Alice Ayres (Blake)
The Story of a Fire which occurred in the Borough, April 20th 1885.
What's there beneath, where the flowers in a heap
Rain down like the snows of May,
That a fellow like me should turn and weep
As I linger to go away?
My heart is that full I scarce can speak —
And, mates, ye may well look strange
At the hard, rough man with tears on his cheek —
Yes, faith, I have suffered a change.
What has happened? Well, one dark night
Last week, I was roaming about
Through London streets, when a sudden light
Woke me up with a start and a shout :
Fire, fire ! ere I knew the words I had said,
They were echoed deep and loud,
With a cry of terror to raise the dead
From the lips of the gathering crowd.
Round a blazing oil-shop they hustle quick,
Like flies where the flames shoot tall,
And the choking smoke burst dark and thick
Through the chinks of the cracking wall.
In the burning frame of a window above
Was set a woman's form,
And a cry, " Help, help, for God's dear love ! "
Rang out above the storm.
Quick, quick, to the rescue, firemen brave
With shouts and galloping feet !
" They come, they come, but too late to save,"
The cry rose up from the street.
Each man his coat, each woman her shawl,
They stripped themselves, and bound
In a mass together to break the fall
From topmost floor to ground.
" Leap, leap," they cried, to the ashen face
Hemmed round with darts of flame :
But she vanished three times from that fearful place,
And three times back she came.
Down through the window, a broad, soft bed
She flung on the cruel stones,
Then calmly bore forth in her arms and led
Three helpless little ones.
One by one on the bed beneath
She dropped the children down,
Three lives redeemed from fiery death,
While she thought not of her own.
When we saw her totter through blinding smoke
As her strength with her breath should fail,
From a sea of flamelit faces broke
One agonising wail :
" For God's sake, save yourself," they shriek,
As they raise the outstretched bed ;
Towards the tongues of fire that licked her cheek
The girl turned round her head.
Oh God ! those eyes of anguish wild,
Those white lips of despair
Cast back on the mother and youngest child
Sunk, choked and senseless there !
She could no more — in her frenzy wrought
To a rash and sudden spring —
Headforemost, in our arms we caught
A crushed and speechless thing !
With shouts through the night speed the firemen brave,
As the fountains of flame shoot higher :
A rush of waters — too late to save
From the grasp of the fiend of fire !
Dust and ashes were all that was left
"When they passed that smouldering door ;
None lived of that house but those infants bereft,
And she who spoke no more.
I have looked on many an awful sight
On land and aboard o' ships,
But none like that — lying still and white,
"With a smile upon her lips.
We lifted her gently one and all —
No sound of life, no stir,
While we bore her to the hospital,
Gave hope to our hearts for her.
I hung like a ghost about the place
Where silent in peace she lay.
With the happy smile on her fair young face,
Till they knew she had passed away.
From her village home we carried her forth
For a noble burial ;
Ay, a hero's grave the maiden were worth
"Who died at duty's call.
No soldier nor sailor by land or sea
In the bed of honour laid.
Was ever more great of heart than she.
That simple serving maid.
Ay, all she had she gave — her life,
For the babes she never bore ;
What could the mother and the wife
For flesh of her flesh do more?
Like a comrade fallen, the firemen brave
Her snow-wreathed coffin bear,
And twenty maidens surround her grave,
In raiment white and fair.
I can well believe by the power of God
A heavenly angel sprung
From that broken lily beneath the sod,
"When earth to earth we flung.
This deed she has done shall be hallowed yet
By a people's tears and prayers,
For England our mother can never forget
Such a daughter as Alice Ayres.