But I was to have neither time to gather my wits nor quiet to assort my emotions: for the full issue of that night was not yet. Even as we were pushing through the little crowd, and even as my grandfather parried question with answer, a new cry rose, and at the sound the crowd began to melt: for it was the cry of “Fire.”
A single shout at first, and then another, and then a clamour of three together, and a beat of running feet. Men about us started off, and as we rounded the corner, one came running back on his tracks. “Cap’en Kemp, it’s your house!” he cried. “Your house, Cap’en Kemp! The Hole in the Wall! The Hole in the Wall!”
Then was dire confusion. I was caught in a whir of running men, and I galloped and stumbled along as I might, dragging dependent from my grandfather’s hand. Somewhere ahead a wavering light danced before my eyes, and there was a sudden outburst of loud cracks, as of a hundred carters’ whips; and then — screams; screams without a doubt. Confusedly my mind went back to Viney’s confederate, groping in at the bar-parlour door. What had he done? Smashed glass? Glass? It must have been the lamp: the lamp on the little table by the door, the lamp I had myself saved but ten minutes earlier!
Now we were opposite the Hole in the Wall, and the loud cracks were joined with a roar of flame. Out it came gushing at the crevices of doors and shutters, and the corners of doors and shutters shrivelled and curled to let out more, as though that bulging old wooden house were a bursting reservoir of long-pent fire that could be held in no more. And still there were the screams, hoarser and hoarser, from what part within was not to be guessed.
My grandfather stood me in a doorway, up two steps, and ran toward the court, but that was impassable. With such fearful swiftness had the fire sprung up and over the dry old timber on this side, where it had made its beginning, that already a painted board on the brick wall opposite was black and smoking and glowering red at the edges; and where I stood, across the road, the air was hot and painful to the eyes. Grandfather Nat ran along the front of the house to the main door, but it was blazing and bursting, and he turned and ran into the road, with his arm across his eyes. Then, with a suddenly increased roar, flames burst tenfold in volume and number from all the ground floor, and, where a shutter fell, all within glowed a sheer red furnace. The spirit was caught at last.
And now I saw a sight that would come again in sleep months afterwards, and set me screaming in my bed. The cries, which had lately died down, sprang out anew amid the roar, nearer and clearer, with a keener agony; and up in the club-room, the room of the inquests — there at a window appeared the Groping Man, a dreadful figure. In no darkness now, but ringed about with bright flame I saw him: the man whose empty, sightless eye-pits I had seen scarce twelve hours before through a hole in a canvas screen. The shade was gone from over the place of the eyes, and down the seared face and among the rags of blistered skin rolled streams of horrible great tears, forced from the raw lids by scorching smoke. His clothes smoked about him as he stood — groping, groping still, he knew not whither; and his mouth opened and closed with sounds scarce human.
Grandfather Nat roared distractedly for a ladder, called to the man to jump, ran forward twice to the face of the house as though to catch him, and twice came staggering back with his hands over his face, and flying embers singeing his hair and his coat.
The blind man’s blackened hands came down on the blazing sill, and leapt from the touch. Then came a great crash, with a single second’s dulling of the whole blaze. For an instant the screaming, sightless, weeping face remained, and then was gone for ever. The floor had fallen.
The flames went up with a redoubled roar, and now I could hold my place no longer for the heat. People were flinging water over the shutters and doors of the houses facing the fire, and from the houses adjoining furniture was being dragged in hot haste. My grandfather came and carried me a few doors farther along the street, and left me with a chandler’s wife, who was out in a shawl and a man’s overcoat over a huddle of flannel petticoats.
Now the fire engines came, dashing through the narrow lanes with a clamour of hoarse cries, and scattering the crowd this way and that. The Hole in the Wall was past aid, and all the work was given to save its neighbours. For some while I could distinguish my grandfather among the firemen, heaving and hauling, and doing the work of three. The police were grown in numbers now, and they had cleared the street to beyond where I stood, so that I could see well enough; and in every break in the flames, in every changing shadow, I saw again the face of the Groping Man, even as I can see it now as I write.
Floor went upon floor, till at last the poor old shell fell in a heap amid a roar of shouts and a last leap of fire, leaving the brick wall of the next house cracking and black and smoking, and tagged with specks of dying flame. And then at last my grandfather, black and scorched, came and sat by me on a step, and put the breast of his coat about me.
And that was the end of the Hole in the Wall: the end of its landlord’s doubts and embarrassments and dangers, and the beginning of another chapter in his history — his history and mine.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58