« AnteriorContinuar »
mid-day, and, to my surprise, every clock near Wall Street, down which I was passing at the time, began striking seven solemnly and slowly, like our passing bell in a country parish. I inquired the meaning from a passer-by, and learnt that it was the signal that a fire had broken out in the Seventh Ward. I turned in the direction pointed out, and soon a fire engine rattled past me, dragged by a string of boys and men through, rather than over, the uneven, broken snow-drifts. Then in a few minutes another followed, and another; and by the time I had reached the scene of the fire, not a quarter of a mile away, half a dozen engines were at work, though I had heard the first signal of the fire given but a few minutes before. A store of Kerozene oil had caught fire, and the volumes of flame which shot out of the roof and windows seemed to threaten the whole street with destruction. But the engines were too hard at work to give the fire a chance; the river lay fortunately near at hand; and there was a perfect crowd of volunteers ready to work the pumps with might and main. There was nobody to keep the dense throng of spectators who crammed the neighbouring streets in order, but of themselves they obeyed the instructions of the firemen, and made way readily whenever space was required for the engines or the pipes to pass. The firemen worked with a will, and seemed utterly regardless of danger. Some were dragging the water-pipes right under the walls of the burning house, which looked every minute as if they were about to fall; others were standing on the parapet of the flaming roof, hanging over the street in a way that made one dizzy to look at, and shouting out orders to the men below; others, again, were perched on ladders fixed against the house on fire, and cutting down the shutters with axes in order to let out the flames. It was a service of real danger, and one poor fellow lost his life by falling off an engine ; but one and all these firemen were unpaid volunteers, who expected no reward for their services. The engines are supplied by the State, but the whole expense and labour of the service are borne by the men themselves. There is a great esprit de corps amongst the different companies, and admission into them is sought for eagerly. At every enginehouse a certain number of the men always remain on duty, turn and turn about; and the moment the signalbell is heard over the city, the members of the company leave their homes and their business, whatever it may be, to perform their duty as firemen. I have seen great fires in many European countries, but I never saw a fire extinguished so promptly or so courageously as by these volunteer firemen. Indeed, the existence in New York of such an organization as that of the fire-brigades is enough in itself to make one somewhat sceptical as to the truth of our common impression about its democratic lawlessness.
I had left England at the time when the fortunes of the Federal cause seemed the lowest, and when New York was popularly believed to be on the brink of ruin and revolution. It was, I own, a surprise to me to find how little trace there was of either. An incurious stranger, not given to enter into conversation, or to read the newspaper, might almost, I fancy, have lived there for weeks at that time without discovering that the country was involved in a civil war. There were forts being thrown up rapidly along the banks which command the Narrows; but of late years we have learnt in England not to associate the construction of expensive fortifications with any idea of immediate war. The number of uniforms about the streets was small—not so large as it used to be in London before the volunteer movement was heard of. A score or so of tents were pitched upon the snow in the City Park, and at the Battery, but rather for show than use. In the Broadway and the Bowery there were a few recruiting offices, in front of which hung huge placards tempting fine young men, by the offer of a hundred dollars' bounty (to be paid not down, but after the war), and the promise of immediate active service, to join the Van Buren light infantry or the New York mounted cavalry. It was rare to hear a military band ; and in the shop windows I noticed at that time but few pictures of the war, or portraits of the war's heroes. I saw regiments passing through the town on their way to the South, and yet only a few idlers were gathered to
see them pass. In fact, the show-time of the war had passed away, and it was become a matter of sober business.
So, too, I was present at New York when the news came of Roanoke Island, and Bowling Green, and Fort Donaldson-of the first of that long uninterrupted series of victories which checked the progress of the insurrection. Our English reception of the tidings of the great battles which gave the death-blow to the Indian mutiny was not more reserved or calm. There were no proclamations, no addresses to the people, no grandilo quent bulletins as there would have been under like circumstances in a Continental country. A small crowd collected round the newspaper offices—a few extra flags hung out of shop windows—a notice that Barnum's Museum would be illuminated in honour of the Union victories, by the patriotic proprietor—and a salute of cannon from the battery ; such were about the only outward symptoms of public rejoicing. There was no want of interest or feeling about the war. In society it was the one topic of thought and conversation. If you heard two people talking in the street, or in the cars, or at the church doors as you came out of service, you would be sure to find they were talking of the war. The longer I lived in the country, the more I learnt how deep the feeling of the North was; but it was like all English feeling, and came slowly to the surface.
• There was as little look of public distress as of popular excitement. The port and quays were crowded with shipping. Broadway was daily. rendered almost impassable by the never-ending string of carts and omnibuses and carriages, which rolled up and down it for hours. Splendidly-equipped sable-covered sleighs were to be seen at every turning ; and, on a fine day, the pavements were thronged with ladies, the expensiveness of whose dresses, if questionable as a matter of taste, was unquestionable as a matter of fact. New stores and streets were still building, and notices of “houses to let," or of sales by auction, were very few. Though the banks had suspended specie payments, yet, by one of those mysteries of the currency I never hope to see explained, their notes passed at full value, and were exchanged readily for coin—at least, in all such small transactions as come under a traveller's notice. There was, I have no doubt, much mercantile distress; and the shopkeepers, who depended on the sale of luxuries to the wealthy classes, were doing a poor trade. But work was plentiful, and the distress, as yet, had not gone down deep. There were few balls or large parties, and the opera was not regularly open, partly because public feeling was averse to much gaiety; partly, and still more, because the wealthy classes had retrenched all superfluous expenditure with a really wonderful unanimity. Residents often expressed their regret to me that I should see their city under so dull an aspect. But I know that,