the mind of a young New Yorker, as he awoke and turned over in bed some time after day light, one morning last summer. The bed was in an attic room of a house in one of those thoroughfares that run down from Division street to Houston. A window opened to the eastward, and George Willis, the occupant of the bed, lazily gazing out of it, saw that the prospect was fair for a most beautiful day. The eastern horizon was just lighting up with the beams of the sun, whose broad face had already appeared. The immense expanse of brick, the stacks of chimneys, and the far stretching streets, were tipped with the golden beams—and as the young man gazed, he felt that pleasant and agreeable sensation which results from having a good stock of health and animal spirits, refreshed by a night's wholesome sleep, and no cares pressing on the mind. He rose, and leisurely proceeded to make himself ready for breakfast.

It may not be amiss here to occupy the time which George takes in dressing, to tell who and what he is. The house of which the bedroom in the attic story was part, was owned by a respectable and industrious cabinet maker, and "our hero" (as the tale-writers say) was one of his apprentices. Two months more would make the young man of age—when, as the probabilities were, he would be installed in a profitable situation in his master's establishment, mutually to the satisfaction of the employer and the employed.

Young Willis was an agreeable fellow, whom everybody liked;—and if he had any foible in the world it was a surpassing love and fondness for his "machine," as he called the fire-engine he had attached himself to. For he was one of that noble class of which New York ought to be proud, the firemen. Nor is it any drawback upon the merit of the really gallant and deserving ones of the body we mention, that there are some scoundrels among them. Amid a class so large and mixed, it would be impossible to have all perfect. The wonder is, that the number of the vicious is not greater than it really is.

At breakfast, George made up his mind that about as pleasant a way of spending his Sunday as any he could think of, would be by an excursion to Hoboken. He announced his intention to some of the other male members of the family, and was soon furnished with several companions.

For the purposes of our story, it is not necessary to follow the young fireman and his friends, in all their sayings and doings during the jaunt. That they were delighted is a matter of course—for who could go over to Hoboken, of a pleasant summer day and not be delighted?

One of the principal incidents of the afternoon was the sight of, and conversation with, a party of Indians, a dozen or more in number, who had three small tents under the spreading branches of some of the trees, and who appeared to be an object of considerable curiosity to all the spectators. There was one of the more youthful portion of these Indians, a man of about twenty three or four, that attracted more than ordinary attention. Willis and his party were pleased with him, and invited him to partake of some small refreshment with them. They sat and chatted with the young savage for an hour or more. He told them many anecdotes of forest customs, and of his own life—and it was almost with regret that the middle of the afternoon made it necessary for the party to leave their new acquaintance and return to New York.

The evening was as beautiful as the day had been. George sat at a window at the back of the house looking out into quite a handsome garden which covered the yard owned by the cabinet maker. He was somewhat tired and exhausted by the amusements of the day, and had just made up his mind to retire uncommonly early to bed, when his ears were saluted by a sound which never fails to put every New York fireman on the alert.

Clang! clang! clang! went the great bell of the City Hall. And with a lesser loudness, but quite as much activity, soon followed a whole host of other bells.

Nothing surprises strangers in New York more than the sudden life and readiness for action, evinced by the city firemen, the moment the warning notes of danger are flung forth upon the breeze. The echoes of the first stroke have hardly died away, when hundreds of men with their pilot cloth coats, and ponderous black fire-caps, are seen sallying along, with might and main, in the direction of the burning tenement.

On this occasion the fire was in the neighborhood of the Park. The up-town engines, were close on the heels of their down-town competitors, and though the flames had made considerable headway, all hands immediately commenced taking the most active means for arresting their progress. Ladders were quickly placed in such positions as were necessary to enable them to pull down certain portions connecting the burning parts with others as yet uninjured—and ropes and huge hooks, were applied to the half consumed beams—which soon brought them to the ground.

Who so active and enthusiastic in the whole affair as George Willis? But alas! the ungrateful fate that too often rewards efforts of heroic daring—a daring not seldom met with among the New York firemen—was destined to fall to no slight extent here. An immense portion of the roof and side, though not in a burning state itself had been undermined, and its support withdrawn, by the progress of the flames beneath, and suddenly fell on the heads of a number of the most venturesome of the firemen. One man was instantly killed. Several were burnt—and George was struck to the earth, apparently lifeless, by a tremendous blow on his head. No sooner however had the involuntary exclamations of horror caused by the sight of the falling timbers burst from the spectators' lips, than prompt means were taken to aid the sufferers and obviate the damage as far as could be. A thousand willing forms and brave hands pressed forward to drag the stricken down bodies of their comrades from their perilous situation. It was at first thought that George Willis was dead; but closer examination proved that he had only received a severe wound on the head, which, however dangerous, had not as yet deprived him of life.

By the assistance and direction of some young friends, who fortunately were nigh at hand, he was forthwith taken to his own home, and received every attention that the kindest affection on the part of the cabinet maker's wife, and a good looking girl, the daughter, could procure.

Behold our young firemen, then, lying on the bed from which he had risen so comfortably in the morning, senseless and with an ugly gash just over his forehead. He soon found his faculties of speech, it is true, but they were only used to give utterance to the most vague fantasies of a brain fever, which now set in. The poor fellow knew none of those about him. He imagined himself in the trackless Indian forests of the west, and talked incessantly in the most wild and dreamy manner.

The physician who was sent for prescribed some medicines which, after a short time, had a soothing effect, and the youth sunk into a comparatively quiet sleep. But though outwardly calm, his volatile and active mind partook of the restlessness of those brains, where "reason's lord sits lightly on his throne," and vibrated to and fro apparently without direction or point.

Poor George wandered awhile, (as he afterwards related to the family), amid such unearthly scenes of tumult, as were never before imagined by mortal man. The heated rays of the sun shown down upon him, with the most painful and relentless fury, and it seemed as though his blood was simmering in his veins. Immense sounds as of the booming of mighty bells kept throbbing in his ears and he was hurried forward, by the force of a resistless crowd.

Now there was a fire company towards which the one George belonged to, had a bitter feeling. This bitterness had never proceeded to any length beyond sharp words; but it was sadly feared some occasion might arise which would lead to one of those sanguinary riots which are the saddest disgrace to the firemen of New York—though in this respect, New York does not approach the doings of a certain sister city not a hundred miles off.5

As George was walking, he himself could not exactly tell where, he was sneeringly accosted by a man whom he knew to be a member of the detested company. A reply of severity was returned—and then commenced a war of words, which grew hotter and hotter on either side, until neither party could contain the worked up ferocity of his nature. They made for each other, and clenched in a deadly grapple.

For some minutes, as they rolled over upon the ground, victory seemed in doubt. But in one of the turnings, George came uppermost, and with one of his arms free. Quick as lightning he drew a knife from his breast and plunged it into the other's heart. A second and a third plunge completed the work of death, and then the bleeding corpse of a fellow creature lay before the young fireman, stiffening in its own clotted gore. It was most horrible!

Need we add that the awful reality of such a dream has more than once occurred in our city?

It would be impossible to transcribe all the capricious incidents and adventures of the sick man. After a while, however, they began to be reduced to more method. He was walking and gazing in a wilderness far from the abodes of civilized beings. Through the trees he occasionally caught glimpses of a majestic river; on the opposite bank of which he once saw a group of deer-skin huts, and nigh at hand the forms of some dusky children, at play. By his side was a companion, not much beyond his own age, but of the hue of the sons of the forest. The heat was overpowering; and as they came out by a grassy knoll in the wood, in the centre of which was a bubbling brook of clear water, they agreed to throw themselves down, and rest awhile there. And the companion, at the request of the young man, began to while away the time with talk.—He told the story of his own life. He mourned over the decay of his ancient race;—and the fires that once or twice flashed from his eyes proved, that, had a fit opportunity offered, he would have shown himself no cowardly scion of their warlike stock. Yet he had a gentle manner, and a soft winning voice—and the ears of the listener drank in his narrative with delight.

Chapter II.


The blackbird is singing on Michigan's shore As sweetly and wildly as ever before. The sun looks as ruddy and rises as bright, And reflects oe'r the waters as beamy a light; Each bird and each beast it is blessed in degree All nature is cheerful, all happy but me. Geehale.6

I am a white man by education and an Indian by birth. Within my bosom reside two opposing elements, which ever refuse to mix with one another, and often war fiercely, and rack my soul with great pain. These elements are the influences of my nature on the one side, and those of my habits on the other. Let me tell you how I came among your people.

Far in the outskirts of one of the Western States, lived a hardy pioneer, and his quite as hardy wife. Of the two, she possessed much the more bold and masculine disposition. She hunted with him in the forest—caught fish in the stream—and felled trees to clear the land, with her own arms. The name of this couple was Boane—hers, Violet—his, Sampson. She was tall and large-limbed, with brawny hands, and coarse features; but good nature and kindness dwelt upon those features, and she had a merry and gentle heart in that huge wall of flesh. Her husband might have been about half her size and weight—he was a little, abject, obedient creature, and never entertained much opinion of his own. He had one son, a youth of twenty, who partook more of the mother than the father—being mighty in size, like her, and also merry in soul. In the east, where they lived previous to their emigration, Harry Boane sailed in a coasting vessel as a mariner. He was fond of the water and always retained the garb of the craft.

The gentle Violet and her son would frequently recreate themselves with a sail upon the river which passed the door of their log-cabin, and emptied into a branch of the great Mississippi, hundreds of miles away. Sometimes they journeyed several miles up the stream, where there was a favorite spot for fishing. It was on one of these occasions that my fortunes happened to be interlinked with theirs. Thus it was:

Evening had began to sprinkle her hue of gloom on the trees and the river. The wild-fowl were seeking their marshy nests—and the prairie fox looked forth from his burrow to see how long ere he might saunter abroad for plunder. Violet and her son were floating idly along the current of the river, in their boat, toward home. She had the helm, and he was rowing, though with little outlay of strength.

As they pushed by the overhanging shrubbery of a part of the shore, all of a sudden a sharp and prolonged cry struck their ears. It was as from a human being in distress. They were startled, and instinctively pushed out into the stream. They had heard of the tricks of the cunning savages to lure the whites to destruction; and were somewhat superstitious withal.

Not many moments elapsed before the cry sounded again upon the cool evening breeze—and they felt sure that it was no deception. It was that cry—what mother's ear ever failed her to tell it correctly? the cry of a young child. It rose long and wailing again—a piteous cry—bearing in its tones an entreaty to all charatable hearts for succor and protection.

"Pull to the shore," commanded the woman, at once.

Harry obeyed—and a couple of vigorous thrusts of his boat-pole impelled the tiny vessel in the midst of the bog and brambles that lined the margin of the stream. They jumped upon land.

Guided by the moaning accents, which now pierced the air with redoubled loudness, they soon came out upon a little opening, either artificial or left so by nature, some three or four rods from the shore. There, upon the ground, with out mat or couch other than the leaves, lay an Indian child—a boy of six or seven years. He made many signs of agony, and upon their bending over him, he pointed with gestures which though mute they could not fail of comprehending to one of his ancles. It was badly sprained. The least motion was like probing the very marrow of the bones.

The child was perfectly naked. He had no covering, not even the skin of a wild beast. He spoke not, unless a rough and unintelligible exclamation, consisting of two syllables only, repeated over and over again, might be called speaking. Literally, he seemed a wild and untamed creature, a companion of the forest bears—and abandoned by his own species.

Never did the gentle Violet look upon anything in the shape of tangible misery, which act of hers could relieve, without doing her best for effecting that relief. With as much tenderness as possible, she and Harry conveyed the boy to the boat, and bestowed him there in the easiest posture. He seemed sensible of their kindness, and repaid it by grateful glances of his round black eyes.

The journey home was made with as much speed as the situation of things would admit. Arrived there, the kindness of Violet did not pause at any attentions or motherly nursings. She bandaged the foot of the poor Indian boy with soothing balsams, and placed him on a soft and easy couch, and gave him cooling refreshments. He could not talk to her—for he knew no language of the mouth. But the gratitude of those black eyes was a hundred times stronger.

That Indian boy was myself.

I will be asked in vain to explain the method of my being wounded in the forest that evening—and why I was there alone. As I struggle sometimes to carry my memory back, and account for the preceding events, all is like a dark and ill dream, leaving a hateful recollection upon the mind, but the nature and the details of which I cannot comprehend. I know not whether I was lost from some wandering family—or whether I was abandoned by an inhuman parent. Sometimes I think that my tribe might have been destroyed in war, either with the whites or with people of their own color, and I, accidentally left for dead in the midst of my kindred's corpes, rose and wandered through the forest in my infant helplessness, and yet was preserved by the hand of the Great Spirit, whose eye loses not sight even of orphans in the untravelled wild. What miracle led to my continued life, exposed to the rigor of the seasons, and without shelter—be this latter supposition correct—it is impossible for me to say. Did the berries and the nuts afford me food? Found I a bed in the vacated lair of some forest panther? Gamboled I with the wild squirrels, or played with the young cubs? To this day I can climb the hugest tree or the lithest sapling as nimbly as a cat frightened by schoolboys.

Violet and her people were very kind to me. I was clothed by them, and in a few days when my hurt was healed, and I went forth and saw how they lived, and heard the sound of their voices to one another—that mystery of conveyance of thoughts which I could not understand—a strange revolution took place within me. They told me with smiles to stay with them, and be their son. My eyes answered, yes.

So I learned language. I can remember even now the infantile curiosity with which I would take various articles to Violet and sign to her an inquiry for their names—and when she uttered them how I would try to pronounce them myself—and what mistakes I made—and how her loud laugh would jingle forth at the comical method of those mistakes—and how I myself would join in the laugh, and then try again, and at last succeed.

I became soon the very pet of all of them, and necessary to their happiness. Violet loved me, and Harry jestingly called me his little son. Boane, the husband, I cared not so much for; my nature assimilated to the bold the manly and the strong. Yet, I believe, I was ever gentle, and easily led.

They, in the course of time when their neighborhood was more thickly populated, and a school was established, sent me to learn the various branches of education. I soon outstripped my fellows, and was noted for the most studious of all the pupils. Only one of them came near to me, in my progress. This was my playfellow Anthony Clark, a distant relative of the Boanes, an orphan like myself, and of about my own age.

Anthony Clark, my young competitor at school, had come to live with Boanes, (why should I not have mentioned this before, when the name of the person is burnt in welcome characters of fire upon my soul?) a few seasons after I was found so strangely in the forest. He was from the east—and came out with one of the bands of emigrants.

[To be continued.]7


1. [Original.] [back]

2. While completing research for the two volumes of journalism that were published as part of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, Herbert Bergman discovered "The Fireman's Dream," a previously unknown story by Walter Whitman, as well as the poem "Tale of a Shirt: A Very Pathetic Ballad," which was signed "W." in the New York Sunday Times and Noah's Weekly Messenger. For more information on the discovery of "The Fireman's Dream" and its publication, see "About 'The Fireman's Dream: With the Story of His Strange Companion. A Tale of Fantasie.'" [back]

3. This epigraph is taken from Grenville Mellen's poem "Dream of the Sea." The poem was published in the third volume of Samuel Kettell, ed., Specimens of American Poetry with Critical and Biographical Notices (Boston: S. G. Goodrich and Co., 1829). Grenville Mellen (1799–1841) was born in Maine, educated at Harvard, and became a lawyer. He began writing prose sketches and poems around the age of twenty-five, contributed to a number of periodicals, and published volumes of prose and poetry. See "Dream of the Sea," Specimens of American Poetry, 314–316; see also Rufus Wilmot Griswold, "Grenville Mellen," The Poets and Poetry of America (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1848), 257. [back]

4. The source of this epigraph is unknown. [back]

5. Whitman may be referring to the history of violence, including rioting, by volunteer firemen in nineteenth-century New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, among other cities. Amy Greenberg argues that early volunteer fire squads were built on close male friendships and constituted cohesive male communities (42–43; 52–60). Adherence to masculine honor codes within companies often inspired competition between them, including racing to be the first to reach fires and stealing fire engines from other companies' houses (95). For a more detailed analysis of these and other causes of competition and even violence among volunteer firemen and their companies, see Amy S. Greenberg, Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth Century City (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014). [back]

6. These lines are slightly altered versions of lines from the poem "Geehale, an Indian Lament" by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793–1864), a native of Albany, who was well known for his work as an ethnologist and for his studies of Native American cultures. He was commissioned by Congress to complete a study titled Indian Tribes of the United States, which was published in six volumes over a six-year period from 1851 to 1857. [back]

7. Although the New York Sunday Times and Noah's Weekly Messenger indicated that "The Fireman's Dream" was "To be continued," no additional chapters of the story have been found in this or any other publication. There are no known reprints of these chapters. [back]

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