IF we could always know at the time what we are doing.
Two ladies carried a paper to Whitehall out of charity to a stranger.
Therein the elder was a benefactress to a man she had never spoken of but as “the Wretch;” the younger held her truant bridegroom’s heart, I may say, in her hand all the road and was his protectress. Neither recognised the hand-writing; for no man can write his own hand with a toothpick.
They reached Whitehall, and were conducted upstairs to a gentleman of pleasant aspect but powerful brow, seated in a wilderness of letters.
He waved his hand, and a clerk set them chairs: he soon after laid down his pen, and leaned gravely forward to hear their business. They saw they must waste no time; Julia looked at her mother, rose, and took Alfred’s missive to his desk, and handed it him with one of her eloquent looks, grave and pitiful. He seemed struck by her beauty and her manner.
“It was pinned on my parasol, sir, by a poor prisoner at Drayton House,” said Mrs. Dodd.
“Oh, indeed,” said the gentleman, and began to read the superscription with a cold and wary look. But thawed visibly as he read. He opened the missive and ran his eye over it. The perusal moved him not a little: a generous flush mounted to his brow; he rang the bell sharply. A clerk answered it; the gentleman wrote on a slip of paper, and said earnestly, “Bring me every letter that is signed with that name, and all our correspondence about him.”
He then turned to Mrs. Dodd, and put to her a few questions, which drew out the main facts I have just related. The papers were now brought in. “Excuse me a moment,” said he, and ran over them. “I believe the man is sane,” said he, “and that you will have enabled us to baffle a conspiracy, a heartless conspiracy.”
“We do hope he will be set free, sir,” said Mrs. Dodd piteously.
He shall, madam, if it is as I suspect. I will stay here all night but I will master this case; and lay it before the Board myself without delay.”
Julia looked at her mother, and then asked if it would be wrong to inquire “the poor gentleman’s name?”
“Humph!” said the official; “I ought not to reveal that without his consent. But stay! he will owe you much, and it really seems a pity he should not have an opportunity of expressing his gratitude. Perhaps you will favour me with your address: and trust to my discretion. Of course, if he does not turn out as sane as he seems, I shall never let him know it.”
Mrs. Dodd then gave her address; and she and Julia went home with a glow about the heart selfish people, thank Heaven, never know.
Unconsciously these two had dealt their enemy and Alfred’s a heavy blow; had set the train to a mine. Their friend at the office was a man of another stamp than Alfred had fallen in with.
Meantime Alfred was subjected to hourly mortifications and irritations. He guessed the motive, and tried to baffle it by calm self-possession: but this was far more difficult than heretofore, because his temper was now exacerbated and his fibre irritated by broken sleep (of this poor David was a great cause), and his heart inflamed and poisoned by that cruel, that corroding passion jealousy.
To think, that while he was in prison, a rival was ever at his Julia’s ear, making more and more progress in her heart! This corroder was his bitter companion day and night; and perhaps of all the maddeners human cunning could have invented this was the worst. It made his temples beat and his blood run boiling poison. Indeed, there were times when he was so distempered by passion that homicide seemed but an act of justice, and suicide a legitimate relief. For who could go on for ever carrying Hell in his bosom up and down a prison yard? He began to go alone! to turn impatiently from the petty troubles and fathomless egotism of those afflicted persons he had hitherto forced his sore heart to pity. Pale, thin, and wo-begone, he walked the weary gravel, like the lost ones in that Hall of Eblis whose hearts were a devouring fire. Even an inspector with a naked eye would no longer have distinguished him at first sight from a lunatic of the unhappiest class, the melancholiac.
“Ipse suum cor edens hominum vestigia vitans.”
Mrs. Archbold looked on and saw this sad sight, not with the pity it would once have caused, but with a sort of bitter triumph lightened by no pleasure, and darkened by the shadow of coming remorse. Yet up to this time she had shown none of that inconstancy of purpose which marks her sex; while she did go far to justify the poet’s charge:
“Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.”
Rooke had a hint to provoke Alfred to violence such as would justify them in subjecting so popular a patient to bodily restraint, composing draughts, and other quick maddeners. Rooke entered into the game zealously from two motives; he was devoted to Mrs. Archbold, and he hated Alfred, who had openly defied him, and mortified his vanity about Frank Beverley.
One Saturday Alfred was ordered out to walk with Rooke and Hayes and Vulcan. He raised no objection: suspected, felt homicidal, suppressed the impulse, and by this self-command he got time to give that letter to Beverley with instructions.
But, all the walk, he was saying to himself that Julia was in the house, and he was kept away from her, and a rival with her; this made him sicken and rage by turns. He came back in a state verging on fury.
On entering the yard poor Beverley, who had done his bit of cunning, and by reaction now relapsed into extra simplicity, came running, and said, “I’ve done it; she has got it.”
“What have you done? Who has got what?” cried Rooke.
“Don’t tell, Frank.”
“If you don’t I’ll shake your life out, ye young blackguard,” cried Rooke, seizing him and throttling him till he was black in the face.
Alfred’s long-pent fury broke out: he gnashed his teeth and dashed his fist in Rooke’s face.
Rooke staggered back and bellowed with pain and anger, then rushing at him incautiously, received a stinger that staggered him, and nearly closed his right eye. He took the hint, and put himself in a posture that showed he was skilled in the art of self-defence. He stopped two blows neatly, and returned a heavy one upon the ribs. Alfred staggered back some steps, but steadied himself, and, as Rooke rushed in too hastily to improve his advantage, caught him heavily on the other eye, but lost his own balance a little, which enabled Rooke to close; then came a sharp short rally of reechoing blows, and Rooke, not to be denied, got hold of his man, and a wrestling bout ensued, in which Alfred being somewhat weakened by misery and broken rest, Rooke’s great weight and strength enabled him, after a severe struggle, to fall with his antagonist under him, and knock the breath out of his body for the moment. Then Hayes, who had stood prudently aloof, came in and helped handcuff him. They could not walk up and down him for the Robin, who stood by with a professional air to see fair play.
“Ah, cold iron is your best chance,” he said satirically. “Never you mind, sir: you hit quick and well: I’d back you at long odds in the ring: both his peepers are in deep mourning.” He added, “A cow can beat a man wrestling.”
When Alfred was handcuffed they turned him loose. It soon transpired, however, that he was now a dangerous maniac (Formula) and to be confined in the noisy ward.
On hearing this he saw the trap he had fallen into; saw and trembled. He asked himself what on earth he should do; and presently the saying came back to him, “And this is the highest stroke of art, to turn evil into good.” He argued thus: Wolf’s love of money is my great evil; he will destroy me for money, do anything for money. Then suppose I offer him money to be honest. He begged an interview with Dr. Wolf on business. This was accorded at once. He asked the doctor plump whether he received a large sum to detain him under pretence of insanity.
“Not very, considering the trouble you sometimes give, Mr. Hardie,” was the dry reply.
“Well, then, Justice shall outbid rascality for once. I am a sane man, and you know it; a man of my word, and you know it. I’ll give you a thousand pounds to let me out of this place.”
Dr. Wolf’s eyes sparkled.
“You shall have any bond or security you like; and the money within a week of my deliverance.”
Dr. Wolf said he should be delighted to do it, if he could conscientiously.
At this piece of hypocrisy Alfred’s cheek reddened, and he could not speak.
“Well, well, I do see a great change in you for the better,” said Dr. Wolf. “If, as I suspect, you are convalescent, I will part with you without a thousand pounds or a thousand pence.
Alfred stared. Had he mistaken his man?
“I’ll tell you what, though,” said the smooth doctor. “I have got two pictures, one by Raphael, one by Correggio.”
“I know them,” said the quick-witted Alfred; “they are worth more than a thousand pounds.”
“Of course they are, but I would take a thousand pounds from you.”
“Throw me in my liberty, and I’ll make it guineas.”
“We will see about that.” And with this understanding the men of business parted. Dr. Wolf consulted Mrs. Archbold then and there.
“Impossible,” said she; “the law would dissolve such a bargain, and you would be exposed and ruined.”
“But a thousand pounds!” said the poor doctor.
“Oh, he offered me more than that,” said Mrs. Archbold.
“You don’t mean to say so; when was that?”
“Do you remember one Sunday that I walked him out, to keep clear of Mrs. Dodd? Have you not observed that I have not repeated the experiment?”
“Yes. But I really don’t know why.”
“Will you promise me faithfully not to take any notice if I tell you?”
The doctor promised.
Then she owned to him with manifest reluctance that Alfred had taken advantage of her kindness, her indiscretion, in walking alone with him, and made passionate love to her. “He offered me not a thousand pounds,” said she, “but his whole fortune, and his heart, if I would fly with him from these odious walls; that was his expression.”
Then seeing out of a corner of her eye that the doctor was turning almost green with jealousy, this artist proceeded to describe the love scene between her and Alfred, with feigned hesitation, yet minute detail. Only she inverted the parts: Alfred in her glowing page made the hot love; she listened abashed, confused, and tried all she could think of to bring him to better sentiments. She concluded this chapter of history inverted with a sigh, and said, “So now he hates me, I believe, poor fellow.”
“Do you regret your refusal?” asked Dr. Wolf uneasily.
“Oh no, my dear friend. Of course, my judgment says that few women at my age and in my position would have refused. But we poor women seldom go by our judgments.” And she cast a tender look down at the doctor’s feet.
In short, she worked on him so, that he left Alfred at her disposition, and was no sooner gone to his other asylum six miles off; than the calumniated was conducted by Hayes and Rooke through passage after passage, and door after door, to a wing of the building connected with the main part only by a covered way. As they neared it, strange noises became audible. Faint at first, they got louder and louder. Singing, roaring, howling like wolves. Alfred’s flesh began to creep. He stopped at the covered way: he would have fought to his last gasp sooner than go further, but he was handcuffed. He appealed to the keepers; but he had used them both too roughly: they snarled and forced him on, and shut him into a common flagged cell, with a filthy truckle-bed in it, and all the vessels of gutta-percha. Here he was surrounded by the desperate order of maniacs he at present scarcely knew but by report. Throughout that awful night he could never close his eyes for the horrible unearthly sounds that assailed him. Singing, swearing, howling like wild beasts! His right-hand neighbour reasoned high of faith and works, ending each pious argument with a sudden rhapsody of oaths and never slept a wink. His left-hand neighbour alternately sang, and shouted, “Cain was a murderer, Cain was a murderer;” and howled like a wolf, making night hideous. His opposite neighbour had an audience, and every now and then delivered in a high nasal key, “Let us curse and pray;” varying it sometimes thus: “Brethren, let us work double tides.” And then he would deliver a long fervent prayer, and follow it up immediately with a torrent of blasphemies so terrific, that coming in such a contrast they made Alfred’s body wet with perspiration to hear a poor creature so defy his Creator. No rest, no peace. When it was still, the place was like the grave; and ever and anon, loud, sharp, tremendous, burst a thunderclap of curses, and set those poor demented creatures all yelling again for half-an-hour, making the tombs ring. And at clock-like intervals a harmless but dirty idiot, who was allowed to roam the ward, came and chanted through the keyhole, “Everything is nothing, and nothing is everything.”
This was the only observation he had made for many years.
His ears assailed with horrors, of which you have literally no conception, or shadow of a conception, his nose poisoned with ammoniacal vapours, and the peculiar wild-beast smell that marks the true maniac, Alfred ran wildly about his cell trying to stop his ears, and trembling for his own reason. When the fearful night rolled away, and morning broke, and he could stand on his truckle-bed and see the sweet hoar-frost on a square yard of grass level with his prison bars, it refreshed his very soul, and affected him almost to tears. He was then, to his surprise, taken out, and allowed to have a warm bath and to breakfast with David and the rest; but I suspect it was done to watch the effect of the trial he had been submitted to. After breakfast, having now no place to go, he lay on a bench, and there exhausted nature overpowered him, and he fell fast asleep.
Mrs. Archbold came by on purpose, and saw him. He looked very pale and peaceful. There was a cut on his forehead due to Rooke’s knuckles. Mrs. Archbold looked down, and the young figure and haughty face seemed so unresisting and peaceful sad, she half relented, and shed some bitter tears. That did not, however, prevent her setting her female spies to watch him more closely than ever.
He awoke cold but refreshed, and found little Beverley standing by him with wet eyes. Alfred smiled and held out his hand like a captive monarch to his faithful vassal. “They shan’t put you in the noisy ward again,” sobbed Frank. “This is your last night here.”
“Hy, Frank, you rascal, my boots!” roared Rooke from an open window.
“Coming, sir — coming!”
Alfred’s next visitor was the Robin. He came whispering, “It is all right with Garrett, sir, and he has got a key of the back gate; but you must get back to your old room, or we can’t work.”
“Would to Heaven I could, Robin; another night or two in the noisy ward will drive me mad, I think.”
“Well, sir, I’ll tell you what you do: which we all have to do it at odd times: hold a candle to the devil: here she comes: I think she is everywhere all at one time.” The Robin then sauntered away, affecting nonchalance: and Alfred proceeded to hold the candle as directed. “Mrs. Archbold,” said he timidly rising from his seat at her approach.
“Sir,” said she haughtily, and affecting surprise.
“I have a favour to ask you, madam. Would you be so kind as to let me go back to my room?”
“What, you have found I am not so powerless as you thought!”
“I find myself so weak, and you so powerful that — you can afford to be generous.”
“I have no more power over you than you have over me.”
“I wish it was so.”
“I’ll prove it,” said she. “Who has got the key of your room? Hayes?” She whistled, and sent for him; and gave him the requisite order before Alfred. Alfred thanked her warmly.
She smiled, and went away disposed to change her tactics, and, having shown him how she could torment, try soothing means, and open his heart by gratitude.
But presently looking out of her window she saw the Robin and him together; and somehow they seemed to her subtle, observant eyes, to be plotting. The very suspicion was fatal to that officer. His discharge was determined on. Meantime she set her spies to watch him, and tell her if they saw or heard anything.
Now Mrs. Archbold was going out to tea that evening, and, as soon as ever this transpired, the keepers secretly invited the keeperesses to a party in the first-class patients drawing-room. This was a rare opportunity, and the Robin and Garrett put their heads together accordingly.
In the dusk of the evening the Robin took an opportunity and slipped a new key of the back gate into Alfred’s hand, and told him “the trick was to be done that very night:” he was to get Thompson to go to bed early; and, instead of taking off his clothes, was to wait in readiness. “We have been plying Hayes already, “ said the Robin, “and, as soon as she is off, we shall hocuss him, and get the key; and, while they are all larking in the drawing-room, off you go to Merrimashee.”
“Oh, you dear Robin! You have taken my breath away. But how about Vulcan?”
“Oh, we know how to make him amiable: a dog-fancier, a friend of mine, has provided the ondeniable where dogs is concerned: whereby Garrett draws the varmint into the scullery, and shuts him in, while I get the key from the other. It’s all right.”
“Ah, Robin,” said Alfred, “it sounds too good to be true. What? this my last day here!”
The minutes seemed to creep very slowly till eight o’clock came. Then he easily persuaded David to go to bed; Hayes went up and unlocked the door for them: it closed with a catch-lock. Hayes was drunk, but full of discipline, and insisted on the patients putting out their clothes; so Alfred made up a bundle from his portmanteau, and threw it out. Hayes eyed it suspiciously, but was afraid to stoop and inspect it closer: for his drunken instinct told him he would pitch on his head that moment: so he retired grumbling and dangling his key.
At the end of the corridor he met Mrs. Archbold full dressed, and with a candle in her hand. She held the candle up and inspected him; and a little conversation followed that sobered Mr. Hayes for a minute or two.
Mrs. Archbold was no sooner gone to her little tea-party than all the first-class ladies and gentlemen were sent to bed to get a good sleep for the good of their health, and the keepers and keeperesses took their place and romped, and made such a row, sleep was not easy within hearing of them. They sat on the piano, they sang songs to a drum accompaniment played on the table, they danced, drank, flirted, and enjoyed themselves like schoolboys. Hayes alone was gloomy and morose: so the Robin and Garrett consoled him, drank with him, and soothed him with the balm of insensibility: in which condition they removed him under charitable pretences, and searched his pockets in the passage for the key of Alfred’s room.
To their infinite surprise and disappointment it was not upon him.
The fact is, Mrs. Archbold had snatched it from him in her wrath, and put it in her own pocket. How far her suspicions went, how much her spies had discovered, I really don’t know; but somehow or other she was uneasy in her mind, and, seeing Hayes in such a state, she would not trust him during her absence, but took the key away with her.
The Robin and Garrett knew nothing of this, and were all abroad, but they thought Rooke must have the key; so they proceeded to drink with him, and were just about to administer a really effective soporific in his grog, when they and all the merry party were suddenly startled by violent ringing at the bell, and thundering and halloaing at the hall door. The men jumped to their feet and balanced themselves, and looked half wild, half stupid. The women sat, and began to scream: for they had heard a word that has terrors for us all: peculiar terrors for them.
This alarm was due to a personage hitherto undervalued in the establishment.
Mr. Francis Beverley had been THINKING. So now, finding all the patients boxed up, and their attendants romping in the drawing-room, he lighted seven fires, skilfully on the whole, for practice makes perfect; but, singular oversight, he omitted one essential ingredient in the fire, and that was the grate.
To be plain, Mr. Francis made seven bonfires of bed-curtains, chairs, and other combustibles in the servants’ garrets, lighted them contemporaneously, and retired to the basement, convinced he had taken the surest means to deliver his friend out of Drayton House: and with a certain want of candour that characterises the weak, proceeded to black his other bad master’s shoes with singular assiduity.
There was no wind to blow the flame; but it was a clear frost; and soon fiery tongues shot out of three garret-windows into the night, and lurid gleams burnished four more, and the old house was burning merrily overhead, and ringing with hilarity on the first floor.
But the neighbours saw, pointed, wondered, comprehended, shouted, rang, knocked, and surged round the iron gate. “Fire! fire! fire!” and “Fire!” went down the road, and men on horseback galloped for engines; and the terror-stricken porter opened and the people rushed in and hammered at the hall doors, and when Rooke ran down and opened, “Fire!” was the word that met him from a score of eager throats and glittering eyes.
“Fire! Where?” he cried.
“Where! Why, you are on fire. Blazing!”
He ran out and looked up at the tongues of flame and volleys of smoke. “Shut the gate,” he roared. “Call the police. Fire! fire!” And he dashed back, and calling to the other keepers to unlock all the doors they had keys of, ran up to the garrets to see what could be done. He came out awe-stricken at what he saw. He descended hastily to the third floor. Now the third floor of that wing was occupied principally by servants. In fact, the only patients at that time were Dodd and Alfred. Rooke called to the men below to send Hayes up to No. 75 with his key directly; he then ran down to the next floor — of which he had keys — and opened all the doors, and said to the inmates with a ghastly attempt at cheerfulness, belied by his shaking voice, “Get up, gentlemen; there is a ball and supper going on below.” He was afraid to utter the word “fire” to them. The other keepers were as rapid, each on his beat, and soon the more rational patients took the alarm and were persuaded or driven out half-dressed into the yard, where they cowered together in extremity of fear; for the fire began to roar overhead like a lion, and lighted up the whole interior red and bright. All was screaming and confusion; and then came a struggle to get the incurable out from the basement story. There was no time to handcuff them. The keepers trusted to the terror of the scene to cow them, and so opened the doors and got them out anyhow. Wild, weird forms, with glaring eyes and matted hair, leaped out and ran into the hall, and laughed, and danced, and cursed in the lurid reflection of the fires above. Hell seemed discharging demons. Men recoiled from them. And well they did; for now the skylight exploded, and the pieces fell tinkling on the marble hall fast as hail. The crowd recoiled and ran; but those awful figures continued their gambols. One picked up the burning glass and ground it in his hands that bled directly: but he felt neither burn nor cut. The keepers rushed in to withdraw them from so dangerous a place: all but one obeyed with sudden tameness: that one struggled and yelled like a demon. In the midst. of which fearful contest came a sudden thundering at a door on the third floor.
“What is that?” cried Rooke.
“It is Mr. Hardie,” screamed the Robin. “You have left him locked in.”
“I told Hayes to let him out long ago.”
“But Hayes hasn’t got the key. You’ve got it.”
“No, no. I tell you Hayes has got it.”
“No, no! Murder! murder! They are dead men. Run for Mrs. Archbold, somebody. Run! Here, hammers, hammers! for God’s sake, come and help me, break the door. Oh, Rooke, Rooke!”
“As I’m a man Hayes has got the key,” cried Rooke, stamping on the ground, and white with terror.
By this time Garrett had got a hammer, and he and Wales rushed wildly up the stairs to batter in the strong door if they could. They got to the third floor, but with difficulty; the smoke began to blind them and choke them, and fiery showers fell on them, and drove them back smarting and choking. Garrett sank down gasping at the stair-foot. Wales ran into the yard uttering pitiful cries, and pointing wildly upwards; but before he got there, a hand had broken through the glass of a window up in the third floor, the poor white hand of a perishing prisoner, and clutched the framework and tore at it.
At this hand a thousand white faces were now upturned amid groans of pity and terror, such as only multitudes can utter. Suddenly those anxious faces and glistening eyes turned like one, for an attempt, wild and unintelligible, but still an attempt, was about to be made to save that hand and its owner out of the very jaws of death.
Now amongst the spectators was one whose life and reason were at stake on that attempt.
Mrs. Dodd was hurrying homeward from this very neighbourhood when the fire broke out. Her son Edward was coming at nine o’clock to tea, and, better still, to sleep. He was leaving the fire brigade. It had disappointed him; he found the fire-escape men saved the lives, the firemen only the property. He had gone into the business earnestly too; he had invented a thing like a treble pouch hook, which could he fastened in a moment to the end of a rope, and thrown into the window, and would cling to the bare wall, if there was nothing better, and enable him to go up and bring life down. But he had never got a chance to try it; and, per contra, he was on the engine when they went tearing over a woman and broke her arm and collar-bone in the Blackfriars Road; and also when they went tearing over their own fire-dog, and crippled him. All this seemed out of character, and shocked Edward; and then his mother could not get over the jacket.
In a quarter of an hour he was to take off the obnoxious jacket for ever, and was now lounging at the station smoking a short pipe, when a man galloped up crying “Fire!”
“All right!” said Edward, giving a whiff. “Where?”
“Lunatic Asylum. Drayton House.”
Guess how long before the horses were to, and the engine tearing at a gallop down the road, and the firemen shouting “Fire! fire!” to clear the way, and Edward’s voice the loudest.
When the report of fire swept townward past Mrs. Dodd, she turned, and saw the glow.
“Oh dear,” said she, “that must be somewhere near Drayton House.” And full of the tender fears that fill such bosoms as hers for those they love, she could not go home till she had ascertained that it was not Drayton House. Moreover, Edward’s was the nearest station; she had little hope now of seeing him to tea. She sighed, and retraced her steps, and made timid inquiries, but could gain no clear information. Presently she heard galloping behind her, and the fireman’s wild sharp cry of fire. An engine drawn by two powerful brown horses came furiously, all on fire itself with red paint and polished steel gleaming in the lights; helmeted men clustered on it, and out of one of these helmets looked a face like a fighting lion’s, the eyes so dilated, the countenance in such towering excitement, the figure half rising from his seat as though galloping was too slow and he wanted to fly. It was Edward. Mother and son caught sight of one another as the engine thundered by, and he gave her a solemn ardent look, and pointed towards the fire; by that burning look and eloquent gesture she knew it was something more than a common fire. She trembled and could not move. But this temporary weakness was followed by an influx of wild vigour; she forgot her forty-two years, and flew to hover round the fire as the hen round water. Unfortunately she was too late to get any nearer than the road outside the gates, the crowd was so dense. And, while her pale face and anxious eyes, the eyes of a wife and a mother, were bent on that awful fire, the human tide flowed swiftly up behind her, and there she was wedged in. She was allowed her foot of ground to stand and look like the rest — no more. Mere unit in that mass of panting humanity, hers was one of the thousands of upturned faces lurid in the light of the now blazing roof. She saw with thousands the hand break the window and clutch the frame; she gasped with the crowd at that terrible and piteous sight, and her bosom panted for her fellow-creature in sore peril. But what is this? The mob inside utter a great roar of hope; the crowd outside strain every eye.
A gleaming helmet overtops the outer wall. It is a fireman mounting the great elm-tree in the madhouse yard. The crowd inside burst in a cheer. He had a rope round his loins; his face was to the tree. He mounted and mounted like a cat; higher, and higher, and higher, till he reached a branch about twelve feet above the window and as many distant from it laterally; the crowd cheered him lustily. But Mrs. Dodd, half distracted with terror, implored them not to encourage him. “It is my child!” she cried despairingly; “my poor reckless darling! Come down, Edward; for your poor mother’s sake, come down.”
“Dear heart,” said a woman, “it is the lady’s son. Poor thing!”
“Stand on my knee, ma’am,” said a coal-heaver.
“Oh no, sir, no. I could not look at him for the world. I can only pray for him. Good people, pray for us!” And she covered her face, and prayed and trembled and sobbed hysterically. A few yards behind was another woman, who had arrived later, yet like her was wedged immovable. This woman was more terror-stricken than Mrs. Dodd; and well she might; for she knew who was behind that fatal window: the woman’s name was Edith Archbold. The flames were now leaping through the roof, and surging up towards heaven in waves of fire six feet high. Edward, scorched and half blinded, managed to fasten his rope to the bough, and, calculating the distances vertical and lateral he had to deal with, took up rope accordingly, and launched himself into the air.
The crowd drew their breath so hard it sounded like a murmur. To their horror he missed the window, and went swinging back.
There was a cry of dismay. But Edward had never hoped to leap into the window; he went swinging by the rope back to the main stem of the tree, gave it a fierce spang with his feet, and by this means and a powerful gesture of his herculean loins got an inch nearer the window: back again, and then the same game; and so he went swinging to and fro over a wider and wider space; and, by letting out an inch of cord each swing, his flying feet came above the window-ledge, then a little higher, then higher still; and now, oh sight strange and glorious — as this helmeted hero, with lips clenched and great eyes that stared unflinchingly at the surging flames, and gleamed supernaturally with inward and outward fire, swang to and fro on his frail support still making for the window — the heads of all the hoping, fearing, admiring, panting crowd went surging and waving to and fro beneath; so did not their hearts only but their agitated bodies follow the course of his body, as it rushed to and fro faster and faster through the hot air starred with snow-flakes, and hail, of fire. And those his fellow-men for whom the brave fireman made this supernatural effort, did they know their desperate condition? Were they still alive? One little hour ago Alfred sat on the bed, full of hope. Every minute he expected to hear the Robin put a key into the door. He was all ready, and his money in his pocket. Alas! his liberator came not; some screw loose again. Presently he was conscious of a great commotion in the house. Feet ran up and down. Then came a smell of burning. The elm-tree outside was illuminated. He was glad at first; he had a spite against the place. But soon he became alarmed, and hammered at the door and tried to force it. Impossible. “Fire!” rang from men’s voices. Fire crackled above his head; he ran about the room like a wild creature; he sprang up at the window and dashed his hand through, but fell back. He sprang again and got his hand on some of the lighter woodwork; he drew himself up nearly to the window, and then the wood gave way and he fell to the ground, and striking the back of his head, nearly stunned himself; the flames roared fearfully now; and at this David, who had hitherto sat unconcerned, started up, and in a stentorian voice issued order upon order to furl every rag of sail and bring the ship to the wind. He thought it was a tempest. “Oh hush! hush!” cried Alfred in vain.. A beam fell from the roof to the floor, precursor of the rest. On this David thought the ship was ashore, and shouted a fresh set of orders proper to the occasion, so terribly alike are the angry voices of the sister-elements. But Alfred implored him, and got him to kneel down with him, and held his hand, and prayed.
And, even while they kneeled and Alfred prayed, Death and Life met and fought for them. Under the door, tight as it was, and through the keyhole, struggled a hot stifling smoke, merciful destroyer running before fire; and the shadow of a gigantic figure began to flicker in from the outside, and to come and go upon the wall. Alfred did not know what that was, but it gave him a vague hope: he prayed aloud as men pray only for their bodies. (The crowd heard him and hushed itself breathless.)
The smoke penetrated faster, blinding and stifling; the giant shadow came and went. But now the greater part of the roof fell in with an awful report; the blazing timbers thundered down to the basement with endless clatter of red-hot tiles; the walls quivered, and the building belched skyward a thousand jets of fire like a bouquet of rockets: and then a cloud of smoke. Alfred gave up all hope, and prepared to die. Crash! as if discharged from a cannon, came bursting through the window, with the roar of an applauding multitude and a mother’s unheeded scream, a helmeted figure, rope in hand, and alighted erect and commanding on the floor amidst a shower of splinters and tinkling glass. “Up, men, for your lives,” roared this fire-warrior, clutching them hard, and dragged them both up to their feet by one prodigious gesture: all three faces came together and shone in the lurid light; and he knew his father and “the Wretch,” and “the Wretch” knew him. “Oh!” “Ah!” passed like pistol shots; but not a word: even this strange meeting went for little, so awful was the moment, so great are Death and Fire. Edward clawed his rope to the bed; up to the window by it, dropped his line to fireman Jackson planted express below, and in another moment was hauling up a rope ladder: this he attached, and getting on it and holding his own rope by way of banister, cried, “Now, men, quick, for your lives.” But poor David called that deserting the ship, and demurred, till Alfred assured him the captain had ordered it. He then submitted directly, touched his forelock to Edward, whom he took for that officer, and went down the ladder; Alfred followed.
Now the moment those two figures emerged from the burning pile, Mrs. Dodd, already half dead with terror for her son, saw and knew her husband: for all about him it was as light as day.
What terror! what joy! what gratitude! what pride! what a tempest of emotions!
But her fears were not ended: Edward, not to overweight the ladder, went dangling by his hands along the rope towards the tree. And his mother’s eyes stared fearfully from him to the other, and her heart hung trembling on her husband descending cautiously, and then on his preserver, her son, who was dangling along by the hands on that frail support. The mob cheered him royally, but she screamed and hid her face again. At last both her darlings were safe, and then the lusty cheers made her thrill with pride and joy, till all of a sudden they seemed to die away, and the terrible fire to go out; and the sore-tried wife and mother drooped her head and swooned away, wedged in and kept from falling by the crowd.
Inside, the mob parted and made two rushes, one at the rescued men, one at the gallant fireman. Alfred and David were overpowered with curiosity and sympathy. They had to shake a hundred honest hands, and others still pressing on hurried them nearly off their feet.
“Gently, good friends; don’t part us,” said Alfred.
“He is the keeper,” said one of the crowd.
“Yes, I’m his keeper: and I want to get him quietly away. This excitement will do him harm else; good friends, help me out by that door.”
“All right,” was the cry, and they rushed with him to the back door. Rooke, who was about twenty yards off saw and suspected this movement. He fought his way and struggled after Alfred in silence. Presently, to his surprise, Alfred unlocked the door and whipped out with David, leaving the door open. Rooke shouted and halloaed: “Stop him! he is escaping,” and struggled madly to the door. Now another crowd had been waiting in the meadows; seeing the door open they rushed in and the doorway was jammed directly. In the confusion Alfred drew David along the side of the wall; told him to stay quiet, bolted behind an outhouse, and then ran across country for the bare life.
To his horror David followed him, and with a madman’s agility soon caught him.
He snorted like a spirited horse, and shouted cheerily, “Go ahead, messmate; I smell blue water.”
“Come on, then,” cried Alfred, half mad himself with excitement, and the pair ran furiously, and dashed through hedges and ditches, torn, bleeding, splashed, triumphant; behind them the burning madhouse, above them the spangled sky, the fresh free air of liberty blowing in their nostrils, and rushing past their ears.
Alfred’s chest expanded, he laughed for joy, he sang for joy, he leaped as he went; nor did he care where he went. David took the command, and kept snuffing the air, and shaping his course for blue water. And so they rushed along the livelong night.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59