The Golden Calf, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 30

A Fiery Dawn.

The Jardines had been gone three days, and there was no change either for good or evil in Brian’s condition. Mr. Fosbroke admitted that he was as ill as he could possibly be — the malady must either take a turn for the better, or end fatally within a day or two. The servants all talked of the impending funeral as complacently as Lady Palliser. The event must happen; and it would be as well to make the best of it. They had not yet gone out of mourning for Sir Reginald; and here was another death at hand to start them again with new suits of black. This was one of the advantages of service in a really good family, where the King of Terrors was treated with proper distinction.

It was eleven o’clock at night, and the house was hushed in silence — save in that suite of rooms where the invalid and his nurses were hardly ever at rest. One of the men servants slept in his clothes on a truckle bed in the corridor, ready for service in any emergency. Every one else had gone to bed, except Ida, who sat at her window, looking out at the wild windy sky and the forest trees swaying in the gale.

The day had been rainy and tempestuous, and the wind was still raging — just such a wind as Ida remembered upon Bessie’s birthday, the day of that terrible storm which had cost so many lives, and had made Reginald Palliser master of Wimperfield.

She sat gazing idly at the sky, in sheer despondency and weariness. Her devotional books, which had been her chief comfort in these dark days and nights, lay unopened on her table. The effort to read any other kind of literature had been abandoned for the last day or two. Her mind refused to understand the words which her eyes mechanically perused. She could only read such books as spoke of comfort to a weary soul, of hope beyond a sinful world.

She had eaten hardly anything for the last few days, living on cups of tea, and semi-transparent slices of bread and butter. Her nights had been almost sleepless, her brief snatches of slumber disturbed by hideous dreams. She was thoroughly worn out in body and mind, and as she sat by the open window loosely dressed in a tea gown, with a china-crape shawl wrapped round her shoulders, the monotonous moaning of the wind in the elms had a soothing sound like a lullaby, and hushed her to sleep. She lay back in her low luxurious chair, with her head half buried in the comfortable down pillow, and slept as she had not slept for a month. It was the slumber of sheer exhaustion, deep and sweet, and long — very long; for when she opened her eyes and looked about her, awakened by a strange oppression of the chest, there was the livid light of earliest dawn in the room — a light that changed all at once to a bright red glow, vivid as the sky at sundown.

The oppression of her breath increased, she felt suffocated. The livid dawn, the crimson sunset, changed to gray; the atmosphere around her grew thick; there was a smarting sensation in her eyes, a stifling sensation in her throat. Mechanically, not knowing what she did, she began to grope her way to the door. But in that thickening atmosphere she did not know which was the door — her outspread arms clasped some heavy piece of furniture — the wardrobe. She leaned against, it exhausted, helpless stupified by that horrible smoke; and as she leaned there a wild shrill shriek pealed out from below — the cry of ‘Fire!’ Again and again that dreadful cry resounded, in a woman’s pearcing treble. Then came a hubbub of other voices — without, within — she could not tell where, or how near, or how far — but all the sounds seemed distant.

She could just see the open window by which she had been sleeping a few minutes ago — she could distinguish it by the red light outside, which was just visible through the dense smoke within, momently thickening.

She made for the window — anything to escape from that suffocating atmosphere; but just as she was approaching that red patch of light shining amidst the blackness, a sudden tongue of flame shot up from below, caught the light chintz drapery, and in an instant the window was framed in fire, The flame ran from one curtain to another; fanned by the wind which was still blowing — valence, draperies, all the ornamentation of the three windows were in a blaze. Ida stood helpless, motionless as Lot’s wife, confronting the flames. To rush through them, to leap through the open window although it were to certain death, was her first impulse. Any death must be better than to fall down suffocated on the floor, and to be burned alive.

Then came the thought of her husband — so weak, and mad, and helpless — of her stepmother. Were they, too, in danger of instant death? Or was she on this upper floor the only victim?

The thin chintz curtains flamed and blazed into nothingness while she was looking at them. The wood-work round the windows crackled and blistered, but the flame died out into ashes. Only the intolerable smoke remained, and the ever-increasing glow of the fire below, more vivid with every moment. She made one mad rush for the balcony. Great Heaven, what a scene greeted her eyes as she looked downwards! Masses of flame, mingled with black smoke clouds, were being vomited out of the lower-windows. There was a little crowd of men below — gardeners, stablemen, who lived close at hand. Some of these were making feeble efforts with garden engines, sending out little jets of water which seemed only to feed the flames as if the water had been oil, while others were trying to adjust a fire escape, deposited in the stables years ago, in the reign of Sir Reginald’s father, and out of working order from long disuse. Three or four grooms were rushing to and fro with buckets, and splashing water against the stone walls, with an utter absence of any effect whatever.

Ida stood in the balcony, leaning against the iron-work, waiting for rescue or death. The atmosphere was a little less stifling here, but every now and then a dense cloud of smoke rolled over her and almost suffocated her before the wind drove it upward. The sky was alight with reflected fire. The burning pyre of Dido or Sardanapalus could hardly have made a grander effect — and far away in the east, against the dark undulations of wooded hills there was another light — the tender roseate flush of summer dawn, full of promise and peace.

Ida stood with clasped hands, and lips moving dumbly in prayer. She gave her soul back to her Creator; she prayed for pardon for her sins; she closed her eyes waiting meekly for death.

Suddenly, as she prayed, full of resignation, the balcony creaked under a footstep — a strong arm was wound round her waist — she was lifted bodily over the iron rail and carried carefully, firmly, easily down a ladder, amidst a shout of rapture from the little crowd below.

Every Englishman is not heroic, but every Englishman knows how to admire heroism in his fellow-man.

Before the bearer of his burden reached the lowest rung of the ladder, Ida was unconscious. She lay lifeless and helpless in her preserver’s arms. When they were on the solid ground, he bent his bare head over hers, which rested on his shoulder, and kissed her on the forehead.

The crowd saw and did not condemn the action.

‘It might be a liberty,’ said the head gardener, ‘but he’d earned the right to do it. None of us could have done what he did.’

When Ida awakened to consciousness she was lying in the lodge-keeper’s little bedroom at the Park gates, and her stepmother was seated at the bedside ready to offer her the usual remedy for all feminine woes — a cup of tea.

‘Thank God, you are safe!’ said Ida, the memory of that terrible dawn quickly recurring to her mind, a little bewildered at the first moment by her strange surroundings. ‘Where is Brian?’

Fanny Palliser burst into tears.

‘Oh, Ida, it was Brian set the house on fire, in one of his mad fits — hunting for some horrible thing behind his bed-curtains; and poor Towler and the nurse were both asleep when it happened — at least, Towler, who was sitting up with him had fallen into a doze, and heard Brian talk about looking for serpents in the curtains, and then about flames and fire — but didn’t take any notice, or so much as open his eyes — for his talk had been so often of fire and flames — poor creature! — and when he woke the whole room was in a blaze, and the fire had spread through the open door to the window curtains in the next room. Towler and the nurse, and Rogers, all did their uttermost, and risked their lives trying to get Brian away; but he wouldn’t leave the burning rooms. He got wilder and wilder; and then, just as they were calling a couple of the stablemen to help them, meaning to get him away by main force, he rushed to the window and threw himself out.’

‘And he was killed!’ cried Ida.

‘Yes; the shock killed him. But you know, dear, there’s no use in fretting. Mr. Fosbroke says that he could not have lived till the end of the week. His constitution was quite gone. It was a happy release.’

‘Not such a death,’ murmured Ida, tears streaming down her wan cheeks; ‘such a death could not be a happy release.’

Lady Palliser shook her head, and sighed plaintively. Perhaps she had been inclined to take the survivor’s view of the question. Euthanasia to Fanny Palliser’s mind meant a death which relieves the family of the deceased from the burden of a long illness.

‘He did not suffer at all, dearest,’ she said, soothingly.

‘Mr. Fosbroke said the shock killed him. There were no bones broken. He fell on the grass in front of the library windows. And oh, Ida, what a blessing that everything at Wimperfield is fully insured! The house is completely gutted!’

Ida could not feel sorry about Wimperfield. The place had been to her of late the abode of horror. If she could be glad of anything in her present frame of mind, it would have been to know that Wimperfield House was razed to the ground.

‘The portico and the walls are standing,’ pursued Lady Palliser; ‘and no doubt a clever architect will be able to build the house up again in the old style.’

‘But, mamma, it was an ugly, uninteresting house — not a hundred years old.’

‘Exactly so. If it had been really an old house, one would be glad to get rid of it; but it was all as good as new, and so thoroughly substantial! and how you can call it ugly, with such a portico, I can’t imagine. I wonder you have not more classical taste. I love anything Grecian. The only thing I ever felt proud of at Les Fontaines was the plaster urns with scarlet geraniums in them!’

‘Mamma, how was I saved? Who was it saved me?’ asked Ida, presently, when she had taken her cup of tea, and the Swiss clock over the chimney-piece had struck nine.

The sun was shining through the open lattice and upon the roses and the lilies in the little lodge garden. Everything wore a glad and cheerful aspect in the summer morning.

‘Ah, my dear, that is a story!’ exclaimed Lady Palliser, nodding her head with intense significance, and pleased at being able to divert Ida’s thoughts from her husband’s miserable end; ‘I never did! You will be surprised! Oh, my dear, I thought it was all over with you! All the gardeners and stablemen were there — and Rogers — and John and William — and Henry — half dressed and in slippers, poor creatures; and I begged and implored of them to save you — to get to your room somehow — inside or out. But the staircase to the second floor was choked with smoke and flame, and falling timbers; one of the men tried to go up, but he came back and said he must wait for the firemen — nobody but a fireman could do it. And then they got ladders, but the first ladder wasn’t long enough, and nobody seemed to be in their proper senses. Thomas rode off to Petersfield for the engine directly the fire broke out, but that’s eight miles off, as you know, and it all seemed hopeless. I was running about among them all like a mad woman, in my dressing-gown and slippers; and as for Jane Dyson, she sat on the lowest step of the portico, and went out of one fit of hysterics into another, just as she did when the Archbishop’s wife died; and I thought all hope was over, when a man rushed in among us, snatched the longest ladder from the men who were bringing it from the walled garden, and put it up against the balcony. He went up it just like a sailor, and before I could hardly breathe he was coming down again with you in his arms, safe and sound. And who do you think the man was?’

‘The fire-brigade man, I suppose.’

‘Not a bit of it. The man who saved you was Vernie’s friend, Cheap Jack.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31