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How Jim Went To the War by Jacob A. Riis

 

Jocko and Jim sat on the scuttle-stairs and mourned; times were out of joint with them. Since an ill wind had blown one of the recruiting sergeants for the Spanish War into the next block, the old joys of the tenement had palled on Jim. Nothing would do but he must go to the war.

The infection was general in the neighborhood. Even base-ball had lost its savor. The Ivy nine had disbanded at the first drum-beat, and had taken the fever in a body. Jim, being fourteen, and growing “muscle” with daily pride, “had it bad.” Naturally Jocko, being Jim's constant companion, developed the symptoms too, and, to external appearances, thirsted for gore as eagerly as a naturally peace-loving, long-tailed monkey could.

Jocko had belonged to an Italian organ-grinder in the days of “the persecution,” when the aldermen issued an edict, against monkeys. Now he was “hung up” for rent, unpaid. And, literally, he remained hung up most of the time, usually by his tail from the banisters, in which position he was able both to abet the mischief of the children, and to elude the stealthy grabs of their exasperated elders by skipping nimbly to the other side.

The tenement was one of the old-fashioned kind, built for a better use, with wide, oval stairwell and superior opportunities for observation and escape. Jocko inhabited the well by day, and from it conducted his raids upon the tenants' kitchens with an impartiality which, if it did not disarm, at least had stayed the hand of vengeance so far.

That he gave great provocation not even his stanchest boy friend could deny. His pursuit of information was persistent. The sight of Jocko cracking stolen eggs on the stairs to see the yolk run out and then investigating the empty shell with grave concern was cheering to the children, but usually provoked a shower of execrations and scrubbing-brushes from the despoiled households.

When the postman's call was heard in the hall, Jocko was on hand to receive the mail. Once he did receive it, the impartial zeal with which he distributed the letters to friend and foe brought forth more scrubbing-brushes, and Jocko retired to his attic aerie, there to ponder with Jim, his usual companion when in disgrace, the relation of eggs and letters and scrubbing-brushes in a world that seemed all awry to their simple minds.

The sense was heavy upon them this day as they sat silently brooding on the stairs, Jim glum and hopeless, with his arms buried to the elbow in his trousers pockets, Jocko, a world of care in his wrinkled face, humped upon the step at his shoulder with limp tail. The rain beat upon the roof in fitful showers, and the April storm rattled the crazy shutters, adding to the depression of the two.

Jim broke the silence when a blast fiercer than the rest shook the old house. “'Tain't right,” he said dolefully, “I know it ain't, Jock! There's Tom and Foley gone off an' 'listed, and them only four years older nor me. What's four years?” This with a sniff of contempt.

Jocko gazed straight ahead. Four years of scrubbing-brushes and stealthy grabs at his tail on the stairs! To Jocko they were a long, long time.

“An' dad!” wailed Jim, unheeding. “I hear him tell Mr. Murphy himself that he was a drummer-boy in the war, and he won't let me at them dagoes!”

A slightly upward curl of Jocko's tail testified to his sympathy.

“I seen 'em march to de camp with their guns and drums.” There was a catch in Jim's voice now. “And Susie's feller was there in soger-clo'es, Jock—soger-clo'es!”

Jim broke down in desolation and despair at the recollection. Jocko hitched as close to him as the step would let him, and brought his shaggy side against the boy's jacket in mute compassion. So they sat in silence until suddenly Jim got up and strode across the floor twice.

“Jock,” he said, stopping short in front of his friend, “I know what I'll do. Jock, do you hear? I know what I'm going to do!”

Jocko sat up straight, erected his tail into a huge interrogation point, cocked his wise little head on one side, and regarded his ally expectantly. The storm was over, and the afternoon sun sent a ray slanting across the floor.

“I'm going anyhow! I'll run away, Jock! That's what I'll do! I'll get a whack at them dagoes yet!”

Jim danced a gleeful breakdown on the patch of sunlight, winding up by making a grab for Jocko, who evaded him by jumping over his head to the banister, where he became an animated pinwheel in approval of the new mischief. They stopped at last, out of breath.

“Jock,” said the boy, considering his playmate approvingly, “you will make a soldier yourself yet. Come on, let's have a drill! This way, Jock, up straight! Now, attention! Right hand—salute!” Jocko exactly imitated his master, and so learned the rudiments of the soldier's art as Jim knew it.

“You'll do, Jock,” he said, when the dusk stole into the attic, “but you can't go this trip. Good-by to you. Here goes for the soger camp!”

There was surprise in the tenement when Jim did not come home for supper; as the evening wore on the surprise became consternation. His father gave over certain preparations for his reception which, if Jim had known of them, might well have decided him to stick to “sogering,” and went to the police station to learn if the boy had been heard of there. He had not, and an alarm which the Sergeant sent out discovered no trace of him the next day.

Jim was lost, but how? His mother wept, and his father spent weary days and nights inquiring of every one within a distance of many blocks for a red-headed boy in “knee-pants” and a base-ball cap. The grocer's clerk on the corner alone furnished a clew. He remembered giving Jim two crackers on the afternoon of the storm and seeing him turn west. The clew began and ended there. Slowly the conviction settled on the tenement that Jim had really run away to enlist.

“I'll enlist him!” said his father; and the tenement acquiesced in the justice of his intentions and awaited developments. And all the time Jocko kept Jim's secret safe.

Jocko had troubles enough of his own. Jim's friendship and quick wit had more than once saved the monkey; for despite of harum-scarum ways, the boy with the sunny smile was a general favorite. Now that he was gone, the tenement rose in wrath against its tormentor; and Jocko accepted the challenge.

All his lawless instincts were given full play. Even of the banana man at the street stand who had given him peanuts when trade was good, or sold them to him in exchange for pilfered pennies, he made an enemy by grabbing bananas when his back was turned. Mrs. Rafferty, on the second floor rear, one of his few champions, he estranged by exchanging the “war extra” which the carrier left at the door for her, for the German paper served to Mrs. Schultz, her pet aversion on the floor below. Mrs. Rafferty upset the wash-tub in her rage at this prank.

“Ye imp,” she shrieked, laying about her with a wet towel, “wid yer hathen Dootch! It's that yer up to, is it?” and poor Jocko paid dearly for his mistake.

As he limped painfully to his attic retreat, his bitterest reflection might have been that even the children, his former partners in every plot against the public peace, had now joined in the general assault upon him. Truly, every man's hand was raised against Jocko, and in the spirit of Ishmael he entered on his crowning exploit.

On the top floor of the rear house was Mrs. Hoffman, a quiet German tenant, who had heretofore escaped Jocko's unwelcome attentions. Now, in his banishment to the upper regions, he bestowed them upon her with an industry to which she objected loudly, but in vain. Shut off from his accustomed base of supplies, he spent his hours watching her kitchen from the fire-escape, and if she left it but for a minute, he was over the roof and, by way of the shutter, in her flat, foraging for food.

In the battles that ensued, when Mrs. Hoffman surprised him, some of her spare crockery was broken without damage to the monkey. Vainly did she turn the key of her ice-box and think herself safe. Jocko had watched her do it, and turned it, too, on his next trip, with results satisfactory to himself. The climax came when he was discovered sitting at the open skylight, under which Mrs. Hoffman and her husband were working at their tailoring trade, calmly puffing away at Mr. Hoffman's cherished meerschaum, and leisurely picking the putty from the glass and dropping it upon the heads of the maddened couple.

The old German's terror and emotion at the sight nearly choked him. “Jocko,” he called, with shaking voice, “you fool monkey! Jocko! Papa's pet! Come down mit mine pipe!”

But Jocko merely brandished the pipe, and shook it at the tailor with a wicked grin that showed all his sharp little teeth. Mrs. Hoffman wanted to call a policeman and the board of health, but the thirst for vengeance suggested a more effective plan to the tailor.

“Wait! I fix him! I fix him good!” he vowed, and forthwith betook himself to the kitchen, where stood the ice-box.

From his attic lookout Jocko saw the tailor take from the ice-box a bottle of beer, and drawing the cork with careful attention to detail, partake of its contents with apparent relish. Finally the tailor put back the bottle and went away, after locking the ice-box, but leaving the key in the lock.

His step was yet on the stairs when the monkey peered through the window, reached the ice-box with a bound and turned the key. There was the bottle, just as the tailor had left it. Jocko held it as he had seen him do, and pulled the cork. It came out easily. He held the bottle to his mouth. After a while he put it down, and thoughtfully rubbed the pit of his stomach. Then he took another pull, following directions to the letter.

The last ray of the evening sun stole through the open window as Jocko arose and wandered unsteadily toward the bedroom, the door of which stood ajar. There was no one within. On the wall hung Mrs. Hoffman's brocade shawl and Sunday hat. Jocko had often watched her put them on. Now he possessed himself of both, and gravely carried them to his attic.

In the early twilight such a wail of bereavement arose in the rear house that the tenants hurried from every floor to learn what was the matter. It was Mrs. Hoffman, bemoaning the loss of her shawl and Sunday hat.

A hurried search left no doubt who was the thief. There was the open window, and the empty bottle on the door by the ice-box. Jocko's hour of expiation had come. In the uproar that swelled louder as the angry crowd of tenants made for the attic, his name was heard coupled with direful threats. Foremost in the mob was Jim's father, with the stick he had peeled and seasoned against the boy's return. In some way, not clear to himself, he connected the monkey with Jim's truancy, and it was something to be able to avenge himself on its hairy hide.

But Jocko was not in the attic. The mob ranged downstairs, searching every nook and getting angrier as it went. The advance-guard had reached the first floor landing, when a shout of discovery from one of the boy scouts directed all eyes to the wall niche at the turn of the stairs.

There, in the place where the Venus of Milo or the winged Mercury had stood in the days when wealth and fashion inhabited Houston Street, sat Jocko, draped in Mrs. Hoffman's brocade shawl, her Sunday hat tilted rakishly on one side, and with his tail at “port-arms” over his left shoulder. He blinked lazily at the foe and then his head tilted forward under Mrs. Hoffman's hat.

“Saints presarve us!” gasped Mrs. Rafferty, crossing herself. “The baste is drunk!”

Yes, Jocko was undeniably tipsy. For one brief moment a sense of the ludicrous struggled with the just anger of the mob. That moment decided the fate of Jocko. There came a thunderous rap at the door, and there stood a policeman with Jim, the runaway, in his grasp.

“Does this boy—” he shouted, and stopped short, his gaze riveted upon the monkey. Jim, shivering with apprehension, all desire to be a soldier gone out of him, felt rather than saw the whole tenement assembled in judgment, and he the culprit. He raised his tear-stained face and beheld Jocko mounting guard. Policeman, camp, failure, and the expected beating were all alike forgotten. He remembered only the sunny attic and his pranks with Jocko, their last game of soldiering.

“Attention!” he piped at the top of his shrill voice. “Right hand—salute!”

At the word of command Jocko straightened up like a veteran, looked sleepily around, and raising his right paw, saluted in military fashion. The movement pushed the hat back on his head, and gave a swaggering look to the forlorn figure that was irresistibly comical.

It was too much for the spectators. With a yell of laughter, the tenement abandoned vengeance. Peal after peal rang out, in which the policeman, Jim, and his father joined, old scores forgotten and forgiven.

The cyclone of mirth aroused Jocko. He made a last groping effort to collect his scattered wits, and met the eyes of Jim at the foot of the stairs. With a joyful squeal of recognition he gave it up, turned one mighty, inebriated somersault and went flying down, shedding Mrs. Hoffman's garments to the right and left in his flight, and landed plump on Jim's shoulder, where he sat grinning general amnesty, while a rousing cheer went up for the two friends.

The slate was wiped clean. Jim had come home from the war.

 
 
 

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