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THE IMP AND THE DRUM

 

 

 

THE IMP AND THE DRUM


IT never would have happened but for Miss Eleanor's mission class. Once a week through the winter she went in the cars to a town not far from the city, where there were a great many mills, but few schools, and talked to a crowd of the mill-hands' little children. She did not give them lessons, exactly, but she told them stories and sang songs with them and interested them in keeping themselves and their homes clean and pretty. They were very fond of her and were continually bringing in other children, so that after the first year she gave up the small room she had rented and took them up two flights into an old dancing-hall, a little out of the centre of the town.

The Imp had been from the beginning deeply interested in this scheme, and when he learned that many of the boys were just exactly eight and a half—his own age—and that they played all sorts of games and told stories and sang songs, and had good times generally, his interest and excitement grew, and every Thursday found him begging his mother or big aunty, with whom they spent the winter, to telephone to his dear Miss Eleanor that this time he was to accompany her and see all those fascinating children: big Hans, who, though fourteen, was young for his years and stupid; little Olga, who was only eleven, but who mothered all the others, and had brought more children into the class than anyone else; Pierre, who sang like a bird, and wore a dark-blue jersey and a knitted cap pulled over his ears; red-headed Mike, who was all freckles and fun; and pretty, shy Elizabeth, with deep violet eyes and a big dimple, who was too frightened to speak at first, and who ran behind the door even now if a stranger came.

But it was not till the Imp gave up being eight and a half and arrived at what his Uncle Stanley called quarter of nine that Miss Eleanor decided that he might go, if his mother would let him.

"I used to think," she said, "that it would n't be wise to take him. I thought they 'd feel awkward; for of course he 's better dressed, and I don't want them to feel that they 're being shown off or made an exhibition of, even to a child. But I know them so well now, and I 've told them about him and how he loves to play games, and wants to come, and I think it may really be a good thing—for both sides."

So on one delicious Thursday in early February, the Imp boarded the train proudly, and they steamed out of the big station. He had gone over the entire afternoon, in anticipation, with Harvey, his little lame friend, who could not go to school, but did his lessons with a tutor, and with whom the Imp studied every morning during the three or four months they spent in the city; and Harvey was as interested as he, and sent his best love to them all.

From the moment of the Imp's entrance, when his cheerful "Hullo!" made him any number of friends, and his delight at being there made them all delighted to have him, he was a great success; and when big Hans, with a furtive glance at the Imp's clean hands, went quietly off to the ever-ready basin and washed his own, Miss Eleanor regretted that she had not brought him sooner.

When they had finished the story about Washington at Valley Forge—for Miss Eleanor was quietly teaching them history—she got them into a long line that reached quite around the room, and went out for a moment, returning with a drum in her hand: not a play drum, but a real one, with polished black sticks and a fascinating strap to cross over the shoulder.

"Now," said she, "we 're going to learn the fire-drill, and we 'll take turns at the drum."

The children were delighted, and stood still as mice while she explained the order of affairs. In the big city public schools, she had been told, they practised going out in line at a mock alarm of fire, and the boy or girl who broke out of line or dashed for the door before the drum-tap was disgraced for days in the eyes of the school. Everything must be quiet and in order; every child must have his place and take it; no one must cry out, or run ahead, or push, or try to hurry matters; and what was most important, all must keep step—which was why the drum came to be there.

She arranged them carefully: little ones first, then girls, last of all the boys, with big Hans at the rear, and Olga managing a crowd of the little ones.

"Now," she said, "we won't leave the room this first time; we 'll just march round and round till we can all keep step, and later we 'll practise going through the halls and down-stairs. I 'll drum the first time, and then the best boy shall be drummer."

The friend who had suggested the fire-drill when Miss Eleanor had begged her for some new game to play, had never seen one, and did not know the exact details, but she knew the general idea of it, and she knew, too, that it was not at all easy for people to keep in step, even to a drum. This had surprised Miss Eleanor greatly. She supposed that anybody could keep step, and she was much inclined to doubt her friend's statement that a large number of grown people, even, found it difficult.

But there was a still greater surprise in store for her. When she slung the strap over her pretty red waist and hit the drum a resounding blow, a very different sound from what she had expected was the result—a muffled, flat noise, with nothing inspiring about it whatever. She bit her lip and tried again, the children watching her attentively from the sides of the big room.

Bang!

Bang!

Bang, bang, bang!

A few feet began to keep time, but the sound was not very different from that produced by a stick hit against the wall, and big Hans, whose father played in a band, and who had attended many rehearsals—it was from him the drum had been procured—shook his head solemnly.

"Not so! Not so!" he said in his thick, gruff voice. "You no hit good! You no hit hard!"

"Oh, Hans, can you play it?" cried Miss Eleanor eagerly. "Here, take it!" And she flung the strap over his shoulder.

Hans shambled out to the centre of the room, and struck a mighty blow. The familiar deep sound of a drum filled the place, and Miss Eleanor sighed with relief, but alas! her joy was short-lived, for poor Hans had no idea of time, and could only pound away like a hammer. In vain she held his hand and tried to guide his strokes. The noise was deafening, but no more to be marched to than thunder.

Little Pierre tried next, but though he kept perfect time, and looked very cunning in his little blue blouse, his taps were too light to cover the sound of the tramping feet.

Miss Eleanor's cheeks were red with vexation. Her arm ached, and the children were getting restless. She did not know what to do.

"Oh, dear! Who would have thought it was so hard?" she exclaimed pathetically. And then she noticed the Imp, who was fairly holding his lips in his effort to keep silence. For he had solemnly promised his mother not to put himself forward, nor suggest anything, nor offer to do a single thing till he was asked, on pain of never coming again.

"What is it, Perry?" she asked.

"I can—I can play a drum, Miss Eleanor!" he burst out.

She looked doubtful: the Imp was given to thinking that he could do most things.

"This is n't a play drum, you know, dear; it's a real one," she said.

"But I can play a real one. Truly I can! Mr. Archer taught me—he was a truly drummer-boy in the war; he showed me how. He said I could hit it up like a good 'un!" the Imp exploded again.

Miss Eleanor dimly remembered that among the Imp's amazing list of acquaintances, a one-legged Grand Army man, who kept a newspaper-stall, had been mentioned, and decided that it could do no harm to let him try.

"Well, put it on," she said, and the Imp proudly assumed the drum, grasped the sticks loosely between his fingers, wagged his head knowingly from side to side, and began.

Brrrm!

Brrrm!

Brrrm! brrrm! brrrm!

The straggling line straightened, the children began to grin, and little Pierre, at the head of the line, stamped his foot and started off. Miss Eleanor's forehead smoothed, and she smiled encouragingly at the Imp.

"That 's it, that 's it!" she cried delightedly. "How easy it looks!"

But the Imp stopped suddenly, and the moving line stopped with him.

"Wait! I forgot!" he said peremptorily. "You must n't start till I do this."

And with a few preliminary taps he gave the long roll that sends a pleasant little thrill to the listener's heart.

Brrrm!

Brrrm!

Brrrrr-um dum!

The children jumped with delight, and the line started off, the Imp drumming for dear life around the inside of the big square, and Miss Eleanor keeping the hasty ones back and hurrying the stragglers, trying to make big Hans feel the rhythm, and suppressing Pierre's happy little skips.

After a half-hour of this they begged to try the halls and stairs, and the Imp stood proudly on the landings, keeping always at about the middle of the line, stamping his right foot in time with his sticks, his eyes shining with joy, his little body straight as a dart.

Miss Eleanor was delighted. The boys responded so well to her little talk on protecting the girls and waiting till they were placed before taking their own stand in the line, the girls stood so straight, the little ones entered so well into the spirit of the thing, that she felt that afternoon to have been one of the best they had had, and confided as much to the Imp on their journey home.

As for the Imp, he had a new interest in life, and talked of little else than the fire-drill for days. There was no question as to his going the next Thursday, and he and his drum formed the chief attraction of the day, for the drill proved the most popular game of all, and after the proclamation had gone forth that none but clean-handed, neatly dressed, respectful boys need aspire to head the line, such boys were in a great and satisfying majority.

For a month they had been practising regularly, and by the end of that time every child knew his place and took it instantly at the opening tap. It was pretty to see little Olga shake back her yellow pigtails and marshal her tiny brood into line; even the smallest of them kept step nicely now. Only big Hans could not learn, and Pierre walked by his side in vain, trying to make him feel the rhythm of the Imp's faithful drumsticks.

There was one feature of the drill that amused Miss Eleanor's friends greatly. Of course there was no fire-alarm in the old hall, and she would not let anyone cry out or even pretend for a moment that there was any real danger. She merely called sharply, "Now!" when they were to form, and it was one of the suppressed excitements of the afternoon to wait for that word. They never knew when it would come.

For Miss Eleanor's one terror was fire. Twice, as a little girl, she had been carried out of a burning house; and the flames bright against the night, the hoarse shouts of the firemen, the shock of the frightened awakening, and the chill of the cold winter air had so shaken her nerves that she could hardly bear to remember it. Burglars had little terror for her; in accidents she was cool and collected; more than once, in a quiet way, she had saved people from drowning; but a bit of flaming paper turned her cheeks white and made her hands tremble. So though big Hans begged to be allowed to call out "Fire!" she would never let him, and though she explained the meaning of the drill to them, it is to be doubted if they attached much importance to the explanation, as she herself did not care to talk about it long.

One fine, windy Thursday—it was the second Thursday in March, and the last Thursday the Imp would be able to spend with his new friends, for he was going back to the country—they started out a little depressed in spirits: the Imp because it was his last visit, Miss Eleanor because she was afraid her children were in danger of a hard week. The hands of three of the largest factories were "on strike," and though they were quite in the wrong, and were demanding more than any but the ring-leaders themselves felt to be just, they were excited to the pitch of rage that no reasoning can calm, and as the superintendents had absolutely refused to yield any further, affairs were at a dead-lock. One or two of Miss Eleanor's friends had grown alarmed, and urged her not to go there till the matter was settled, but she would not hear of this.

"Why, this is the very time I want to keep the children out of the streets!" she said. "They all know me—nobody would hurt me. They know I love the children, and I have nothing to do with their quarrel. I should be willing to trust myself to any of them. They have always been very polite and respectful to me, and they 've been getting ready for this for two weeks, for that matter."

Her father agreed to this, and assured the Imp's mother that any demonstration that might take place would be at the other end of the town, near the mills, and that it was very unlikely that anything further than a shut-down for a few days would result, at most.

"They 're in the wrong, and most of them know it, I hear," he said. "They can't hold out long: nobody else will hire them."

This may have been true, but it did not add to their good-humor. As the Imp and Miss Eleanor walked up through the village, the streets were filling rapidly with surly, idle men. Dark-eyed Italians, yellow-haired Swedes, shambling, gesticulating Irish, and dogged, angry English jostled each other on the narrow walks, and talked loudly. Miss Eleanor hurried the Imp along, picking up a child here and there on the way, and sighing with relief as she neared the old hall.

Some of the excitement had reached the children, and though they had come in large numbers, for they knew it was the Imp's last visit for some time, and there had been hints of a delightful surprise for them on this occasion, they were restless and looked out of the windows often. There was a shout of applause when, the Imp suddenly becoming overwhelmed with shyness, Miss Eleanor invited them all out to his home for one day in the summer; but the excitement died down, and more than one of the older children glanced slyly at the door. The men from that end of the town were filing by, and most of the women were following after.

Miss Eleanor racked her brains for some amusement. It was cold in the room, for the boy who had charge of the clumsy, old-fashioned stove was sick that day, and there was no fire. So partly to keep them contented, and partly to get them warm, she proposed a game of blind-man's-buff. There was a shout of assent, and presently they were in the midst of a tremendous game. The stamping feet of the boys and the shrill cries of the girls made a deafening noise; the dust rose in clouds; the empty old building echoed confusingly. The fun grew fast and furious; the rules were forgotten; the boys began to scuffle and fight, and the little girls danced about excitedly.

Miss Eleanor called once or twice to quiet them, but they were beyond control; they paid no attention to her. With a little grimace she stepped out of the crowd to breathe, and took out her watch.

"Twenty minutes!" she said to little Olga, who followed her about like a puppy. "I 'll give them ten more, and then they must stop!"

Little Olga began to cough, and looked doubtfully at the old stove, which was given to smoking.

"It smells bad just the same, don't it?" she called. They had to raise their voices to be heard above the noise.

"No, child, it's the dust. Isn't it dreadful?" Miss Eleanor called back, coughing herself. "But it smells just like smoke. How horrid it is! And how hot!" she added after a moment. "With the windows open, too! We 'll all take cold when we go out. They must stop! Boys, boys! Hans, come here to me!"

She rang a little bell that was the signal for quiet, and raised her hand.

"Now I'm going to open the door, to get a thorough draft, and then we 'll quiet down," she said, and pushed through the crowd to the door.

As she opened it wide, a great cloud of brown, hot smoke poured into the room, a loud roaring, with little snapping crackles behind it, came from below, and Miss Eleanor suddenly put her hand to her heart, turned perfectly white, and half fell, half leaned against the door.

For a moment the children were quite still, so still that through the open door they could hear the roar and the crackle. Then suddenly, before she could prevent him, little Pierre slipped through and started down the hall. With a cry she went after him, half the children following her, but in a moment they crowded back, screaming and choking. The stairs at the end of the long hall were half on fire!

Miss Eleanor tried to call out, but though her lips moved, she could not speak above a whisper. She shut the door and leaned against it, and the look in her eyes frightened the children out of what little control they had.

"Call," she said hoarsely, "call 'Fire!' out of the window. Quick! Call, all of you!"

But they stumbled about, crying and gasping, some of them struggling to get by her out of the door. She was trembling violently, but she pushed them away and held the door-knob as tightly as she could. Only Olga ran to the open window, and sent a piercing little shriek out into the quiet street:

"Fire! Fire! Come along! Fire!"

For a moment there was no answer, and then a frightened woman ran out of her house and waved her hand.

"Come out! Come out, you!" she called.

"Our stairs is burnt all up! We can't!" screamed Olga.

The woman ran quickly down the empty street, calling for help as she ran, and the children surged about the door, a crowd of frightened little animals, trying to drag Miss Eleanor away from it.

"Wait," she begged them, "wait! You can't go that way—they 'll bring ladders! Oh, please wait!"

Her knees shook beneath her, the room swam before her eyes. The smell of the smoke, stronger and stronger, sickened her. With a thrill of terror, she saw big Hans drag a child away from the window, and deliberately pushing her down, prepare to climb out over her, almost stepping on her little body.

Suddenly she caught sight of the Imp. He was pushing his way through the crowd valiantly, but not toward her.

"Come here, Perry!" she said weakly. But he paid no attention. He had been dazed for a moment, and like all the other children, her terror had terrified him quite as much as the fire. Now as he caught her eye, and saw the helpless fear in her face as she watched Hans, something sent him away from her to a farther corner, and as the smoke began to come up between the boards of the floor, and the same deadly stillness reigned outside, while the confusion grew greater in the hot, crowded room, a new sound cut through the roar and the crackle.

Brrrm!

Brrrm!

Brrrm, brrrm, brrrm!

The children turned. Big Hans, with one leg out of the window, looked back. There was a little rush, half checked, for the sides of the room, and Olga instinctively looked about for her small charges.

But they wavered undecidedly, and as the sound of steps outside and the clattering of horses' feet reached them, a new rush for the door began, and Miss Eleanor's hand slipped from the knob, and she half fell beside it.

Brrrm!

Brrrm!

Brrrrr—um dum!

That familiar long roll had never been disobeyed; the habit of sudden, delighted response was strong; and with a quick recollection that he was to be head boy, big Hans slipped from the window-sill and jumped to the head of a straggling line. Olga was behind him in a moment, and Pierre, proud of his position as rear-guard and time-keeper for the little boys, pushed them, crying and coughing, into place.

Miss Eleanor must have been half unconscious for a moment. When she struggled to her feet, no scrambling crowd, but an orderly, tramping line pushed by her, and above the growing tumult outside, above the sickening roar of the fire below, came the quick, regular beat of the faithful drum

Brrrm!

Brrrm!

Brrrm! brrrm! brrrm!

The children marched as if hypnotized. The long line just filled the sides of the room, and they were squeezed in so tightly that they forced each other on unconsciously. The Imp in his excitement beat faster than usual, and his bright red cheeks, his straight little figure, as he walked his inside square, his quick, nervous strokes, were an inspiration to the most scared laggard. Big Hans, elated at his position—his for the first time—never took his eyes off the black sticks, and worked his mouth excitedly, keeping time to the beats, the Imp frowning at his slightest misstep.

Miss Eleanor, the door hot against her back, forced her trembling lips into a smile, and cheered them on as they tramped round and round. Was nothing being done? Would no one come?

Suddenly there was a thundering, a clanging, and a quick, sharp ringing gong came closer with every stroke; the sound of many running feet, too, and loud, hoarse orders. The line wavered, seemed to stop. She summoned all her strength, and called out aloud for the first time:

"Don't stop, children! Keep right on! Stand straight, Hans, and show them how well you can lead!"

Hans tossed his head, glared at a boy across the room who had broken through, and forged ahead. There was a succession of quick blows on the sides of the room, a rush, and in another moment three helmeted heads looked through three windows. At the same moment a sharp hissing sound interrupted the roaring below, and though the door was brown behind her now, and a tiny red point was glowing brighter in the wall near by, Miss Eleanor's strength returned at the sight of the firemen, and she stood by the side of the Imp and encouraged the children.

"Don't stop, Hans! Remember, little ones first! Olga's children first!"

And with a grunt of assent Hans marched on, the line following, closing up mechanically over the gaps the men made, who snatched out the children as they passed by the windows, and handed them rapidly down the long ladders. In vain the firemen tried to get the boys. They wriggled obstinately out of their grasp, as they went round, till every girl was lifted out, Olga standing by the window till the last of her charges was safe.

The door fell in with a bang, and in spite of the hose below, the smoke rolled up from between the cracks in the floor, thicker and thicker. As the plaster dropped from the walls in great blocks, Miss Eleanor dragged the line into the centre of the room, and motioned one of the men to take the Imp as he passed by. For so perfect was the order that the men never once needed to step into the room, only leaning over the sills to lift out the children. The Imp felt a strong grasp on his arm, and jerked; the man insisted.

"Hurry now, hurry, let go!" he commanded gruffly. The despair in the Imp's eyes as he drummed hard with his other hand grew to rage, and he brought down his free stick with a whack on the man's knuckles. With a sharp exclamation the man let go, and the Imp pressed on, his cheeks flaming, his eyes glowing. His head was high in the air, he was panting with excitement. The line was small now; another round and there would be but a handful. The floor near the door began to sag, and the men took two at a time of the bigger boys, and left them to scramble down by themselves. With every new child a shout went up from below. As Hans slipped out by
 
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"As they went round, till every girl was lifted out."

 
himself, and two men lifted Miss Eleanor out of one window, a third meanwhile carrying the Imp, kicking in his excitement, and actually beating the drum as it dangled before him, while a fourth man took a last look, and crying "O. K.! All out!" ran down his ladder alone, the big crowd literally shouted with thankfulness and excitement.

As for the Imp, he felt tired and shaky, now that somebody had taken away his drum, and all the women were trying to kiss him; and he watched the blackened walls crash in without a word. His knees felt hollow and queer, and there was nobody to take him in her lap like the other children, for Miss Eleanor had quietly fainted in the firemen's arms, and they were sprinkling her with water from the little pools where the big hose had leaked.

They took them to the station in a carriage, and the Imp sat in Miss Eleanor's lap in a drawing-room car, and she cuddled him silently all the way home. Her father, dreading lest she should be hurt somehow after all in the crowded streets, passed them in an express going in the other direction, to find out that they were safe, and that the strike was off. The recent danger had sobered the men, and their thankfulness at their children's safety had softened them, so that their ringleaders' taunts had no effect on their determination to go back to work quietly the next day.

It was at her father's request that they refrained from any more costly gift to Miss Eleanor than a big photographic group of the children, framed in plush, "as an expression of their deep gratitude for her presence of mind in keeping the children in the room away from the deadly flames beneath." But to the Imp the Mill Town drum corps and military band formally presented "to Master Perry S. Stafford the drum and sticks that he used on the occasion when his bravery and coolness made them proud to subscribe themselves his true friends and hearty well-wishers."