From the Superintendent of the House of Transformation to the High Master of the Second Landstead:
Following are some of the urgent needs of the Institution, which are necessary in order to facilitate its management and enable us to do the best work possible:
1st—The construction of improved sanitary arrangements for the Administration Building, and the six family cottages, with proper sewerage for the same.
2nd—The extension of the water main, with fire-plugs at each building, to insure us against loss by fire.
3rd—The installation of a new steam boiler, and extension of the steam-heating apparatus to all of the family cottages, to replace the old and dangerous coal stoves now in use.
4th—The construction of proper bathing facilities, such as are used in modern institutions, capable of bathing fifty boys per hour, to replace the present unsanitary arrangements.
"Say, we can see a road from here!" cried Frank.
They were crammed up next to one another on one of the beds by the windows, standing on tiptoe to see as far as possible. They'd tried to open the sash window so they could stick their heads out – the windows in this room had no bars – but had found that all the windows here were nailed shut.
"So that we can die right quick in a fire," announced Joe with a grin, which had caused Frank to snatch the matchbox from where Joe had hidden it, in his lower drawers. Laughing, Joe had snatched the matches back.
"Which road do you suppose it is?" asked Mordecai, whom Bat was holding up as best he could, so that the younger boy could see at least a bit.
"Some country road." Joe dismissed it that way with a city boy's air. "Is that a spire?"
Bat squinted. Through the trees that lined the road, he could just see the spire of a chapel of rebirth.
"Can't see no town," commented Bat.
"Just houses," Frank agreed. "Do you suppose we're off in some unexplored part of the world? Where they only got missionaries?"
They all envisioned that possibility with quickening interest till Slow said, "There's farms here."
"How d'you know?" asked Joe quickly.
Slow looked surprised. "Heard the cattle and chickens and horses just before we got here. And smelled them."
The rest of them sighed. Living amidst farms seemed so much more prosaic than living in the wilderness.
Evidently feeling the need for a change of topic, Frank laid his arms across the rail of the window, saying, "So what do we think of Trusty?"
"Can't trust him," said Joe quickly. "You can tell it from his name, can't you? He's a snitch."
"He's a mystery, certain," said Bat slowly.
"I like him."
They all looked at Slow. Then Joe laughed. Thumping Slow on the back in a friendly manner, he said, "You like everyone, you big oaf."
Slow grinned. Frank added, "Trusty don't make sense. He talks like a servant, but he's got keys to the cell, and he's sleeping in the Teacher's room. Can't understand—"
"Get your dirty feet off those clean sheets."
The sharp remark caused them all to tumble off the bed, as quickly as they could. With his heart still pounding, Bat felt his anger grow as he saw who had spoken.
Never one to keep his thoughts unvoiced, Joe demanded, "Who are you, anyhow, to give us orders?"
Trusty surveyed them all, standing in a group together, united against him. Even Slow seemed in no hurry to take the young man's part.
Then Trusty said quietly, "I'm No. 1611. I'm an inmate like you. But the Teacher of Family Cottage Trustworthy quit last month, and Super ain't found a replacement for him yet. Till he does, you'll be taught school-lessons in other family cottages by the Teachers there, and the Department Head of the broom manufactory will tell you what work he wants you to do. Other times, I take care of you."
"Does that mean we got to follow orders from you?" Joe had his fists on his hips now.
Trusty looked at him mildly. "Well, now, I been here for coming on eleven years. You been here for one hour. You'd be a right fool to refuse to do as I tell you when I say officers'll give you a whipping if you don't. Wouldn't you?"
After a moment, Bat laughed. The other boys laughed too. Trusty gave a flash of a smile, gone so quickly that Bat wasn't sure he'd seen it, and said, "You don't need to take advice just from me. Got someone else for you to meet."
They all stiffened, but the newcomer who entered at Trusty's beckoning was manifestly an inmate. Tall, thin as a stick, with cap in hand, he waited silently as Trusty said, "This here's No. 2276. He'll be rooming with you till there's a place in one of the journeymen's cottages for him. I'll just leave him to answer any questions you have. I got some tidying up to do downstairs."
"Emmanuel," the boy clarified as Trusty departed. He offered his arm, and they all shook it. They sat down on the beds – the five of them on the bed they'd been standing upon, and Emmanuel on the opposite bed. There was an awkward silence.
"What'd you do?" blurted out Joe finally.
"Larceny," replied the boy in an easy manner. "Heard Super say once that it's the commonest crime for boys sent here, next to incorrigibility, which can mean anything the courts want it to mean. Want to know what larceny means, straight out? I stole a bit of pocket money from my master. There was a fair in town. My master didn't pay us apprentices no wages – just room and board. All that meant is he'd give us a bunk in his boat and let us eat any fish that was too bad to sell. So I picked a few coins from him, and the court sent me here."
"You're a journeyman?" Bat asked, determined that Emmanuel should not become a second mystery.
"Naw, I'm just big and tall." The boy stretched his rangy body and leaned up against the wall, cushioning his head with his hands. "Super likes to put the biggest apprentices in with the journeymen, so they won't bully the small boys."
There was no sign that this particular boy was planning to bully anyone. He had a look of relaxed good nature, as though he took everything in life in an easy manner, even being an inmate. Bat hoped that spoke well of what their new transformatory would be like.
"I'm fifteen," added Emmanuel. "Arrested three years ago, and I'm surely glad I was arrested young."
"How's that?" asked Frank, leaning forward. Outside, the sound of drumming started. Bat looked out the window and was greeted with the sight of soldiers drilling on the yard. Only, no – they weren't soldiers. They were boys, marching in step in long lines, each line with a drummer beating time, and with men in officer uniforms keeping close watch over the boys. Like Emmanuel, the boys wore the same uniforms as Trusty, with the same military-like cap. They were all headed toward the cottages in the campus, each line keeping to its own path.
The other boys in the room were too absorbed in Emmanuel's tale to notice. Emmanuel said, "Trusty tell you how the merit-grades work?" They all nodded. "Well, it takes two, three, four sun-circuits to rise to first rank, mostly. I heard of one fellow who made it in a single sun-circuit, but that's not common. Mostly, the apprentices who come here older are journeymen when they leave."
"Why's that matter?" asked Bat, distracted away from the sight of the drilling boys.
"For a start, the journeymen's cottages are a terror," said Emmanuel frankly. "The boys there, they've mostly done the really bad stuff. Assault, murder . . . They even got a rapist there."
"Arsonists?" Sitting next to Frank, Joe perked up.
Emmanuel failed to notice. "Nah, none of them. Not now. But those journeymen, they can be vicious. Nightly battles, I've heard. There's half a dozen punishment cells in each of the two journeymen's cottages, and officers can't cram enough misbehaving boys in there. So you don't want to end up in those cottages."
"But you're going there?" Slow's voice was soft with sympathy.
Emmanuel shook his head while giving a lazy smile as he showed off his colored badge. "Not me. I'm at second merit-grade now. I'm sure to be paroled home by the end of summer."
Bat glanced out the window again. The marching boys had all disappeared into their cottages. The lawn was empty once more. Faintly he could hear the sound of footsteps in the nearby hallway, but that was all. No talking. "There's more than one reason you wouldn't want to be a journeyman here?" he prodded.
"Surely." Emmanuel folded up his legs. Mordecai had slipped down to the floor and was lying on his stomach, chin propped up, as though Emmanuel were a storyteller. The older apprentice said, "Trusty tell you how parole works?"
They exchanged looks. "Not yet," replied Frank.
"You got good homes to go back to, you get paroled home," said Emmanuel. "You don't got good homes, or you don't want to go home, then Super paroles you to a master's home near here – placing out, they call it. Boys go to farmers, mainly. You do service for your master, maybe work his fields, and the money you earn goes to a bank fund. You make it all the way through your parole without causing trouble, you get that stash of money when you're released outright. And most times, the farmer you're working for will let you stay in service to him."
"Then why does it matter whether you're a journeyman?" Bat asked.
"Why, 'cause it's only apprentices who are placed out. Journeymen, they're on their own in finding masters to hire them, and they're only allowed to work for room and board, not wages. So all those years till they're released, full-out, they ain't earning no money. But they can still be sent back here, if they break parole." Emmanuel stretched again, saying, "I'll be getting home long before I become a journeyman. I don't got to worry about all that."
"Well, that's all right," said Joe, slinging his arm over Frank's shoulders. "Me, I'm eleven, and Frank, he's thirteen. We'll be going home soon."
"Me too," said Slow happily.
The rest of them looked away from him. Slow was never going home – they all knew that, from hearing the policemen talk about him. His parents, despairing at the task of caring for him as he grew older, had handed him over to the Second Landstead's House for Feeble-Minded Boys. But that House only took feeble-minded master boys, so its staff had given Slow to the court, and the court had sent him here. What Slow would do when he reached his full majority at age twenty-one, Bat couldn't imagine. The law required that boys be released from here once they were full-grown men, he'd been told.
He looked out the window again, beyond the campus lawn, beyond the southern line of family cottages, to the road that ran along the boundaries to the House of Transformation. He thought he could see stone markers across the road – a graveyard for the farmers' chapel of rebirth, perhaps? And well beyond that, glinting in the sunshine, he saw something black and bulky puffing along, sending dark smoke up. A train?
Silence alerted him to the fact that something was wrong in their little dormitory. He looked back to see Emmanuel checking them over, his smile gone.
"What's wrong?" asked Bat uneasily.
"You all watermen's sons?"
"Sure we are," said Joe in a fight-battle voice. "All but Mordecai. What of it?"
"Sorry to be bearing bad tidings, but you ain't none of you going home. Not for a long while."
Mordecai picked himself off his stomach to stare at the boys behind him. In a cracked voice, Frank said, "What d'you mean?"
"Super only paroles boys home who got good homes. He don't think watermen's homes are good. Says watermen fight each other all the time."
Bat pulled his knee up against his chin, hugging his leg. Joe said angrily, "Maybe that's true, but I don't see how that gives him the right to keep us from our people."
Emmanuel shrugged. "We're inmates. Till we're released outright from our paroles, we got to do what the Super tells us. You try to go home to your family, or your family visits you, and Super'll treat it as breaking parole. He'll haul you back here to serve more time."
"But I want to see my mama and daddy." Frank – the most even-tempered and courageous of them all, who'd shown neither anger nor fear when he was chained to the other boys – looked as though he was fighting back tears.
Joe hugged him, saying, "You will, honey boy. We'll find a way round the Super's stupid rules."
"But you said you were going home," inserted Mordecai, clearly distressed on the other boys' behalf. "Aren't you a waterman's son?"
"It's different for me," said Emmanuel. Then, as Joe glared at him, he added, "Not 'cause of me. 'Cause of my mama. She was born a mastress."
They all stared. Joe said, "Honest true?"
"Honest true." Emmanuel traced a ring of rebirth on his forehead, sealing his oath. "She gave up her rank to marry my daddy. But she still speaks like a mastress, and she can read and write. Sends me letters every week," he added with pride. "Super reads them to me when he has spare time." He leaned forward and whispered, "I can read the letters myself. Picked it up, from watching my mama read books aloud to me when I was little. But don't tell anyone. Super don't know I know he's cutting bits out of my mama's letters that he don't like."
They all gestured their rings of rebirth, swearing not to tell. Emmanuel leaned back, saying in an ordinary voice, "I'm surely looking forward to going home. I hate the work here, especially the farming; I want to be back to following the water on a boat. I miss my mama's cooking, and my daddy's stories of his days in the navy, and being able to play with my little brothers and sisters, and the smell of the Bay."
They were silent, then, all caught in their thoughts of the homes they'd left behind. Even Bat – who'd consider himself blessed if he never saw his widowed dad again – felt his throat close in as he remembered the swish of the Bay's waves, the sight of skipjacks and schooners sailing against the sky, the muddy squishiness of the marshes. How long would it be before he experienced all that again?
His thoughts were broken by the sound of a voice outside. Looking down from the window, Bat saw that Trusty was standing on the path in front of the cottage, talking to a man. Like the Teachers whom Bat had seen, the man was wearing an officer's uniform, but he was much older than the Teachers – about the age of Bat's granddad when he died. The man leaned on a cane, while his left leg had a certain stiffness about it. He appeared to be listening with interest to what Trusty was saying.
Frank noticed the conversation a moment later. "Say, who's that?"
Emmanuel came over to join them at their window. "That's the Superintendent. See that bad leg? Journeyman attacked him last year. Everyone thought Super would shut down the transformatory and send all of us to the penitentiary, but he acted like nothing had happened."
"Trusty is talking to him," Joe said, wrinkling up his nose in disgust. "You know what that means."
"Oh, Trusty's all right," said Emmanuel in an indifferent manner. "He won't tell tales on you – not unless they're the type of tales you'd want told, if you get what I say. Come on, we better go downstairs. Super will want to meet you. Anyone got to use the toilet first? Super talks long."
"I'll catch up," said Bat, but after the other boys had gone, chattering and clattering their way down the steps, he remained at the window, staring out this time, not at the campus, but at the road back to the capital.
To be away from his dad was a glory, and to be in a place like this was a pleasant surprise, given what he'd been envisioning for his next few years.
But when all was said and done, this was a prison. A place where he'd be given little choice of what he could say or do. It was like living with his dad again, only worse, because his dad sure hadn't locked him in any punishment cell.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad living here. Better than the alternative, anyway. But he wanted to make his own life in due time, and what he'd just learned, during the last few minutes, had told him that leaving here would be harder than he'd thought.