Gertrude was amazed at the small change in the familiar streets as they neared their home. True, she saw more strange faces than she had been wont to do, and read new names and new signs upon the gaily-painted boards hanging over the shop doors. Again and again she missed from some accustomed doorway the familiar face of the former owner, and saw that a stranger had taken the old business. But then, again, others were there in their old places; friendly faces beamed upon her as she looked out of the window. It was known upon the bridge itself that she was to come back today; and though the appearance of this fine coach caused a little thrill of surprise, there was a fine buzz of welcome as Reuben put out his head and stopped the postillion at the familiar door; for so many fears had been entertained of Reuben's death, that there were those who could not believe they should see him again in the flesh until he stood before them.
"What means all this? Why stop ye here?" asked the Master Builder, with a little agitation in his voice. "You have a home of your own, you told me, Reuben, to which to take your wife. Why stop you at your father's house? Let the postillion drive to your own abode."
"This is our own abode, dear father," said Gertrude softly, alighting from the coach and taking him by the hand to lead him in.
Her other hand was held by her husband; and Lady Scrope was forgotten for the moment by all, as the three passed the familiar threshold amid a chorus of good wishes from friends and neighbours, to which Reuben responded by a variety of signs, Gertrude being too much moved to notice them.
"Dear father," she said, as they stood within the lower room, which was being now fitted as of old for a shop, "forgive us if we have kept our happy secret till now. We wanted to have the home ready ere we brought you to it. This is our home. A wonderful thing befell me. A dowry was bestowed upon me by a generous patroness, from whom I looked not to receive a penny; that dowry bought the house. Reuben's business will give us an ample livelihood. Thou wilt remain always with us in the dear old house which thou hast loved. Oh how happy we shall be—how wondrously happy!
"Father dear, it was Lady Scrope who gave me the wonderful gift that has brought us all this. We must try to thank her ere we think of ourselves more."
So speaking Gertrude turned, with her eyes full of happy tears, towards Lady Scrope, who stood only a few paces off watching everything with her accustomed intense scrutiny, and held out both her hands in a sweet and simple gesture expressive of so much feeling that the old dame felt an unwonted mist rising in her eyes.
"Tut, tut, tut, child! I want no thanks. What good did the gold do me, thinkest thou, shut away in yonder box? What think you I had preserved it there for? Marry that I might fling it away at dice or cards with those who came to visit me? It was my pleasure money, as I chose to call it. And then came the plague and smote hip and thigh amongst those who called me friend. And what good did the gold do me or any person else? If it pleases me to throw it away on a pair of fools, whose business is that but mine?
"There, there, there, that will do, all of you good people. I want to see the house. I want none of your fool's talk. Going to keep a shop here?—sensible man. I'll come and buy all my finery when you start business, and sit and gossip at the counter the while. So mind you have plenty of fine folks to gossip with me. If I were young again, I vow I'd keep a shop myself."
And she made Reuben show samples of his goods, which were piled up in readiness, albeit he was not quite ready to open shop; and very excellent of their kind they were, as Lady Scrope was not slow to remark.
"I'll send the whole city to you. I'll make you the fashion yet. If I were a younger woman, and had my own old train of gallants after me, I'd have made your fortune for you before the year was out. But I'll do something yet, you shall see. And mind that you never begin to lend money, young man, to any needy young fool who may ask it of you. Those greedy court gallants would eat up all the gold of the Indies, and be no whit the richer for it. No money lending, young man, for in that way lies ruin, as too many have found."
The Master Builder winced like one touched in a tender part, whilst Reuben answered boldly:
"I have no such intentions. I hate usury, nor care I to earn money for others to filch from me. I get my wealth by honest trade; and if any man comes to me for aid, all the help I can give him is to put him in the way of doing the like."
Lady Scrope nodded her head and laughed her shrill witch-like laugh.
"He! he! he! Offer honest work to a needy gallant! May I be there to hear when thou dost. Work, forsooth!—a turn at the galleys would do most of them a power of good. Well, well, well, young man, thou speakest sound sense. Thou shouldst prosper in thy business.
"Now, girl, show me the rest of the house, for I must needs be getting home ere long. I shall weary my old bones with all this gadding to and fro."
Gertrude was willing enough to obey. The house was hardly changed from the time she had left it, save that all which was faded and worn had been replaced and furbished anew, and the whole place made sweet and wholesome, and as clean and bright as hands could make it. Gertrude would have preferred a plainer and simpler abode, more like that of her neighbours; but she had not had the heart to undo all her mother's dainty handiwork, and Reuben had thought nothing too good for his bride.
Lady Scrope gibed and jeered a little, but not unkindly. She knew all the family history by this time, and how that Gertrude was not responsible for the luxuries with which her life would be surrounded.
"Go to, child, go to; I am no judge over thee. What matters it a few years earlier or later? It began in Shakespeare's time, as you may read if you will, and it grows worse every generation. Soon the shopmen and traders will be the fine gentlemen of the land, and we may hope for the pickings and leavings of their tables. What does it matter to me? I shall not be troubled by it. And if I be not troubled thereby, what matter if all the world goes mad?
"Now fare you well, young folks; and thou, good Master Builder, thank Heaven for a good and dutiful daughter, for they grow not on every hedge in these graceless days.
"See me to my coach, young man, if thou canst leave devouring thy wife with thine eyes for so much as a minute.
"Poor fools! poor fools! both of you.
"Give me a kiss, maiden—nay, mistress I must call thee now. Be a good child, and be not too meek. Remember the fate of the hapless Griselda."
Nodding her head and shaking her finger, Lady Scrope vanished down the stairs upon Reuben's arm; and Gertrude, moved beyond her powers of self restraint by all she had gone through, flung herself into her father's arms, and the two mingled together their tears of thankfulness and joy.
CHAPTER XVI. A FLAMING CITY.
Many happy months passed away, and the great city began to forget the terrible calamity through which it had passed. There was a little fear at first when the summer set in exceptionally hot and dry—very much as it had done the preceding year; but the plague seemed to have wreaked its full vengeance upon the inhabitants, and there was no fresh outbreak, although isolated cases were reported, as was usual, from time to time, and sometimes a slight passing scare would upset the minds of men in a certain locality, to be shortly laid at rest when no further ill followed.
The two houses on the bridge, standing sociably side by side, were pleasant and flourishing places of business. Benjamin was now apprenticed to his brother Reuben, his old master the carpenter having fallen a victim to the plague. Dorcas remained with Lady Scrope, who was now reckoned as a kind friend and patroness to the Harmers, father and son. Rebecca fulfilled her old functions of the useful daughter at home, though it was thought she would not long remain there, as she was being openly courted by a young mercer in Southwark, who had bought a business left without head through the ravages of the plague, and was rapidly working it up to something considerable and successful.
The Master Builder, too, was getting on, although still doing a very small trade compared to what he had done before. Many of his patrons were dead, others had been scared away altogether from London for the present, and with so many vacant houses to fill nobody cared to think of building. Still he found employment of a kind, and was never idle, although things were very different from what they had been, and he thought rather of paying his way in a quiet fashion than of building up a great fortune. He lived in the old house with his daughter and son-in-law, and was happier than in the old days, when his wife had always been trying to make him ape the ways of the gentry, and his son had been wearying his life out with ceaseless importunities for money, which would only be wasted in drunkenness and rioting.
Now the days passed happily and peacefully. Gertrude was a loving wife and a loving daughter. Her father's comfort and welfare were studied equally with that of her husband. She did her utmost not to permit him ever to feel lonely or neglected, and she considered his needs as his own fine-lady wife had never thought of doing.
He had also his friends next door to visit, where he was always welcome. There was now another door of communication opened between the two houses, and almost every evening the Master Builder would drop in for an hour to smoke a pipe with his friend and exchange the news of the day, leaving the young married couple to themselves, for a happy interchange of affection and confidences.
The Harmer household remained unchanged, save for the death of Dan and the marriage of Reuben; but the sailor had been so little at home, that there was no great blank left by his absence, and Reuben was too close at hand to be greatly missed. Janet had not returned to service. Her mother had been rather horrified at the manner in which the poor girl had been treated by her mistress when the plague had appeared in the house. She did not care to send her back to Lady Howe, and Janet had become so accomplished a nurse, and took such interest in the life, that she begged to be allowed to follow the calling of her aunt Dinah, and to spend her time amongst the sick, wherever she might be needed. So both she and Dinah Morse lived at the house on the bridge, but went about amongst the sick in the neighbourhood, generally directed by Dr. Hooker, but sometimes called specially to urgent cases by neighbours or friends. Sometimes they returned home at night to sleep, sometimes they remained for several days or weeks at a time with their patients, according to their degree and the urgency of the case. Janet found herself very well content in her new life, and her mother liked it for her, since it brought her so much more to her home.
It began to be noted that when Dinah Morse was at the house on the occasions of the visits of the Master Builder, he addressed a great part of his conversation to her, seemed never to weary hearing her talk, and would sit looking reflectively at her when other people were doing the talking. He had never forgotten how she had come to them in their hour of dire need, when poor Frederick had sickened of the fell disease which so soon carried him off. He always declared that her tenderness to his wife and daughter at that time had been beyond all price, and it seemed as though his sense of obligation and gratitude did not lessen with time.
Sometimes James Harmer would say smilingly to his wife:
"Methinks our good neighbour hath a great fancy for Dinah. I always do say that such a woman as she ought to be the wife of some good honest man. They might do worse, both of them, than think of marriage. What think you of Dinah? Tends her fancy that way at all?"
And at that question Rachel would shake her head wisely and respond:
"Dinah is not one to wear her heart upon her sleeve! A woman hides her secret in her heart till the right time comes for giving an answer. But we shall see! we shall see!"
In this manner the spring and summer passed happily and quickly away.
August had come and gone, and now the first days of September had arrived. The heat still continued very great, and a parching east wind had been blowing for many weeks, which had dried up the woodwork of the houses till it was like tinder. Sometimes the Master Builder, coming home from his work of repairing or altering some house either great or small, would say:
"I would we could get rain. This long drought is something serious. I never knew the houses so dry and parched as they are now. If a fire were to break out, it would be no small matter to extinguish it. The water supply is very low, and the whole city is like tinder."
It was Saturday night. The sun had gone down like a great ball of fire, and Gertrude had observed to her husband how it had dyed the river a peculiarly blood-red hue. One of those wandering fortune tellers, who had paraded the city so often during the early days of the plague (till the poor wretches were themselves carried off in great numbers by it), had passed down the street once or twice during the day, and had been always chanting a rude song like a dirge, in which many woes were said to be hanging over London town.
These prognostications had been frequent since the appearance in the sky of another comet, which had been seen on all clear nights of late. It had considerably alarmed the citizens, who remembered the comet of the previous year, and the terrible visitation which had followed. This one was not very like the former; it was far more bright, and burning, and red, and its motion appeared more rapid in the sky. The soothsayers and astrologers, of which there were still plenty left, all averred that it bespoke some fresh calamity hanging over the city, and for a while there was considerable alarm in many minds, and some families actually left London, fearful that the plague would again break out there; but by this time the panic had well nigh died down. The comet ceased to be seen in the sky, and even the mournful words of the fortune tellers did not attract the notice they had done at first. The summer was waning, and no sickness had appeared; and of any other kind of calamity the people did not appear to dream.
The Master Builder had gone in as usual to the next house to have a talk with his neighbour. But tonight he looked in vain for Dinah.
"She and Janet have both been summoned to a fine lady who is sick in a grand house nigh to St. Paul's. Dr. Hooker fetched them thither this morning. They will be well paid for their work, he says. The lady has sickened of a fever, and some of her household took fright lest it should be the plague, albeit the symptoms are quite different. So he must needs take both Dinah and Janet with him, that she might be rightly served and tended. Tomorrow Joseph shall go and ask news of her, and get speech with Janet if he can, and learn how it fares with her. I confess I am glad, when she goes to fine houses, that Dinah should be there also. Janet is a pretty creature, and those young gallants think of nothing but to amuse themselves by turning girls' heads, be they ever so humble.
"Ah me! ah me! there is a vast deal of wickedness in the world! I cannot wonder that men foretell some fresh calamity upon this city. I am sure some of the things we hear and see—well, well, well, we must not judge others. It is enough that judgment and vengeance are the Lord's."
Rachel stopped short because she saw the look of pain which always came into the Master Builder's face when he thought of his profligate young son, cut off in the prime of his youthful manhood, and that without any assurance on the part of those about him that he had repented of the error of his ways. The carelessness and wickedness of the young men of the city were always a sore subject, and he still winced when the pranks of the Scourers were commented upon by his neighbours.
"It is my Lady Desborough who has fallen ill," concluded Rachel, anxious to turn the subject. "Methinks you had some dealings with her lord not such very long time since. The name fell familiarly upon my ears."
"Yes, truly, I did much to garnish their house, and I built out a private parlour for my lady, all of looking glass and gilding. Not long since I purified the house for them with the costliest of spices. Lord Desborough thinks all the world of his beauteous lady. They are devoted to each other, which is a goodly thing to see in these days. He will be greatly alarmed if she be seriously indisposed. He is a right worthy gentleman; and with thy permission I will accompany Joseph to St. Paul's tomorrow and learn the latest tidings of her."
"With all my heart," answered the mother; and soon after that the Master Builder took his departure, and both houses settled to rest for the night.
It might have been two or three o'clock in the morning, none could say exactly how time went on that memorable day, when the Master Builder was awakened by sounds in the adjoining chamber, where Reuben and his wife slept; and before he was fully awake, he heard Gertrude's voice at his door crying out:
"O father, father! there is such a dreadful fire! Reuben is going out to see where it is. Methinks it must be very nigh at hand. Prithee go with him, and see that he comes to no hurt!"
The Master Builder was awake in an instant, and although it was an hour at which the room should be dark, he found it quite sufficiently light to dress without trouble, owing to the red glare of fire somewhere in the neighbourhood.
"Pray Heaven it be not very near us!" was the cry of his heart as he hurried into his clothes, remembering his own auguries of a short time back respecting the spread of fire, if once it got a hold upon a street or building.
He was dressed in a moment, and had joined Reuben as the latter was feeling his way to the fastenings of the door. Two of the shopmen, who slept below, were already aroused and wishful to join them; and as they emerged into the street, which was quite light with the palpitating glow of fire, the door of the Harmers' house opened to admit the exit of the master of the house and his son Joseph.
"Thou hast seen it also! I fear me it is very nigh at hand. I had a good look from my topmost window, and methought it must surely be in Long Lane or in Pudding Lane; certainly it is in one of the narrow thoroughfares turning off northward from Thames Street. It must have been burning for some while. It seems to have taken firm hold. Belike the poor creatures there are all too terrified to do aught to check the spread of the flames. We must see what can be done. It will not do to let the flames get a hold. This strong dry wind will spread them west and north with terrible speed, if something be not done to check them!"
James Harmer spoke with the air of a man who is used to offices of authority. He had exercised one so long during the crisis of the plague, that the habit of thinking for his fellow citizens still clung to him. It appeared to him to be his bounden duty to do what he could to save life and property; and all the time he spoke he was hastening along the bridge in the direction of the smoke clouds and flames.
The Master Builder hurried along at his side, and before they had reached the end of the bridge there were quite a dozen of the householders or their servants joining the procession to the scene of the conflagration. Until they reached the corner of Thames Street they saw nothing beyond the red column of flame and the showers of sparks mingling with clouds of smoke; but when once they reached the corner, a terrible sight was revealed to them, for the whole block of buildings between Pudding Lane and New Fish Street was a mass of flames, and the fire seemed to be like a living thing, driven onwards before some mighty compelling power.
"God preserve us all! it will be upon us in an hour if nothing be done to check it," cried Harmer in sudden dismay.
"What is being done? What are the people doing?" cried a score of voices.
But what indeed could the terrified people do, wakened out of their sleep in the dead of night to find their houses burning about their ears? They were running helter skelter this way and that, not knowing which way to turn, like so many frightened sheep. Not that they thought as yet that this fire was going to be so very different from other bad fires which some of them had seen; for their wooden and plaster houses burned down too readily at all times, and were built up easily enough afterwards. A little farther off the people were trying to get their goods out of the houses, that they might not lose all if the fire came their way. But those actually burned out seemed to do nothing but stand helplessly by looking on; and perhaps it was only the Master Builder himself who at this moment realized that there was a very serious peril threatening the whole quarter of the city where the fire had broken out, and had already taken such hold.
The wind being slightly north as well as east in its direction, it seemed reasonable to hope that the conflagration would not cross Thames Street in a southerly direction, in which case the bridge would be safe; and, indeed, as New Fish Street was a fairly wide thoroughfare, it was rather confidently hoped that this might prove a check to the fire. The Master Builder ran up the street crying out to the terrified inhabitants to get all the water they could and fling it upon the roofs and walls of their dwellings, to strive to keep the flames at bay; but there was scarcely one to listen or try to obey. The people were all hurrying out of their houses, bringing their families and their goods and chattels with them. The street was so blocked by hand carts and jostling crowds, that it was hopeless to attempt any plan of organization here.
Then all too soon a cry went up that the fire had leaped the street and had ignited a house on the west side. A groan and a scream of terror went up as it was seen that this was all too true, and already great waves of flame seemed to be rushing onwards as if driven from the mouth of some vast blasting furnace; and the Master Builder returned to his friends with a very grave face.
"Heaven send the whole city be not destroyed!" he exclaimed; "never have I seen fire like unto this fire!
"Reuben, lad, make thy way with all speed to the Lord Mayor, and tell him of the peril in which we stand. He is the man to find means to check this fearful conflagration. Would to Heaven it were good Sir John Lawrence who were Mayor, as he was in the days of the plague! He was a man of spirit, and courage, and resource. But I much fear me that poor Bludworth has little of any of these qualities. Nevertheless go to him, Reuben. Tell him what thou hast seen, and tell him that if he wishes not to see London burned about his ears it behoves him to do something!"
Reuben dashed off along Thames Street westward to do his errand, and then the Master Builder turned gravely to his friend and said:
"Harmer, I like not the aspect of things. I fear me that even we are likely to stand in dire peril ere long. Yet we shall have time to take steps for our salvation, seeing the wind is our friend so far, though Heaven alone knows when that may change, and drive the flames straight down upon us. Yet, methinks, we shall have time for what must be done. Wilt thou work hand in hand with me for the salvation of our goods and houses, even though it may mean present loss?"
"I will do whatever is right and prudent," answered Harmer, hurrying hack towards the bridge with his friend and with those who had followed them, and in a short while they were surrounded by a number of frightened neighbours, all asking what awful thing was happening, and what could be done to save themselves.
The Master Builder was naturally the man looked to, and he gave answer quietly and firmly. If the fire once leaped Thames Street, and attacked the south side, nothing short of a miracle could save the bridge houses, unless some drastic step were taken; and the only method which he could devise in the emergency, was that some of the houses at the northern end should be demolished by means of gunpowder, and the ruins soaked in water, so that the passage of the flames might be stayed there.
But at this suggestion the faces of those who lived in these same houses grew long and grave, as indeed the speaker had anticipated. The owners were not prepared for so great a sacrifice. They argued that with the wind where it was, the fire might in all probability not extend southward at all, in which case their loss would he useless. They talked and argued the matter out for about twenty anxious minutes, and in fine flatly refused to have their houses touched, preferring to take their chance of escaping the fire to this wholesale demolition.
This was no more than the Master Builder had foreseen, and without attempting further argument he turned to his neighbour and said:
"Then it must be your workshops and storerooms that must go. You can better spare them than the house itself; and on the opposite side there is the empty house where poor David Norris lived and died. There is none living there now to hinder us. We must take the law into our own hands and make the gap there. If the fire comes not this way, I will bear the blame with the Mayor, if we be called to account; but methinks a little promptitude now may save half the bridge, and perchance all the southern part of London likewise!"
"Do as you will, good friend, your knowledge is greater than mine," answered James Harmer with cheerful alacrity; "Heaven forbid that I should value my goods beyond the life and property and salvation of the many in this time of threatened peril."
"We shall save the goods first. It is only the sheds and workshops that must go," answered the Master Builder cheerily, and forthwith he and his men, who had come hurrying up, together with all the men and boys in the double Harmer household, commenced carrying within shop and houses all the valuables stored in the smaller buildings hard by. It was a work quickly accomplished, and whilst it was being carried out, the Master Builder himself was carefully making preparations for the demolition of the empty house opposite, which indeed was already in some danger of falling into decay, and was empty and desolate.
It had been the abode of the unfortunate man who brought his family back too soon to the city, and lost them all of the plague within a short time. He himself had lingered on for some months, and had then died of a broken heart. But nobody had cared to live in the house since. It was averred that it was haunted by the restless spirit of the poor man, and strange noises were said to issue from it at night. Others declared that the ghost of the wife was seen flitting past the windows, and that she always carried a sick moaning child in her arms. So ill a name had the house got by reason of these many stories that none would take it, and there was therefore none to interfere when, with a loud report and showers of dust and sparks, the whole place and the workshop at the side were blown up at the command of the Master Builder, and reduced to a pile of ruins.
In spite of all the excitement and fear caused by the spreading fire, the neighbours looked upon the Master Builder as an enthusiast and a madman, and upon James Harmer as a poor dupe, to allow such destruction of property. No sooner were both sets of buildings destroyed than men were set to work with buckets and chains to drench the dusty heaps of the ruins with water, nor would the Master Builder permit the workers to slacken their efforts until the whole mass of demolished ruin was reduced to the condition of a soppy pulp.
By this time the day had broken; but the sun was partially obscured by the thick pall of smoke which hung in the air, whilst the ceaseless roar of the flames was becoming terrible in its monotony. Backwards and forwards ran excited men and boys, always bringing fresh reports as to the alarming spread of the fire. Even upon the bridge the heat could plainly be felt. The workers who were called within doors to be refreshed by food and drink were almost too anxious to eat. Never had such a fire been seen before.
Whilst the Master Builder and his friend were snatching a hasty meal, Reuben came hurrying back with a smoke-blackened face. He too showed signs of grave anxiety.
"Well, lad, hast thou seen the Lord Mayor?" was the eager question.
"Ay, verily, I have seen him," answered Reuben, with a bent brow, and a look of severity on his young face, "but I might as well have spoken to Fido there for all the good I did."
"Why, how so?" asked his father quickly and sternly; "is the man lost to all sense of his duties? Where was he? what said he? Come sit thee down, lad, and eat thy fill, and tell us all the tale."
Reuben was hungry enough, and his wife hung over him supplying his needs; but he was thinking more of the perils of his fellow citizens, and of the supine conduct of the Mayor, than of anything else.
"I found the worshipful fellow in bed," he answered. "Other messengers had arrived with the news, but his servant had not ventured to disturb him. I, however, would not be denied. I went up to him in his bed chamber, and I told him what I had seen, and warned him that there was need for prompt action. But he only answered with an oath and a ribald jest, which I will not repeat in the hearing of my wife or mother; and he would have turned again to his slumbers, had I not well nigh forced him to get up, and had not some of the aldermen arrived at that minute to speak of the matter, and inquire into its magnitude. They be all of them disposed to say that it will burn itself out fast enough like other fires; but I trow some amongst them are aroused to a fear that it may spread far in this dry wind, and with the houses so parched and cracked with heat. Then I came away, having done mine errand, and went back to the fire. It had spread all too fast even in that short time, and the worst thing is that no means seem to be taken to stop it. The people run about like those distraught, crying that a second judgment has come, that it is God's doing, and that man cannot fight against it. They are all seeking to convey away their goods to some safe place; but the fire travels quicker than they, and they are forced to leave their chattels and flee for their lives. I trow such a sight has never been seen before."
"It must be like the burning of Rome in the days of the wicked emperor Nero," said Gertrude in a low, awed voice. "Pray Heaven they extinguish the flames soon! It would be fearful indeed were they to last till nightfall."
At this moment Rachel Harmer came hurrying into the room with a pale scared face.
"The child Dorcas!" she cried. "Why have we not thought of her? Is she safe? Where has the fire reached to? God forgive me! I must surely be off my head! Husband, go for the child; she must be scared to death, even if naught worse has befallen her!"
"I had not forgot the maid," answered the father; "but it is well she should be looked to now. The fire has not crossed Thames Street. Lady Scrope's house is safe yet a while; but unless things quickly improve, both she and the child should come hither.
"Make ready the best guest chamber in thy house, Gertrude, and thy husband and I will go and bring her hither.
"Come, lad, as thy mother saith, the child may be scared at the heat and the flames. And my lady has many valuables to be rescued, too. It would be shame that they should perish in the flames if these leap the street. We will take the boat and moor it at Cold Harbour, and slip up by the side street out of the way of the smoke and the heat. We can thus bring her and her goods with most safety here. Marry that is well bethought! We will lose not an hour. One cannot tell at what moment the fire may change its direction."
Reuben rose at once, and accompanied by two of the steadiest of the shopmen, they prepared to carry out their plan of seeking to rescue Lady Scrope and her valuables.
CHAPTER XVII. SCENES OF TERROR.
"Father! sweet father! thank Heaven thou art come! Methought we should be burned alive in this terrible house. Methought perchance all of you had been burned. O father! tell me, what is befalling? It is like the last judgment, when all the world shall be consumed with fervent heat!"
Dorcas, with a white face and panting breath, stood clinging to her father's arm, as though she would never let it go. He soothed her tenderly, striving to pacify her terrors, but it was plain that she had been through some hours of terrible fear.
"My little bird, didst thou think we should leave thee to perish here?" asked the father, half playfully, half reproachfully; "and if so affrighted, why didst thou not fly home to thy nest? That, at least, would have been easy."
"Ah, but I could not leave my lady when all besides had fled—even the two old creatures who were never afraid of remaining when the distemper was raging all around. She stands at the window watching the flames devouring all else opposite, and it is hot enough there well nigh to singe the hair on her head; but she laughs and chuckles the while, and says the most horrible things. I cannot bear to go anigh her; and yet I cannot leave her alone.
"O father, father! come and get her away. She seems like one made without the power of fear. The more that others are affrighted, the more she seems to rejoice!"
Dorcas and her father and brother were in the narrow entry upon which the back door of the house opened. This alley led right down to the river, where the boat was moored under the charge of the two shopmen. It would be easy to carry down any valuables and load it up, and then transport the intrepid old woman, when she had looked her fill, and when she saw her own safety threatened.
For it began to be evident that the flames would quickly overleap the gap presented by Thames Street. They were gathering so fearfully in power that great flakes of fire detached themselves from the burning buildings and leaped upon other places to right and left, as though endowed with the power of volition.
The fire was even spreading eastward in spite of the strong east wind—not, of course, with anything like the rapidity with which it made its way westward, but in a fashion which plainly showed how firm a hold it had upon the doomed houses.
There was no time to lose if Lady Scrope and her valuables were to be saved. The house seemed full of smoke as they entered it; and Dorcas led them up the stairs into the parlour, at the window of which her mistress was standing, leaning upon her stick, and uttering a succession of short, sharp exclamations, intermingled with the cackling laugh of old age.
"Ha! that is a good one! Some roof fell in then! See the sparks rushing up like waters from a fountain! I would not have missed that! Pity it is daylight; 'twould have been twice as fine at night! Good! good! good! yes run, my man, run, or the flames will catch you. Ha! they gave him a lick, and he has dropped his bundle and fled for his very life. Ha! ha! ha! it is as good as the best play I ever saw in my life! Here comes another. Oh, he has so laden himself that he can scarcely run. There! he is down; he struggles to rise, but his pack holds him to the ground. O my good fool! you will find that your goods cost you dear today. You should have read your Bible to better purpose. Ah! there is some good-natured fool helping him up and along. It is more than he deserves. I should have liked to see what he did when the next wave of fire ran up the street.
"Dorcas, child, where art thou? Thou art losing the finest sight of thy life! If thou hast courage to stay with me, why hast thou not courage to enjoy such a sight as thou wilt not see twice in a lifetime?"
"Madam! madam!" cried the girl running forward, "here are my father and brother, come to help to save your goods and escape by the back. They have brought the boat to Cold Harbour, where it is moored; and, if it please you, they will conduct you to it, and come back and fetch such goods as you would most wish saved."
But the old woman did not even turn her head. She was eagerly scanning the street without, along which sheets of flame seemed to be driven.
"Great powers, what a noise! Methinks some church tower has collapsed. St. Lawrence, Poultney, belike. St. Mary's, Bush Lane, will be the next. Would I were there to see. I will to the roof of the house to obtain a better view. Zounds, but this is worth a hundred plagues! I had never thought to live to see London burned about my ears. What a noise the fire makes! It is like the rushing of a mighty flood. Oh, a flood of fire is a fine thing!"
The weird old woman looked like a spirit of the devouring element, as she stood at her window talking aloud in her strange excitement and enjoyment of the awful destruction about her. The heat within the room was becoming intolerable, yet she did not appear to feel it. The house being well built, with thick walls and well-fitting windows, resisted the entrance of the great volumes of smoke that roiled along laden with sparks and burning fragments of wood; but these fiery heralds were becoming so menacing and continuous, that the Harmers saw plainly how little time was to be lost if they would save either the old woman or her valuables.
"Madam," said James Harmer approaching, and forcing his presence upon the notice of the mistress of the house, "there is little time to lose if you would save yourself or your goods. We have come to give such assistance as lies in our power. Will you give me your authority to bear away hence all such things as may be most readily transported and are of most value? When we have saved these, belike you will have looked your fill on the fire. And, at least, you can see it as well from any other place in the neighbourhood without this risk. May we commence our task of rescue?"
"Oh yes, my good fellow, take what you will. Dorcas will show you what is of greatest value. Lade yourselves with spoil, and make yourselves rich for life. I drove forth the hired varlets who would fain have robbed me ere they left; but take what you will, and my blessing with it. Your daughter deserves a dowry at my hands. Take all you can lay hands upon; I shall want it no more. Ha! I must to the roof! I must to the roof! Why, if it only lasts till nightfall, what a sight it will be! Right glad am I that I have lived to see this day."
Without particularly heeding the words of the strange old woman, father and son, directed by Dorcas, set about rapidly to collect and transport to the boat the large quantities of silver plate and other valuables which, during her long life, Lady Scrope had collected about her. The rich furniture had, perforce, to be left behind, save a small piece here and there of exceptional value; but there were jewels, and golden trinkets, and strangely-carved ivories set with gems, and all manner of costly trophies from the distant lands whither vessels now went and returned laden with all manner of wonders. The Harmers were amazed at the vast amount of treasure hoarded up in that small house, and wondered that Lady Scrope had not many times had her life attempted by the servants, who must have known something of the contents of cabinet and chest.
But her reputation as a witch had been a great safeguard, and her own intrepid spirit had done even more to hold robbers at bay. All who knew her were fully aware that she was quite capable of shooting down any person found in the act of robbing her, and that she always kept loaded pistols in her room in readiness. There was a story whispered about, of her having locked up in one of her rooms a servant whom she had caught pilfering, and it was said that she had starved him to death amid the plunder he had gathered, and had afterwards had his body flung without burial into the river. Whether there was more than rumour in such a gruesome tale none could now say, but it had long become an acknowledged axiom that Lady Scrope's goods had better be let alone.
Twice had the boat been laden and returned, for all concerned worked with a will, and now all had been removed from the house which it was possible to take on such short notice and in such a fashion. The fire was surging furiously across the road, and in more than one place it had leaped the street, and the other side, the south side, was now burning as fiercely as the northern. Dorcas had been dispatched to call down Lady Scrope, for her father reckoned that in ten minutes more the house would be actually engulfed in the oncoming mass of flames. And now the girl hurried up to them, her face blanched with terror.
"She will not come, father; she will not come. She laughs to scorn all that I say. She stands upon the parapet of the roof, tossing her arms, and crying aloud as she sees building after building catch fire, and the great billows of flame rolling along. Oh, it is terrible to see and to hear her! Methinks she has gone distraught. Prithee, go fetch her down by force, dear father, for I trow that naught else will suffice."
Father and son looked at each other in consternation. They had not seriously contemplated the possibility of finding the old woman obstinate to the last. But yet, now that Dorcas spoke, it seemed to them quite in keeping with what they had heard of her, that she should decline to leave even in the face of dire peril.
"Run to the boat, child!" cried the father. "Let us know that thou art safe on board, and leave thy mistress to us. If she come not peaceably, we must needs carry her down.
"Come, Reuben, we must not tarry within these walls more than five minutes longer. The fire is approaching on all sides. I fear me, both the Allhallowes will be victims next."
Springing up the staircase, now thick with smoke, father and son emerged at last upon a little leaden platform, and saw at a short distance from them the old woman whom they sought, tossing her arms wildly up and down, and bursting into awful laughter when anything more terrible than usual made itself apparent.
They could not get quite up to her without actually crawling along an unguarded ridge of masonry, as she must have done to attain her present position; but they approached as near as was possible, and called to her urgently:
"Madam, we have saved your goods as far as it was possible; now we come to save you. Lose not a moment in escaping from the house. In a few more minutes escape will be impossible."
She turned and faced them then, dropping her mocking and excited manner, and speaking quite calmly and quietly.
"Good fellow, who told you that I should leave my house? I have no intention whatever of doing any such thing. What should I do in a strange place with strange surroundings? Here I have lived, and here I will die. You are an honest man, and you have an honest wench for your daughter. Keep all you have saved, and give her a marriage portion when she is fool enough to marry. As for me, I shall want it no more."
"But, madam, it is idle speaking thus!" cried Reuben, with the impetuosity of youth. "You must leave your house on the instant—"
"So they told me in the time of the plague," returned Lady Scrope, with a little, disdainful smile; "but I told them I should never die in my bed."
"Madam, we cannot leave you here to perish in the flames," cried the youth, with some heat and excitement of manner. "I would that you would come quietly with us, but if not I must needs—" and here he began to suit the action to the words, and to make as though he would creep along the ledge and gain the old woman's vantage ground, as, indeed, was his intention.
But he had hardly commenced this perilous transit before he felt himself pulled back by his father, who said, in a strange, muffled voice:
"It is useless, Reuben; we can do nothing. We must leave her to her fate. Either she is truly a witch, as men say, or else her brain is turned by the fearsome sight."
And Reuben, following his father's glance, saw that the redoubtable Lady Scrope had drawn forth a pistol from pocket or girdle, and was pointing it full at him, with a light in her eyes which plainly betokened her intention of using it if he dared to thwart her beyond a certain point.
When she saw the action of James Harmer, she smiled a sardonic smile.
"Farewell, gentlemen," she said, with a wave of her hand. "I thank you for your good offices, and for your kindly thought for me. But no man has ever yet moved me from my purpose, and no man has laid hands on me against my will—nor ever shall. Go! farewell! Save yourselves, and take my blessing and good wishes with you; but I move not an inch from where I stand. I defy the fire, as I defied the plague!"
It was useless to remain. Words were thrown away, and to attempt force would but bring certain death upon whoever attempted it. The fire was already almost upon them. Father and son, after one despairing look at each other, darted down the stairs again, and had but just time to make their escape ere a great wave of flame came rolling along overhead, and the house itself was wrapped in the fiery mantle.
Dorcas, waiting with the men in the boat, devoured them with her eyes as they appeared, and uttered a little cry of horror and amazement when she saw them appear, choked and blackened, but alone.
"She would not come! she would not come! Oh, I feared it from the first; but it seemed so impossible! Oh, how could she stay there alone in that sea of fire! O my mistress! my mistress! my poor mistress! She was always kind to me."
Neither father nor brother spoke as they got into the boat and pushed off into the glowing river. It was terrible to think of that intrepid old woman facing her self-chosen and fiery doom alone up there upon the roof of that blazing house.
"She must have been mad!" sobbed Dorcas; and her father answered with grave solemnity:
"Methinks that self-will, never checked, never guided, breeds in the mind a sort of madness. Let us not judge her. God is the Judge. By this time, methinks, she will have passed from time to eternity."
Dorcas shuddered and hid her face. She could not grasp the thought that her redoubtable mistress was no more; but the weird sight of the fire, as seen from the river, drew her thoughts even from the contemplation of the tragedy just enacted. The great pall of smoke seemed extending to a fearful distance, and the girl turned with a sudden terror to her father.
"Father, will our house be burned?"
"I trust not, my child, I trust not. It is of great moment that the bridge should be saved, not for its own sake only, but to keep the flames from spreading southward, as they might if they crossed that frail passage. We have done what we could; and we cannot be surrounded as are other houses. The fire can advance but by one road upon us. I trust the action we have taken will suffice to save us and others. I would fain be at home to see how matters are going there. I fear me that the pillar of fire over yonder is the blazing tower of St. Magnus. If so, the fire is fearfully near the head of the bridge. God help the poor families who would not consent to the demolition of their houses for the common weal! I fear me now they are in danger of losing both houses and goods!"
It was even so, as the Harmers found on reaching their own abode, which they did by putting across the river to the Southwark side, to avoid the peril from the burning fragments which were flying all about the north bank of the river.
The flames, having once leaped Thames Street, were devouring the houses on the southern side of the street with an astonishing rapidity; and the river was crowded with wherries, to which the affrighted people brought such goods as they could hastily lay hands upon in the terror and confusion. St. Magnus was now burning furiously, and great flakes of fire were falling pitilessly upon the houses at the northern end of the bridge. Even as the Harmers came hurrying up, a shout of fear told them that one of these had ignited, and the next minute there was no mistaking it. The houses on both sides of the northern end of the bridge were in flames; and the people who had somehow trusted that the bridge would, on account of its more isolated position, escape, were rushing terrified out of their doors, or were flinging their goods out of the windows with a recklessness that caused many of them to be broken to fragments as they reached the ground, whilst others were seized and carried off by the thieves and vagabonds who came swarming out of the dens of the low-lying parts of the city, eager to turn the public calamity into an occasion of private gain, and lost no opportunity of appropriating in the general confusion anything upon which they could lay their hands.
"Pray Heaven the means we have taken may be blessed to the city!" cried James Harmer, as he hurried along.
He found his men hard at work pumping water and drenching the ruins with it; for, as they said, the great heat dried up the moisture with inconceivable rapidity, and if once these ruins fired, nothing short of a miracle could save the remainder of the houses. Other stout fellows were upon the roofs with their buckets, emptying them as fast as they were filled upon the roofs and walls, so that when burning fragments and showers of sparks or even a leaping billow of flame smote upon them, it hissed like a live thing repulsed, and died away in smoke and blackness.
It was the same when the flames reached the gap which had been made in the buildings by the Master Builder. The angry fire leapt again and again upon the drenched ruins, but each time fell back hissing and throwing off clouds of steam.
For above two long hours that seemed like days the hand-to-hand fight continued, resolute and determined men casting water ceaselessly upon the ruins and the roofs and walls of the adjoining houses, the fire on the other side of the gap blazing furiously, and seeking to overstep it whenever a puff of wind gave it the right impetus. Had the wind shifted a point to the south, possibly nothing could have saved the bridge; but the general direction was northeast, and it was only an occasional eddy that brought a rush of flames to the southward. But there was great peril from the intense heat generated by the huge body of burning buildings close at hand, and from the flying splinters and clouds of sparks.
Fearlessly and courageously as the workers toiled on, there were moments when their hearts almost failed them, when it seemed as though nothing could stop the oncoming tyrant, which appeared more like a living monster than a mere inanimate agency. But as the daylight waned, it began to be evident that victory would be with the devoted workers. Although the ever-increasing light in the sky told them that in other directions the fire was spreading with tireless fury, in the neighbourhood of the bridge and the places where it had broken out it had almost wreaked its fury.
It had burned houses, and shops, and churches to the very ground. The lambent flames still played about the heaps of burning ruins, but the fury of the conflagration had abated through lack of material upon which to feed itself. Victory remained finally with those who had worked so well to keep the foe in check, and keep in safety the southern portion of the city. The Master Builder's scheme had been attended with marked success. The demolished buildings had arrested the progress of the flames, although not without severe labour on the part of those concerned.
When the Harmer family met together to eat and drink after the toils of the day, so wearied out that even the knowledge that the terrible fire was still devouring all before it in other quarters could not keep them from their beds that night, the master of the house said to his friend the Master Builder:
"Truly, if other means fail, we had better set about blowing up whole streets of houses in the path of the flames. We will to the Lord Mayor at daybreak, and tell him how the bridge has been saved. The people may lament at the destruction of their houses, but sure that is better than that all the city should be ravaged by fire!"
Busy indeed were the women of both those abodes upon that memorable night. From basement to attic their houses were crowded with neighbours who had been burned out, and who must either pass the night in the open air or else seek shelter from friends more fortunate than themselves.
The men, for the most part, were abroad in the streets, drawn thither by the excitement of the great fire, and by the hope of helping to save other persons and goods. But the women and children crowded together in helpless dismay, watching from the windows the increasing glow in the sky as the sun sank and night came on, and mingling tears of terror for others with their own lamentations over the loss of houses and goods.
Good Rachel Harmer and her daughters and daughter-in-law moved amongst the poor creatures like ministering angels. The children were fed and put to bed by twos and threes together. The mothers were bidden to table in relays, and everything was done to cheer and sustain them. Good James Harmer thought not of his own goods when his neighbours were in dire need, and neither he nor his son grudged the hospitality which was willingly accorded to all who asked it, even though the houses would not stretch themselves out for the accommodation of more than a certain number.
But as in times of trouble men draw very near together, so the misfortune of the citizens of London opened the hearts of their neighbours of Southwark and the surrounding villages, who themselves were now safe and in no danger from the great fire. Hospitable countrymen came with wagons and took away homeless creatures with their few poor goods, to be entertained for a while by their own wives and daughters. Others who had to encamp in the open fields were supplied with food by the surrounding inhabitants; and although there were much sorrow of heart and distress, the kindness shown to the burned out families did much to assuage their woes.
James Harmer, who had done much to see to the safe housing of multitudes of women and children, came home at last, and gathering his household about him, gave thanks for their timely preservation in another great peril; and then he dismissed them to their beds, bidding them sleep, for that none knew what the morrow might bring forth. And they went to such couches as they could find for themselves, ready to do his behest; and though London was in flames, and the house almost as light as day, there were few that did not sleep soundly on the night which followed that strange eventful Sunday.
CHAPTER XVIII. WHAT BEFELL DINAH.
Dinah Morse and her niece Janet were faring sumptuously in Lord Desborough's house, hard by St. Paul's Churchyard. His young wife lay sick of a grievous fever, and he was well nigh distracted by the fear of losing her.
Nothing was too good for her, or for the gentle-faced, soft-voiced nurses who had come to tend her in her hour of need. The best of everything was at their disposal; and it was no great source of regret to them that several of the hired servants had fled before their arrival, a whisper having gone through the house that her ladyship had taken the plague.
Dinah and Janet had seen too much of the plague to be deceived by a few trifling similarities in some of the symptoms. They were able to assure the distracted husband that it was not the dreaded distemper, and then they settled to the task of nursing like those habituated to it; and so different were they in their ways from the women he had seen before in the office of sick nurse, many of whom were creatures of no good reputation, and of evil habits and life, that his mind was almost relieved of its fears and anxiety, and he began to entertain joyful hopes of the recovery of his spouse.
Upon the Sunday morning which had passed so strangely and eventfully for those in the east of the city, there was nothing to disturb the tranquillity of patient or of nurses. It had been a hot night, and Janet, when she relieved Dinah towards morning, said she had seen a red light in the sky towards the east, and feared there had been a bad fire. But neither of them thought much of this; and when the bell of St. Paul's rang for morning service, Dinah bade Janet put on her hood and go, for Lady Desborough was sleeping quietly, and would only need quiet watching for the next few hours.
When Janet entered the great building she was aware that a certain excitement and commotion seemed to prevail in some of the groups gathered together in Paul's Walk, as the long nave of the old building was called. Paul's Walk was a place of no very good repute, and any modest girl was wont to hurry through it with her hood drawn and her eyes bent upon the ground. Disgraceful as such desecration must be accounted, there can be no doubt that Paul's walk was a regular lounge for the dissipated and licentious young gallants of the day, a place where barter and traffic were shamelessly carried on, and where all sorts of evil practices prevailed.
The sacredness of a building solemnly consecrated to God by their pious forefathers seemed to mean nothing to the reckless roisterers of that shameless age. The Puritans during the late civil war had set the example of desecrating churches, by using them as stables and hospitals, and for other secular purposes. It was a natural outcome of such practices that the succeeding generation should go a step further and do infinitely worse. If God-fearing men did not scruple to desecrate consecrated churches, was it likely that their godless successors would have greater misgivings?
Janet therefore hurried along without seeking to know what men were talking of, and during the time that the service went on she almost forgot the impression she had taken in on her first entrance.
As she came out she joined the old door porter of Lord Desborough's house, and was glad to walk with him through the crowded nave and into the bright, sunny air without.
Although the sun was shining, she was aware of a certain murkiness in the air, but did not specially heed it until some loudly-spoken words fell upon her ears.
"But forty hours, and this whole city shall be consumed by fire!" shouted a strange-looking man, who, in very scanty attire, was stationed upon the top of the steps, and was declaiming and gesticulating as he addressed a rather frightened-looking crowd beneath him. "Within forty hours there shall not be left standing one stone upon another in all this mighty edifice. The hand of the Lord is stretched forth against this evil city, and judgment shall begin at His sanctuary. Beware, and bewail, and repent in dust and ashes, for the Lord will do a thing this day which will cause the ears of every one who hears it to tingle. He is coming! He is coming! He is coming in clouds and majesty in a flaming fire, even as He appeared on the mount of Sinai! Be ready to meet Him. He comes to smite and not to spare! His chariots of fire are over us already. They travel apace upon the wings of the wind. I see them! I hear them! They come! they come! they come!"
The fanatic waved his hands in the air with frantic gestures, and pointed eastward. Certainly there did appear to be a strange murkiness and haze in the air; and was there not a smell as of burning? or was it but the idea suggested by the man's words? Janet trembled as she slipped her arm within that of the old porter.
"What does he mean?" she asked nervously. "The people seem very attentive to hear. They look affrighted, and some of them seem to tremble. What does it all mean?"
"I scarce know myself. I heard men speak of a terrible fire right away in the east that has been burning many hours now. But sure they cannot fear that it will come nigh to St. Paul's. That were madness indeed! Why, each dry summer, as it comes, brings us plenty of bad fires. The fellow is but one of those mad fools who love to scare honest folks out of their senses. Heed him not, mistress. Belike he knows no more than thou and I. It is his trade to set men trembling. Let us go home; there is no danger for us."
Rather consoled by these words, and certainly without any real apprehensions for their personal safety, Janet returned to the house, where she and Dinah passed a quiet day. Neither of them went out again; and though they spoke sometimes of the fire, and wondered if it had been extinguished, they did not suffer any real anxiety of mind.
"I trust it went not nigh to our homes," said Janet once or twice. "I would that one of the boys might come and give us news of them. But if folks are in trouble over yonder, father is certain to have his hands full. He will never stand by idle whilst other folks are suffering danger and loss."
"He is a good man," answered Dinah, and with her these words stood for much.
Towards nightfall Lord Desborough came in with rather an anxious look upon his face. His eyes first sought the face of his wife; but seeing her lie in the tranquil sleep which was her best medicine, he was satisfied of her well being, and without putting his usual string of questions he began abruptly to ask of Dinah:
"Have you heard news of this terrible fire?"
Both nurses looked earnestly at him.
"Is it not yet extinguished, my lord?"
"Extinguished? no, nor likely to be, if all we hear be true. I have not seen it with mine own eyes. I was at Whitehall all the day, and heard no more than that some houses and churches in the east had been burned. But they say now that the flames are spreading this way with all the violence of a tempest at sea, and those who have been to see say that it is like a great sea of fire, rushing over everything so that nothing can hinder it. The Lord Mayor and his aldermen have been down since the morning, striving to do what they can; but, so far as report says, the flames are yet unchecked. It seems impossible that they should ever reach even to us here; but I am somewhat full of fear. What would befall my poor young wife if the fire were to threaten this house?"
Dinah looked grave and anxious. Lady Desborough's condition was critical, and she could only be moved at considerable risk. But it seemed impossible that the fire could travel all this distance. Only the troubled look on the husband's face would have convinced her that such a thing could be contemplated for a moment even by the faintest-hearted.
"You would not have us move her now, ere the danger approaches?" asked the husband anxiously.
"No, my lord. To move her tonight would be, I think, certain death," answered Dinah gravely. "She has but passed the crisis of a very serious fever, and is weak as a newborn babe. We will strive all we can to get up her strength, that she may be able for what may come. But I trust and hope the fire will be extinguished long ere it reaches us. Oh, surely never was there fire that burned for days and destroyed whole streets and parishes!"
"And oh, my lord, can you tell us if the bridge is safe?" asked Janet clasping her hands together in an agony of uncertainty and fear. "Have you heard news of the bridge? Oh, say it is not burned! They all talk of the east, but what does that mean? Who can tell me if my father's house has escaped?"
Lord Desborough was a very kindly man, and the distress of the girl touched him.
"I will go forth and ask news of all who have been thither to see," he answered. "Many have gone both by land and water to see the great sight. I would go likewise, save that I fear to leave my wife. But, at least, I will seek all the news I can get, and come again to you."
The master of the house went forth, and the two anxious watchers, after a long look at their patient to satisfy themselves that she was sleeping peacefully, and not likely to wake suddenly, crept silently into an adjoining room, where a large window looking eastward enabled them to see in the sky that strange and terrible glow, which was so bright and fierce as darkness fell that they were appalled in beholding it spreading and brightening in the sky.
"Good lack, what a terrible fire it must be!" cried Janet, wringing her hands together. "O good aunt, what can resist the oncoming fury of such a fearful conflagration? Would that I knew my father's house was safe. But, at least, those within must have had warning, and they could with ease escape by water if even the streets were in flames. Alack, this poor city! It does indeed seem as though the vials of God's wrath were being poured out upon it! Will His hand be stayed till all is destroyed? Surely the hearts of men must turn back to Him in these days of dire calamity!"
Dinah gravely shook her head, her face lighted up by the ever-increasing light in the eastern sky, which grew brighter and brighter with the gathering shades of night.
"Methought in those terrible days of the plague that surely men's hearts would, for the future, be set upon higher things, seeing how they had learned by fearful experience that man's life is but a vapour that the wind carrieth away. But as soon as the pressing peril abated, they hardened their hearts, and turned hack to their evil ways. It may be that even this warning will be lost upon them. God alone knows how many will see His hand in this great judgment, and will turn to Him in fear if not in love!"
Before many minutes had passed affrighted servants began peeping and then crowding into the room, as though they felt more assurance in presence of Dinah's quiet steadfastness and courage. The faces of the maids were pale with apprehension. It was difficult to believe, in the midst of this ruddy glare which actually palpitated as the lights and shadows danced upon the wall, that the fire was yet as distant as was reported. All the menservants had run out into the streets after news of the progress of the fire, and the women were scared by their absence. Dinah did what she could to calm them, pointing out that since they could as yet neither hear nor feel anything of so great a fire, it must still be a great way off. It was hardly possible to believe that it would be permitted to sweep onwards much longer unchecked. By this time men's minds must be fully alive to the great peril in which all London stood, and she doubted not that some wise measures would soon be taken to stay the spread of the flames. She advised the maidens to go to bed and not think any more about it. Let them commend themselves to God and seek to sleep. She would undertake to watch, and to rouse them up should there be any need during the night.
Somewhat appeased and comforted by these words, the maids withdrew and sought their needed rest. But Janet and Dinah returned to the sickroom, resolved to keep vigil there, and only to sleep by turns upon the couch, ready dressed in case of emergency.
It was nigh upon midnight before Lord Desborough returned, and he was so blackened and begrimed that they scarcely knew him.
His wife was still sleeping the sleep of exhausted nature, and, after one glance at her, the young nobleman turned towards Janet, who was quivering all over in her anxiety to hear the news.
"Well, maiden, thy father's house is safe, and half the bridge is safe; and the thanks of that are due to him and to a worthy neighbour, who by their wise exertions stayed the fire, which might else have spread even to the other side of the river."
Janet and Dinah exchanged looks of unspeakable relief, and Lord Desborough continued in the same cautious undertone:
"Once out of doors, the fire fever quickly got its hold on me, even as it has gotten hold upon almost every person in the city. I had not meant to go far but I took a wherry, and, the tide serving well, I was swiftly borne along towards the bridge, and from the river I saw the raging of such a fire as, methinks, the world has never seen before. No words of mine can paint the awful grandeur of the sight I saw. It was as light as day upon the water, and there were times when the river itself seemed ablaze. For, as the flames wrought havoc amongst the warehouses and stores along the wharfs, burning masses of oil and tar would pour out upon the bosom of the water, blazing terribly, and the boatmen had to keep a sharp watch sometimes lest they and their craft should be engulfed in the fiery stream. To the ignorant, who knew not what caused the water to wear this aspect of burning, it appeared as though even the river had ignited. This increased their terrors tenfold, and they say that some poor distraught creatures actually flung themselves into the fire or the water, convinced that the end of the world had come, and careless as to whether they perished soon or late."
"But my father—my father!" cried Janet earnestly.
"Ah, true, thy father. I heard of him from the watermen in the wherries, who told me the tale of how he had saved the bridge by pulling down his workshops and drenching the ruins with water. It seemeth to me that unless some prompt and resolute course of a similar kind is taken tomorrow or tonight, infinite loss must ensue. No ordinary means can now check this great fire. But surely the Lord Mayor and his advisers will have by now a plan on foot. Were I not so weary, and anxious about my wife, I would go forth once more to see what was doing. But I must wait now for the morrow, and then, pray Heaven all danger may be at an end. Fear not, good friends, if you hear terrible sounds as of an earthquake shaking the house this night. Men say that if the city is to be saved it must be by the blowing up of whole streets of small houses somewhere in the path of the flames, so that they shall have nothing whereon to feed. Others say that nothing will stop them, and that none will be found ready to make sacrifice of their dwellings for the public good, preferring to risk the chance of the flames reaching them. I know not the truth of all the rumours flying about; but the thing might be, and might be wisely done. So fear not if you should hear some sounds that will make you think of an earthquake. And call me if aught alarms you, or if my wife should change either for the better or the worse."
So saying, Lord Desborough took himself off to his well-earned repose; and the two nurses passed the night, sometimes waking and sometimes sleeping, but not disturbed by any strange sounds of explosion, and hopeful, as the night passed without special event, that the fire had been extinguished.
But morning brought appalling accounts of its spread. Nothing had been done, it seemed, to stay its course. It had reached Cheapside, and was rushing a headlong course down it, and even the Guildhall, men said, would not escape. North and west the great, rolling body of the flames was spreading; churches were going down before it, one after the other, as helplessly as the timber and plaster houses, which burned like so much tinder. Hour after hour as that day passed by fresh and terrible items of news were brought in. Would anything ever stop the oncoming sea of fire? Surely—surely something would be done to save St. Paul's. Surely that magnificent and time-honoured structure would not be permitted to perish without some attempt to save it!
Dinah went out at midday for a mouthful of air, leaving Janet in charge of the sick lady. She turned her steps towards the great edifice towering up in all its grandeur towards the sunny sky. It was hard indeed to believe that it could succumb to the devouring element, so solid and unconsumable it looked. Yet, although all men were asserting vehemently that "Paul's could never burn," all faces were looking anxious, and all ears were eagerly attuned to catch any new item of news which a messenger or passerby might bring.
The murkiness in the air, faintly discernible even yesterday, had become very marked by this time. The smell of fire was in the air, although as yet the terrible roaring of the flames, of which all men who had been near it were speaking, had not yet become audible in the Babel of talk going on in the streets and about the great church. The dean and canons were grouped about the precincts, looking anxiously into each other's faces, as though to seek to read encouragement from one another. Nothing was talked of but the fire, the incapacity shown by the civic authorities in dealing with it, and lamentations that good Sir John Lawrence, who had coped so ably with the pestilence last year, should be no longer in office at this second great crisis.
Still it was averred on all hands that something was about to be done; that it was too scandalous to stand by panic stricken whilst the whole city perished. Every one seemed to have heard talk respecting the demolition or blowing up of houses in the path of the flames; but none could say actually that it had been done, or was about to be done, in any given locality.
Burned out households were pouring continually along the choked thoroughfares, striving to find safe places where they might bestow such goods as they had succeeded in saving. Charitable persons were occupied in housing and feeding those who had nothing of their own; whilst others, whose fears were on a larger scale, were fleeing altogether away from the city to friends in the country beyond, desiring only to escape the coming judgment, which seemed like that poured out on Sodom.
Dinah went back with a very grave face to her charge. The poor lady had now recovered her senses, and though as weak as a newborn babe, was able to smile from time to time upon her husband, who sat beside her holding her hand between his. He was so overjoyed at this happy change in his wife's condition that he had no thought to spare at this moment for the peril of the city. He asked for no news as Dinah appeared; and indeed it was very necessary that the patient should not be in any wise alarmed or excited.
Dinah, however, was becoming very uneasy as time went on; and she was certain that the air grew darker than could be accounted for by the falling dusk, and upon going to the east window as the twilight fell, she was appalled by the awful glare in the sky, and was certain that now, indeed, she did begin to distinguish the roaring of the flames as the wind drifted them ever onwards and onwards.
Had it not been for the exceedingly critical state in which the patient lay, she would have suggested her removal before things grew worse. As it was, it might be death to move her; and perhaps the flames would be stayed ere they reached the noble cathedral pile. Surely every effort would be made for that end. It was difficult to imagine that the citizens would not combine together in some great and mighty effort to save their homes and their sanctuary before it should be too late.
"What an awful sight!" exclaimed a soft voice behind her. "Heaven grant the peril be not so nigh as it looks!"
It was Lord Desborough, who had come in and was looking with anxious eyes at the flaming sky, over which great clouds of sparks and flaming splinters could be seen drifting. It might only be fancy, but the room seemed to be growing hot with the breath of the fire. The young nobleman's face was very grave and disturbed.
"What must we do?" he asked of Dinah. "Can she be moved? Ought we to take her elsewhere?"
"I would we could," answered Dinah, "but she is so weak that it may be death to carry her hence, and if we spoke to her of this terrible thing that is happening, the shock might bring back the fever, and then, indeed, all would be lost."
The husband wrung his hands together in the utmost anxiety. Dinah stood thinking deeply.
"My lord," she presently said, "it may come to this, that she will have to be moved, risk or no risk. Should we not think about whither to take her if it be needful?"
"Ay, verily; but where may that be? Who can know what place is safe? And to transport her far would be certain death. She would die on the road thither."
"That is very true, my lord," answered Dinah; "but it has come into my mind that, perchance, my sister's house could receive her—that house upon the bridge, which is now safe, and which can be in no danger again, since all the city about it lies in ashes. By boat we could transport her most gently of all; and tonight, upon the rising tide, it might well be done, if the need should become more pressing."
"A good thought! a happy thought indeed!" cried Lord Desborough. "But art thou sure that thy good kinsmen will have room within their walls? They may have befriended so many."
"That is like enow," answered Dinah; "I have thought of that myself. My lord, methinks it would be a good plan for you to take boat now, at once, taking the maid Janet with you as a guide and spokeswoman. She will take you to her father's house and explain all; and then her father and brothers will come back with you, if need presses more sorely, and help us to transport thither the poor lady. I will sit by her the while, and by plying her with cordials and such food as she can swallow, strive to feed her feeble strength; and if the flames seem coming nearer and nearer, I will make shift to dress her in such warm and easy garments as are best suited to the journey she may have to take. And I will trust to you to be back to save us ere the danger be over great."
"That I will! that I will!" cried the eager husband. "The plan is an excellent one! I will lose not a moment in acting upon it. I like not the look of yon sky. I fear me there will be no staying the raging of the flames. I will lose not a minute. Bid the girl be ready, and we will forth at once. We will take boat at Baynard's Castle, and be back again ere two hours have passed!"
Janet was delighted with the plan. She was restless and nervous here, and anxiously eager to know what had befallen her own people. She would gladly have had Dinah to go also, but saw that the sick lady could not be left, and that it would not be right to move her save on urgent necessity; but to go and get a band of eager helpers to come to the rescue if need be satisfied her entirely, and she said a joyful farewell to her aunt, promising to send help right speedily.
Left alone with her patient, Dinah commenced her task of feeding the lamp of life, and seeking by every means in her power to prepare the patient for the possible transit. Once she was called from the room by some commotion without, and found the frightened servants all huddled together outside the door, uncertain whether to fly the place altogether or to wait till some one came with definite news as to the magnitude of the peril. The light in the sky was terrible. The showers of sparks were falling all round the houses and the cathedral. The roar of the approaching fire began to be clearly distinguished above every other sound.
Dinah, who knew that tumult and affright were the worst things possible for her patient, counselled the cowering maids to make good their escape at once, since there was nothing to be done in the house that night, and they were far too frightened to sleep. All had friends who would give them shelter. And soon the house was silent and empty, for the men had gone off either to the fire or out of sheer fright, and Dinah was left quite alone with her patient.
"What is that noise I hear all the time?" asked Lady Desborough presently, in a feeble voice. "I feel as though there was something burning in the room. The air seems thick and heavy. Is it my fantasy, or do I smell burning? Where is my husband? Is there something the matter going on?"
"There is a bad fire not very far from here, my lady," answered Dinah quietly. "My lord has gone to see if it be like to spread, that he may take such steps as are needful. Be not anxious; we are safe beneath his care. He will let no hurt come nigh us before he is back to tell us what we shall do."
A tranquil smile lighted the lady's face at these words. She was in that state of weakness when the mind is not easily ruffled, and Dinah's calm face and steady voice were very tranquillizing.
"Ah yes, my good lord will not let hurt come nigh us. We will await his good pleasure. I trust no poor creatures are in peril? There will be many to help them I trow?"
"Yes, my lady. I have not heard of lives lost; and many say that it is good for some of the old houses to burn, that they may build better ones little by little. Now take this cordial, and sleep once more. I will awaken you when my lord returns."
The lady obeyed, and soon slept again, her pulse stronger and firmer and her mind at rest.
But Dinah was growing very uneasy. Far though she was above the street, she heard shouts and cries—muffled and distant truly, but very apparent to her strained faculties—all indicative of alarm and the presence of peril. She dared not leave her post at the bedside, but the air was becoming so thick with smoke that the patient coughed from time to time, and the nurse was not certain how much longer it would be possible to breathe in it. She was certain, too, that the place was becoming hot, increasingly hot, each minute.
Oh, where was Lord Desborough? why did he not come? At last she stole from the room and into the adjoining chamber, and then indeed an awful sight met her shrinking gaze.
A pillar of lambent flame, which seemed to her to be close at hand, was rising up in the air as though it reached the very heavens. It swayed slowly this way and that, surrounded by clouds of crimson smoke and a veritable furnace of sparks. Then, as she watched with awed and fascinated gaze, it suddenly seemed to make a bound towards the tower of St. Paul's standing up majestic and beautiful against the fiery sky. It fastened upon it like a living monster greedy of prey. Tongues of flame seemed to be licking it on all sides, and a mass of fire encircled it.
With a gasp of fear and horror Dinah turned away.
"St. Paul's on fire!" she exclaimed beneath her breath; "God in His mercy have pity upon us! Can any one save us now?"
CHAPTER XIX. JUST IN TIME.
Lady Desborough sat up in bed propped up with pillows, dressed in such flowing garments as Dinah had been able to array her in, her eyes shining in anxious expectation, her panting breath showing the oppression caused by the murkiness of the atmosphere. But in spite of the peril of the situation, to which she had now awakened with full comprehension; in spite of the fatigue of being partially dressed, with a view to sudden flight; in spite of the horror of knowing herself to be alone with Dinah in this flame-encircled house, her spirit rose to the occasion, triumphing over the weakness of the flesh. Dinah had feared that the knowledge of the peril would extinguish the faint flame of life; but it seemed rather to cause it to burn more strongly. The fragile creature looked full of courage, and the fears she experienced at this moment were less for herself than for others.
"My dear lord! my dear lord!" she kept repeating. "Dinah, if he were living nothing would keep him from me. Where is he gone? Dost thou think he will return in time?"
"I think so, my dear lady," answered Dinah in her full, quiet voice; "I pray he may come soon!"
"Yes, pray for him, pray for him!" cried the lady clasping her hands, "I have not prayed for him enough. Pray that his precious life may be preserved!"
Dinah clasped her hands and bent her head. Her whole faculties seemed merged in one great stress of urgent prayer. The lady looked at her and touched her hand gently.
"You are a good woman, Dinah Morse. I am glad to have you with me; but if my good lord come not soon, you must save yourself and fly. I will not have you lose your life for me. You have not strength to bear me hence, and I cannot walk. You must fly and save yourself. For me, if my dear lord be dead, life has nothing for me to desire it."
"Madam," answered Dinah, in her calm, resolute way, "your good lord, my master, entrusted you to my care, and that charge I cannot and will not quit whatever may betide. God is with us in the midst of the fire as truly as He was in the raging of the plague. He brought me safe through the one peril, and I can trust Him for this second one. Our lives we may not recklessly cast away, neither may we fly from our post of duty lightly, and without due warrant."
Lady Desborough's thin white fingers closed over Dinah's steady hand with a grateful pressure.
"Thou art a good woman, Dinah," she said. "Thy presence beside me gives me strength and hope. Truly I should dread to be left alone, and yet I would not have thee stay if the peril becomes great."
"We will trust that help may reach us shortly," answered Dinah, who realized the magnitude of the peril far more clearly than did the sick lady, who had no idea of the awful extent of the fire.
That it was a bad one she was well aware, and in perilous proximity to their dwelling; but Dinah had not told her, nor had she for a moment guessed, that half the city of London was already destroyed.
"Go and look from the windows," she said a few minutes later, when the two had sat in silent prayer and meditation for that brief interval. "Go see what is happening in the street below. I marvel that I hear so little stir of voices. But the walls are thick, and we are high up. Go and see what is passing below, and bring me word again."
Dinah was not loth to obey this behest, being terribly anxious to know what was happening around them. Neither by word nor by sign would she add to the anxieties of Lady Desborough, knowing how much might depend upon her calmness if the chance of rescue offered itself; but she herself began to entertain grave fears for the safety of this house, wedged in, as it appeared to her to be, between masses of blazing buildings.
Running up to the top attics of the house, which commanded views almost every way, the sight which greeted her eyes was indeed appalling. The whole mass of St. Paul's grand edifice was alight, and the flames were rushing up the walls like fiery serpents whilst the dull roar of the conflagration was like the booming of the breakers on an iron-bound coast. Grand and terrible was the sight presented by that vast sea of flame, which extended eastward as far as the eyes could see. It was more brilliantly light now, in the middle of the night, than in the brightest summer noontide, although the blood-red glare was terrible in its intensity, and brought to Dinah's spirit, with a shudder of horror, a vision of the bottomless pit with its eternal fires.
But without pausing to linger to watch the awful grandeur of the burning cathedral, she hastily passed from attic to attic to see how matters were going in other quarters, and she soon discovered, to her dismay and anxiety, that the flames had crept around the little wedge-like block of buildings in which this mansion stood, and that they were literally ringed round by fire. By some caprice, or perhaps owing to its solidity of structure, this small three-cornered block, containing about three good houses, had not yet ignited; but the hungry flames were creeping on apace, and, as it seemed to Dinah, from all sides. As she took in this fact, it seemed to her that help could never reach them now, and that all they could do was to strive to meet death with as calm and bold a spirit as they could, commending their souls to God, and trusting that He would raise up their bodies at the last day, even though they might be consumed to ashes in the midst of this burning fire.