Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library
  PREVIOUSNEXT  

CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · QUICK INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHIES
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · PORTRAITS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Of the Great Fire
By William De Morgan (1839–1917)
 
From ‘Joseph Vance’, Chapter XXXV.

MY Father might have gone to the bad, had he lived long enough. For when I look back on his relations to the whiskey-bottle I am able to divide their history into three distinct chapters. The first begins at my Mother’s death. The second at Lossie Thorpe’s wedding. The third at my own. This last is a short chapter, but is a record of a steady dégringolade. The fact is that Pheener, left alone, was not strong enough for the position. And I could see at once when I came back from my visit to Normandy that Pheener’s expression “good and manageable” was a tribute to my Father’s moral nature, rather than an affirmation of her success.  1
  It was not, however, fair to expect Pheener to combat her husband’s unhappy propensity, and check it except when he was well within range. Had he been always under her eye, I believe matters might have gone better. But unfortunately, the growth of the business involved constant additions of premises, and one of these, a City Office of a most convincing nature, redolent of polished mahogany compartments, and classification and solvency, demanded my Father’s almost daily presence. I don’t exactly know what he did there, but then I don’t exactly know what anyone did. For even Mr. Hickman, now a most august functionary, and understood to be liable to break out into a partnership at any moment, as Vesuvius into an eruption, never seemed to be doing anything. Some work must have been done sometime, or it would have been impossible to be referred by folio 387 to folio 2, and by folio 2 to folio 763 P. L., whatever that meant, with any result but discomfiture and despair. Certainly my Father didn’t do it. It would have been contrary to his great principle of never doing anything with his own hands. But it appeared to be necessary to the business that he should spend half the day in the very luxurious inner sanctum he had provided for himself. And there was nothing in the world to hinder the secretion of whiskey in any of the responsible safes and cupboards that made such a parade of candid labels describing their contents. I dwell on this point for the exoneration of Pheener, who I really believe did her best under the circumstances.  2
 
  It was in the middle of a six weeks’ frost, towards the end of January. Everybody was miserable, except the skating public, which enjoyed itself all the more on that account. Its attitude of patronage towards the frozen and choked majority was insufferable.  3
  Vehicles were quite out of the question. So after nearly three hours’ skating on the Serpentine, a walk home to refresh, and then another to the works, I was beginning to acknowledge fatigue: I found my Father just going back after a late lunch. He recognized the fact that if he had been taking an abnormal glass of whiskey the weather would have justified it, and seized the opportunity to apologize for his usual excess. “The fog sticks in the toobs,” he said, and tapped the pit of his stomach to explain their locality. We walked to the Works together. “Nobody could see to walk straight in such a fog,” he said. He did not try to make the fog responsible for anybody’s thick articulation, so no doubt he was unaware of his own. I cannot recall that I observed anything out of the common in his condition; but I fear this only shows how very much in the first three years of my married life I had to come to accept as being within the common.  4
  One of the most insidious features of alcohol poisoning is the way it imposes on bystanders, who go into a conspiracy to assist each other in self-deception about its existence. The gate porter Caplin touched his hat to me, and looked in another direction, lest we should betray a mutual consciousness that the Governor was drunk. The men who were loading up planking for that job of Pettigrew’s (teste Caplin) changed an attitude of lazy unconsciousness about worldly things and perfect content with status quo’s for an ostentatious parade of ignorance that the Governor was drunk. The yard-foreman Shaw’s manner said, almost audibly, that whoever else was drunk, the Governor wasn’t. But his tongue only said we wanted a little wind to blow the fog away. The yard dog Nelson alone had the candor to express a doubt, for he smelt my Father suspiciously, and retired dissatisfied. He followed his tail twice round to get its opinion; but it shirked giving any; so Nelson heaved a deep sigh and went to sleep. Or rather pretended to, for I saw his eye fixed on my Father when he thought no one was looking.  5
  I fell in with the general imposture, and pretended there was not the slightest reason why I should not depart to my own portion of the Works. So I left my poor Daddy giving perfectly intelligent instructions about points awaiting his decision, in a very thick and husky tone of voice. “Do I ever make a mistake, Nipper? Come now!” he would say to me, when I endeavored to read him a whiskey-lecture—and I was always obliged to confess that it was almost never, at any rate. But the worst part of this excessive clearness of mind in some such cases is its production of overweening confidence up to the moment of some tremendous betrayal, when its victim is involved in a catastrophe that might have been avoided if a few lesser blunders had occurred to give warning. My Father’s mistake was a cruel instance, for though it was one that he would never have committed when perfectly sober, it was also one committed every day by persons of less judgment than his, even with a small allowance of upset from drink. On this occasion no doubt he was affected rather more than usual.  6
  I passed up into my floor of the factory, where all the lathes were busily at work, though it was, as the shop-foreman said, mighty hard to see the tip of your own nose. The gas burned wretchedly, as it always does in thick fogs. Demand does not create supply at an hour’s notice, unless it has been anticipated and provided for; a reservation which rather takes the edge off that great truth of Political Economy, and leaves the demander making use of strong language ineffectually. In the present case the supply was even worse than usual in a bad fog. “It’s not often as bad as this,” said Willis, the shop-foreman. “It might have been in the main, only I see nothing wrong with the street lamps.” Willis was astute and far-sighted, and a great consolation to me. I told him to go down to the meters, and take the pressure as near as possible to ours. For I saw the light in their building was better, and of course each had its own meter.  7
  Presently Willis came back in haste. “There’s an escape somewhere in the building,” said he. “The pressure’s a lot better at the meter.”  8
  “Smell enough to knock your head off down the passage over agen the wash’us crossing over by the stores.” The speaker was a young man at a lathe, who did not take his eyes off his work or show any interest in his own speech, which he appeared to have deputed to his tongue to say, and washed his mind of. I told Willis to go down and see about it, and went into my little office. There I found a heap of letters to grapple with—one manifestly from India which ought to have gone to the house. I put it in my pocket to read later, and gazed blankly at the stack that remained. I was very tired, and I knew well that ten minutes’ sleep would reinstate me completely—it always did. Yes! I would have my ten minutes’ sleep and then tackle the correspondence.  9
  No sooner had I sat down in the visitor’s chair near the fire than I began to dream. I was in no time the Mayor or Syndic of a glorious old town at the foot of a precipice; and on the edge of that precipice was a huge projecting rock big enough to accommodate what I had known from my earliest boyhood as the Schloss. For in that dream I recalled endless memories of early youth—as in dreams one does! But the great dread and terror of all the inhabitants (I think I knew most of them by name, and had done so for years) was that the Rock of the Schloss was slowly, slowly detaching itself and must some day come down, Schloss and all, one thundering mass of destruction and ruin, on the old beloved streets where I had played as a boy; on the stately town-hall, with its tower full of bells whose carillon seemed never to cease sounding; on the twin spires of a cathedral all Europe came to see and wonder at. How harrowed was I (and the town-council) at the impending inevitable fate. And quite suddenly it occurred to me (after so many years of quiescence!) that engineering might have a voice in the matter. A scheme was devised (I can recollect scientific details even now) for diverting the water that was wearing channels in the neck of the rock, for buttressing from below, and so forth; and it was all arranged and we made ready to start when, with a deafening crash, down comes the Schloss bodily—and no doubt converted the whole place to a heap of ruins. I did not sleep long enough to see, for I only heard the first half of the dream-crash. I was awake in time to catch the last half of a tremendous concussion in the basement, to know at once the meaning of the rattle of broken glass that followed, the shouts and trampling in the black darkness (for not a light was left burning in our part of the building), and the voice of Willis, the foreman, saying, “It’s the gas!”  10
  We felt our way through the darkness till the still burning gas-lamps in the other works enabled us to run for the scene of the explosion. If you can imagine a catastrophe in Hell, and an army of terrified men shouting to one another that they said so all along, and they could have told you what would happen, and that anybody might have known it, and that they supposed nobody had gone for the engines now,—if you can imagine this, and yourself waked suddenly, from a dream, you will know what I felt like within a minute of the collapse of that Schloss.  11
  I heard one man shout to another through the fog, where was the Guv’nor? The other replied that Christopher was inside, but that Joseph wasn’t there. I knew that the men among themselves distinguished us by our Christian names, but it was unusual to me to overhear them. Perhaps this was why I did not realize their meaning. I ran on through the yard toward the Stores, and just as I arrived the flame was breaking out of the upper windows.  12
  Before me was the passage over agen the wash’us where the smell had been enough to knock your head off. A boy who was inexplicably called Mary Anne by the workmen pulled my sleeve and shouted something I could not catch. Caplin, the gate porter, shouted to him, “You shut up, young Polly, he ain’t.” But Polly was not to be put off, and shrieked again what I now heard was “The Guv’nor’s in there,” and pointed along the passage. And at this moment Shaw, the yard-foreman, and another came running out of the entry pursued by smoke, having ventured in in search of the Governor.  13
  It was a back-puff of smoke, such as comes from a first lighted fire; and I saw the fag end of it caught back by the returning draught. I dashed in at once, followed by others. To be in that long passage in such smoke (the denser for the fog) would mean suffocation. What if it did? My Father was inside. The dog Nelson, anxious to be of real service, bolted in and went ahead of us nearly tripping me up. On we went till Caplin called out to me from behind, “I hear the Guv’nor,” and ran down a side passage. I and the others followed. There, in a reflected gleam from above somewhere, was the Guv’nor, but I am sorry to say very drunk. It had developed, perhaps been helped, since I saw him.  14
  “If shome of you young men,” said he reproachfully, “inshtead of makin’ all that hollerin’ outside, was to come in here and try to find out what’sh afire, you might make shelf shumyewsh.”  15
  “Catch hold!” said I. And four of us seized him and dragged him with unscrupulous violence into the outer passage. Here he became so anxious to explain to us that something was on fire, that we made even shorter work of him, laying him out and each taking a limb. “It’s me, Daddy,” I thundered in his ear. And I think it was his hazy appreciation of the fact that he was in charge of the Nipper that made removal possible. He was a strong man and weighed nineteen stone, and action had to be very prompt. As it was, the last dozen steps of our exit were through another puff of smoke that followed us along the passage and half choked all four bearers, whose heads, being high, got the worst of it. He himself was no more inarticulate than before when we all fell in a heap at the entrance.  16
  “I shaid shum’fn wash afire,” said he, triumphantly, and then with an extraordinary presence of mind added, “See to getting the horshesh out.”  17
  “Jump up, Daddy,” said I, for he still remained flat on his back. “There’s the engines!” And in a little more time than it takes to tell, the whole of the yards were teeming with brazen helmets, fire escapes, coils of piping—everything, in fact, except the one thing needful, water. But my Father still lay flat on his back; and the developing blaze, now constantly working through at unexpected points, made the heat insupportable. “Jump up, Dad,” I cried again, and tried to get him up. But he could not move, and when I tried again, he gave a cry of pain. So terrible was the heat that there was nothing for it but to drag him, pain or no. I shouted this into the ear of a brazen helmet, whose undisturbed face showed immediate apprehension and nodded. A litter appeared by magic, out of chaos, and two more undisturbed helmets somehow got him under weigh for the gate, and I followed with the world turning round.  18
  I had had a rather sharp shake myself in leaving the passage, and I was so confused that I did not realize at first that he was being carried into a neighbor’s house, not into his own. The brass helmet which accompanied the two volunteer bearers explained, “No water, all froze. What wind there is dead on the house. Have to be moved again in an hour,” and departed without emotion. From which I gathered that we might look forward to the complete destruction not only of the Works but of the house, and probably several of the neighbors’ houses. I felt sorry for the neighbors, but hoped that they were as well insured as we were!  19
  My Father’s mind was struggling with his overdose of whiskey. His half-articulate speech (which I find no pleasure in trying to spell phonetically) referred chiefly to the safety of the horses; most of which, as a concession to the almost impassable state of the roads, were in the stable. But he had understood quite clearly what the fireman had said about the danger to the house, and was very anxious about a certain packet which was in what he called his shaving drawer. The moment he had with some difficulty explained this and given me his keys, I left him in charge of the terrified strangers to whom the house belonged, and struggled through the crowd until I reached the cordon of police that was guarding the area of destruction including the house. I had some trouble to get passed through. The roar of the conflagration, for it had seized the timber-stacks in the yard, and was rejoicing at the capture and leaping up into the fog overhead, and the arrival of fresh engines, and the shouts of the mob that had sprung from nowhere within twenty minutes, all combined to make verbal communication difficult. I got through by showing my visiting card to a Sergeant of Police, and got into the house just as the Salvage Corps took possession—a tranquil-minded body of men, steeped I should say in philosophical reflection, and quite independent of externals. I ran upstairs to the dressing-room, but found the door locked. A Salvage Corps man was close behind me. “Who might you be?” said he, reflectively, but did not seem interested in the answer. “Can you open this door?” said I. He remarked that he might try, and stepping back for impetus drove an iron boot-heel like a battering-ram true on to the keyhole. The screws of the lock gave way with a crash, and I followed him into the room.  20
  “There’s more ways than one,” said he, placidly, “of getting a door open.”  21
  Every pane of glass in the window was broken, and the awful fog-lurid glare from the burning timber-yard less than fifty yards away showed what terrible progress the fire was making. I went straight to my Father’s dressing-table. The Salvage man demurred to my interfering with anything, saying those were his instructions; but my production of the keys and my card was accepted as evidence of my status, and I soon found the packet. Almost before I had done this, he had closed the shutters to keep out the spark-drift, and made a bundle of a feather-bed and all the valuable tailor’s work in the cupboards. I saw why. No water was expected and all the salvage would be goods carried out. I was useless evidently; so I left the position in the hands of experience, and fought my way back to the neighbor’s house where I had left my Father.  22
  In all this time no enquiry had crossed my mind about where my stepmother and the household were. But “all this time” had been so very little, counted by minutes. It takes long to tell, but, from when the Schloss came down in the dream, on that ancient city that I remembered every nook of, to the moment of my return with the rescued packet to my Father at the Philip Slacks’ three doors opposite, was certainly not more than thirty-five minutes all told. When I escaped out of the roar and confusion of the street into my Father’s harbor of refuge I found the terrified womankind beside him, having been persuaded to clear out of the threatened house by the Police. In order, however, to facilitate salvage operations, Pheener had carefully locked all the lockable doors and brought the keys away. My Father was indignant. “Whash yewsh-lockin’ dam-locks?” said he in three words. I consoled him by producing the packet he wanted. He handed it to his wife with a caution that come what might she should never let it go out of her keeping. But he never raised himself up off the sofa he had been laid on, and I could see plainly that he was suffering from some shake or strain, encountered when he fell as we brought him out of the smoke.  23
  Those who have never been in a fire or shipwreck can form no idea of the overwhelming power of the unfettered elements, and the utter helplessness of the human unit against them. I knew that I could avert nothing that it was still possible to avert, and could save nothing that it was still possible to save, one half as well as the highly trained skill that had now the task in hand. So I remained by my Father. He was getting very sleepy and stupid, and when in the course of another hour of glare and roar of fire, and shouting of human throats, and trampling of men and horses, there came a great crash followed by a greater roar and a new blaze, he only remarked (quite correctly) that the roof had fallen in. “Schnomatter,” he added, “shorance covers all risks,” and dropped off into a balmy slumber.  24
  It was then that Shaw, the yard-foreman, came in and gave me an insight into what had happened. His loyalty to the fiction that my Father was not drunk was beautiful and touching.  25
  “It was just like this, Mr. Joseph—you see, Mr. Vance was just enquiring whether the architect on that job of Pettigrew’s was a fool, or what he was, for to go and stick up a bressumer made of a quarter-inch flitch and a couple of battens; when it orter have been a proper wrot-iron girder to carry that four story of ware-’uses of heavy goods—and o’ course the guv’nor was right, and any child might have known——”  26
  “Get along, Shaw! Never mind the girder.”  27
  “Well, Sir, I says to the Guv’nor, I says, ‘I’m only cartin’ ’em off what’s on the order, wrote plain, and it ain’t for me to judge. If they was to order pickles I should have to send ’em, if they was in the yard.’”  28
  “And then my Father said?—Cut on, Shaw—”  29
  “He said nothing, Sir. But I says, ‘If the order’s countersigned, by the storekeeper, wot then?’ I says. And then, he says, ‘Where’s that fool Riley?’—he’s that noo storekeeper came when Gabriel went—hashmatic chap—you know?”  30
  “Of course. Get along, etc.” I was obliged to urge Shaw forward. And thus urged he became more concise and told how my Father went to look for Riley in the Stores, and he wasn’t there. And there was a strong smell of gas in the passage—a most noticeable strong smell, Mr. Vance said. And Mr. Vance, half asleep, corrected the adjective noticeable, and laid claim to having used one which I suppose Shaw’s delicacy had suppressed. It was the one I had occasion to record once or twice at the beginning of this narrative. My Father had practically abolished its use—but when by any chance he harked back to it, he was too honorable to shirk acknowledgment.  31
  Shaw had then left my Father in the passage, and gone to examine the upper building. He passed Willis just coming down after having seen me, and was coming out of the upper story to report that the place was choked with gas (no lights were lighted there, of course) when the explosion came, breaking every window and flinging him into the yard. He was up in an instant and back in the lower passage searching for my Father. He had been beaten back twice by the smoke when I came down.  32
  I am glad now to think that my Father was never conscious that he was the cause of the explosion. For when he told me his version afterwards it was clear that he had lighted a wax Vesta match on the wall, the box-side being worn smooth; and he cited this match as a proof that the air (where he was) was inexplosive. “Besides,” said he, “it wasn’t alight in the sense of burning at all—for a puff of wind came sharp out of a crack in the wall and blew it out a’most before it was lighted.” It was only too clear to me what had happened. My Father’s power of observation had not been equal to seeing that the puff of air was an explosive mixture, coming through from a magazine ready to take a hint, and becoming an exploding mixture elsewhere. A sober man would have seen that the puff was the birth of the explosion, which came of age on the other side of an eighteen-inch wall, luckily for him. No doubt the atmosphere, where he was, was sorry, and envied that in the next room for being able to blow up and cut such a figure.  33
  I left my poor Dad under his delusion. But the reason why Vance & Co.’s works at Clapham were burned to the ground in three hours was that Vance was drunk, and Co. was somewhere else.  34
  The Philip Slacks, whose front parlor we had made such an extraordinary invasion of, were very civil; Mr. Slack having himself suggested the arrangement when the firemen were hesitating about taking my Father into his own house. Mrs. Philip Slack certainly had to be convinced that fire was not communicable, like Leprosy, before admitting us. Once convinced, she was really very hospitable and gave us tea and bread and butter to console us. But she knew my Father had married his housemaid. So it was the kitchen tea in a black Rockingham pot. And the bread and butter was not cut off the French loaf, but a household half-quartern. Pheener told me all this later. I didn’t see it myself at the time, but was grateful for the tea. Perhaps it wasn’t true.  35
  How the delayed advent of the water came about I do not know—I suppose the heat melted the icy stopper of a frozen main-pipe. Anyhow, it came too late to save the house, though it was in time to stave off a visit of the Sappers and Miners, and the knocking down of a street or two. Just as Bony arrived, having been detained as a witness by a Committee of the House of Commons, the first benevolent torrents of water were beginning to hiss on the ruins of the great bonfire that had given such keen pleasure to the inhabitants of Clapham and Battersea.  36
  But the Works were a heap of blazing or smoldering ruins, and the house on the way to become so. And my Father was on his back unable to move. And the Philip Slacks were going out to dinner if the coachman thought he could manage the fog. And I was glad when the fog lifted and the coachman thought he could, for the Philip Slacks had been very amiable, Rockingham or no, and I have still a hazy impression that I overheard Mrs. Philip say that Pheener was really almost (only-she-hated-the-expression- and-wouldn’t-use-it-only- she-didn’t-know-any-other) a lady. Whether she knew my poor Daddy was drunk, I don’t know.  37
 
  “Cheer up, old man. He’ll be all right with rest in a day or two. Doctor says so.”  38
  “Don’t be down-hearted, Jack darling. He got right before—long ago—and he’ll do it again. You see if he doesn’t!”  39
  “And as for the Factory and the house, Insurance covers everything—interruption to business—doctor’s bills—everything!”  40
  “Yes, dearest! And think what a satisfaction it is that so many things can be burned and no one lose anything. Because if you hadn’t been burned somebody else would, to make up the average. Papa’s told me about it heaps of times.”  41
  The speakers were Bony and my wife, alternately. The scene was our Cheyne-Row drawing-room, before a blazing fire. The time was the end of toddy-time, and the time to come a most welcome bedtime. For we had somehow contrived to transport my Father in an ambulance through the fog (which had thickened again as soon as the Philip Slacks’ coachman had committed himself) and had followed in its wake—a melancholy procession of six persons—Bony, my stepmother, Cook, the housemaid, house-parlormaid, and myself. The boy Nips was known to be safe from the flames, but preferred to remain behind to impede the firemen, so far as opportunity should be vouchsafed to him; to misinform the inquisitive, and in short to enjoy thoroughly an occasion not likely to come twice in a life. There was fortunately no difficulty about finding room for the outcasts in our two households. So we were looking forward to sleeping in comfort, after just a few minutes more of recapitulation. I felt I ought to do my share of the cheering up, and shook off some vague misgivings of further evil that I had kept on feeling at intervals.  42
  “I wasn’t thinking about that,” said I. “I was thinking about that jolly old place I told you of at dinner—what the Schloss came down on.”  43
  “Poor, dear, silly Jack! And you were the Syndic?”  44
  “Yes, and there was such a nice family, the Schneiders—who lived on the Lindenstrasse—three such pretty girls. Hedwig was the youngest—they might have let me sleep a little longer.”  45
  Just at this point Jeannie came back putting things on to go back home. She became so interested about Hedwig that I had to assure her I was married already in the dream and had five daughters myself, all as ugly as their mother and as worthy. Her sympathies were so excited that Bony had to drag her away!  46
  “And oh, you poor, dear, darling Jack,” said Janey, when we were left alone. “How you did look when you came in, black all over! And if I hadn’t seen you before I saw the ambulance, I don’t know what wouldn’t have happened! Where ever did you get it?”  47
  “I don’t know—it came! They are to come for it. Who are they? I haven’t the remotest idea. I have no idea of anything—I only know I have a letter from Lossie in my pocket I haven’t read, and you must read it to me at breakfast.”  48
  “Give it to me. Nothing from Hedwig, I suppose?”  49
  “Nothing, so far. I’m afraid they’re all squashed. It’s very sad. What’s that?”  50
  “It’s a ring at the front-door bell. What can it be at this time of the night?”  51
  It was an officer of the Fire-Brigade, who left other brass helmets outside, in an atmosphere of lamp glare and horse-steam and hoof-stamps, and came in to confer. He was quite fresh and happy, an image of contentment emerging from a fog.  52
  “Sorry to trouble you again, Sir. Mr. Joseph Vance, I think? On account of particulars for report. Christopher Vance and Son, Builders——?”  53
  “And Co.,” said I, “not Son. And Vance and Macallister, Engineers.”  54
  “Quite right, Sir,” said he, referring to a pocketbook as though confirming an accurate guess, that did me credit. “Building of five stories in use as Workshops, Out-buildings, and Timber-yard. Detached Residence of two stories, occupied by Mr. C. Vance. Cause fire due Gas Explosion in basement. Owing to water-supply—hum—hm—impeded by frost—found impossible—save any portion of buildings. Loss falls on—? Can you kindly supply Insurance Offices, Mr. Vance?”  55
  “I’m afraid I can’t. My Father attended to all that. Stop a minute! If he’s awake I’ll ask him.” And I ran upstairs to do so, but Pheener, who had remained with him all the evening, and had now gone to bed herself, told me through the door that he was quite sound, and it would be a pity to wake him. I agreed, and went back. Janey had been chatting with the officer. “Oh, Jack dear,” said she, “it is so sad—poor Nelson—the rough dog you know that lived in the yard? You know? Well, he was found dead in the basement—not burned, but choked by the smoke.”  56
  “Just under the first explosion, Mr. Vance. Flame didn’t reach—but smoke and heat to kill a dozen dogs. Must have got in at the first go-off. Otherwise no casualty. With reference to the Insurance, Mr. Vance?”  57
  “My Father’s asleep, and I don’t want to wake him. Can’t you say merely that the premises were fully insured?”  58
  “So far as can be ascertained, fully covered by insurance—naming no office.” Thus the fireman, who then took his leave, declining refreshment, and hoping he hadn’t put us out.  59
  “What an odd hope for a fireman!” said Janey. “But think of that poor dog!”  60
  Poor Nelson! He had seen clearly that my Father was not able to take care of himself, and had run in to help. He overshot his mark in the passage, and no doubt went searching about in the smoke until he met his death.  61
  The young person who does me out, and sees to me and lights my fires too late, and makes my bed without tucking it in at the end—so that spectres would get hold of my toes if I didn’t always religiously tuck it in myself—this young person could not get the fire to burn this morning of March, 1895. I am not surprised. If I had been a fire laid like that I would not have burned, myself. But the young person, Betsy Austin, driven to lawlessness by failure, appropriated a portion of a broken drawer of an old desk I was patching up, and forcing it in upwards and sideways and downwards into the incombustible matrix she was blowing the smoke out of into her eyes and the room, decided that it had caught and would do now, and devoted herself to laying the breakfast. I was just in time to snatch the bit of mahogany from the fire and put it in my bath-water. It fizzed and went out, and then tried to pretend it wasn’t spoiled, ineffectually.  62
  And it made the whole place smell strong of extinguished burning wood. And the smell thereof brought back to me the day of my last chapter, as nothing but a smell can bring things back. It brought back my ride down with Bony to the cinder heap that had been the Works, and the Hansom Cabman, who, when he was told where to drive, said, “I know—close by where the fire was last night.” His respect for us went up enormously when he found that we were in a sort of way “The Fire” ourselves, or near relations.  63
  Oh, the ghastliness of the ruin and destruction! It was heart-sickening to think of the contents of that dreadful heap of smoldering rubbish that choked up what had been the lowest story of the main building. It was still rebellious, but was being pumped on by a dispassionate engine, which was so sure it would beat in the end that it never lost its temper, or said an angry word. I knew that heap contained the caput mortuum of all my drawings of machinery inventions for years past, and all the costly plant that was soon to have been carefully removed to the new Chelsea buildings, and half-completed contracts by the ton. And I knew the worst of it would be—that everything in that heap would be just quite spoiled, but no more. There would be lathes that would still do to stand outside a second-hand dealer’s in Southwark, but that would never turn true again; planing machines with bed-plates like beds on which angular people have had sleepless nights; drilling machines that wagged their drills as dogs their tails; things with eccentric movements whose eccentricities had become ungovernable. In that heap were those letters that I had seen on my desk, all but the one from Lossie. That was something saved at any rate.  64
  Firemen with small nozzles were putting finishing touches on the extinction, after the coarse work done by the big water-jets, just as painters use small sables after hog-hair has done its worst. Every now and then came a crash of falling timber or wall—tenacious bits that had remained behind when the roof fell in. Daring helmeted climbers with axes were helping down these stragglers, and as it seemed to me running needless risks to this end. I thought all hands would be best employed shoring up the front of the high building, and said so to the head fireman. He evidently doubted our statement that we were Vance & Macallister, and held a kind of court of identification under the wall we had thought dangerous. Having reluctantly conceded that we had an interest in the property, he looked up at the overhanging wall (the fall of which would have killed all three) and expressed confidence in its stability, but to indulge our whim remarked that you might shore up most walls. There were any number of men available, so I had a temporary affair rigged up at once. I was gratified to hear from the same fireman later in the day, that if it hadn’t been for that bit of timber “we” thought of putting up, that wall would have come down on some of us. He must have been a brother of Pring.  65
  If a burned-out factory is sad, a burned-out home is sadder still. One half-burned is perhaps the worst of all. The roof of my Father’s house and the upper floors were completely wrecked by the fire. The lower ones were scorched by the burning ceilings, but the deluge of water that came at last had done its best to finish the job. Some of the furniture and pictures had been got away; but a good deal remained, the Salvage Corps having dealt with the lower rooms last, believing that the water would be in time to save them. I saw my Father’s leather armchair in the snuggery, in a stack covered with tarpaulins to shelter it from the expected deluge. There also I found his writing-table, which I was glad of, but it was tight in the stack, and the building was not safe, so for the present I made no effort to extract it. On the chimney-piece stood an empty whiskey-bottle looking jaunty. How it must have chuckled over its handiwork!  66
  Two refrains ran continuously through the whole—one cheerful, the other depressing. The first was the universal conviction that Insurance covered everything, the second the equally universal, all-pervading stench of the water on the burned wood. No wonder the same smell brought it all back to me so vividly this morning! It drove me away at last from a place where I could be of no further use. I merely arranged with the Salvagee in charge for the delivery of some goods (which I specified) at the house in Chelsea, and told my partner I should go home, whether he did or not. I wanted to see my Father, who was probably awake by now.  67
  “Just take one more turn round,” said Bony, “in case there’s anything.”  68
  We took one more turn round, and there was nothing. Only, just as we were leaving what had been the Office at the Works, my eye was caught by something that struck me as familiar. It was a burned piece of board, some two feet long, with an inscription on it. And enough was still visible to show me, who knew it of old, that it ran, “C. Vance—Builder—Repairs—Drains promptly attended to.”  69
 
  No wonder the smell of my burnt desk brought it back. I will not replace that bit of broken drawer (for I know it will smell), though Betsy Austin expresses contempt for my “finicking” precision, and alleges that I am making a fuss about nothing. “Just as good as ever it was,” is her verdict. She does not seem to see that an isolated escape from her destroying hand will do little to counteract her defects as a maid-of-all-work. She will speak of me downstairs as a sort of precise old maid, bent on interrupting the well-organized routine of what she calls her Work. This presents itself to me as a whirlwind. And no slight one either, for Betsy’s arms are not only fine arms, but strong ones, and she can just as soon smash the furniture as tidy it up, which is an accomplishment she claims perfection in.  70
  Am I sure I am not writing this with the intention of leaving it open on my desk that Betsy may read it, and be wounded by my poignant sarcasms? I am, because I know that Betsy would be adamant, and would include it in the broad category she describes as my nonsense.  71
  But I have nothing to do with Betsy now. I have to get back to my sheep—my sheep that are memories, browsing in the memories of pastures of thirty years ago!  72
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.