Garman and Worse/Chapter XVII

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CHAPTER XVII.

Mrs. Garman had already gone to bed after her long and tiring day. Madeleine had also slipped out of the way, as she always tried to do when Fanny came. Both Fanny and Morten were at Sandsgaard that evening. The latter behaved to Madeleine just as before, and was so smiling and kind that Madeleine had often to ask herself if she had not, after all, been dreaming on that moonlight evening.

It was nearly eleven o'clock, and Gabriel had just returned from his expedition to the field above the West End. He had heard a noise up there when he had gone out to see how the wind was.

The Consul and Uncle Richard were playing chess. Morten, Fanny, and Rachel were talking of to-morrow's ball, and they every now and then addressed themselves to Miss Cordsen, who was sitting by the fire side polishing the silver.

"It is a south wind, is it not, Gabriel?" said the Consul, as he listened to the sough of the wind through the trees.

"South-west, and blowing fresh, father," answered Gabriel.

"Good!" said the Consul. "It won't do us any harm if only the wind doesn't get round to the north-ward, because that drives the sea right in on to the yard."

The ladies were getting up to say good night, and Morten was just going to brew himself another glass of toddy, when excited voices were heard below. Some one came hurriedly up the staircase, the door opened, and in rushed Anders Begmand. His face was as white as it could be for sweat and pitch, his stiff hair was standing on end, while, hat in hand and with his eyes fixed on the young Consul, he began—"The—the—the"—quicker and quicker. It was quite plain that it was something of great importance, and his face grew as red as fire with the effort. "The—the—the——"

"Sing, will you?" shouted the young Consul, stamping on the floor.

Begmand began singing to a merry little air, "A fire's broken out in the pitch-house!"

At the same moment some one in the yard below shouted at the top of his voice, "Fire! fire!"

Morten tore aside the blind, and the red glare could be seen on the dewy panes. Every one sprang to the window.

"Silence!" cried the young Consul, while every one paused and looked at him. The little man was standing as erect as an arrow, his eyes calm and clear, and his lower jaw projecting as usual; and as if conscious that he was the chief of the house, he said, "A fire has broken out in the building-yard. You, Morten, go and get the two engines from the warehouse. The keys are hanging in the men's bedroom. Take the fire-buckets with you."

Morten dashed off.

"Dick, you must go up to the second floor in the same building. There's a large sail there; put it in the sea, and stretch it over the roof of the storehouse. You understand? The storehouse must be saved, or else——"

Uncle Richard was already out of the door with Anders Begmand.

"Gabriel! you run up to the farm! Gabriel!" cried the Consul. But there was no Gabriel to be seen; he had already vanished through another door.

"Oh! what a wretched boy it is!" said the young Consul, in spite of himself.

There was something uncanny about the black smoke, and the dark red flame, which seemed every moment to get a surer foothold, and to gather strength without a soul to oppose them. Gabriel noticed nothing: he saw only the red glare on the ship, which loomed against the dark grey sky, and off he ran like a madman over the field above the house. When he saw the ship was in danger, Tom Robson was his first and only thought, and he went straight into the house where he was so well known.

"Mr. Robson! Tom! Tom!" he shouted into the dark room, which smelt like an old rum-cask. "She's on fire, Tom! The ship's on fire!"

He groped his way to the bed, and gave Mr. Robson a good shaking. The landlady, a slatternly sailor's wife, now entered with a light. Only a few minutes before, she had managed to get Tom undressed, somehow or another.

"Oh no! can that be Mr. Gabriel?" said she, drawing her night-dress closer to her. "Is it a fire? Mr. Robson!" she cried, and helped Gabriel to shake him.

"What's the matter?" muttered he in English, turning round his face, all bruised and bloody as he was.

"Oh no, no!" whined the woman, "how beastly drunk he is! Isn't it a shame for such a fine fellow to make himself just like a pig? Tom! Tom! Oh dear me, how tipsy he is!"

Without a moment's hesitation, Gabriel dashed the contents of the basin in his face. Mr. Robson sputtered and blew, and raising himself on his left arm, swung the right feebly over his head, and shouted, "Three cheers for Morten Garman! Hip—hip——" But before he got to "Hurrah," he fell back on his side and was snoring again. Gabriel left the room; there was nothing to be done with Tom.

The wind was sweeping down over the meadow, and driving the thick smoke from the pitch-house out over the fjord. All round the house it was as light as day. Long tongues of flame were flying far away over the fields, shedding their glare here and there on the front of a whitewashed house, while up above on the level ground it was still dark, under the shadow of the vessel. And now a glitter was seen, and a rumble was heard in the direction of the town. The fire brigade was on its way. And from the farmhouses which lay near, down over the fields, but chiefly in the avenue leading from the town, people were to be seen running, first singly, then two or three, then several together, until the crowd in the avenue appeared like a close black mass, dotted here and there with red-and-white specks. When Gabriel got down again to the house he was at his wits' ends, and, leaning against the garden wall, he sobbed aloud.

Some one came skirting along the wall; it was the schoolmaster, Aalbom. He recognized Gabriel, and stopped. "Isn't it what I always said?" cried he, triumphantly. "You are a regular Laban, standing here blubbering. You might at any rate manage to lend a hand with the water, you lout!"

Gabriel sprang up, as if seized with a sudden inspiration, pushed the master aside, and dashed down towards the building-yard.

"An ill-mannered cub," muttered Aalbom, as he continued his way to get a good place from which to see the fire.

Rachel was naturally most anxious to make herself useful, but there was nothing for her to do. She therefore stood on the steps in front of the house, and watched the crowd streaming up from the town, while the fire threw its ever-increasing glare down the high road, which was now thronged with people. Suddenly she heard a voice she recognized. "Out of the way! Let the engines pass! Look out there—the engines! Out of the way!" The crowd opened, and out of the throng came two rows of men, dragging the red-painted fire-engine by a long rope. Jacob Worse was running in front, shouting and giving his orders. He gave her a hurried greeting as he passed, and away rumbled the engine towards the ship-yard. It struck Rachel that his face was the only one that showed any feeling of sympathy or sorrow; all the rest appeared indifferent, and some showed, openly enough, that they thought the fire glorious sport. Rachel turned away and went into the house.

All this time the young Consul was standing at the corner window, on the north side of the small sitting-room. The pitch-house was now blazing inside; the flames came bursting out of the door, and followed the line of melted pitch which flowed along the ground. The thick wooden walls were glowing with the heat, and he could see the people shrink back when they got too near them. The wind was blowing so strongly, that it beat down the smoke and shrouded the engines and spectators from his view, but upon the roof of the storehouse he could see Uncle Richard, in company with some other forms, working away with the wet sail. The storehouse was only a few yards distant from the pitch-house, and was thus so close under the stern of the ship that she was as good as lost, if the fire once happened to catch the former building.

The Consul could see that they had got the sail drawn over the roof; but at that instant the tiled roof of the pitch-house fell in, and the flames suddenly shot high into the air, and were borne by the wind right down on to the storehouse. The attaché, and those that were with him, had to get down from the roof on the other side as best they might.

A step was heard running up the stairs and through the passage.

"Father! father!" It was Morten, who dashed in breathless and dripping. "Father, we must have some powder; the storehouse must be blown up!"

"Nonsense!" answered the Consul, drily. "Why, it is right under the very stern of the ship."

"Well, I don't know." answered Morten, "but something must be done. I don't see much good in those old fire-engines."

The young Consul drew himself up; he seemed to hear an echo of all the disagreements there had been between them. It was the old story, the new against the old, and he answered shortly and coldly—

"I am still the head of the firm. Go back and do your duty, as I directed."

Morten turned and left the room with an air of defiance. The idea of using powder had taken his fancy, although it was not his own. An engineer had been standing behind Morten with his hands in his pockets, after the manner of engineers, and had said, as engineers do say, "If I had my way, I'm blest if I wouldn't do different to this."

"What would you do?" asked Morten.

"Powder!" answered the engineer, curtly, as engineers have a habit of answering.

It was hard for Morten to give up his powder, and he muttered many ugly oaths as he went down the staircase.

When the Consul again looked out of the window after Morten had gone, he involuntarily seized the damask curtains tightly in his grasp, for the change which had taken place in these few minutes was only too apparent. The wet sail had already turned black, and in another minute was beginning to shrivel; while the whole of one side of the storehouse burst into a bright yellow flame, which came streaming down over the roof, flashing amid the thick smoke, and long fiery tongues began to lick underneath the vessel.

The Consul knew what there was in the building—tow, paint, oil, tar. The ship was hopelessly lost; the good ship of which he was even more proud than any one suspected.

After the first feeling of despair, he began to calculate in his head. The loss was heavy, very heavy. The business would be crippled for a long time, and the firm would receive an ugly blow.

And yet it was not this which seemed to crush the determined little man, until it almost made his knees quiver. This ship was to him more than a mere sum of money. It was a work he had undertaken in honour of "the old" against "the new;" against the advice of his son, and with his father always in his thoughts, under whose eye he almost seemed to be working. And now all was thus to come to such an untimely end.

The large engine belonging to the town managed to reach up just so high as to keep the ship's side wet as far as the gold stripe which surrounded her; but in under the stern the water could not get properly to work, and small points of flame soon began to break out, and the Consul could now see that the fire had caught the stern-post.

The side of the ship which was towards the fire became so hot that the steam rose from it every time the thin stream of water swept over it. And now all at once a large part became covered with small sparkling flames, just as if sheets of gold leaf had been thrown against it, which crackled in the wind, and at last got fast hold in the oakum seams between the planking. The hose played upon them and swept them away; in another moment they were there again. They broke out in other places, ever gaining ground, taking fast hold with their thousand tiny feet until they got up to the gold band, and even beyond it; and see! the flames now seemed to take a spring, and seize upon the name-board, and the shining letters stood out amidst the flames. It could be read by all. The Consul saw it. There it stood: Morten W. Garman. It was the old Consul's name—his ship—and now what was its fate?

"Look at the young Consul; how pale he is!" said one of the spectators to his neighbour.

"Where? Where is he? I don't see him."

"He was standing close by the corner window. He looked as pale as death. I wonder if he was insured?"

But the young Consul lay stretched upon the floor, and had pulled down the heavy damask curtains with him in his fall.

Miss Cordsen came into the room. When she saw the Consul, she pressed her hand to her heart, but not a sound escaped her lips. For a moment she stood collecting her thoughts, then she knelt down, freed the curtain from his grasp, and lifted him in her long bony arms.

He was not heavy, and she managed to raise herself with her burden. At this moment her glance fell on the mirror opposite. A shudder passed through her, and it was with difficulty she kept herself from falling. A whirlwind of recollections swept through her brain as he lay on her shoulder; and she bore him along, an aged and withered man. But she pressed her lips together, and drawing herself up, she carried him along like a child; and, as all the doors were open, she was able to get as far as the staircase. There she called to one of the maids, who came to her assistance.