Mr. Polly designed his suicide with considerable care, and a quite remarkable altruism. His passionate hatred for Miriam vanished directly the idea of getting away from her for ever became clear in his mind. He found himself full of solicitude then for her welfare. He did not want to buy his release at her expense. He had not the remotest intention of leaving her unprotected with a painfully dead husband and a bankrupt shop on her hands. It seemed to him that he could contrive to secure for her the full benefit of both his life insurance and his fire insurance if he managed things in a tactful manner. He felt happier than he had done for years scheming out this undertaking, albeit it was perhaps a larger and somberer kind of happiness than had fallen to his lot before. It amazed him to think he had endured his monotony of misery and failure for so long.
But there were some queer doubts and questions in the dim, half-lit background of his mind that he had very resolutely to ignore. “Sick of it,” he had to repeat to himself aloud, to keep his determination clear and firm. His life was a failure, there was nothing more to hope for but unhappiness. Why shouldn’t he?
His project was to begin the fire with the stairs that led from the ground floor to the underground kitchen and scullery. This he would soak with paraffine, and assist with firewood and paper, and a brisk fire in the coal cellar underneath. He would smash a hole or so in the stairs to ventilate the blaze, and have a good pile of boxes and paper, and a convenient chair or so in the shop above. He would have the paraffine can upset and the shop lamp, as if awaiting refilling, at a convenient distance in the scullery ready to catch. Then he would smash the house lamp on the staircase, a fall with that in his hand was to be the ostensible cause of the blaze, and then he would cut his throat at the top of the kitchen stairs, which would then become his funeral pyre. He would do all this on Sunday evening while Miriam was at church, and it would appear that he had fallen downstairs with the lamp, and been burnt to death. There was really no flaw whatever that he could see in the scheme. He was quite sure he knew how to cut his throat, deep at the side and not to saw at the windpipe, and he was reasonably sure it wouldn’t hurt him very much. And then everything would be at an end.
There was no particular hurry to get the thing done, of course, and meanwhile he occupied his mind with possible variations of the scheme. . . .
It needed a particularly dry and dusty east wind, a Sunday dinner of exceptional virulence, a conclusive letter from Konk, Maybrick, Ghool and Gabbitas, his principal and most urgent creditors, and a conversation with Miriam arising out of arrears of rent and leading on to mutual character sketching, before Mr. Polly could be brought to the necessary pitch of despair to carry out his plans. He went for an embittering walk, and came back to find Miriam in a bad temper over the tea things, with the brewings of three-quarters of an hour in the pot, and hot buttered muffin gone leathery. He sat eating in silence with his resolution made.
“Coming to church?” said Miriam after she had cleared away.
“Rather. I got a lot to be grateful for,” said Mr. Polly.
“You got what you deserve,” said Miriam.
“Suppose I have,” said Mr. Polly, and went and stared out of the back window at a despondent horse in the hotel yard.
He was still standing there when Miriam came downstairs dressed for church. Something in his immobility struck home to her. “You’d better come to church than mope,” she said.
“I shan’t mope,” he answered.
She remained still for a moment. Her presence irritated him. He felt that in another moment he should say something absurd to her, make some last appeal for that understanding she had never been able to give. “Oh! go to church!” he said.
In another moment the outer door slammed upon her. “Good riddance!” said Mr. Polly.
He turned about. “I’ve had my whack,” he said.
He reflected. “I don’t see she’ll have any cause to holler,” he said. “Beastly Home! Beastly Life!”
For a space he remained thoughtful. “Here goes!” he said at last.
For twenty minutes Mr. Polly busied himself about the house, making his preparations very neatly and methodically.
He opened the attic windows in order to make sure of a good draught through the house, and drew down the blinds at the back and shut the kitchen door to conceal his arrangements from casual observation. At the end he would open the door on the yard and so make a clean clear draught right through the house. He hacked at, and wedged off, the tread of a stair. He cleared out the coals from under the staircase, and built a neat fire of firewood and paper there, he splashed about paraffine and arranged the lamps and can even as he had designed, and made a fine inflammable pile of things in the little parlour behind the shop. “Looks pretty arsonical,” he said as he surveyed it all. “Wouldn’t do to have a caller now. Now for the stairs!”
“Plenty of time,” he assured himself, and took the lamp which was to explain the whole affair, and went to the head of the staircase between the scullery and the parlour. He sat down in the twilight with the unlit lamp beside him and surveyed things. He must light the fire in the coal cellar under the stairs, open the back door, then come up them very quickly and light the paraffine puddles on each step, then sit down here again and cut his throat.
He drew his razor from his pocket and felt the edge. It wouldn’t hurt much, and in ten minutes he would be indistinguishable ashes in the blaze.
And this was the end of life for him!
The end! And it seemed to him now that life had never begun for him, never! It was as if his soul had been cramped and his eyes bandaged from the hour of his birth. Why had he lived such a life? Why had he submitted to things, blundered into things? Why had he never insisted on the things he thought beautiful and the things he desired, never sought them, fought for them, taken any risk for them, died rather than abandon them? They were the things that mattered. Safety did not matter. A living did not matter unless there were things to live for. . . .
He had been a fool, a coward and a fool, he had been fooled too, for no one had ever warned him to take a firm hold upon life, no one had ever told him of the littleness of fear, or pain, or death; but what was the good of going through it now again? It was over and done with.
The clock in the back parlour pinged the half hour.
“Time!” said Mr. Polly, and stood up.
For an instant he battled with an impulse to put it all back, hastily, guiltily, and abandon this desperate plan of suicide for ever.
But Miriam would smell the paraffine!
“No way out this time, O’ Man,” said Mr. Polly; and he went slowly downstairs, matchbox in hand.
He paused for five seconds, perhaps, to listen to noises in the yard of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel before he struck his match. It trembled a little in his hand. The paper blackened, and an edge of blue flame ran outward and spread. The fire burnt up readily, and in an instant the wood was crackling cheerfully.
Someone might hear. He must hurry.
He lit a pool of paraffine on the scullery floor, and instantly a nest of snaky, wavering blue flame became agog for prey. He went up the stairs three steps at a time with one eager blue flicker in pursuit of him. He seized the lamp at the top. “Now!” he said and flung it smashing. The chimney broke, but the glass receiver stood the shock and rolled to the bottom, a potential bomb. Old Rumbold would hear that and wonder what it was! . . . He’d know soon enough!
Then Mr. Polly stood hesitating, razor in hand, and then sat down. He was trembling violently, but quite unafraid.
He drew the blade lightly under one ear. “Lord!” but it stung like a nettle!
Then he perceived a little blue thread of flame running up his leg. It arrested his attention, and for a moment he sat, razor in hand, staring at it. It must be paraffine on his trousers that had caught fire on the stairs. Of course his legs were wet with paraffine! He smacked the flicker with his hand to put it out, and felt his leg burn as he did so. But his trousers still charred and glowed. It seemed to him necessary that he must put this out before he cut his throat. He put down the razor beside him to smack with both hands very eagerly. And as he did so a thin tall red flame came up through the hole in the stairs he had made and stood still, quite still as it seemed, and looked at him. It was a strange-looking flame, a flattish salmon colour, redly streaked. It was so queer and quiet mannered that the sight of it held Mr. Polly agape.
“Whuff!” went the can of paraffine below, and boiled over with stinking white fire. At the outbreak the salmon-coloured flames shivered and ducked and then doubled and vanished, and instantly all the staircase was noisily ablaze.
Mr. Polly sprang up and backwards, as though the uprushing tongues of fire were a pack of eager wolves.
“Good Lord!” he cried like a man who wakes up from a dream.
He swore sharply and slapped again at a recrudescent flame upon his leg.
“What the Deuce shall I do? I’m soaked with the confounded stuff!”
He had nerved himself for throat-cutting, but this was fire!
He wanted to delay things, to put them out for a moment while he did his business. The idea of arresting all this hurry with water occurred to him.
There was no water in the little parlour and none in the shop. He hesitated for a moment whether he should not run upstairs to the bedrooms and get a ewer of water to throw on the flames. At this rate Rumbold’s would be ablaze in five minutes! Things were going all too fast for Mr. Polly. He ran towards the staircase door, and its hot breath pulled him up sharply. Then he dashed out through his shop. The catch of the front door was sometimes obstinate; it was now, and instantly he became frantic. He rattled and stormed and felt the parlour already ablaze behind him. In another moment he was in the High Street with the door wide open.
The staircase behind him was crackling now like horsewhips and pistol shots.
He had a vague sense that he wasn’t doing as he had proposed, but the chief thing was his sense of that uncontrolled fire within. What was he going to do? There was the fire brigade station next door but one.
The Fishbourne High Street had never seemed so empty.
Far off at the corner by the God’s Providence Inn a group of three stiff hobbledehoys in their black, best clothes, conversed intermittently with Taplow, the policeman.
“Hi!” bawled Mr. Polly to them. “Fire! Fire!” and struck by a horrible thought, the thought of Rumbold’s deaf mother-in-law upstairs, began to bang and kick and rattle with the utmost fury at Rumbold’s shop door.
“Hi!” he repeated, “Fire!”
That was the beginning of the great Fishbourne fire, which burnt its way sideways into Mr. Rusper’s piles of crates and straw, and backwards to the petrol and stabling of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel, and spread from that basis until it seemed half Fishbourne would be ablaze. The east wind, which had been gathering in strength all that day, fanned the flame; everything was dry and ready, and the little shed beyond Rumbold’s in which the local Fire Brigade kept its manual, was alight before the Fishbourne fire hose could be saved from disaster. In marvellously little time a great column of black smoke, shot with red streamers, rose out of the middle of the High Street, and all Fishbourne was alive with excitement.
Much of the more respectable elements of Fishbourne society was in church or chapel; many, however, had been tempted by the blue sky and the hard freshness of spring to take walks inland, and there had been the usual disappearance of loungers and conversationalists from the beach and the back streets when at the hour of six the shooting of bolts and the turning of keys had ended the British Ramadan, that weekly interlude of drought our law imposes. The youth of the place were scattered on the beach or playing in back yards, under threat if their clothes were dirtied, and the adolescent were disposed in pairs among the more secluded corners to be found upon the outskirts of the place. Several godless youths, seasick but fishing steadily, were tossing upon the sea in old Tarbold’s, the infidel’s, boat, and the Clamps were entertaining cousins from Port Burdock. Such few visitors as Fishbourne could boast in the spring were at church or on the beach. To all these that column of smoke did in a manner address itself. “Look here!” it said, “this, within limits, is your affair; what are you going to do?”
The three hobbledehoys, had it been a weekday and they in working clothes, might have felt free to act, but the stiffness of black was upon them and they simply moved to the corner by Rusper’s to take a better view of Mr. Polly beating at the door. The policeman was a young, inexpert constable with far too lively a sense of the public house. He put his head inside the Private Bar to the horror of everyone there. But there was no breach of the law, thank Heaven! “Polly’s and Rumbold’s on fire!” he said, and vanished again. A window in the top story over Boomer’s shop opened, and Boomer, captain of the Fire Brigade, appeared, staring out with a blank expression. Still staring, he began to fumble with his collar and tie; manifestly he had to put on his uniform. Hinks’ dog, which had been lying on the pavement outside Wintershed’s, woke up, and having regarded Mr. Polly suspiciously for some time, growled nervously and went round the corner into Granville Alley. Mr. Polly continued to beat and kick at Rumbold’s door.
Then the public houses began to vomit forth the less desirable elements of Fishbourne society, boys and men were moved to run and shout, and more windows went up as the stir increased. Tashingford, the chemist, appeared at his door, in shirt sleeves and an apron, with his photographic plate holders in his hand. And then like a vision of purpose came Mr. Gambell, the greengrocer, running out of Clayford’s Alley and buttoning on his jacket as he ran. His great brass fireman’s helmet was on his head, hiding it all but the sharp nose, the firm mouth, the intrepid chin. He ran straight to the fire station and tried the door, and turned about and met the eye of Boomer still at his upper window. “The key!” cried Mr. Gambell, “the key!”
Mr. Boomer made some inaudible explanation about his trousers and half a minute.
“Seen old Rumbold?” cried Mr. Polly, approaching Mr. Gambell.
“Gone over Downford for a walk,” said Mr. Gambell. “He told me! But look ’ere! We ‘aven’t got the key!”
“Lord!” said Mr. Polly, and regarded the china shop with open eyes. He knew the old woman must be there alone. He went back to the shop front and stood surveying it in infinite perplexity. The other activities in the street did not interest him. A deaf old lady somewhere upstairs there! Precious moments passing! Suddenly he was struck by an idea and vanished from public vision into the open door of the Royal Fishbourne Tap.
And now the street was getting crowded and people were laying their hands to this and that.
Mr. Rusper had been at home reading a number of tracts upon Tariff Reform, during the quiet of his wife’s absence in church, and trying to work out the application of the whole question to ironmongery. He heard a clattering in the street and for a time disregarded it, until a cry of Fire! drew him to the window. He pencilled-marked the tract of Chiozza Money’s that he was reading side by side with one by Mr. Holt Schooling, made a hasty note “Bal. of Trade say 12,000,000” and went to look out. Instantly he opened the window and ceased to believe the Fiscal Question the most urgent of human affairs.
“Good (kik) Gud!” said Mr. Rusper.
For now the rapidly spreading blaze had forced the partition into Mr. Rumbold’s premises, swept across his cellar, clambered his garden wall by means of his well-tarred mushroom shed, and assailed the engine house. It stayed not to consume, but ran as a thing that seeks a quarry. Polly’s shop and upper parts were already a furnace, and black smoke was coming out of Rumbold’s cellar gratings. The fire in the engine house showed only as a sudden rush of smoke from the back, like something suddenly blown up. The fire brigade, still much under strength, were now hard at work in the front of the latter building; they had got the door open all too late, they had rescued the fire escape and some buckets, and were now lugging out their manual, with the hose already a dripping mass of molten, flaring, stinking rubber. Boomer was dancing about and swearing and shouting; this direct attack upon his apparatus outraged his sense of chivalry. The rest of the brigade hovered in a disheartened state about the rescued fire escape, and tried to piece Boomer’s comments into some tangible instructions.
“Hi!” said Rusper from the window. “Kik! What’s up?”
Gambell answered him out of his helmet. “Hose!” he cried. “Hose gone!”
“I (kik) got hose!” cried Rusper.
He had. He had a stock of several thousand feet of garden hose, of various qualities and calibres, and now he felt was the time to use it. In another moment his shop door was open and he was hurling pails, garden syringes, and rolls of garden hose out upon the pavement. “(Kik),” he cried, “undo it!” to the gathering crowd in the roadway.
They did. Presently a hundred ready hands were unrolling and spreading and tangling up and twisting and hopelessly involving Mr. Rusper’s stock of hose, sustained by an unquenchable assurance that presently it would in some manner contain and convey water, and Mr. Rusper, on his knees, “kik”ing violently, became incredibly busy with wire and brass junctions and all sorts of mysteries.
“Fix it to the (kik) bathroom tap!” said Mr. Rusper.
Next door to the fire station was Mantell and Throbson’s, the little Fishbourne branch of that celebrated firm, and Mr. Boomer, seeking in a teeming mind for a plan of action, had determined to save this building. “Someone telephone to the Port Burdock and Hampstead-on-Sea fire brigades,” he cried to the crowd and then to his fellows: “Cut away the woodwork of the fire station!” and so led the way into the blaze with a whirling hatchet that effected wonders in no time in ventilation.
But it was not, after all, such a bad idea of his. Mantell and Throbsons was separated from the fire station in front by a covered glass passage, and at the back the roof of a big outhouse sloped down to the fire station leads. The sturdy ‘longshoremen, who made up the bulk of the fire brigade, assailed the glass roof of the passage with extraordinary gusto, and made a smashing of glass that drowned for a time the rising uproar of the flames.
A number of willing volunteers started off to the new telephone office in obedience to Mr. Boomer’s request, only to be told with cold official politeness by the young lady at the exchange that all that had been done on her own initiative ten minutes ago. She parleyed with these heated enthusiasts for a space, and then returned to the window.
And indeed the spectacle was well worth looking at. The dusk was falling, and the flames were showing brilliantly at half a dozen points. The Royal Fishbourne Hotel Tap, which adjoined Mr. Polly to the west, was being kept wet by the enthusiastic efforts of a string of volunteers with buckets of water, and above at a bathroom window the little German waiter was busy with the garden hose. But Mr. Polly’s establishment looked more like a house afire than most houses on fire contrive to look from start to finish. Every window showed eager flickering flames, and flames like serpents’ tongues were licking out of three large holes in the roof, which was already beginning to fall in. Behind, larger and abundantly spark-shot gusts of fire rose from the fodder that was now getting alight in the Royal Fishbourne Hotel stables. Next door to Mr. Polly, Mr. Rumbold’s house was disgorging black smoke from the gratings that protected its underground windows, and smoke and occasional shivers of flame were also coming out of its first-floor windows. The fire station was better alight at the back than in front, and its woodwork burnt pretty briskly with peculiar greenish flickerings, and a pungent flavour. In the street an inaggressively disorderly crowd clambered over the rescued fire escape and resisted the attempts of the three local constables to get it away from the danger of Mr. Polly’s tottering façade, a cluster of busy forms danced and shouted and advised on the noisy and smashing attempt to cut off Mantell and Throbson’s from the fire station that was still in ineffectual progress. Further a number of people appeared to be destroying interminable red and grey snakes under the heated direction of Mr. Rusper; it was as if the High Street had a plague of worms, and beyond again the more timid and less active crowded in front of an accumulation of arrested traffic. Most of the men were in Sabbatical black, and this and the white and starched quality of the women and children in their best clothes gave a note of ceremony to the whole affair.
For a moment the attention of the telephone clerk was held by the activities of Mr. Tashingford, the chemist, who, regardless of everyone else, was rushing across the road hurling fire grenades into the fire station and running back for more, and then her eyes lifted to the slanting outhouse roof that went up to a ridge behind the parapet of Mantell and Throbson’s. An expression of incredulity came into the telephone operator’s eyes and gave place to hard activity. She flung up the window and screamed out: “Two people on the roof up there! Two people on the roof!”
Her eyes had not deceived her. Two figures which had emerged from the upper staircase window of Mr. Rumbold’s and had got after a perilous paddle in his cistern, on to the fire station, were now slowly but resolutely clambering up the outhouse roof towards the back of the main premises of Messrs. Mantell and Throbson’s. They clambered slowly and one urged and helped the other, slipping and pausing ever and again, amidst a constant trickle of fragments of broken tile.
One was Mr. Polly, with his hair wildly disordered, his face covered with black smudges and streaked with perspiration, and his trouser legs scorched and blackened; the other was an elderly lady, quietly but becomingly dressed in black, with small white frills at her neck and wrists and a Sunday cap of ecru lace enlivened with a black velvet bow. Her hair was brushed back from her wrinkled brow and plastered down tightly, meeting in a small knob behind; her wrinkled mouth bore that expression of supreme resolution common with the toothless aged. She was shaky, not with fear, but with the vibrations natural to her years, and she spoke with the slow quavering firmness of the very aged.
“I don’t mind scrambling,” she said with piping inflexibility, “but I can’t jump and I wunt jump.”
“Scramble, old lady, then — scramble!” said Mr. Polly, pulling her arm. “It’s one up and two down on these blessed tiles.”
“It’s not what I’m used to,” she said.
“Stick to it!” said Mr. Polly, “live and learn,” and got to the ridge and grasped at her arm to pull her after him.
“I can’t jump, mind ye,” she repeated, pressing her lips together. “And old ladies like me mustn’t be hurried.”
“Well, let’s get as high as possible anyhow!” said Mr. Polly, urging her gently upward. “Shinning up a water-spout in your line? Near as you’ll get to Heaven.”
“I can’t jump,” she said. “I can do anything but jump.”
“Hold on!” said Mr. Polly, “while I give you a boost. That’s — wonderful.”
“So long as it isn’t jumping. . . . ”
The old lady grasped the parapet above, and there was a moment of intense struggle.
“Urup!” said Mr. Polly. “Hold on! Gollys! where’s she gone to? . . . ”
Then an ill-mended, wavering, yet very reassuring spring side boot appeared for an instant.
“Thought perhaps there wasn’t any roof there!” he explained, scrambling up over the parapet beside her.
“I’ve never been out on a roof before,” said the old lady. “I’m all disconnected. It’s very bumpy. Especially that last bit. Can’t we sit here for a bit and rest? I’m not the girl I useto be.”
“You sit here ten minutes,” shouted Mr. Polly, “and you’ll pop like a roast chestnut. Don’t understand me? Roast chestnut! ROAST CHESTNUT! POP! There ought to be a limit to deafness. Come on round to the front and see if we can find an attic window. Look at this smoke!”
“Nasty!” said the old lady, her eyes following his gesture, puckering her face into an expression of great distaste.
“Can’t hear a word you say.”
He pulled her arm. “Come on!”
She paused for a moment to relieve herself of a series of entirely unexpected chuckles. “Sich goings on!” she said, “I never did! Where’s he going now?” and came along behind the parapet to the front of the drapery establishment.
Below, the street was now fully alive to their presence, and encouraged the appearance of their heads by shouts and cheers. A sort of free fight was going on round the fire escape, order represented by Mr. Boomer and the very young policeman, and disorder by some partially intoxicated volunteers with views of their own about the manipulation of the apparatus. Two or three lengths of Mr. Rusper’s garden hose appeared to have twined themselves round the ladder. Mr. Polly watched the struggle with a certain impatience, and glanced ever and again over his shoulder at the increasing volume of smoke and steam that was pouring up from the burning fire station. He decided to break an attic window and get in, and so try and get down through the shop. He found himself in a little bedroom, and returned to fetch his charge. For some time he could not make her understand his purpose.
“Got to come at once!” he shouted.
“I hain’t ‘ad sich a time for years!” said the old lady.
“We’ll have to get down through the house!”
“Can’t do no jumpin’,” said the old lady. “No!”
She yielded reluctantly to his grasp.
She stared over the parapet. “Runnin’ and scurrying about like black beetles in a kitchin,” she said.
“We’ve got to hurry.”
“Mr. Rumbold ‘E’s a very Quiet man. ‘E likes everything Quiet. He’ll be surprised to see me ’ere! Why! — there ‘e is!” She fumbled in her garments mysteriously and at last produced a wrinkled pocket handkerchief and began to wave it.
“Oh, come ON!” cried Mr. Polly, and seized her.
He got her into the attic, but the staircase, he found, was full of suffocating smoke, and he dared not venture below the next floor. He took her into a long dormitory, shut the door on those pungent and pervasive fumes, and opened the window to discover the fire escape was now against the house, and all Fishbourne boiling with excitement as an immensely helmeted and active and resolute little figure ascended. In another moment the rescuer stared over the windowsill, heroic, but just a trifle self-conscious and grotesque.
“Lawks a mussy!” said the old lady. “Wonders and Wonders! Why! it’s Mr. Gambell! ‘Iding ‘is ‘ed in that thing! I never did!”
“Can we get her out?” said Mr. Gambell. “There’s not much time.”
“He might git stuck in it.”
“You’ll get stuck in it,” said Mr. Polly, “come along!”
“Not for jumpin’ I don’t,” said the old lady, understanding his gestures rather than his words. “Not a bit of it. I bain’t no good at jumping and I wunt.”
They urged her gently but firmly towards the window.
“You lemme do it my own way,” said the old lady at the sill. . . .
“I could do it better if e’d take it off.”
“Oh! carm on!”
“It’s wuss than Carter’s stile,” she said, “before they mended it. With a cow a-looking at you.”
Mr. Gambell hovered protectingly below. Mr. Polly steered her aged limbs from above. An anxious crowd below babbled advice and did its best to upset the fire escape. Within, streamers of black smoke were pouring up through the cracks in the floor. For some seconds the world waited while the old lady gave herself up to reckless mirth again. “Sich times!” she said, and “Poor Rumbold!”
Slowly they descended, and Mr. Polly remained at the post of danger steadying the long ladder until the old lady was in safety below and sheltered by Mr. Rumbold (who was in tears) and the young policeman from the urgent congratulations of the crowd. The crowd was full of an impotent passion to participate. Those nearest wanted to shake her hand, those remoter cheered.
“The fust fire I was ever in and likely to be my last. It’s a scurryin’, ‘urryin’ business, but I’m real glad I haven’t missed it,” said the old lady as she was borne rather than led towards the refuge of the Temperance Hotel.
Also she was heard to remark: “‘E was saying something about ‘ot chestnuts. I ‘aven’t ‘ad no ‘ot chestnuts.”
Then the crowd became aware of Mr. Polly awkwardly negotiating the top rungs of the fire escape. “‘Ere ‘e comes!” cried a voice, and Mr. Polly descended into the world again out of the conflagration he had lit to be his funeral pyre, moist, excited, and tremendously alive, amidst a tempest of applause. As he got lower and lower the crowd howled like a pack of dogs at him. Impatient men unable to wait for him seized and shook his descending boots, and so brought him to earth with a run. He was rescued with difficulty from an enthusiast who wished to slake at his own expense and to his own accompaniment a thirst altogether heroic. He was hauled into the Temperance Hotel and flung like a sack, breathless and helpless, into the tear-wet embrace of Miriam.
With the dusk and the arrival of some county constabulary, and first one and presently two other fire engines from Port Burdock and Hampstead-on-Sea, the local talent of Fishbourne found itself forced back into a secondary, less responsible and more observant rôle. I will not pursue the story of the fire to its ashes, nor will I do more than glance at the unfortunate Mr. Rusper, a modern Laocoon, vainly trying to retrieve his scattered hose amidst the tramplings and rushings of the Port Burdock experts.
In a small sitting-room of the Fishbourne Temperance Hotel a little group of Fishbourne tradesmen sat and conversed in fragments and anon went to the window and looked out upon the smoking desolation of their homes across the way, and anon sat down again. They and their families were the guests of old Lady Bargrave, who had displayed the utmost sympathy and interest in their misfortunes. She had taken several people into her own house at Everdean, had engaged the Temperance Hotel as a temporary refuge, and personally superintended the housing of Mantell and Throbson’s homeless assistants. The Temperance Hotel became and remained extremely noisy and congested, with people sitting about anywhere, conversing in fragments and totally unable to get themselves to bed. The manager was an old soldier, and following the best traditions of the service saw that everyone had hot cocoa. Hot cocoa seemed to be about everywhere, and it was no doubt very heartening and sustaining to everyone. When the manager detected anyone disposed to be drooping or pensive he exhorted that person at once to drink further hot cocoa and maintain a stout heart.
The hero of the occasion, the centre of interest, was Mr. Polly. For he had not only caused the fire by upsetting a lighted lamp, scorching his trousers and narrowly escaping death, as indeed he had now explained in detail about twenty times, but he had further thought at once of that amiable but helpless old lady next door, had shown the utmost decision in making his way to her over the yard wall of the Royal Fishbourne Hotel, and had rescued her with persistence and vigour in spite of the levity natural to her years. Everyone thought well of him and was anxious to show it, more especially by shaking his hand painfully and repeatedly. Mr. Rumbold, breaking a silence of nearly fifteen years, thanked him profusely, said he had never understood him properly and declared he ought to have a medal. There seemed to be a widely diffused idea that Mr. Polly ought to have a medal. Hinks thought so. He declared, moreover, and with the utmost emphasis, that Mr. Polly had a crowded and richly decorated interior — or words to that effect. There was something apologetic in this persistence; it was as if he regretted past intimations that Mr. Polly was internally defective and hollow. He also said that Mr. Polly was a “white man,” albeit, as he developed it, with a liver of the deepest chromatic satisfactions.
Mr. Polly wandered centrally through it all, with his face washed and his hair carefully brushed and parted, looking modest and more than a little absent-minded, and wearing a pair of black dress trousers belonging to the manager of the Temperance Hotel — a larger man than himself in every way.
He drifted upstairs to his fellow-tradesmen, and stood for a time staring into the littered street, with its pools of water and extinguished gas lamps. His companions in misfortune resumed a fragmentary disconnected conversation. They touched now on one aspect of the disaster and now on another, and there were intervals of silence. More or less empty cocoa cups were distributed over the table, mantelshelf and piano, and in the middle of the table was a tin of biscuits, into which Mr. Rumbold, sitting round-shoulderedly, dipped ever and again in an absent-minded way, and munched like a distant shooting of coals. It added to the solemnity of the affair that nearly all of them were in their black Sunday clothes; little Clamp was particularly impressive and dignified in a wide open frock coat, a Gladstone-shaped paper collar, and a large white and blue tie. They felt that they were in the presence of a great disaster, the sort of disaster that gets into the papers, and is even illustrated by blurred photographs of the crumbling ruins. In the presence of that sort of disaster all honourable men are lugubrious and sententious.
And yet it is impossible to deny a certain element of elation. Not one of those excellent men but was already realising that a great door had opened, as it were, in the opaque fabric of destiny, that they were to get their money again that had seemed sunken for ever beyond any hope in the deeps of retail trade. Life was already in their imagination rising like a Phoenix from the flames.
“I suppose there’ll be a public subscription,” said Mr. Clamp.
“Not for those who’re insured,” said Mr. Wintershed.
“I was thinking of them assistants from Mantell and Throbson’s. They must have lost nearly everything.”
“They’ll be looked after all right,” said Mr. Rumbold. “Never fear.”
“I’m insured,” said Mr. Clamp, with unconcealed satisfaction. “Royal Salamander.”
“Same here,” said Mr. Wintershed.
“Mine’s the Glasgow Sun,” Mr. Hinks remarked. “Very good company.”
“You insured, Mr. Polly?”
“He deserves to be,” said Rumbold.
“Ra-ther,” said Hinks. “Blowed if he don’t. Hard lines it would be — if there wasn’t something for him.”
“Commercial and General,” answered Mr. Polly over his shoulder, still staring out of the window. “Oh! I’m all right.”
The topic dropped for a time, though manifestly it continued to exercise their minds.
“It’s cleared me out of a lot of old stock,” said Mr. Wintershed; “that’s one good thing.”
The remark was felt to be in rather questionable taste, and still more so was his next comment.
“Rusper’s a bit sick it didn’t reach ‘im.”
Everyone looked uncomfortable, and no one was willing to point the reason why Rusper should be a bit sick.
“Rusper’s been playing a game of his own,” said Hinks. “Wonder what he thought he was up to! Sittin’ in the middle of the road with a pair of tweezers he was, and about a yard of wire — mending somethin’. Wonder he warn’t run over by the Port Burdock engine.”
Presently a little chat sprang up upon the causes of fires, and Mr. Polly was moved to tell how it had happened for the one and twentieth time. His story had now become as circumstantial and exact as the evidence of a police witness. “Upset the lamp,” he said. “I’d just lighted it, I was going upstairs, and my foot slipped against where one of the treads was a bit rotten, and down I went. Thing was aflare in a moment! . . . ”
He yawned at the end of the discussion, and moved doorward.
“So long,” said Mr. Polly.
“Good night,” said Mr. Rumbold. “You played a brave man’s part! If you don’t get a medal —”
He left an eloquent pause.
“‘Ear, ‘ear!” said Mr. Wintershed and Mr. Clamp. “Goo’night, O’ Man,” said Mr. Hinks.
“Goo’night All,” said Mr. Polly . . .
He went slowly upstairs. The vague perplexity common to popular heroes pervaded his mind. He entered the bedroom and turned up the electric light. It was quite a pleasant room, one of the best in the Temperance Hotel, with a nice clean flowered wallpaper, and a very large looking-glass. Miriam appeared to be asleep, and her shoulders were humped up under the clothes in a shapeless, forbidding lump that Mr. Polly had found utterly loathsome for fifteen years. He went softly over to the dressing-table and surveyed himself thoughtfully. Presently he hitched up the trousers. “Miles too big for me,” he remarked. “Funny not to have a pair of breeches of one’s own. . . . Like being born again. Naked came I into the world. . . . ”
Miriam stirred and rolled over, and stared at him.
“Hello!” she said.
“Come to bed?”
Pause, while Mr. Polly disrobed slowly.
“I been thinking,” said Miriam, “It isn’t going to be so bad after all. We shall get your insurance. We can easy begin all over again.”
“H’m,” said Mr. Polly.
She turned her face away from him and reflected.
“Get a better house,” said Miriam, regarding the wallpaper pattern. “I’ve always ‘ated them stairs.”
Mr. Polly removed a boot.
“Choose a better position where there’s more doing,” murmured Miriam. . . .
“Not half so bad,” she whispered. . . .
“You wanted stirring up,” she said, half asleep. . . .
It dawned upon Mr. Polly for the first time that he had forgotten something.
He ought to have cut his throat!
The fact struck him as remarkable, but as now no longer of any particular urgency. It seemed a thing far off in the past, and he wondered why he had not thought of it before. Odd thing life is! If he had done it he would never have seen this clean and agreeable apartment with the electric light. . . . His thoughts wandered into a question of detail. Where could he have put the razor down? Somewhere in the little room behind the shop, he supposed, but he could not think where more precisely. Anyhow it didn’t matter now.
He undressed himself calmly, got into bed, and fell asleep almost immediately.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01