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Fighting the Flames

Fighting the Flames

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


One's own fireside is, to all well-regulated minds, a pleasant subject of contemplation when one is absent, and a source of deep gratification when present...
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  One's own fireside is, to all well-regulated minds, a pleasant subjectof contemplation when one is absent, and a source of deep gratificationwhen present.

  Especially may this be said to be the case in a cold, raw night inNovember, when mankind has a tendency to become chronically cross out ofdoors, and nature, generally, looks lugubrious; for, just in proportionas the exterior world grows miserably chill, the world "at home," withits blazing gas, its drawn curtains, its crackling fires, and itsbeaming smiles, becomes doubly comfortable and cosy.

  Even James Auberly, pompous, stern, and ungenial though he was, appearedto entertain some such thoughts, as he sat by his own fireside, one suchnight, in his elegant mansion in Beverly Square, Euston Road, London;and smiled grimly over the top of the _Times_ newspaper at the fire.

  Mr Auberly always smiled--when he condescended to smile--grimly. Heseldom laughed; when he did so he did it grimly too. In fact, he was agrim man altogether; a gaunt, cadaverous, tall, careworn, middle-agedman--also a great one. There could be no question as to that; for,besides being possessed of wealth, which, in the opinion of some minds,constitutes greatness, he was chairman of a railway company, and mighthave changed situations with the charwoman who attended the head officeof the same without much difference being felt. He was also a directorof several other companies, which, fortunately for them, did not appearto require much direction in the conduct of their affairs.

  Mr Auberly was also leader of the fashion, in his own circle, and anoracle among his own parasites; but, strange to say, he was nobodywhatever in any other sphere. Cabmen, it is true, appeared to have animmense respect for him on first acquaintance, for his gold rings andchains bespoke wealth, and he was a man of commanding presence, buttheir respect never outlived a first engagement. Cabmen seldom touchedtheir hats to Mr Auberly on receiving their fare; they often partedfrom him with a smile as grim as his own, and once a peculiarly daringmember of the fraternity was heard blandly to request him to step againinto the cab, and he would drive him the "nine hundred and ninety-ninthpart of an inch that was still doo on the odd sixpence." That generousman even went further, and, when his fare walked away without making areply, he shouted after him that "if he'd only do 'im the honour to comeback, he'd throw in a inch an' a half extra for nothink." But MrAuberly was inexorable.

  "Louisa, dear," said Mr Auberly, recovering from the grim smile whichhad indicated his appreciation of his own fireside, "pour me out anothercup of coffee, and then you had better run away to bed. It is gettinglate."

  "Yes, papa," replied a little dark-eyed, dark-haired girl, laying downher book and jumping up to obey the command.

  It may be added that she was also dark-dressed, for Mr Auberly hadbecome a widower and his child motherless only six months before.

  While Louisa was pouring out the coffee, her father rose and turned hisback to the fire.

  It was really interesting, almost awe-inspiring, to behold Mr Auberlyrise; he was so very tall, and so exceedingly straight. So remarkablyperpendicular was he, so rigidly upright, that a hearty but somewhatrude sea-captain, with whom he once had business transactions, said tohis mate on one occasion that he believed Mr Auberly must have beenborn with a handspike lashed to his backbone. Yes, he was wonderfullyupright, and it would have been downright madness to have doubted theuprightness of the spirit which dwelt in such a body; so nobody diddoubt it, of course, except a few jaundiced and sceptical folk, whonever could be got to believe anything.

  "Good-night, my love," said Mr Auberly, as the child placed the coffeebeside his chair, and then advanced, somewhat timidly, and held up hercheek to be kissed.

  The upright man stooped, and there was a shade less of grimness in hissmile as his lips touched his daughter's pale cheek.

  Louisa, or, to use the name by which she was better known in the house,Loo, had clasped her hands tightly together while she was in the act ofreceiving this tribute of parental affection, as if she were strugglingto crush down some feeling, but the feeling, whatever it was, would notbe crushed down; it rose up and asserted itself by causing Loo to burstinto a passionate flood of tears, throw her arms round her father'sneck, and hold him tight there while she kissed his cheek all over.

  "Tut, tut, child!" exclaimed Mr Auberly, endeavouring to re-arrange thestiff collar and cravat, which had been sadly disordered; "you mustreally try to get over these--there, don't be cast down," he added, in akinder tone, patting Loo's head. "Good-night, dear; run away to bednow, and be a good girl."

  Loo smiled faintly through her tears as she looked up at her father, whohad again become upright, said "Good-night," and ran from the room witha degree of energy that might have been the result of exuberant spirits,though possibly it was caused by some other feeling.

  Mr Auberly sat for some time, dividing his attentions pretty equallybetween the paper, the fire, and the coffee, until he recollected havingreceived a letter that day which he had forgotten to answer, whereuponhe rose and sat down before his writing-table to reply.

  The letter was from a poor widow, a sister-in-law of his own, who haddisgraced herself for ever--at least in Mr Auberly's eyes--by havingmarried a waterman. Mr Auberly shut his eyes obstinately to the factthat the said waterman had, by the sheer force of intelligence, goodconduct, courage, and perseverance, raised himself to the command of anEast Indiaman. It is astonishing how firmly some people can shut theireyes--sew them up, as it were, and plaster them over--to some things,and how easily they can open them to others! Mr Auberly's eyes wereopen only to the fact that his sister-in-law had married a waterman, andthat that was an unpardonable sin, for which she was for ever banishedfrom the sunshine of his presence.

  The widow's letter set forth that since her husband's death she had beenin somewhat poor circumstances--though not in absolute poverty--forwhich she expressed herself thankful; that she did not write to ask formoney, but that she had a young son--a boy of about twelve--whom she wasvery anxious to get into a mercantile house of some sort, and, knowinghis great influence, etcetera, etcetera, she hoped that, forgetting, ifnot forgiving, the past, now that her husband was dead, he would kindlydo what he could, etcetera, etcetera.

  To this Mr Auberly replied that it was impossible to forgive the past,but he would do his best to forget it, and also to procure a situationfor her son

though _certainly_ not in his own office

, on oneconsideration, namely, that she, the widow, should forget the pastalso--including his own, Mr Auberly's, existence

as she had oncebefore promised to do

, and that she should never inform her son, or anyother member of her family--if there happened to be any others membersof it--of the relationship existing between them, nor apply to him byvisit or by letter for any further favours. In the event of heragreeing to this arrangement, she might send her son to his residence inBeverly Square, on Thursday next, between eleven and twelve.

  Just as he concluded this letter a footman entered softly and laid athree-cornered note on the table.

  "Stay, Hopkins, I want you," said Mr Auberly, as he opened the note andran his eye over it.

  Hopkins, who was clad in blue velvet and white stockings, stood like amute beside his master's chair. He was very tall and very thin, andvery red in the nose.

  "Is the young woman waiting, Hopkins?"

  "Yes, sir; she's in the lobby."

  "Send her up."

  In a few seconds Hopkins reopened the door, and looked down withmajestic condescension on a smart young girl whom he ushered into theroom.

  "That will do; you may go--stay, post this letter. Come here, youngwoman."

  The young woman, who was evidently a respectable servant-girl,approached with some timidity.

  "Your name is Matty Merryon, I understand

yes, sir

, at least so yourlate mistress, Miss Tippet, informs me. Pray, what does Matty standfor?"

  "Martha, sir."

  "Well, Martha, Miss Tippet gives you a very good character--which iswell, because I intend you to be servant to my child--her maid; but MissTippet qualifies her remarks by saying that you are a little careless in_some_ things. What things are you careless in?"

  "La! sir--"

  "You must not say `La!' my girl," interrupted Mr Auberly with a frown,"nor use exclamations of any kind in my presence; what are the `somethings' referred to?"

  "Sure I don't know, sir," said the abashed Matty. "I s'pose there'sa-many things I ain't very good at; but, please, sir, I don't mean to donothin' wrong, sir, I don't indeed; an' I'll try to serve you well, sir,if it wor only to plaaze my missis, as I'm leavin' against my will, forI love my--"

  "There, that will do," said Mr Auberly somewhat sternly, as the girlappeared to be getting excited.

  "Ring that bell; now, go downstairs and Hopkins will introduce you to myhousekeeper, who will explain your duties to you."

  Hopkins entered and solemnly marched Martha Merryon to the regionsbelow.

  Mr Auberly locked away his papers, pulled out his watch, wound it up,and then, lighting a bedroom candle, proceeded with much gravityupstairs.

  He was a very stately-looking man, and strikingly dignified as he walkedupstairs to his bedroom--slowly and deliberately, as though he weremarching at his own funeral to the tune of something even deader thanthe "Dead March in Saul."

  It is almost a violation of propriety to _think_ of Mr Auberly doingsuch a very undignified thing as "going to bed!" Yet truth requires usto tell that he did it; that he undressed himself as other mortals do;that he clothed himself in the wonted ghostly garment; and that, whenhis head was last seen--in the act of closing the curtains around him--there was a conical white cap on it, tied with a string below the chin,and ornamented on the top with a little tassel, which waggled as thoughit were bidding a triumphant and final adieu to human dignity!

  Half an hour later, Mrs Rose, the housekeeper, a matronly, good-lookingwoman, with very red cheeks, was busy in the study explaining to MattyMerryon her duties. She had already shown her all over the house, andwas now at the concluding lesson.

  "Look here now, Merryon," began the housekeeper.

  "Oh, please don't call me Merryon--I ain't used to it. Call me Matty,_do_ now!"

  "Very well, Matty," continued Mrs Rose, with a smile, "I've noobjection; you Irish are a strange race! Now, look here. This ismaster's study, and mind, he's very partikler, dreadful partikler."

  She paused and looked at her pupil, as if desirous of impressing thispoint deeply on her memory.

  "He don't like his papers or books touched; not even dusted! So you'llbe careful not to dust 'em, nor to touch 'em even so much as with yourlittle finger, for he likes to find 'em in the mornin' just as he left'em at night."

  "Yes, Mrs Rose," said Matty, who was evidently giving up her whole soulto the instruction that was being imparted.

  "Now," continued the housekeeper, "the arranging of this room will beyour last piece of work at night. You'll just come in, rake out thegrate, carry off the ashes, lay the noo fire, put the matches handy onthe chimney-piece, look round to see that all's right, and then turn offthe gas. The master is a early riser, and lights the fire his-self of amornin'."

  "Yes, 'm," said Matty, with a courtesy.

  "Now, go and do it," said Mrs Rose, "that I may see you understand it.Begin with the grate an' the ashes."

  Matty, who was in truth an experienced maid-of-all-work, began withalacrity to discharge the duties of her new station. She carried offthe ashes, and returned with the materials for next day's fire in ashovel. Here she gave a slight indication of her so-called carelessness

awkwardness would have been more appropriate

by letting two or threepieces of stick and a bit of coal fall on the carpet, in her passageacross the room.

  "Be careful, Matty," said Mrs Rose gently. "It's all owin' to haste.Take your time, an' you won't do such things."

  Matty apologised, picked up the materials, and laid the fire. Then shetook her apron and approached the writing-table, evidently with theintention of taking the dust off the corners, but not by any meansintending to touch the books or papers.

  "Stop!" cried Mrs Rose sternly.

  Matty stopped with a guilty look.

  "Not a touch," said Mrs Rose.

  "Not even the edges, nor the legs?" inquired the pupil.

  "Neither edges nor legs," said the instructor.

  "Sure it could do no harm."

  "Matty," said Mrs Rose solemnly, "the great thing that yourcountrywomen have to learn is _obedience_."

  "Thank 'ee, 'm," said Matty, who, being overawed by the housekeeper'ssolemnity, felt confused, and was uncertain whether the reference to hercountrywomen was complimentary or the reverse.

  "Now," continued Mrs Rose, "the matches."

  Matty placed the box of matches on the chimney-piece.

  "Very well; now you've got to look round to see that all's right."

  Matty looked round on the dark portraits that covered the walls

supposed to be ancestors

, on the shelves of books, great and small,new and old

supposed to be read

; on the vases, statuettes, chairs,tables, desks, curtains, papers, etcetera, etcetera, and, being utterlyignorant of what constituted right and what wrong in reference to suchthings, finally turned her eyes on Mrs Rose with an innocent smile.

  "Don't you see that the shutters are neither shut nor barred, Matty?"

  She had _not_ seen this, but she at once went and closed and barredthem, in which operation she learned, first, that the bars refused toreceive their respective "catches," with unyielding obstinacy for sometime; and, second, that they suddenly gave in without rhyme or reasonand pinched her fingers severely.

  "Now then, what next?" inquired Mrs Rose.

  "Put out the gas," suggested Matty.

  "And leave yourself in the dark," said the housekeeper, in a tone ofplayful irony.

  "Ah! sure, didn't I forgit the candle!"

  In order to rectify this oversight, Matty laid the unlighted candlewhich she had brought with her to the room on the writing-table, andgoing to the chimney-piece, returned with the match-box.

  "Be careful now, Matty," said Mrs Rose earnestly. "There's nothinkI've such a fear of as fire. You can't be too careful."

  This remark made Matty, who was of an anxious temperament, extremelynervous. She struck the match hesitatingly, and lighted the candleshakily. Of course it would not light

candles never do on suchoccasions

, and a long red-hot end of burnt wood projected from thepoint of the match.

  "Don't let the burnt end drop into the wastepaper basket!" exclaimedMrs Rose, in an unfortunate moment.

  "Where?" exclaimed Matty with a start that sent the red-hot end into thecentre of a mass of papers.

  "There, just at your feet; don't be so nervous, girl!" cried Mrs Rose.

  Matty, in her anxiety not to drop the match, at once dropped it into thewaste-paper basket, which was instantly alight. A stamp of the footmight have extinguished it, but this did not occur to either of thedomestics. The housekeeper, who was a courageous woman, seized thebasket in both hands and rushed with it to the fireplace, therebyfanning the flame into a blaze and endangering her dress and curls. Shesucceeded, however, in cramming the basket and its contents into thegrate; then the two, with the aid of poker, tongs, and shovel, crushedand beat out the fire.

  "There! I said you'd do it," gasped Mrs Rose, as she flung herself,panting, into Mr Auberly's easy-chair; "this comes of bein' in ahurry."

  "I was always unfort'nit," sighed Matty, still holding the shovel andkeeping her eye on the grate, as if ready to make a furious attack onthe smallest spark that should venture to show itself.

  "Come, now, we'll go to bed," said Mrs Rose, rising, "but first lookwell round to see that all is safe."

  A thorough and most careful investigation was made of the basket, thegrate, and the carpet surrounding the fireplace, but nothing beyond thesmell of the burnt papers could be discovered, so the instructor andpupil put out the gas, shut the door, and retired to the servants'-hall,where Hopkins, the cook, the housemaid, and a small maid-of-all-workawaited their arrival--supper being already on the table.

  Here Mrs Rose entertained the company with a graphic--not to sayexaggerated--account of the "small fire" in the study, and wound up withan eloquent appeal to all to "beware of fire," and an assurance thatthere was nothing on the face of the whole earth that she had a greaterhorror of.

  Meanwhile the "little spark" among the papers--forgotten in theexcitement of the succeeding blaze of the waste-paper basket--continuedto do its slow but certain work. Having fallen on the cloth between twobundles, it smouldered until it reached a cotton pen-wiper, whichreceived it rather greedily in its embrace. This pen-wiper lay incontact with some old letters which were dry and tindery in theirnature, and, being piled closely together in a heap, afforded enlargedaccommodation, for the "spark," which in about half an hour became quiteworthy of being termed a "swell."

  After that things went on like--"like a house on fire"--if we mayventure to use that too often misapplied expression, in reference to theelegant mansion in Beverly Square on that raw November night.