However unnecessary the hot waves of the New York summer may appear to some people, they were never wasted on Bubbles. He had a passion for the water, and to his love of swimming was added a passion for the underworld gossip with which the piers of the East River reek in bathing weather. For just as mice are more intimate with the details of houses than landlords are, so the small boys of a city have the best opportunities for being acquainted with its workings, and with the intimate lives of its inhabitants. The street-boy’s mind matures while his body is still that of a child. Births and deaths are familiar spectacles to him. He knows and holds of high import hundreds of things which men have forgotten. He can see in the dark. He can hide in a handful of shadow. And when he isn’t overhearing on his own hook, he is listening to what somebody else has overheard. Second-story men fear him, lovers loathe him, and nature, who has been thwarted in her intention that he should run in sweet meadows, sleep in fresh air, and bathe in clean water, sighs over him.
It was so hot that the policeman whose duty and privilege it was to see that no small boy cooled himself from Pier 31A, disappeared tactfully into the family entrance of a water-front saloon. The city had many laws which to this particular officer appeared unreasonable and which he enforced only when he couldn’t help himself. In men there is the need of gambling and some other things. As for small boys, they must play baseball and they must swim.
Bubbles went overboard at about three o’clock. There were twenty or thirty boys of all sizes already in the water, and the addition of one to the struggling group of wet heads was not to be noticed. Nor was the disappearance of that head noticed, nor the fact that it appeared to remain under water for nearly three-quarters of an hour, nor that when it finally did emerge it looked on the whole as if it had seen a ghost.
Bubbles, it seems, was less interested in the waters around Pier 31A than in the waters underneath. And for this reason: on the previous night, while stripping for a swim, he had heard a muffled sound of voices coming from directly under the pier, followed by a long subdued roaring as of a load of earth being emptied into the water. Now, under Harry West’s tuition Bubbles had formed the habit of investigating whatever he did not understand. And he wished very much to find out why people should talk under piers at night, how they could get under Pier 31A except by swimming, and if they were throwing earth overboard why they were doing so, and where they got the earth.
His head filled with vague and highly colored notions of a smugglers’ cave, his narrow lungs filled with air, Bubbles dove, swam between two slimy barnacled piles, and came up presently in a dark, dank, stale, gurgling region, wonderfully cool after the blazing sunlight which he had just left.