LIFE IN THE RED BRIGADE, BY R.M. BALLANTYNE.
Wet, worn and weary—with water squeaking in his boots, and a mixture of charcoal and water streaking his face to such an extent that, as a comrade asserted, his own mother would not have known him—a stout young man walked smartly one morning through the streets of London towards his own home.
He was tall and good-looking, as well as stout, and, although wet and weary, had a spring in his step which proved beyond all question that he was not worn-out. As the comrade above referred to would have said, "there was plenty of go in him still." His blue and belted coat, sailor's cap, and small hatchet, with the brass helmet swinging by its chin strap on his left arm, betokened him a member of "The Red Brigade,"—a London fireman—one of those dare-anything characters who appear to hold their lives remarkably cheap, for they carry these lives in their hands, as the saying goes, night and day; who seem to be able to live in smoke as if it were their native element; who face the flames as if their bodies were made of cast iron; and whose apparent delight in fire is such that one is led to suspect they must be all more or less distantly connected with the family of Salamander.
The young man's expression of countenance, as far as it could be discerned through the charcoal and water, was hearty, and his name— Dashwood—was in keeping with his profession. The comrade, whose opinion we have already quoted, was wont to say that he ought to change it to Dashwater, that being his chief occupation in life. We need scarcely say that this comrade was rather fond of his joke.
Arrived at a small street, not far from the Regent Circus, young Dashwood entered a fire-station there, and found the comrade above referred to in the act of disposing himself on a narrow tressel-bed, on which there was no bedding save one blanket. The comrade happened to be on duty that night. It was his duty to repose on the tressel-bedstead, booted and belted, ready at a moment's notice to respond to "calls." Another fireman lay sleeping at his side, on another tressel-bed, similarly clothed, for there were always two men on duty all night at that station. The guard-room, or, as it was styled, the "lobby," in which they lay, was a very small room, with a bright fire in the grate, for it was winter; a plain wooden desk near the window; a plain deal table near the door, on which stood four telegraphic instruments; and having the walls ornamented with a row of Wellington boots on one side, and a row of bright brass helmets on the other, each helmet having a small hatchet suspended by a belt below it.
The comrade, who looked very sleepy, glanced at a small clock, whose tick was the only sound that fell upon the ear, and whose hands indicated the hour of half-past two.
On hearing the door open, the comrade, whose name was Bob Clazie, raised himself on one elbow.
"Ah, Joe,—that you?" he said, with a somewhat violent yawn.
"All that's left of me, anyhow," replied Joe Dashwood, as he hung up his helmet and axe on his own particular peg. "Bin much doin', Bob?"
"Not much," growled Bob; "but they don't give a poor fellow much chance of a sleep with them telegraphs. Roused me four times already within the last hour—stops for chimbleys."
"Ha! very inconsiderate of 'em," said Dashwood, turning towards the door. "It's time I had a snooze now, so I'll bid 'ee good night, Bob."
Just as he spoke, one of the sharp little telegraphic bells rang viciously. He waited to ascertain the result while Clazie rose—quickly but not hurriedly—and went to read the instrument with sleepy eyes.
"Another stop for a chimbley," he muttered, with a remonstrative growl. By this he meant that the head office in Watling Street had telegraphed that a chimney had gone on fire in some part of London; that it was being looked after, and that he and his comrades were to stop where they were and pay no attention to it, even although some one should rush into the office like a maniac shouting that there was a fire in that particular place. This use of the telegraph in thus stopping the men of the Brigade from going out in force to trifling fires, is of the greatest service, because it not only prevents them from being harassed, the engines from being horsed, and steam got up needlessly, but it prevents rascals from running from station to station, and getting several shillings, instead of the one shilling which is due to the first intimator of any fire.
Having acknowledged the message, Bob Clazie lay down once more, gave another expostulatory grunt, and drew his blanket over him; while Joe Dashwood went home.
Joe's home consisted of a small apartment round the corner of the street, within a few seconds' run of the station. Off the small apartment there was a large closet. The small apartment was Dashwood's drawing-room, dining-room, and kitchen; the large closet was his bed-room.
Dashwood had a wife, "as tight a little craft, with as pretty a figurehead," he was wont to say, "as you could find in a day's walk through London." That was saying a good deal, but there was some truth in it. When Joe entered, intending to go to bed for the night, he found that Mary had just got up for the day. It was "washing-day," or something of that sort, with Mary, which accounted for her getting up at about three in the morning.
"Hallo, lass, up already!" exclaimed the strapping fireman as he entered the room, which was a perfect marvel of tidiness, despite washing-day.
"Yes, Joe, there's plenty to do, an' little May don't give me much time to do it," replied Mary, glancing at a crib where little May, their first-born, lay coiled up in sheets like a rosebud in snow.
Joe, having rubbed the water and charcoal from his face with a huge jack-towel, went to the wash-tub, and imprinted a hearty kiss on Mary's rosy lips, which she considerately held up for the purpose of being saluted. He was about to do the same to the rosebud, when Mary stopped him with an energetic "Don't!"
"W'y not, Molly?" asked the obedient man.
"'Cause you'll wake her up."
Thus put down, Joe seated himself humbly on a sea-chest, and began to pull off his wet boots.
"It's bin a bad fire, I think," said Mary, glancing at her husband.
"Rather. A beer-shop in Whitechapel. House of five rooms burnt out, and the roof off."
"You look tired, Joe," said Mary.
"I am a bit tired, but an hour's rest will put me all to rights. That's the third fire I've bin called to to-night; not that I think much about that, but the last one has bin a stiff one, an' I got a fall or two that nigh shook the wind out o' me."
"Have something to eat, Joe," said Mary, in a sympathetic tone.
"No thankee, lass; I need sleep more than meat just now."
"A glass of beer, then," urged Mary, sweeping the soap suds off her pretty arms and hands, and taking up a towel.
The fireman shook his head, as he divested himself of his coat and neckcloth.
"Do, Joe," entreated Mary; "I'm sure it will do you good, and no one could say that you broke through your principles, considerin' the condition you're in."
Foolish Mary! she was young and inexperienced, and knew not the danger of tempting her husband to drink. She only knew that hundreds of first-rate, sober, good, trustworthy men took a glass of beer now and then without any evil result following, and did not think that her Joe ran the slightest risk in doing the same. But Joe knew his danger. His father had died a drunkard. He had listened to earnest men while they told of the bitter curse that drinking had been to thousands, that to some extent the tendency to drink was hereditary, and that, however safe some natures might be while moderately indulging, there were other natures to which moderate drinking was equivalent to getting on those rails which, running down a slight incline at first—almost a level— gradually pass over a steep descent, where brakes become powerless, and end at last in total destruction.
"I don't require beer, Molly," said Dashwood with a smile, as he retired into the large closet; "at my time o' life a man must be a miserable, half-alive sort o' critter, if he can't git along without Dutch courage. The sight o' your face and May's there, is better than a stiff glass o' grog to me any day. It makes me feel stronger than the stoutest man in the brigade. Good night, lass, or good mornin'. I must make the most o' my time. There's no sayin' how soon the next call may come. Seems to me as if people was settin' their houses alight on purpose to worry us."
The tones in which the last sentences were uttered, and the creaking of the bedstead indicated that the fireman was composing his massive limbs to rest, and scarcely had Mrs Dashwood resumed her washing, when his regular heavy breathing proclaimed him to be already in the land of Nod.
Quietly but steadily did Mrs Dashwood pursue her work. Neat little under-garments, and fairy-like little socks, and indescribable little articles of Lilliputian clothing of various kinds, all telling of the little rosebud in the crib, passed rapidly through Mary's nimble fingers, and came out of the tub fair as the driven snow. Soon the front of the fire-place became like a ship dressed with flags, with this difference, that the flags instead of being gay and parti-coloured, were white and suggestive of infancy and innocence. The gentle noise of washing, and the soft breathing of the sleepers, and the tiny ticking of the clock over the chimney-piece, were the only audible sounds, for London had reached its deadest hour, four o'clock. Rioters had exhausted their spirits, natural and artificial, and early risers had not begun to move.
Presently to these sounds were added another very distant sound which induced Mary to stop and listen. "A late cab," she whispered to herself. The rumbling of the late cab became more distinct, and soon proved it to be a hurried cab. To Mary's accustomed ear this raised some disagreeable idea. She cast a look of anxiety into the closet, wiped her hands quickly, and taking up a pair of dry boots which had been standing near the fire, placed them beside her husband's coat. This was barely accomplished when the hurried cab was heard to pull up at the neighbouring fire-station. Only a few seconds elapsed when racing footsteps were heard outside. Mary seized her husband's arm—
"Up, Joe, up," she cried and darted across the room, leaped on a chair, and laid violent hands on the tongue of the door-bell, thereby preventing a furious double ring from disturbing the rosebud!
At the first word "up," the bed in the closet groaned and creaked as the fireman bounded from it, and the house shook as he alighted on the floor. Next moment he appeared buttoning his braces, and winking like an owl in sunshine. One moment sufficed to pull on the right boot, another moment affixed the left. Catching up his half-dried coat with one hand, and flinging on his sailor's cap with the other, he darted from the house, thrust himself into his coat as he ran along and appeared at the station just as four of his comrades drew the fire-engine up to the door, while two others appeared with three horses, which they harnessed thereto—two abreast, one in front—with marvellous rapidity. The whole affair, from the "Up, Joe, up," of Mrs Dashwood, to the harnessing of the steeds, was accomplished in less than five minutes. By that time Joe and several of his mates stood ready belted, and armed with brass helmets on their heads, which flashed back the rays of the neighbouring street lamp and the engine lanterns.
There was wonderfully little noise or fuss, although there was so much display of promptitude and energy; the reason being that all the men were thoroughly drilled, and each had his particular duty to perform; there was, therefore, no room for orders, counter-orders, or confusion.
The moment the call was given, Bob Clazie, having received no telegraphic "stop," had at once run to ring up the men, who, like Dashwood, had been sleeping close at hand. He rang up the driver of the engine first. At the same moment his comrade on duty had run round to the stable, where the horses stood ready harnessed, and brought them out. Thus the thing was done without a moment's delay. The driver, when roused, flung on his coat and helmet, and ran to the engine. It was a steam fire-engine; that is, the pumps were worked by steam instead of by hand. The firing was ready laid, and the water kept nearly at the boiling point by means of a jet of gas. He had scarcely applied a light to the fire and turned off the gas, when four comrades ran into the shed, seized the red-painted engine, and dragged her out, as we have seen.
Much shorter time did it take to do all this than is required to describe it.
When the driver mounted his box, the others sprang on the engine. Crack! went the whip, fire flew from the paving-stones, fire poured from the furnace, the spirited steeds tore round the corner into Regent Street, and off they went to the fire, in the dark winter morning, like a monster rocket or a vision of Roman gladiators whirled away by a red fiery dragon!
Mrs Dashwood heard them go, and turned with a little sigh to her washing-tub. She was very proud of Joe, and she had good reason to be, for he was one of the best men in the Red Brigade, and, what was of more importance to her, he was one of the best husbands in the world. Perhaps this was largely owing to the fact that she was one of the best of wives! His career as a fireman had been short, but he had already become known as one of the daring men, to whom their Chief looked when some desperate service had to be performed. On several occasions he had, while in charge of the fire-escape, been the means of saving life. Upon the whole, therefore, it is not surprising that Mary was proud of her husband—almost as proud of him as she was of the little rosebud; but in regard to this she was never quite sure of the exact state of her mind.
Meditating on Joe, and giving an occasional glance at May, whose sweet upturned face seemed nothing short of angelic, Mrs Dashwood continued energetically to scrub the fairy-like habiliments, and make the soapsuds fly.
Meanwhile, the red engine whirled along its fiery course at full gallop, like a horrible meteor, clattering loudly in the deserted streets of the great city. So it would have sped in its wild career even if it had been broad day, for the loss of a single moment in reaching a fire is important; but in this case the men, instead of sitting like brazen-headed statues, would have stood up and increased the din of their progress by shouting continuously to clear the crowded thoroughfares. As it was, they had it all to themselves. Sometimes the corner of a window-blind was hastily lifted, showing that some wakeful one had curiosity enough to leap out of bed to see them pass. Here and there a policeman paused, and followed them with his eye as long as the tail of sparks from the furnace was visible. Occasionally a belated toper stopped in his staggering progress to gaze at them, with an idiotical assumption of seriousness and demand, "Wash ey maki'n sh' a 'orrible row for?" Now and then a cat, with exploratory tendencies, put up its back and greeted them with a glare and a fuff, or a shut-out cur gave them a yelping salute; but the great mass of the London population let them go by without notice, as they would have treated any other passing thunderbolt with which they had nothing to do.
And yet they had something to do with that engine, or, rather, it had to do with them. But for it, and the rest of the Red Brigade, London would have long ago been in ashes. It is only by unremitting vigilance and incessant action that the London fires can be kept within bounds. There are nearly two thousand fires in the year in the metropolis, and the heroic little army which keeps these in check numbers only three hundred and seventy-eight men. That this force is much too small for the work to be done is proved by the fact, that the same men have sometimes to turn out three, four or five times in a night, to work of the most trying and dangerous nature. There is no occupation in which the lives of the men employed are so frequently risked, and their physical endurance so severely tried, as that of a London fireman. As there are, on the average, five fires every night all the year round, it follows that he is liable to be called out several times every night; and, in point of fact, this actually takes place very often. Sometimes he has barely returned from a fire, and put off his drenched garments, when he receives another "call," and is obliged to put them on again, and go forth weary—it may be fasting—to engage in another skirmish with the flames. In all weathers and at all seasons—hot or cold, wet or dry—he must turn out at a moment's notice, to find himself, almost before he is well awake, in the midst of stifling smoke, obliged to face and to endure the power of roasting flames, to stand under cataracts of water, beside tottering walls and gables, or to plunge through smoke and flames, in order to rescue human lives. Liability to be called occasionally to the exercise of such courage and endurance is severe enough; it is what every soldier is liable to in time of war, and the lifeboat-man in times of storm; but to be liable to such calls several times every day and night all round the year is hard indeed, and proves that the Red Brigade, although almost perfect in its organisation and heroic in its elements, is far too small. Paris has about seven hundred fires a year; New York somewhere about three hundred; yet these cities have a far larger body of firemen than London, which with little short of two thousand fires a year, does her work of extinction with only three hundred and seventy-eight men!
She succeeds because every man in the little army is a hero, not one whit behind the Spartans of old. The London fireman, Ford, who, in 1871, at one great fire rescued six lives from the flames, and perished in accomplishing the noble deed, is a sample of the rest. All the men of the Brigade are picked men—picked from among the strapping and youthful tars of the navy, because such men are accustomed to strict discipline; to being "turned out" at all hours and in all weathers, and to climb with cool heads in trying circumstances, besides being, as a class, pre-eminently noted for daring anything and sticking at nothing. Such men are sure to do their work well, however hard; to do it without complaining, and to die, if need be, in the doing of it. But ought they to be asked to sacrifice so much? Surely Londoners would do well to make that complaint, which the men will never make, and insist on the force being increased, not only for the sake of the men, but also for the sake of themselves; for, although there are three hundred and seventy-eight heroes who hold the fiery foe so well in check, there are limits to heroic powers of action, and it stands to reason that double the number would do it better.
But we are wandering from our point. The engine has been tearing all this time at racing speed along the Bayswater Road. It turns sharp round a corner near Notting Hill Gate—so sharp that the feat is performed on the two off wheels, and draws from Bob Clazie the quiet remark, "Pretty nigh on our beam-ends that time, Joe." A light is now seen glaring in the sky over the house-tops; another moment, and the engine dashes into Ladbroke Square, where a splendid mansion is in a blaze, with the flames spouting from the windows of the second floor.
The engine pulls up with a crash; the reeking horses are removed and led aside. "Look alive, lads!" is the only word uttered, and the helmeted heroes, knowing their work well, go into action with that cool promptitude which is more than half the battle in attacking the most desperate odds or the fiercest foe.
The house on fire was, as we have said, an elegant mansion—one of those imposing edifices, with fresh paint outside, and splendid furniture within, which impress the beholder with the idea of a family in luxurious circumstances.
No one could tell how the fire originated. In the daily "report" of fires, made next day by the chief of the Red Brigade, wherein nine fires were set down as having occurred within the twenty-four hours, the cause of this fire in Ladbroke Square was reported "unknown." Of the other eight, the supposed causes were, in one case, "escape of gas," in another, "paraffin-lamp upset," in another "intoxication," in another, "spark from fire," in another, "candle," in another, "children playing with matches," and so on; but in this mansion none of these causes were deemed probable. The master of the house turned off the gas regularly every night before going to bed, therefore it could not have been caused by escape of gas. Paraffin-lamps were not used in the house. Candles were; but they were always carefully handled and guarded. As to intoxication, the most suspicious of mortals could not have dreamed of such a cause in so highly respectable a family. The fires were invariably put out at night, and guards put on in every room, therefore, no spark could have been so audacious as to have leaped into being and on to the floor. There were, indeed, "matches" in the house, but there were no children, except one old lady, who, having reached her second childhood, might perhaps have been regarded as a child. It is true there was a certain Betty, a housemaid, whose fingers were reported by the cook to be "all thumbs," and who had an awkward and incurable tendency to spill, and break, and drop, and fall over things, on whom suspicion fastened very keenly at first; but Betty, who was young and rather pretty, asserted so earnestly that she had been unusually happy that night in having done nothing whatever of a condemnable nature, and backed her asseverations with such floods of tears, that she was exonerated, and, as we have said, the cause was reported "unknown."
It was not, however, so completely unknown as was at first supposed. There was a certain grave, retiring, modest individual who knew the gentleman of the house and his doings a little more thoroughly than was agreeable to the said gentleman, and who had become aware, in some unaccountable way, which it is impossible to explain, that he, the said gentleman, had very recently furnished the house in a sumptuous style, and had insured it much beyond its value. The said individual's knowledge ultimately resulted in the said gentleman being convicted and transported for arson!
But with all this we have nothing to do. Whatever the uncertainty that afterwards arose as to the cause of the fire, there could be no uncertainty as to the fire itself at the time. It blazed and roared so furiously, that the inside of the house resembled a white-hot furnace. Flames spouted from the windows and chimneys, glaring fiercely on the spectators, who assembled rapidly from all quarters, as if defying them all, and daring the firemen to do their worst. Sparks enough to have shamed all the Roman candles ever made in or out of Rome were vomited forth continuously, and whirled away with volumes of dense black smoke into the wintry sky.
"It's well alight," observed a chimney-sweep to a policeman.
The policeman made no reply, although it did seem as if it would have been quite safe, even for a policeman, to admit that the sweep was thoroughly correct. It was "well alight," so well, that it seemed absolutely ridiculous to suppose that the firemen could make any impression on it at all.
But the firemen did not appear to think the attempt ridiculous. "Never give in" was, or might have been, their motto. It was their maxim to attack the enemy with promptitude and vigour, no matter what his strength might be. When he crept out like a sneaking burglar from under a hearth-stone, or through an over-heated flue, they would "have at him" with the hand-pumps and quench him at once. When he came forth like a dashing party of skirmishers, to devastate a wood-yard, or light up a music-hall with unusual brilliancy, they sent an engine or two against him without delay, and put him down in an hour or two. When he attacked "in force," they despatched engine after engine—manuals and steamers— to the front, until he was quelled, and if the prey already seized could not be wrenched from his grasp, they, at all events, killed him before he could destroy more. When he boldly and openly declared war, attacking the great combustible warehouses of Tooley Street, threatening a descent on the shipping, and almost setting the Thames on fire, they sent out the whole available army from every quarter of the metropolis with all their engines of war—manuals, steamers, and floating batteries, or spouteries, and fought him tooth and nail, till he gave in. They might be terribly over-matched—as in the case of the great fire when the gallant Braidwood fell—they might lose men, and might have to fight day and night for weeks, but they would "never say die," until the enemy had died and left them, tired and torn, but still tough and triumphant victors on the field of battle.
Before the engine from Regent Street came on the ground, two manual engines from Kensington and Notting Hill had arrived, and opened water on the foe. At first their shot fell harmlessly on the roaring furnace; but by the time the "steamer" had got ready for action, some little effect was beginning to be produced. When this great gun, so to speak, began to play, and sent a thick continuous stream through the windows, like an inexhaustible water mitrailleuse, clouds of white steam mingled with the black smoke, and varied the aspect of the fire, but did not appear to lessen its fury in any degree. Just then another manual engine dashed into the square at full gallop, and formed up. Before it had well taken a position, another "steamer," with three horses, came swinging round the corner, and fell into the ranks. The panting steeds were unharnessed, the bold charioteers leaped down, the suction-pipe was dipped into the water-trough, and the hose attached. As two engines cannot "drink" at the same plug, a canvas trough with an iron frame is put over the plug, having a hole in its bottom, which fits tightly round the plug. It quietly fills, and thus two or more engines may do their work convivially—dip in their suction-pipes, and "drink" simultaneously at the same fountain.
"Down with her!" shouted the man who held the "branch," or nozzle, at the end of the hose.
A steam whistle gives a shrill, short reply; the engine quivers under the power of man's greatest servant, and another battery opens on the foe.
But London firemen are not content to play at long bowls. While the artillery goes thus vigorously into action, the helmets of the men are seen gleaming and glancing everywhere amid the smoke, searching for weak points, turning the enemy's flanks, and taking him in rear. Hose are dragged through neighbouring houses, trailing their black coils like horrid water snakes, through places were such things were never meant to be. If too short, additional lengths are added, again and again, till the men who hold the branches gain points of vantage on adjoining roofs or outhouses, until, at last from below, above, in front, and behind, cataracts of water dash into the glowing furnace.
The fire-escape had been first to reach the ground after the alarm was given, this being the instrument nearest to the scene of conflagration. It happened that night to be in charge of David Clazie, a brother of Comrade Bob. Being a smart young fellow, David, had—with the assistance of two early risers who chanced to be at hand, and the policeman on the beat—run up his escape, and put it in position before the fire had gained its full force. The gentleman of the house had already got out, and fled in his night garments; but the fire had rendered the staircase impassable, so that the cook, the many-thumbed Betty, and the old lady, who was the gentleman's mother, were imprisoned in the upper floor.
David Clazie did not learn this from the gentleman, however. That amiable character had received such a fright, that he had taken himself off, no one—except the individual aforementioned—knew whither. Fortunately, Betty announced the fact of her existence by rushing to a window and shrieking. David ran his escape towards the window, mounted the ladder, carried the damsel down, bore her, kicking, into a neighbouring house, and left her in fits. Meanwhile the cook rushed to the same window, shrieked, and fell back half-suffocated with the smoke which just then surrounded her. A policeman gallantly ran up the escape, jumped into the room, gathered up the cook with great difficulty—for she was unusually fat and the smoke very suffocating— carried her down, bore her to the same house where Betty lay, and left her there in violent hysterics.
As neither of them could answer questions, it could not be ascertained whether there were any more people in the burning house. David therefore explored it as far as was possible in the circumstances, and much more than was safe for himself, but found no one. After nearly choking himself, therefore, he drew aside the escape to prevent its being burned.
When the engines came up, however, it was again brought into play, to enable the firemen to get up with their "branches" to the upper windows.
"Try that window, Dashwood," said the officer of the station to which Joe belonged, pointing to a window on the second floor. "There ain't much smoke coming out."
Before he had done speaking, Joe and a comrade had pushed the escape towards the window in question. He ascended and leaped into the room, but could scarcely see for the smoke. Knowing that the air in a burning house is clearer near the floor, he stooped as low as possible, and went round the room guiding himself by the walls. Coming to a door he seized the handle and tried to open it, but found it locked, and the handle so hot that he was forced to let go abruptly. He seized a chair, tried to burst it open with a blow, and shivered the chair to atoms, but did not force the door. A powerful effort with his foot also failed. Rushing to the window he got out on the escape, and shouted:—
"The axe, lads, look sharp and pass up the hose. We'll get at it here."
A large heavy axe was handed up by one fireman, while another let down a rope, to which the end of the hose was attached and hauled up.
Joe seized the axe, returned to the door, and, with one blow, dashed it open.
Flames leaped upon him, as if they had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity, licked hungrily round his legs, and kissed his whiskers—of which, by the way, he was rather proud; and with good reason, for they were very handsome whiskers. But Joe cared no more for them at that moment than he did for his boots. He was forced to retreat, however, to the window, where Bob Clazie had already presented his branch and commenced a telling discharge on the fire.
"That's the way to do it," muttered Bob, as he directed the branch and turned aside his head to avoid, as much as possible, the full volume of the smoke.
"Let's get a breath o' fresh air," gasped Joe Dashwood, endeavouring to squeeze past his comrade through the window.
At that moment a faint cry was heard. It appeared to come from an inner room.
"Some one there, Joe," said Bob Clazie in a grave tone, but without diverting his attention for an instant, from the duty in which he was engaged.
Joe made no reply, but at once leaped back into the room, and, a second time, felt his way round the walls. He came on another door. One blow of the ponderous axe dashed it in, and revealed a bed-room not quite so densely filled with smoke as the outer room. Observing a bed looming through the smoke, he ran towards it, and struck his head against one of the posts so violently that he staggered. Recovering he made a grasp at the clothes, and felt that there was a human being wrapped tightly up in them like a bundle. A female shriek followed. Joe Dashwood was not the man to stand on ceremony in such circumstances. He seized the bundle, straightened it out a little, so as to make it more portable, and throwing it over his shoulder, made a rush towards the window by which he had entered. All this the young fireman did with considerable energy and haste, because the density of the smoke was increasing, and his retreat might be cut off by the flames at any moment.
"Clear the way there!" he gasped, on reaching the window.
"All right," replied Bob Clazie, who was still presenting his branch with untiring energy at the flames.
Joe passed out, got on the head of the escape, and, holding the bundle on his shoulder with one hand, grasped the rounds of the ladder with the other. He descended amid the cheers of the vast multitude, which had by this time assembled to witness the fire.
As Joe hurried towards the open door of the nearest house, Betty, with the thumbs, rushed frantically out, screaming, "Missis! oh! my! she'll be burnt alive! gracious! help! fire! back room! first floor! oh, my!"
"Be easy, lass," cried Joe, catching the flying domestic firmly by the arm, and detaining her despite her struggles.
"Let me go; missis! I forgot her!"
"Here she is," cried Joe, interrupting, "all safe. You come and attend to her."
The reaction on poor Betty's feelings was so great that she went into fits a second time, and was carried with her mistress into the house, where the cook still lay in violent hysterics.
Joe laid the bundle gently on the bed, and looked quickly at the bystanders. Observing several cool and collected females among them, he pointed to the bundle, which had begun to exhibit symptoms of life, and said briefly, "She's all right, look after her," and vanished like a wreath of that smoke into which in another moment he plunged.
He was not a moment too soon, for he found Bob Clazie, despite his fortitude and resolution, on the point of abandoning the window, where the smoke had increased to such a degree as to render suffocation imminent.
"Can't stand it," gasped Bob, scrambling a few paces down the ladder.
"Give us the branch, Bob, I saw where it was in fetchin' out the old woman," said Joe in a stifled voice.
He grasped the copper tube from which the water spouted with such force as to cause it to quiver and recoil like a living thing, so that, being difficult to hold, it slipped aside and nearly fell. The misdirected water-spout went straight at the helmet of a policeman, which it knocked off with the apparent force of a cannon shot; plunged into the bosom of a stout collier, whom it washed whiter than he had ever been since the days of infancy, and scattered the multitude like chaff before the wind. Seeing this, the foreman ordered "Number 3" engine, (which supplied the particular branch in question), to cease pumping.
Joe recovered the erratic branch in a moment, and dragged it up the escape, Bob, who was now in a breatheable atmosphere, helping to pass up the hose. The foreman, who seemed to have acquired the power of being in several places at one and the same moment of time, and whose watchful eye was apparently everywhere, ordered Bob's brother David and another man named Ned Crashington, to go up and look after Joe Dashwood.
Meanwhile Joe shouted, "Down with Number 3;" by which he meant, "up with as much water as possible from Number 3, and as fast as you can!" and sprang into the room from which he had just rescued the old woman. In passing out with her he had observed a glimmer of flame through the door which he had first broken open, and which, he reflected while descending the escape, was just out of range of Bob Clazie's branch. It was the thought of this that had induced him to hurry back so promptly; in time, as we have seen, to relieve his comrade. He now pointed the branch at the precise spot, and hit that part of the fire right in its heart. The result was that clouds of steam mingled with the smoke. But Joe was human after all. The atmosphere, or, rather, the want of atmosphere, was too much for him. He was on the point of dropping the branch, and rushing to the window for his life, when Ned Crashington, feeling his way into the room, tumbled over him.
Speech was not required in the circumstances. Ned knew exactly what to do, and Joe knew that he had been sent to relieve him. He therefore delivered the branch to Ned, and at once sprang out on the escape, where he encountered David Clazie.
"Go in, Davy, he can't stand it long," gasped Joe.
"No fears of 'im," replied Davy, with a smile, as he prepared to enter the window; "Ned can stand hanythink a'most. But, I say, send up some more 'ands. It takes two on us to 'old that 'ere branch, you know."
The brass helmets of more hands coming up the escape were observed as he spoke, for the foreman saw that this was a point of danger, and, like a wise general, had his reserves up in time.
David Clazie found Ned standing manfully to the branch. Ned was noted in the Red Brigade as a man who could "stand a'most anything," and who appeared to cherish a martyr-like desire to die by roasting or suffocation. This was the more surprising that he was not a boastful or excitable fellow, but a silent, melancholy, and stern man, who, except when in action, usually seemed to wish to avoid observation. Most of his comrades were puzzled by this compound of character, but some of them hinted that Crashington's wife could have thrown some light on the subject. Be this as it may, whenever the chief or the foreman of the Brigade wanted a man for any desperate work, they invariably turned to Ned Crashington. Not that Ned was one whit more courageous or willing to risk his life than any of the other men, all of whom, it must be remembered, were picked for courage and capacity for their special work; but he combined the greatest amount of coolness with the utmost possible recklessness, besides being unusually powerful, so that he could be depended on for wise as well as desperate action. Joe Dashwood was thought to be almost equal to Ned—indeed, in personal activity he was superior; but there was nothing desperate in Joe's character. He was ever ready to dare anything with a sort of jovial alacrity, but he did not appear, like Ned, to court martyrdom.
While Ned and David subdued the flames above, Joe descended the escape, and being by that time almost exhausted, sat down to rest with several comrades who had endured the first shock of battle, while fresh men were sent to continue the fight.
"Have a glass, Joe?" said one of the firemen, coming round with a bottle of brandy.
"No, thank 'ee," said Joe, "I don't require it."
"Hand it here," said a man who stood leaning against the rails beside him, "my constitution is good, like the British one, but it's none the worse for a drop o' brandy after such tough work."
There was probably truth in what the man said. Desperate work sometimes necessitates a stimulant; nevertheless, there were men in the Red Brigade who did their desperate work on nothing stronger than water, and Joe was one of these.
In three hours the fire was subdued, and before noon of that day it was extinguished. The "report" of it, as published by the chief of the Fire-Brigade next morning, recorded that a house in Ladbroke Square, occupied by Mr Blank, a gentleman whose business was "private"—in other words, unknown—had been set on fire by some "unknown cause," that the whole tenement had been "burnt out" and "the roof off," and that the contents of the building were "insured in the Phoenix."
Some of the firemen were sent home about daybreak, when the flames first began to be mastered.
Joe was among these. He found Mary ready with a cup of hot coffee, and the rosebud, who had just awakened, ready with a kiss. Joe accepted the second, swallowed the first, stretched his huge frame with a sigh of weariness, remarked to Mary that he would turn in, and in five minutes thereafter was snoring profoundly.
One pleasant afternoon in spring David Clazie and Ned Crashington sat smoking together in front of the fire in the lobby of the station, chatting of hair-breadth escapes by flood and fire.
"It's cold enough yet to make a fire a very pleasant comrade—w'en 'e's inside the bars," observed David.
"H'm," replied Crashington.
As this was not a satisfactory reply, David said so, and remarked, further, that Ned seemed to be in the blues.
"Wotever can be the matter wi' you, Ned," said David, looking at his companion with a perplexed air; "you're a young, smart, 'ealthy fellar, in a business quite to your mind, an' with a good-lookin' young wife at 'ome, not to mention a babby. W'y wot more would you 'ave, Ned? You didn't ought for to look blue."
"Pr'aps not," replied Ned, re-lighting his pipe, and puffing between sentences, "but a man may be in a business quite to his mind and have a good-looking wife, and a babby, and health to boot, without bein' exactly safe from an attack of the blues now and then, d'ye see? 'It ain't all gold that glitters.' You've heard o' that proverb, no doubt?"
"Well, yes," replied Clazie.
"Ah. Then there's another sayin' which mayhap you've heard of too: 'every man's got a skeleton in the cupboard.'"
"I've heard o' that likewise," said Clazie, "but it ain't true; leastways, I have got no skeleton in none o' my cupboards, an', wot's more, if I 'ad, I'd pitch him overboard."
"But what if he was too strong for you?" suggested Ned.
"Why, then—I don't know," said Clazie, shaking his head.
Before this knotty point could be settled in a satisfactory manner, the comrades were interrupted by the entrance of a man. He was a thick-set, ill-favoured fellow, with garments of a disreputable appearance, and had a slouch that induced honest men to avoid his company. Nevertheless, Ned Crashington gave him a hearty "good afternoon," and shook hands.
"My brother-in-law, Clazie," said Ned, turning and introducing him, "Mr Sparks."
Clazie was about to say he "was 'appy to," etcetera, but thought better of it, and merely nodded as he turned to the grate and shook the ashes out of his pipe.
"You'll come and have a cup of tea, Phil? Maggie and I usually have it about this time."
Phil Sparks said he had no objection to tea, and left the station with Ned, leaving David Clazie shaking his head with a look of profound wisdom.
"You're a bad lot, you are," growled David, after the man was gone, "a werry bad lot, indeed!"
Having expressed his opinion to the clock, for there was no one else present, David thrust both hands into his pockets, and went out to take an observation of the weather.
Meanwhile Ned Crashington led his brother-in-law to his residence, which, like the abodes of the other firemen, was close at hand. Entering it he found his "skeleton" waiting for him in the shape of his wife. She was anything but a skeleton in aspect, being a stout, handsome woman, with a fine figure, an aquiline nose, and glittering black eyes.
"Oh, you've come at last," she said in a sharp, querulous tone, almost before her husband had entered the room. "Full ten minutes late, and I expected you sooner than usual to-night."
"I didn't know you expected me sooner, Maggie. Here's Phil come to have tea with us."
"Oh, Phil, how are you?" said Mrs Crashington, greeting her brother with a smile, and shaking him heartily by the hand.
"Ah, if you'd only receive me with a smile like that, how different it might be," thought Ned; but he said nothing.
"Now, then, stoopid," cried Mrs Crashington, turning quickly round on her husband, as if to counteract the little touch of amiability into which she had been betrayed, "how long are you going to stand there in people's way staring at the fire? What are you thinking of?"
"I was thinking of you, Maggie."
"H'm! thinking no good of me, I dare say," replied Maggie, sharply.
"Did your conscience tell you that?" asked Ned, with a heightened colour.
Maggie made no reply. One secret of her bad temper was that she had all her life been allowed to vent it, and now that she was married she felt the necessity of restraining it very irksome. Whenever she had gone far enough with Ned, and saw that he was not to be trifled with, she found that she possessed not only power to control her temper, but the sense, now and then, to do so! On the present occasion she at once busied herself in preparing tea, while Ned sat down opposite his brother-in-law, and, taking Fred, his only child, a handsome boy of about five years of age, on his knee, began to run his fingers through his jet black curly hair.
"Did you get your tasks well to-day, Fred?" asked Ned.
"No?" repeated Ned in surprise; "why not?"
"Because I was playin' with May Dashwood, father."
"Was that a good reason for neglecting your dooty?" demanded Ned, shaking his head reproachfully, yet smiling in spite of himself.
"Iss, father," replied the boy boldly.
"You're wrong, Fred. No doubt you might have had a worse reason, but play is not a good reason for neglect of dooty. Only think—what would be said to me if I was called to a fire, and didn't go because I wanted to play with May Dashwood?"
"But I was sent for," pleaded Fred. "Mrs Dashwood had a big—oh, such a big washin', an' sent to say if I might be let go; an' mother said I might, so I went."
"Ah, that alters the case, Fred," replied his father, patting the boy's head. "To help a woman in difficulties justifies a'most anything. Don't it, Phil?"
Thus appealed to, Phil said that he didn't know, and, what was more, he didn't care.
"Now don't sit talkin' nonsense, but sit in to tea," said Mrs Crashington.
The stout fireman's natural amiability had been returning like a flood while he conversed with Fred, but this sharp summons rather checked its flow; and when he was told in an exasperating tone to hand the toast, and not look like a stuck pig, it was fairly stopped, and his spirit sank to zero.
"Have you got anything to do yet?" he asked of Phil Sparks, by way of cheering up a little.
"No, nothin'," replied Sparks; "leastways nothin' worth mentionin'."
"I knew his last application would fail," observed Maggie, in a quietly contemptuous tone.
His last application had been made through Ned's influence and advice, and that is how she came to know it would fail.
Ned felt a rising of indignation within him which he found it difficult to choke down, because it was solely for his wife's sake that he had made any effort at all to give a helping hand to surly Phil Sparks, for whom he entertained no personal regard. But Ned managed to keep his mouth shut. Although a passionate man, he was not ill-tempered, and often suffered a great deal for the sake of peace.
"London," growled Sparks, in a tone of sulky remonstrance, "ain't a place for a man to git on in. If you've the luck to have friends who can help you, an' are willin', why it's well enough; but if you haven't got friends, its o' no manner o' use to try anything, except pocket-pickin' or house-breakin'."
"Come, Phil," said Ned, laughing, as he helped himself to a huge round of buttered toast, "I 'ope you han't made up your mind to go in for either of them professions, for they don't pay. They entail hard work, small profits, an' great risk—not to mention the dishonesty of 'em. But I don't agree with you about London neither."
"You never agree with nobody about anythink," observed Mrs Crashington, in a low tone, as if the remark were made to the teapot; but Ned heard it, and his temper was sorely tried again, for, while the remark was utterly false as regarded himself, it was particularly true as regarded his wife. However, he let it pass, and continued—
"You see, Phil, London, as you know, is a big place, the population of it being equal to that of all Scotland—so I'm told, though it ain't easy to swallow that. Now it seems to me that where there's so many people an' so much doin', it ought to be the very place for smart, stout fellows like you. If I was you, I'd—"
"Yes, but you ain't him," interrupted Mrs Crashington, testily, "so it won't do him much good to tell what you would or wouldn't do."
"I've heard of wives, Maggie, who sometimes tried to be agreeable," said Ned, gravely.
"If I don't suit you, why did you marry me?" demanded Maggie.
"Ah, why indeed?" said Ned, with a frown. At this critical point in the conversation, little Fred, who was afraid that a storm was on the point of bursting forth, chanced to overturn his tin mug of tea. His mother was one of those obtuse women who regard an accident as a sin, to be visited by summary punishment. Her usual method of inflicting punishment was by means of an open-handed slap on the side of the head. On this occasion she dealt out the measure of justice with such good-will, that poor little Fred was sent sprawling and howling on the floor.
This was too much for Ned, who was a tender-hearted man. The blood rushed to his face; he sprang up with such violence as to overturn his chair, seized his cap, and, without uttering a word, dashed out of the room, and went downstairs three steps at a time.
What Ned meant to do, or where to go, of course no one could tell, for he had no definite intentions in his own mind, but his energies were unexpectedly directed for him. On rushing out at the street door, he found himself staggering unexpectedly in the arms of Bob Clazie.
"Hullo! Bob, what's up?"
"Turn out!" said Bob, as he wheeled round, and ran to the next fireman's door.
Ned understood him. He ran smartly to the station, and quickly put on helmet, belt, and axe. Already the engine was out, and the horses were being harnessed. In two minutes the men were assembled and accoutred; in three they were in their places—the whip cracked, and away they went.
It was a good blazing, roaring, soul-stirring fire—a dry-salter's warehouse, with lots of inflammable materials to give it an intense heart of heat, and fanned by a pretty stiff breeze into ungovernable fury—yet it was as nothing to the fire that raged in Ned's bosom. If he had hated his wife, or been indifferent to her, he would in all probability, like too many husbands, have sought for congenial society elsewhere, and would have been harsh to her when obliged to be at home. But Ned loved his wife, and would have made any sacrifice, if by so doing, he could have smoothed her into a more congenial spirit. When, therefore, he found that his utmost efforts were of no avail, and that he was perpetually goaded, and twitted, and tweaked for every little trifle, his spirit was set alight—as he at last remarked in confidence to David Clazie—and all the fire-engines in Europe, Asia, Africa and America couldn't put it out.
The dry-salter's premises seemed to have been set on fire for poor Ned's special benefit that night. They suited his case exactly. There was more than the usual quantity of smoke to suffocate, and fire to roast, him. There was considerable danger too, so that the daring men of the brigade were in request—if we may say that of a brigade in which all the men were daring—and Ned had congenial work given him to do. The proverbial meeting of Greek with Greek was mere child's play to this meeting of fire with fire. The inflamed Ned and the blazing dry-salter met in mortal conflict, and the result was tremendous! It made his brother firemen stand aghast with awful admiration, to observe the way in which Ned dashed up tottering staircases, and along smoke-choked passages, where lambent flames were licking about in search of oxygen to feed on, and the way in which he hurled down brick walls and hacked through wood partitions, and tore up fir-planking and seized branch and hose, and, dragging them into hole-and-corner places, and out upon dizzy beams, and ridge poles, dashed tons of water in the fire's face, until it hissed again. It was a fine example of the homoeopathic principle that "like cures like;" for the fire in Ned's bosom did wonders that night in the way of quenching the fire in the dry-salter's warehouse.
When this had gone on for an hour, and the fire was at its height, Ned, quite exhausted, descended to the street, and, sitting down on the pavement, leaned against a rail.
"If you goes on like that, Ned," said Bob Clazie, coming up to him, "you'll bust yourself."
"I wish I could," said Ned.
At that moment, Bob's brother David came towards them with the brandy bottle.
"Have a glass, Ned, you need it," said David.
Ned, although not a teetotaller, was one of the men who did not require spirits, and therefore seldom took more than a sip, but he now seized the glass, and drained it eagerly.
"Another," he cried, holding it up.
David refilled it with a look of some surprise.
Ned drained it a second time.
"Now," said he, springing up, and tightening his belt, "I'm all right, come along, Bob!"
With that he rushed into the burning house, and in a few seconds was seen to take the branch from a fireman on one of the upper floors, and drag it out on a charred beam that overhung the fire. The spot on which they stood was brilliantly illuminated, and it was seen that the fireman remonstrated with Ned, but the latter thrust him away, and stepped out on the beam. He stood there black as ebony, with a glowing background of red walls and fire, and the crowd cheered him for his unwonted courage; but the cheer was changed abruptly into a cry of alarm as the beam gave way, and Ned fell head foremost into the burning ruins.
The chief of the brigade—distinguishable everywhere by his tall figure—observed the accident, and sprang towards the place.
"If he's not killed by the fall, he's safe from the fire, for it is burnt out there," he remarked to David Clazie, who accompanied him. Before they reached the place, Joe Dashwood and two other men had rushed in. They found Ned lying on his back in a mixture of charcoal and water, almost buried in a mass of rubbish which the falling beam had dragged down along with it. In a few seconds this was removed, and Ned was carried out and laid on the pavement, with a coat under his head.
"There's no cut anywhere that I can see," said Joe Dashwood examining him.
"His fall must have been broke by goin' through the lath and plaster o' the ceilin' below," suggested Bob Clazie.
At that moment, there was a great crash, followed by a loud cry, and a cheer from the multitude, as the roof fell in, sending up a magnificent burst of sparks and flame, in the midst of which Ned Crashington was borne from the field of battle.
While this scene was going on, Mrs Crashington and her brother were still seated quietly enjoying their tea—at least, enjoying it as much as such characters can be said to enjoy anything.
When Ned had gone out, as before mentioned, Phil remarked:—
"I wouldn't rouse him like that, Mag, if I was you."
"But he's so aggravatin'," pleaded Mrs Crashington.
"He ain't half so aggravatin' as you are," replied Phil, gruffly. "I don't understand your temper at all. You take all the hard words I give you as meek as a lamb, but if he only offers to open his mouth you fly at him like a turkey-cock. However, it's no business o' mine, and now," he added, rising, "I must be off."
"So, you won't tell me before you go, what sort of employment you've got?"
"No," replied Phil, shortly.
"Why not, Phil?"
"Because I don't want you to know, and I don't want your husband to know."
"But I won't tell him, Phil."
"I'll take good care you can't tell him," returned Phil, as he fastened a worsted comforter round his hairy throat. "It's enough for you to know that I ain't starvin' and that the work pays, though it ain't likely to make my fortin'."
Saying this, Mr Sparks condescended to give his sister a brief nod and left the house.
He had not been gone much more than a couple of hours, when Mrs Crashington, having put little Fred to sleep, was roused from a reverie by the sound of several footsteps outside, followed by a loud ring at the bell; she opened the door quickly, and her husband was borne in and laid on his bed.
"Not dead?" exclaimed the woman in a voice of agony.
"No, missus, not dead," said David Clazie, "but hardly better, I fear."
When Maggie looked on the poor bruised form, with garments torn to shreds, and so covered with charcoal, water, lime, and blood, as to be almost an indistinguishable mass, she could not have persuaded herself that he was alive, had not a slight heaving of the broad chest told that life still remained.
"It's a 'orrible sight, that, missus," said David Clazie, with a look that seemed strangely stern.
"It is—oh it is—terrible!" said Mrs Crashington, scarce able to suppress a cry.
"Ah, you'd better take a good look at it," added Clazie, "for it's your own doing, missus."
Maggie looked at him in surprise, but he merely advised her to lend a hand to take the clothes off, as the doctor would be round in a minute; so she silently but actively busied herself in such duties as were necessary.
Meanwhile Phil Sparks went about the streets of London attending to the duties of his own particular business. To judge from appearances, it seemed to be rather an easy occupation, for it consisted mainly in walking at a leisurely pace through the streets and thoroughfares, with his hands in his pockets and a pipe in his mouth.
Meditation also appeared to be an important branch of this business, for Phil frequently paused in front of a large mansion, or a magnificent shop, and gazed at it so intently, that one might have almost fancied he was planning the best method of attempting a burglary, although nothing was farther from Phil's intentions. Still, his meditations were sometimes so prolonged, that more than one policeman advised him, quite in a friendly way, to "move on."
Apparently, however, Phil turned over no profit, on this business, and was about to return home supperless to bed, when he suddenly observed smoke issuing from an upper window. Rare and lucky chance! He was the first to observe it. He knew that the first who should convey the alarm of fire to a fire-station would receive a shilling for his exertions. He dashed off at once, had the firemen brought to the spot in a few minutes, so that the fire was easily and quickly overcome. Thus honest Phil Sparks earned his supper, and the right to go home and lay his head on his pillow, with the happy consciousness of having done a good action to his fellow-men, and performed a duty to the public and himself.
It is probable that there is not in all the wide world a man—no matter how depraved, or ill-favoured, or unattractive—who cannot find some sympathetic soul, some one who will be glad to see him and find more or less pleasure in his society. Coarse in body and mind though Philip Sparks was, there dwelt a young woman, in one of the poorest of the poor streets in the neighbourhood of Thames Street, who loved him, and would have laid down her life for him.
To do Martha Reading justice, she had fallen in love with Sparks before intemperance had rendered his countenance repulsive and his conduct brutal. When, perceiving the power he had over her, he was mean enough to borrow and squander the slender gains she made by the laborious work of dress-making—compared to which coal-heaving must be mere child's play—she experienced a change in her feelings towards him, which she could not easily understand or define. Her thoughts of him were mingled with intense regrets and anxieties, and she looked forward to his visits with alarm. Yet those thoughts were not the result of dying affection; she felt quite certain of that, having learned from experience that, "many waters cannot quench love."
One evening, about eight o'clock, Phil Sparks, having prosecuted his "business" up to that hour without success, tapped at the door of Martha's garret and entered without waiting for permission; indeed, his tapping at all was a rather unwonted piece of politeness.
"Come in, Phil," said Martha, rising and shaking hands, after which she resumed her work.
"You seem busy to-night," remarked Sparks, sitting down on a broken chair beside the fireless grate, and taking out his bosom companion, a short black pipe, which he began to fill.
"I am always busy," said Martha, with a sigh.
"An' it don't seem to agree with you, to judge from your looks," rejoined the man.
This was true. The poor girl's pretty face was thin and very pale and haggard.
"I was up all last night," she said, "and feel tired now, and there's not much chance of my getting to bed to-night either, because the lady for whom I am making this must have it by to-morrow afternoon at latest."
Here Mr Sparks muttered something very like a malediction on ladies in general, and on ladies who "must" have dresses in particular.
"Your fire's dead out, Martha," he added, poking among the ashes in search of a live ember.
"Yes, Phil, it's out. I can't afford fire of an evening; besides it ain't cold just now."
"You can afford matches, I suppose," growled Phil; "ah, here they are. Useful things matches, not only for lightin' a feller's pipe with, but also for—well; so she must have it by to-morrow afternoon, must she?"
"Yes, so my employer tells me."
"An' she'll not take no denial, won't she?"
"I believe not," replied Martha, with a faint smile, which, like a gleam of sunshine on a dark landscape, gave indication of the brightness that might have been if grey clouds of sorrow had not overspread her sky.
"What's the lady's name, Martha?"
"And w'ere abouts may she live?"
"In Conway Street, Knightsbridge."
"Number 6, I believe; but why are you so particular in your inquiries about her?" said Martha, looking up for a moment from her work, while the faint gleam of sunshine again flitted over her face.
"Why, you see, Martha," replied Phil, gazing through the smoke of his pipe with a sinister smile, "it makes a feller feel koorious to hear the partiklers about a lady wot must have things, an' won't take no denial! If I was you, now, I'd disappoint her, an' see how she'd take it."
He wound up his remark, which was made in a bantering tone, with another malediction, which was earnest enough—savagely so.
"Oh! Phil," cried the girl, in an earnest tone of entreaty; "don't, oh, don't swear so. It is awful to think that God hears you, is near you— at your very elbow—while you thus insult Him to his face."
The man made no reply, but smoked with increasing intensity, while he frowned at the empty fire-place.
"Well, Martha," he said, after a prolonged silence, "I've got work at last."
"Have you?" cried the girl, with a look of interest.
"Yes; it ain't much to boast of, to be sure, but it pays, and, as it ties me to nothin' an' nobody, it suits my taste well. I'm wot you may call a appendage o' the fire-brigade. I hangs about the streets till I sees a fire, w'en, off I goes full split to the nearest fire-station, calls out the engine, and gits the reward for bein' first to give the alarm."
"Indeed," said Martha, whose face, which had kindled up at first with pleasure, assumed a somewhat disappointed look; "I—I fear you won't make much by that, Phil?"
"You don't seem to make much by that," retorted Phil, pointing with the bowl of his pipe to the dress which lay in her lap and streamed in a profusion of rich folds down to the floor.
"Not much," assented Martha, with a sigh. "Well, then," continued Phil, re-lighting his pipe, and pausing occasionally in his remarks to admire the bowl, "that bein' so, you and I are much in the same fix, so if we unites our small incomes, of course that'll make 'em just double the size."
"Phil," said Martha, in a lower voice, as she let her hands and the work on which they were engaged fall on her lap, "I think, now, that it will never be."
"What'll never be?" demanded the man rudely, looking at the girl in surprise.
"What! are you going to jilt me?"
"Heaven forbid," said Martha, earnestly. "But you and I are not as we once were, Phil, we differ on many points. I feel sure that our union would make us more miserable than we are."
"Come, come," cried the man, half in jest and half in earnest. "This kind of thing will never do. You mustn't joke about that, old girl, else I'll have you up for breach of promise."
Mr Sparks rose as he spoke, knocked the ashes out of his pipe, put it in his waistcoat pocket, and prepared to go.
"Martha," he said, "I'm goin' off now to attend to my business, but I haven't made a rap yet to-day, and its hard working on a empty stomach, so I just looked in to light my pipe, and enquire if you hadn't got a shillin' about you, eh!"
The girl looked troubled.
"Oh, very well," cried Sparks, with an offended air, "if you don't want to accommodate me, never mind, I can get it elsewhere."
"Stop!" cried Martha, taking a leathern purse from her pocket.
"Well, it would have been rather hard," he said, returning and holding out his hand.
"There, take it," said Martha, "You shouldn't judge too quickly. You don't know why I looked put out. It is my—"
She stopped short, and then said hurriedly, "Don't drink it, Phil."
"No, I won't. I'm hungry. I'll eat it. Thankee."
With a coarse laugh he left the room, and poor Martha sat down again to her weary toil, which was not in any degree lightened by the fact that she had just given away her last shilling.
A moment after, the door opened suddenly and Mr Sparks looked in with a grin, which did not improve the expression of his countenance.
"I say, I wouldn't finish that dress to-night if I was you."
"Why not, Phil?" asked the girl in surprise.
"'Cause the lady won't want it to-morrow arternoon."
"How do you know that?"
"No matter. It's by means of a kind of second-sight I've got, that I find out a-many things. All I can say is that I've got a strong suspicion—a what d'ye call it—a presentiment that Mrs Middleton, of Number 6, Conway Street, Knightsbridge, won't want her dress to-morrow, so I advise you to go to bed to-night."
Without waiting for a reply Mr Sparks shut the door and descended to the street. Purchasing and lighting a cheroot at the nearest tobacco shop with part of Martha's last shilling, he thrust his hands into his pockets, and sauntering along various small streets and squares, gave his undivided attention to business.
For a man whose wants were rather extensive and urgent, the "business" did not seem a very promising one. He glanced up at the houses as he sauntered along, appearing almost to expect that some of them would undergo spontaneous combustion for his special accommodation. Occasionally he paused and gazed at a particular house with rapt intensity, as if he hoped the light which flashed from his own eyes would set it on fire; but the houses being all regular bricks refused to flare up at such a weak insult.
Finding his way to Trafalgar Square, Mr Sparks threw away the end of his cheroot, and, mending his pace, walked smartly along Piccadilly until he gained the neighbourhood of Knightsbridge. Here he purchased another cheroot, and while lighting it took occasion to ask if there was a street thereabouts named Conway Street.
"Yes, sir, there is," said a small and exceedingly pert crossing-sweeper, who chanced to be standing near the open door of the shop, and overheard the question. "I'll show you the way for a copper, sir, but silver preferred, if you're so disposed."
"Whereabouts is it?" asked Mr Sparks of the shopman, regardless of the boy.
"Round the corner to your right, and after that second turning to your left."
"Oh, that's all wrong," cried the boy. "W'y, 'ow should 'ee know hanythink about streets? Never goes nowheres, does nothink but sell snuff an' pigtail, mornin', noon, and night. 'Ee should have said, right round the corner to your right, and 'ee should have added 'sir,' for that's right w'en a gen'l'm'n's spoke to, arter w'ich, w'en you've left this 'ere street, take second turnin' to your left, if you're left-'anded, an' then you come hall right. That's 'ow 'ee ought to have said it, sir."
In the midst of this flow of information, Mr Sparks emerged into the street.
"I'll show you the way for love, sir, if you ain't got no money," said the boy in a tone of mock sincerity, stepping up and touching his cap.
"Let 'im alone, Bloater," cried another and smaller boy, "don't you see ee's one of the swell mob, an' don't want to 'ave too much attention drawed to him?"
"No 'ee ain't, Little Jim, ee's only a gen'l'm'n in disguise," replied the Bloater, sidling up to Mr Sparks, and urgently repeating, "show you the way for a copper, sir, only a copper."
Mr Sparks, being, as we have said, an irascible man, and particularly out of humour that evening, did not vouchsafe a reply, but, turning suddenly round, gave the Bloater a savage kick that turned him head over heels into the road.
The Bloater, whose proper name was Robert Herring, from which were derived the aliases, Raw Herring and the Bloater, immediately recovered himself and rushed at Mr Sparks with his broom. He was a strong, resolute, passionate boy, yet withal good-humoured and placable. In the first burst of indignation he certainly meant to commit a violent assault, but he suddenly changed his mind. Perhaps the look and attitude of his antagonist had something to do with the change; perhaps the squeaky voice of Little Jim, shouting "hooray, Bloater, go in an' win," may have aroused his sense of the ludicrous, which was very strong, and helped to check him. At all events, instead of bringing his broom down on the head of Mr Sparks, Bloater performed an impromptu war-dance round him and flourished his weapon with a rapidity that was only surpassed by the rapid flow of his language.
"Now then, Gunpowder, come on; wot do you mean by it—eh? You low-minded son of a pepper-castor! Who let you out o' the cruet-stand? Wot d'ee mean by raisin' yer dirty foot ag'in a honest man, w'ch you ain't, an' never was, an' never will be, an' never could be, seein' that both your respected parients was 'anged afore you was born. Come on, I say. You ain't a coward, air you? If so, I'll 'and you over to Little Jim 'ere, an' stand by to see fair play!"
During this outburst, Mr Sparks had quietly faced the excited boy, watching his opportunity to make a dash at him, but the appearance of a policeman put a sudden termination to the riot by inducing the Bloater and Little Jim to shoulder their brooms and fly. Mr Sparks, smiling grimly, (he never smiled otherwise), thrust his hands into his pockets, resumed his cheroot, and held on the even tenor of his way.
But he had not yet done with the Bloater. That volatile and revengeful youth, having run on in advance, ensconced himself behind a projection at the corner of the street close to which Sparks had to pass, and from that point of vantage suddenly shot into his ear a yell so excruciating that it caused the man to start and stagger off the pavement; before he could recover himself, his tormentor had doubled round the corner and vanished.
Growling savagely, he continued his walk. One of the turns to the left, which he had to make, led him through a dark and narrow street. Here, keeping carefully in the middle of the road for security, he looked sharply on either side, having his hands out of his pockets now, and clenched, for he fully expected another yell. He was wrong, however, in his expectations. The Bloater happened to know of a long ladder, whose nightly place of repose was on the ground in a certain dark passage, with its end pointing across that street. Taking up a position beside this ladder, with Little Jim—who followed him, almost bursting with delight—he bided his time and kept as quiet as a mouse. Just in the nick of time the ladder was run out, and Mr Sparks tripping over it, fell violently to the ground. He sprang up and gave chase, of course, but he might as well have followed a will-o'-the-wisp. The young scamps, doubling like hares, took refuge in a dark recess under a stair with which they were well acquainted, and from that position they watched their enemy. They heard him go growling past; knew, a moment or two later, from the disappointed tone of the growl, that he had found the opening at the other end of the passage; heard him return, growling, and saw him for a moment in the dim light of the entrance as he left the place. Then, swiftly issuing from their retreat, they followed.
"I say, Bloater," whispered Little Jim, "ee's got such an ugly mug that I do b'lieve ee's up to some game or other."
"P'raps 'ee is," returned the Bloater, meditatively; "we'll let 'im alone an' foller 'im up."
The prolonged season of peace that followed, induced Mr Sparks to believe that his tormentors had left him, he therefore dismissed them from his mind, and gave himself entirely to business. Arrived at Conway street, he found that it was one of those semi-genteel streets in the immediate neighbourhood of Kensington Gardens, wherein dwell thriving tradespeople who know themselves to be rising in the world, and unfortunate members of the "upper ten," who know that they have come down in the world, but have not ceased the struggle to keep up appearances. It was a quiet, unfrequented street, in which the hum of the surrounding city sounded like the roar of a distant cataract. Here Mr Sparks checked his pace—stopped—and looked about him with evident caution.
"Ho, ho!" whispered Little Jim.
"We've tracked 'im down," replied the Bloater with a chuckle.
Mr Sparks soon found Number 6. On the door a brass plate revealed "Mrs Middleton."
"Ha! she must have it, must she, an' won't take no denial," muttered the man between his teeth.
Mr Sparks observed that one of the lower windows was open, which was not to be wondered at, for the weather was rather warm at the time. He also observed that the curtains of the window were made of white flowered muslin, and that they swayed gently in the wind, not far from a couple of candles which stood on a small table. There was no one in the room at the time.
"Strange," muttered Mr Sparks, with a grim smile, "that people will leave lights so near muslin curtains!"
Most ordinary people would have thought the candles in question at a sufficiently safe distance from the curtains, but Mr Sparks apparently thought otherwise. He entertained peculiar views about the danger of fire.
From the position which the two boys occupied they could not see the man while he was thus engaged in examining and commenting on Number 6, Conway Street, but they saw him quite well when he crossed the street, (which had only one side to it, a wall occupying the other), and they saw him still better in the course of a few seconds when a bright light suddenly streamed towards him, and illumined his villainous countenance, and they heard as well as saw him, the next instant, when he shouted "fire—fire!" and rushed frantically away.
"Hallo!" exclaimed the Bloater, and dashed off at full speed. Little Jim echoed the sentiment and followed.
Robert, alias Raw Herring, was a sharp-witted lad. He understood the case, (partly at least), in a moment, and proceeded to appropriate action. Being intimately acquainted with that part of London, he took a short cut, overshot Mr Sparks, and was first to give the alarm at the fire-station. When, therefore, Mr Sparks ran in, panting and shouting "fire!" great was his surprise to find the men already roused, and the horses being attached to the engine.
"Where away?" inquired one of the firemen, supposing that Sparks, perhaps, brought information of another fire.
"Number 6, Conway Street," he gasped.
"All right, we've got the noos already. The boys brought it."
The Bloater, with a mouth extending from ear to ear and all his teeth displayed, uttered the single word "sold!" as Mr Sparks turned his eyes on him. One glance was enough. The man became very pale, and suddenly left the station amid a shout of laughter from the firemen, as they leaped on the engine and drove away, followed by the two boys whose spirits were already excited to the highest pitch of ecstasy by a fire.
It was early morning before the fire was subdued, and Number 6 left the blackened skeleton of a house. Long before that, the Bloater and Little Jim had sought repose in the cart-shed of a neighbouring stable. Long before that Mr Philip Sparks had retired to rest, growling anathemas on the heads of boys in general, and crossing-sweepers in particular; and not very long before that poor Martha Reading had put in the last stitch of her work, and fallen into a profound sleep in her chair.
Mr Sparks turned out to be a true prophet. Mrs Middleton did not insist on having her dress home that afternoon, and when Martha, true to her promise, conveyed it to Number 6, Conway Street, she found no one there to receive it except a few drenched men of the Red Brigade, and the police.
Mr Philip Sparks, though not naturally fond of society, was, nevertheless, obliged to mingle occasionally with that unpleasant body, for the purpose of recruiting his finances. He would rather have remained at home and enjoyed his pipe and beer in solitude, but that was not possible in the circumstances. Owing, no doubt, to the selfishness of the age in which he lived, people would not go and pour money into his pockets, entreat him to accept of the same, and then retire without giving him any farther trouble. On the contrary, even when he went out and took a great deal of trouble to obtain money—much more trouble than he would have had to take, had he been an honest working man—people refused to give it to him, but freely gave him a good deal of gratuitous advice instead, and sometimes threatened the donation of other favours which, in many instances, are said to be more numerous than ha'pence.
Things in general being in this untoward condition, Mr Sparks went out one morning and entered into society. Society did not regard him with a favourable eye, but Sparks was not thin-skinned; he persevered, being determined, come what might, to seek his fortune. Poor fellow, like many a man in this world who deems himself a most unlucky fellow, he had yet to learn the lesson that fortunes must be wrought for, not sought for, if they are to be found.
Finding society gruffer than usual that morning, and not happening to meet with his or anybody else's fortune in any of the streets, through which he passed, he resolved to visit Martha Reading's abode; did so, and found her "not at home." With despairing disgust he then went to visit his sister.
Mrs Crashington was obviously at home, for she opened the door to him, and held up her finger.
"Hallo, Mag!" exclaimed Sparks, a little surprised.
"Hush!" said Mrs Crashington, admitting him, "speak low."
Thus admonished, Mr Sparks asked in a hoarse whisper, "what was up?"
"Ned's had a bad fall, Phil," whispered Mrs Crashington, in a tremulous tone that was so unlike her usual voice as to make Sparks look at her in surprise not unmingled with anxiety.
"You don't mean to say, Mag, that he's a-goin' to—to—knock under?"
"I hope not, Phil, but—the doctor—"
Here the poor woman broke down altogether, and sobbed quietly as she led her brother through the house, and into the little bed-room where the injured fireman lay.
Ned's bruised, burned, and lacerated frame was concealed under a patchwork coverlet. Only his face was visible, but that, although the least injured part of his body, was so deadly pale that even Mr Sparks was solemnised by the supposition that he was in the presence of Death.
"Oh, Ned, Ned!" exclaimed Maggie, unable to repress her grief, "can you—can you ever forgive me?"
She laid her hand on the fireman's broad breast, and passionately kissed his brow.
He opened his eyes, and whispered with difficulty, "Forgive you, Maggie? God for ever bless you." He could say no more, owing to excessive weakness.
"Come, missus, you mustn't disturb him," said David Clazie, emerging from behind the curtains at the foot of the bed. "The doctor's orders was strict—to keep 'im quiet. You'd better go into the other room, an' your brother likewise. Pr'aps you might send 'im to tell Joe Dashwood to be ready."
David Clazie, who was more a man of action than of words, quietly, but firmly, ejected the brother and sister from the little room while he was speaking, and, having shut the door, sat down at his post again as a guard over his sick comrade.
"Seems to me it's all up with 'im," observed Sparks, as he stood gazing uneasily into the fire.
As Mrs Crashington replied only by sobbing, he continued, after a few minutes—
"Does the doctor say it's all up, Mag?"
"No, oh no," replied the poor woman, "he don't quite say so; but I can't git no comfort from that. Ned has lost such a quantity of blood, it seems impossible for him to git round. They're goin' to try a operation on 'im to-day, but I can't understand it, an' don't believe in it. They talk of puttin' noo blood into 'im! An' that reminds me that the doctor is to be here at twelve. Do run round, Phil, to the Dashwoods, and tell Joe to be here in good time."
"What's Joe wanted for?"
"Never mind, but go and tell him that. I can't talk just now," she said, pushing her brother out of the room.
Tapping at Joe Dashwood's door, Phil received from a strong, deep voice permission to "come in." He entered, and found a very different state of things from that which he had just left. A bright room, and bright, happy faces. The windows were bright, which made the light appear brighter than usual; the grate was bright; the furniture was bright; the face of the clock, whose interior seemed about to explode on every occasion of striking the hour, was bright—almost to smiling; and the pot-lids, dish-covers, etcetera, were bright—so bright as to be absolutely brilliant. Joe Dashwood and his little wife were conversing near the window, but, although their faces were unquestionably bright by reason of contentment, coupled with a free use of soap and the jack-towel, there was, nevertheless, a shade of sadness in their looks and tones. Nothing of the sort, however, appeared on the countenances of the Rosebud and young Fred Crashington. These gushing little offshoots of the Red Brigade were too young to realise the danger of Ned's condition, but they were quite old enough to create an imaginary fire in the cupboard, which they were wildly endeavouring to extinguish with a poker for a "branch" and a bucket for a fire-engine, when Mr Sparks entered.
"Oh! kik, Feddy, kik; put it out kik, or it'll bu'n down all 'e house," cried little May, eagerly, as she tossed back a cataract of golden curls from her flushed countenance, and worked away at the handle of the bucket with all her might.
"All right!" shouted Fred, who had been sent to play with the Rosebud that he might be out of the way. "Down with Number 1; that's your sort; keep 'er goin'; hooray!"
He brought the poker down with an awful whack on the cupboard at this point, causing the crockery to rattle again.
"Hallo! youngster, mind what you're about," cried Joe, "else there will be more damage caused by the engine than the fire—not an uncommon thing, either, in our practice!"
It was at this point that he replied to Mr Sparks's knock.
"Come in, Mr Sparks, you've heard of your poor brother-in-law's accident, I suppose?"
"Yes, I've just comed from his house with a message. You're wanted to be there in good time."
"All right, I'll be up to time," said Joe, putting on his coat and cap, and smiling to his wife, as he added, "It's a queer sort o' thing to do. We'll be blood-relations, Ned and I, after this. Look after these youngsters, Molly, else they'll knock your crockery to bits. Good-day. Mr Sparks."
"Good-day," replied Sparks, as Joe went out. Then, turning to Mrs Dashwood, "What sort of operation is it they're goin' to perform on Ned?"
"Did you not hear? It's a very curious one. Ned has lost so much blood from a deep cut in his leg that the doctors say he can't recover, no matter how strong his constitution is, unless he gits some blood put into him, so they're goin' to put some o' my Joe's blood into him."
"What!" exclaimed Sparks, "take blood out o' your husband and put it hot and livin' into Ned? No, no, I've got a pretty big swallow, but I can't git that down."
"If you can't swallow it you'll have to bolt it, then, for it's a fact," returned Mary, with a laugh.
"But how do they mean to go about it?" asked Sparks, with an unbelieving expression of countenance.
"Well, I ain't quite sure about that," replied Mary; "they say that the doctor cuts a hole in a vein of the arms of both men, and puts a pipe, or something of that sort, into the two veins, and so lets the blood run from the one man into the other. I don't half believe it myself, to say truth; but it's quite true that they're goin' to try it on Ned. The doctor says it has bin tried before with great success, and that the main thing is to get a stout, healthy young man to take the blood from. They thought, at first, to get a healthy youth from the country, but my Joe begged so hard to let him supply his friend and comrade, with what they wanted, that they agreed, and now he's off to have it done. Ain't it funny?"
"Funny!" exclaimed Sparks, "well, it is, just. But I'm not such a fool as to believe that they can pump the blood out o' one man into another in that fashion."
"I hope they can for poor Ned's sake," said Mary, in a sad tone, as she stirred a large pot which stood simmering on the fire.
There was a short silence after that, for Mary was thinking of the strange operation that was probably going on at that moment, and Phil Sparks was debating with himself as to the propriety of attempting to induce Mrs Dashwood to lend him a shilling or two. He could not easily make up his mind, however; not because he was ashamed to ask it, but, because he was afraid of receiving a rebuke from the pretty little woman. He knew that she and Martha Reading were intimate friends, and he had a suspicion that Mrs Dashwood was aware of Martha's fondness for him, and that she bore him no good will in consequence. Besides, although one of the sweetest tempered women in London, Mary was one whose indignation could be roused, and whose clear blue eye had something overawing in it, especially to scoundrels. He therefore sat there more than an hour, conversing on various subjects, while Mary busied herself in household matters; which she occasionally left off in order to assist in extinguishing the fire in the cupboard!
At last Sparks resolved to make the attempt, and thought he would begin by trying to propitiate Mary by commenting on her child.
"That's a pretty little girl of yours, missis," he remarked in a casual way.
"That she is," cried Mary, catching up the child and kissing her rosy face all over; "and she's better than pretty—she's good, good as gold."
"Oh 'top, ma. Let May down, kik! Fire not out yit!"
"That's right, never give in, May. Wot a jolly fireman you'd make!" cried Fred, still directing all his energies to the cupboard.
"That's a queer sort o' helmet the boy's got on," said Sparks, alluding to a huge leathern headpiece, of a curious old-fashioned form, which was rolling about on the boy's head, being much too large for him.