The Fireman

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The Fireman  (1871) 
by Sabine Baring-Gould
The Fireman is a short story that was published in the New York Times on January 8, 1871.
THE FIREMAN.
BY S. BARING GOULD, M. A.
Author of Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, &c., &c.

There are certain men employed in iron-furnaces to work up the molten iron before it is run into molds—these are called puddlers. They have huge rakes and spuds which they strike into the smelted ore, working it about till all the earthly particles, and those other things existing in hammered, but never found in cast, iron, and the nature of which we hardly understand, are utterly burnt out. This life of the metal appears in keen scintillations on the surface; and as soon as they are no longer visible—as soon as the glowing molten preserves its uniform glare of the muddy white—the iron is considered dead and is to be ran into molds.

Now, in order that a man may be a good workman, he must become part and parcel of his work. The fruit of the toil must, in like manner, become so intimately united with its artificer, that in it he shall really, and not metaphorically, live.

The sculptor casts his own spirit into his carving; so that when the framer of the statue is dead as to his boy, as to his soul he lives. Thus for centuries the artist can still do good works, when his pious handicraft excites holy aspirations in others; and thus he can reap the benefit of them. He cannot be accounted dead till his handiwork is utterly destroyed. Erwin von Steinbach lives on in Strasburg Minster.

So also with the poet, whose soul is, in part, communicated to his writings, so as to live and move and have its being in other men’s hearts for many generations: and for every great and heroic act to which his words may impel them he will reap his reward. Thus, alas! also with the evil man of genius, whose soul, once imparted to his work, must remain fettered to it, till it has wrought out its full harvest of evil, when it will return loaded with those ghastly tare-bundles to consume its reunited self.

The iron-workers are not quite ignorant of this truth, but believe that their hopes of salvation lie in the metal they work. The hammered iron they find to bend buxomly to their will, and the molten iron to be dull and lifeless; so they have obtained a strange faith concerning the metal—a faith which I purpose now to illustrate..

There were many puddlers engaged upon a vast mass of ore in a certain smelting furnace. You must know that none but the strongest and brawniest men can be employed on this work, for the fire eats into their bones and destroys them in a very few years, unless they are exceedingly powerful and healthy.

Peter Lundy was the largest and most muscular man at the furnace, and he worked the glowing iron with gigantic force. His breast and arms were covered with dense black hair, and most of his features were similarly concealed: where they did show, they were coppered by the heat.

“Peter!” said another puddler, leaning half-exhausted on his spud, “there goes another bright hope for you;” and he pointed to a vivid spark burning in the wave of iron which Lundy was driving before his rake.

“I don’t understand what you mean, Bill,” said Peter; “you’re ever a-calling them sparks our hopes.”

“And so they be,” retorted the other. “Don’t you know that an iron-founder’s hope of salvation lies in hard metal, and that the hope leaves it when he puddles it molten. Every spark a man brings up in that fiery ore is some grace-hour to him; an idle workman produces few; but some puddlers may toil all today, and not another will come after that, however much they may stir the iron.”

“I never heard that afore,” said Peter.

“I s’pose you never learnt your Catechism,” replied Bill.

“Can’t say as ever I did,” growled Lundy.

“I have, though,” remarked a third laborer, “but nothing about the hopes being in them sparks. That ain’t in the Catechism nowhere.”

“Then it ought to be,” retorted Bill, sententiously.

“I have a-heard,” observed Jonas Black, an old master man, “that there have been puddlers who’ve come by them sparkles in ungodly way, and money by ’em. They caught or raked them in afore they went out, and sold ’em for a mint of money. I can’t say as how I have ever tried to get them like that myself; for the Lord will order them if we let them alone; and I never thought of turning them into money. God forbid that a man should get rid of his hopes of salvation that way.”

“It ain’t possible,” said Bill; “I have tried often to draw them sparks up, and they have always gone out afore they reached the edge.”

That evening Peter Lundy walked back gloomily to his hovel.

“It ain’t much I care for my hopes of salvation,” said he to himself. “If I could only get hold of those sparkles in the iron, I’d soon swap’em for a few shillings.”

Peter had a son about twelve years old, and a baby daughter. The wife had died on giving birth to the little girl, so George was always left at home to look after the child. Peter’s was a miserable hut, consisting of a single dirty room, lighted by a window half patched with rags and wisps of straw.

“There’s a stranger within, father,” said the lad. “He asked for a lodging here to-night, when he found there was no public house nearer than the next village; he promises to pay well.”

Peter pushed George aside and stepped in.

An elderly man in a dark brown cloak sat on a rickety chair by the fire and warmed his thin hands over the cinders. Peter saluted him with a slouch of the head; the stranger rose and apologized for the intrusion, repeating his request for a night’s lodging.

“There’s only one bed,” said Lundy, “and that’s at your honor’s service; but we are very poor people, and haven’t got good accommodation for gentle folk.”

“That does not matter,” answered the elderly man; “but, master, can you not give me a little more fire I—I am shivering with cold.”

“George, shove on some peat, and a few lumps of coke,” shouted the puddler.

The traveler crouched over the fire and said no more. In an hour or two he went to bed, and Peter and his children lay down on straw in a corner. The puddler did not sleep; his eyes watched the stranger by the fire-light. The elderly man fidgeted about till he had disposed a packet and a large purse under his pillow; and then, till he fell asleep, continually passed his hand under the bolster to assure himself of its safety.

Peter soon came to the determination of robbing him, and escaping with the money; as for the children, they might go to the workhouse. Accordingly, as soon as he was convinced of the soundness of the traveler’s sleep, he rose from his straw bed and stole on tip-toe across the room. The stranger breathed heavily in sleep, and Peter cautiously slipped his hand beneath the pillow to the purse. In doing so he moved the old man’s head so as partially to awaken him—the eyes opened and looked into Peter’s face. Instantly the puddler grasped the man’s throat, and pressed his fingers tightly, while he dragged the package and purse from under the bolster with the other hand. The traveler did not struggle, but by the fire-light Peter saw the old cheeks creased into a horrible laugh.

“Ah, ah, Peter Lundy,” said the man, without inconvenience from the gripe at his throt, “so you think to get that, do you?”

The founder was startled, and dropped his arm.

“The truth is, Peter,” continued the stranger, “I want to have a little talk with you—pray be seated; there—drag over the rickety chair.”

The elderly man drew his legs out of bed, and sat at the side, smiling benignantly at the terrified host. “Now give me back that parcel and purse,“ said he.

Peter obeyed mechanically.

“To be candid with you,” said the gentleman, “I am a bit of a naturalist, and I am in search of some curious crystals of bi-carburet of iron combined with sulphurets of alumina and cadmium. These are only to be procured when iron is at a very high temperature—in fact, molten. The crystals I allude to are easily to be recognized from their intense brightness, but they are difficult to be procured.”

“Impossible,” said Peter.

“I would willingly give twenty pounds for each specimen; and for a very perfect one, we should not quarrel about the price, Peter.”

“I cannot get them,” growled the puddler, half frightened, half curious—“impossible.”

“No, not impossible to a resolute heart, my friend,” pursued the naturalist, undoing his parcel; “I have here a carefully-prepared ointment, which I shall be glad to present to you. You would not mind stepping into the molten iron, would you, Peter?”

“Stepping in!” gasped the iron worker. “It would be instant death; I should be burnt up like a wisp of straw!”

“Not a bit, not a bit,” answered the old man, with aunation. “As i said before, a bold heart is all that is wanted: this little box of salve will preserve you from the fire. You must smear it over your body, and then you may, with perfect impunity, walk through the fiery masses. Will you try?”

“I will,” answered Peter, after a pause.

“There is one thing to be considered by you in the first place—one thing I am bound to tell you. Every time you enter the melted iron your life will be shortened by a day or so, for the ointment does not overcome the effect of the burnt air you must inhale. Your life, perhaps, may be docked a year or two; but those years which remain you will pass in affluence instead of dire poverty. Are you content?”

“Quite,” replied Peter Lundy; “two years of wealth are worth a dozen in this filthy hut!”

“I have yet another remark to make: the ointment cannot preserve you from the full agony of entering the fire. Each time you wade in the iron, you will feel the same anguish as if you were being consumed in it.”

“Give me the stuff,” said the puddler firmly.

“Here it is, then, Peter,” the stranger said, extending a tin box; “take it, and smear your body with it as high as your waist; it has no power to preserve the upper part of your body, so do not use it higher than your waist. You will find, Peter, that you cannot well sink in the liquid iron as deep as your middle, so you must provide yourself with stone shoes. Have an iron ladle in your hand so as to catch the sparkles as they appear, but do not dip your hand in, or it will be charred to a cinder: the ointment, remember, will only preserve the lower part of your body.”

“How shall I find you, to give you the sparkles when I have got them?” asked the iron-founder.

“That can be easily managed, my dear friend,” replied the stranger. “I shall call here the first Monday after every new moon and purchase your spoils.”

“Just tell me,” said Lundy, “do I give up a hope of salvation with each spark I sell?”

The elderly naturalist drew his logs into the bed again, laughed quietly, and said, “You don’t stick at such trifles as that, do you, Peter? Now, suppose you leave me to take a quiet nap?”

Next morning, when Peter awoke, the stranger was gone, but there lay on the rickety chair the full purse and the tin box containing the precious unguent. A pair of stone shoes lay by the bedside.

It was very early still, and Peter determined on trying his luck at the furnace at once. He took an old ladle with him, slipped out of the door without awakening his son or the babe, and was soon at the foundry. No one had arrived as yet, but the iron was melted—fires having been kept up during the night, so that the ore might be ready for the puddlers. The top of the colander, like the mouth of a kiln, was open, and the fused mass glared up, the brick rim being at white heat also. Peter dressed his foot with the salve, and crept cautiously up to the edge. The heat well nigh overpowered him, but timidly he dipped in his foot. The white mass was of the consistency of honey, and closed over his instep. The agony of that fire smote through every limb to his heart. He drew his foot hastily back. It was unconsumed, but red as though it had been plunged into boiling water. Lundy now applied the ointment to the entire lower part of his body, drew on the stone shoes, shuddered for an instant on the verge, and then stepped in. He sank at once to his middle; he writhed with torture; every fibre of his frame seemed at that moment torn and snapped; his hands slapped together convulsively; the blood burst from his eyes and nose; and the drops hissed and danced in globules on the fiery surface. Little by little, as the first pangs passed off, Peter regained his sight and mental powers; then he took the ladle from the margin where he had left it, and waded further into the consuming heat. The hair on his arms and breast frizzled in the fiery breath.

Lo! one bright spark kindled before him. The ladle was plunged beneath it in an instant, and the scoop rose red hot from the fluid, but the sparkle blazed in it. Peter struggled to the verge, scrambled out, flung aside the vitrified shoes, and rolled moaning and weeping on the cool stones.

When his pains had somewhat abated, he drew his clothes over his scarlet limbs, and, when the sparkle had sufficiently cooled, examined the blood-red crystal, half sunk in black ore.

Shortly after, the other puddlers came to work, and Lundy set himself to his daily task without the vigor he usually displayed, for the heat had eaten into his marrow and sinews, and the prospect of payment for his morning’s work withdrew his thoughts from present business. Only, as each spark burnt white in the furnace when he stirred the iron with his spud, he cast an eager glance at it, and, but for the presence of his companions, would have plunged in again. The next time that the iron was being smelted, Peter ventured once more, and obtained two or three small crystals which he treasured, along with the first, in a cupboard at home. Lundy’s skin had been copper-hued before—but now it had assumed a fierce red tinge, and his black beard and whiskers were singed to the roots. His eyes began to suffer, and became blood-shot, brows and lashes were burnt off, and he only preserved the hair of his head by wearing a broad felt hat, which browned after the first exposure to the sun, and fell to pieces like tinder after the second. The pain never abated, so that every time Peter entered the molten iron the same crushing agony obliterated for the moment sense and reason; but his powers of endurance increased, so that after having made several trials he was able to support for ten minutes the all but overwhelming torture.

On the first Monday after the new moon, late at night, the stranger tapped at the window, and Peter sold him the crystals he had obtained.

“You bear up bravely, master,” said the naturalist; “I do not mind paying double for that very fine specimen; you will soon be a rich man, that you will, Peter!”

“How many shall you want?” asked Lundy.

“These are great rarities; I can afford to purchase all you can bring me, friend,” answered the stranger. “But I warn you, you will not be able to find them for ever: there is not an endless store of them. Every puddler has a certain number, and they must be worked out, sooner or later. Better not waste them by useless puddling.”

“What had I better do?” asked Peter.

“I should recommend you to buy a share in the foundry, and not to stir the iron yourself; the sparks rise and vanish then, without being made into profitable investments. But if you husband your opportunities, and only venture into the fluid iron when you want to obtain one of the crystals—why, then, they may last.”

At midnight the elderly man withdrew, and Peter, within a few days, followed his advice, and was soon considered a well-to-do iron-master. Whence his money had come, no one could guess.

The old hovel had been abandoned, and a small brick house was now inhabited by the iron-factor and his children. George Lundy was no model boy. Coarse and rough as his father, and endowed with much of his shrewdness, he had, moreover, some conscience and knowledge of right and wrong; his natural inquisitiveness led him soon to the conclusion that all was not right; and there was sufficient in his parent’s conduct to excite curiosity. Peter’s frequent visit to the old cupboard, which had been removed from the hovel, mad George determined to examine its contents. This he was enabled to do by means of a kay fitting the lock, which he found about the house; and he was surprised to discover nothing but a heap of ore containing orange prisms piled in a corner.

George stifled his curiosity for some days, fearing to provoke an outburst of his father’s anger; for Peter’s temper had of late grown fiery, and he was a dangerous subject wherewith to tamper. At a word he would blaze forth into excesses of rage, so that even the workmen at the furnace shrank from him with terror.

Formerly he had been known as a deep drinker, and his son had often seem him return home reeling. Now he never touched fermented drink, but pealed for water, the chilliest that could be presented. This he drank continually, and, of an evening, he would hurry to the shallow brook flowing through the vale, and lie for an hour or two in the stream.

His skin was hot beyound fever-point: snow dissolved instantly in his hand, and after he had once breathed on a fuclesia, which George kept in the window, the plant shriveled up and died. George was determined to get at the bottom of all the mysteries concerning his father, and one evening asked him, point blank, “What was the use of those saffron crystals in the cupboard?”

Peter’s fiery eyes glared ominously, and his face became of a lurid scarlet; but he subdued his rising fury, and asked, “How know you anything about them sparkles, I should like to know?”

“I saw ’em in the cupboard, father,” said George; “so tell us what they be for.”

“Yes, I will, answered Peter. “I’ve been thinking for a long while as how I had better; have two to work at money-making than only one.”

“Are them things precious stones?” asked the boy.

“They be,” replied Peter; “they’s worth ten to twenty pounds a piece, and I’ll sell ’em at that price come Monday next.”

“Where do you get ’em?” inquired the boy.

“Out of the melted iron,” answered the puddler; “I go in after ’em.”

George whistled.

“Aye, aye! you may’nt believe me,” said the puddler angrily; “but I’ll do so afore your very eyes.”

“How is it that you don’t get burned up, father?”

“Why, I’ve a chemical stuff to grease myself with, and that saves me; but it’s awful torment in that fire!”

George looked incredulous, but dared not utter his doubts let his father should break forth into a paroxysm of rage.

“There’s a hope of salvation goes with every sparkle,” continued Peter Lundy; “but, dash me! if I care, so long as it can be turned into money.”

“Good God!” exclaimed George, for he had a conscience.

“I intend you, George, to help me in getting them affairs; you are young, and will have more. I have nearly gathered in and sold all mine: they do not appear as bright or as often as they used to; and I have been in that sweltering heat twice or thrice, and got nothing out after all.”

“I won’t go, father,” said George, resolutely.

“You won’t! Then I’ll throw you in alive, you young ——”

George escaped through the door as his father was slinging one of his stone shoes savagely after him.

On the following day Peter went in before his son. However much he stirred the metal, no spark appeared, and he was obliged to step out after a fruitless ten minutes of death-agony.

George had stood numbed with horror. At first he had endeavored to make his father desist, but in vain. Then followed the old writhing in the fire, and the settled agony on the puddler’s face as he moved about stirring the scum, with his features kindled up by the upward flare.

When he stepped out, and scaled from his limbs the flakes of dross which adhered, George feared to approach him; but Peter, with a loud laugh, shouted, “Well, lad! hast pluck enough to do as I have done? My grace-hours are numbered, seest thou! I could get no crystal to-day?”

George shook his head resolutely.

“Ah! well, well,” exclaimed the puddler, “after a little while it will not frighten you. Faix! it tried me a bit to step in the first time!”

When George was left alone in the house, he opened the chest, took away several of the specimens, and, hurrying to the foundry, flung them into the iron.

The first Monday after the new moon arrived Peter waited impatiently for the arrival of the stranger. George, who also expected him, was on the alert as well.

At 11 precisely there was a tap at the window, and on opening it the elderly gentleman was visible in the starlight, dressed in his long brown cloak.

“You are rather short of the usual number,” complained he, counting the crystals in his hand. “How comes that, Peter?”

“Well, I don’t know,” replied the founder, “but they are getting scarce now. I want my son George to take to the profession, but he don’t fancy it somehow.”

“Well, Peter,” said the naturalist, “I looked in at the foundry on my way.”

“It is locked up,” interrupted Peter.

“Nevertheless, I managed to see in as much as was needed. It strucked me that the metal was in a prime state. Can’t you come with me, and see if your luck this night will not be better? I particularly want a fine specimen, and those you have given me are so small. Come, suppose you make a trial to-night?”

“Well, I don’t mind. George, lad, come—you must learn the trade.” The boy followed.

Lundy unlocked the silent foundry. The fires below were tended by a man all night, but the upper portion, containing the exposed metal, was kept locked.

Peter divested himself of his clothing, anointed himself as high as the waist, drew a felt cap over his head, placed his feet in the stone shoes, and took up his ladle. Then he stepped cautiously into the fused iron.

George turned aside his head: but he could not stop his ears to the moans and gasps of his father. When he looked again Peter was moving through the fire.

The stranger uttered a shout of joy. In the centre of the vat burned brilliantly a starry spark—whiter and keener than any Peter had seen before. Forward he waded, hid ladle brandished in his right hand.

“Peter,” shouted the stranger, “twenty pounds for that.”

“Father! dear father!” cried George, moved by a sudden impulse, “leave that one—that only one.”

“Thirty pounds for that sparkle,” yelled the older man, rushing frantically along the verge.

“Father, father! do leave it,” cried the boy once more.

“Come, Peter! I’ll give you fifty for it. I tell you this: that one spark is your last chance: you can never have any more.”

Lundy redoubled his efforts to move through the thick mass. George grasped a long-handled rake, ran forward, dashed it toward the white star, and began to drag it from his father’s reach. Peter yelled forth a horrible curse.

“Get it! get it!” roared the stranger, stamping and dashing his arms about, and running upon the white-hot bricks.

“George, almost beaten down by the blast of the fire, dragged on still.

The puddler plowed desperately after it: his head was reeling in the sweltering fire-breath, which brought tears from the hot eyes but dried them up on the cheeks. His ladle dropped from his fingers, was black only for a moment, and then white as the bed on which it lay.

George fell exhausted, dragging the rake toward the edge and the spark along with it. Peter Lundy bent forward.

“Catch it, man! catch it, man!” shrieked the stranger.

Peter dashed his hands into the metal and fell forward.

George caught one glimpse of a charred mass lifting itself and falling again—heard the sound as it burned, then staggered through the door, to faint upon a bank of ragged-robin and bird’s-eye speedwell.

The workmen, when on the following morning they came to the foundry, saw the lower part of a man floating on the surface of the fire-vat, red and unconsumed. Of the upper portion there remained but some thin white dust, which their breath blew away.

Only Once a Year.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1924, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.