Chapter IX. The Fire in the Savoy
 

The next evening John Wilkes returned after an absence of but half an hour.

"Why, John, you can but have smoked a single pipe! Did you not find your cronies there?"

"I hurried back, Captain, because a man from one of the ships in the Pool landed and said there was a great light in the sky, and that it seemed to him it was either a big fire in the Temple, or in one of the mansions beyond the walls; so methought I would come in and ask Cyril if he would like to go with me to see what was happening."

"I should like it much, John. I saw a great fire in Holborn just after I came over from France, and a brave sight it was, though very terrible; and I would willingly see one again."

He took his hat and cloak and was about to be off, when Captain Dave called after him,--

"Buckle on your sword, lad, and leave your purse behind you. A fire ever attracts thieves and cut-throats, who flock round in hopes of stealing something in the confusion. Besides, as I have told you before, you should never go out after dark without your sword, even were it but to cross the road."

Cyril ran upstairs to his room, buckled on his weapon, and ran down again.

"The Captain is right," John Wilkes said, as he joined him at the door. "After your two adventures, it would be folly for you to go out unarmed."

"Oh, I expect they have forgotten about me long ago," Cyril laughed lightly.

"I don't know," John Wilkes said seriously. "As to Marner's gang, I think that there is not much fear from them, unless that young rascal Robert and the scoundrel who was with him have returned from Holland; and that they are not likely to do for some time to come. But it would not be in human nature if the man you call John Harvey should take his defeat without trying to pay you back for that wound you gave him, for getting Mistress Nellie out of his hands, and for making him the laughing-stock of his comrades. I tell you that there is scarce an evening that I have gone out but some fellow passes me before I have gone twenty yards, and, as he brushes my sleeve, turns his head to look at me. But yesternight I said to one who so behaved, 'Look here, mate, this is not the first time you have run against me. I warn you that if it happens again I will crack your head with my cudgel.' The fellow went off, muttering and grumbling, but I have no doubt that he and the others, for it certainly was not always the same man, were watching for you. To-night there was no one about, or, if there was, he did not come near me, and it may be that, finding you never leave the house after nightfall, they have decided to give it up for the present. But I thought I heard a footfall lower down the street, just as we came out of the house, and it is like enough that we are followed now."

"At any rate, they would scarce attack two of us, John, and I should not mind if they did. It is a stab in the back that I am afraid of more than an open quarrel."

"You may have a better swordsman to deal with next time. The fellow himself would scarcely care to cross swords with you again, but he would have no difficulty in getting half-a-dozen cut-throats from the purlieus of the Temple or Westminster, professional bullies, who are ready to use their swords to those who care to purchase them, and who would cut a throat for a few crowns, without caring a jot whose throat it was. Some of these fellows are disbanded soldiers. Some are men who were ruined in the wars. Some are tavern bullies--broken men, reckless and quarrelsome gamblers so long as they have a shilling in their pockets, but equally ready to take to the road or to rob a house when their pockets are empty."

By this time they had passed the Exchange into Cheapside. Many people were hurrying in the same direction and wondering where the fire was. Presently one of the Fire Companies, with buckets, ladders, and axes, passed them at a run. Even in Cheapside the glow in the sky ahead could be plainly seen, but it was not until they passed St. Paul's and stood at the top of Ludgate Hill that the flames, shooting up high in the air, were visible. They were almost straight ahead.

"It must be at the other end of Fleet Street," Cyril said, as they broke into a run.

"Farther than that, lad. It must be one of the mansions along the Strand. A fire always looks closer than it is. I have seen a ship in flames that looked scarce a mile away, and yet, sailing with a brisk wind, it took us over an hour to come up to it."

The crowd became thicker as they approached Temple Bar. The upper windows of the houses were all open, and women were leaning out looking at the sight. From every lane and alley men poured into the street and swelled the hurrying current. They passed through the Bar, expecting to find that the fire was close at hand. They had, however, some distance farther to go, for the fire was at a mansion in the Savoy. Another Fire Company came along when they were within a hundred yards of the spot.

"Join in with them," Cyril said; and he and John Wilkes managed to push their way into the ranks, joining in the shout, "Way there, way! Make room for the buckets!"

Aided by some of the City watch the Company made its way through the crowd, and hurried down the hill from the Strand into the Savoy. A party of the King's Guard, who had just marched up, kept back the crowd, and, when once in the open space, Cyril and his companion stepped out from the ranks and joined a group of people who had arrived before the constables and soldiers had come up.

The mansion from which the fire had originated was in flames from top to bottom. The roof had fallen in. Volumes of flame and sparks shot high into the air, threatening the safety of several other houses standing near. The Fire Companies were working their hand-pumps, throwing water on to the doors and woodwork of these houses. Long lines of men were extended down to the edge of the river and passed the buckets backwards and forwards. City officials, gentlemen of the Court, and officers of the troops, moved to and fro shouting directions and superintending the work. From many of the houses the inhabitants were bringing out their furniture and goods, aided by the constables and spectators.

"It is a grand sight," Cyril said, as, with his companion, he took his place in a quiet corner where a projecting portico threw a deep shadow.

"It will soon be grander still. The wind is taking the sparks and flames westwards, and nothing can save that house over there. Do you see the little jets of flame already bursting through the roof?"

"The house seems empty. There is not a window open."

"It looks so, Cyril, but there may be people asleep at the back. Let us work round and have a look from behind."

They turned down an alley, and in a minute or two came out behind the house. There was a garden and some high trees, but it was surrounded by a wall, and they could not see the windows.

"Here, Cyril, I will give you a hoist up. If you stand on my shoulders, you can reach to the top of the wall and pull yourself up. Come along here to where that branch projects over. That's it. Now drop your cloak, and jump on to my back. That is right. Now get on to my shoulders."

Cyril managed to get up.

"I can just touch the top, but I can't get my fingers on to it."

"Put your foot on my head. I will warrant it is strong enough to bear your weight."

Cyril did as he was told, grasped the top of the wall, and, after a sharp struggle, seated himself astride on it. Just as he did so, a window in a wing projecting into the garden was thrown open, and a female voice uttered a loud scream for help. There was light enough for Cyril to see that the lower windows were all barred. He shouted back,--

"Can't you get down the staircase?"

"No; the house is full of smoke. There are some children here. Help! Help!" and the voice rose in a loud scream again.

Cyril dropped down into the roadway by the side of John Wilkes.

"There are some women and children in there, John. They can't get out. We must go round to the other side and get some axes and break down the door."

Snatching up his cloak, he ran at full speed to his former position, followed by Wilkes. The roof of the house was now in flames. Many of the shutters and window-frames had also caught fire, from the heat. He ran up to two gentlemen who seemed to be directing the operations.

"There are some women and children in a room at the back of that house," he said. "I have just been round there to see. They are in the second storey, and are crying for help."

"I fear the ladders are too short."

"I can tie two or three of them together," Wilkes said. "I am an old sailor and can answer for the knots."

The firemen were already dashing water on the lower windows of the front of the house. A party with axes were cutting at the door, but this was so massive and solid that it resisted their efforts. One of the gentlemen went down to them. At his orders eight or ten men seized ladders. Cyril snatched some ropes from a heap that had been thrown down by the firemen, and the party, with one of the gentlemen, ran round to the back of the house. Two ladders were placed against the wall. John Wilkes, running up one of them, hauled several of the others up, and lowered them into the garden.

The flames were now issuing from some of the upper windows. Cyril dropped from the wall into the garden, and, running close up to the house, shouted to three or four women, who were screaming loudly, and hanging so far out that he thought they would fall, that help was at hand, and that they would be speedily rescued. John Wilkes rapidly tied three of the short ladders together. These were speedily raised, but it was found that they just reached the window. One of the firemen ran up, while John set to work to prepare another long ladder. As there was no sign of life at any other window he laid it down on the grass when finished.

"If you will put it up at the next window," Cyril said, "I will mount it. The woman said there were children in the house, and possibly I may find them. Those women are so frightened that they don't know what they are doing."

One woman had already been got on to the other ladder, but instead of coming down, she held on tightly, screaming at the top of her voice, until the fireman with great difficulty got up by her side, wrenched her hands from their hold, threw her across his shoulder, and carried her down.

The room was full of smoke as Cyril leapt into it, but he found that it was not, as he had supposed, the one in which the women at the next window were standing. Near the window, however, an elderly woman was lying on the floor insensible, and three girls of from eight to fourteen lay across her. Cyril thrust his head out of the window.

"Come up, John," he shouted. "I want help."

He lifted the youngest of the girls, and as he got her out of the window, John's head appeared above the sill.

"Take her down quick, John," he said, as he handed the child to him. "There are three others. They are all insensible from the smoke."

Filling his lungs with fresh air, he turned into the blinding smoke again, and speedily reappeared at the window with another of the girls. John was not yet at the bottom; he placed her with her head outside the window, and was back with the eldest girl by the time Wilkes was up again. He handed her to him, and then, taking the other, stepped out on to the ladder and followed Wilkes down.

"Brave lad!" the gentleman said, patting him on the shoulder. "Are there any more of them?"

"One more--a woman, sir. Do you go up, John. I will follow, for I doubt whether I can lift her by myself."

He followed Wilkes closely up the ladder. There was a red glow now in the smoke. Flames were bursting through the door. John was waiting at the window.

"Which way, lad? There is no seeing one's hand in the smoke."

"Just in front, John, not six feet away. Hold your breath."

They dashed forward together, seized the woman between them, and, dragging her to the window, placed her head and shoulders on the sill.

"You go first, John. She is too heavy for me," Cyril gasped.

John stumbled out, half suffocated, while Cyril thrust his head as far as he could outside the window.

"That is it, John; you take hold of her shoulder, and I will help you get her on to your back."

Between them they pushed her nearly out, and then, with Cyril's assistance, John got her across his shoulders. She was a heavy woman, and the old sailor had great difficulty in carrying her down. Cyril hung far out of the window till he saw him put his foot on the ground; then he seized a rung of the ladder, swung himself out on to it, and was soon down.

For a time he felt confused and bewildered, and was conscious that if he let go the ladder he should fall. He heard a voice say, "Bring one of those buckets of water," and directly afterwards, "Here, lad, put your head into this," and a handful of water was dashed into his face. It revived him, and, turning round, he plunged his head into a bucket that a man held up for him. Then he took a long breath or two, pressed the water from his hair, and felt himself again. The women at the other window had by this time been brought down. A door in the garden wall had been broken down with axes, and the women and girls were taken away to a neighbouring house.

"There is nothing more to do here," the gentlemen said. "Now, men, you are to enter the houses round about. Wherever a door is fastened, break it in. Go out on to the roofs with buckets, put out the sparks as fast as they fall. I will send some more men to help you at once." He then put his hand on Cyril's shoulder, and walked back with him to the open space.

"We have saved them all," he said to the other gentleman who had now come up, "but it has been a close touch, and it was only by the gallantry of this young gentleman and another with him that the lives of three girls and a woman were rescued. I think all the men that can be spared had better go round to the houses in that direction. You see, the wind is setting that way, and the only hope of stopping the progress of the fire is to get plenty of men with buckets out on the roofs and at all the upper windows."

The other gentleman gave the necessary orders to an officer.

"Now, young sir, may I ask your name?" the other said to Cyril.

"Cyril Shenstone, sir," he replied respectfully; for he saw that the two men before him were persons of rank.

"Shenstone? I know the name well. Are you any relation of Sir Aubrey Shenstone?"

"He was my father, sir."

"A brave soldier, and a hearty companion," the other said warmly. "He rode behind me scores of times into the thick of the fight. I am Prince Rupert, lad."

Cyril doffed his hat in deep respect. His father had always spoken of the Prince in terms of boundless admiration, and had over and over again lamented that he had not been able to join the Prince in his exploits at sea.

"What has become of my old friend?" the Prince asked.

"He died six months ago, Prince."

"I am sorry to hear it. I did hear that, while I was away, he had been suing at Court. I asked for him, but could get no tidings of his whereabouts. But we cannot speak here. Ask for me to-morrow at Whitehall. Do you know this gentleman?"

"No, sir, I have not the honour."

"This is the Duke of Albemarle, my former enemy, but now my good friend. You will like the lad no worse, my Lord, because his father more than once rode with me into the heart of your ranks."

"Certainly not," the Duke said. "It is clear that the son will be as gallant a gentleman as his father was before him, and, thank God! it is not against Englishmen that he will draw his sword. You may count me as your friend, sir, henceforth."

Cyril bowed deeply and retired, while Prince Rupert and the Duke hurried away again to see that the operations they had directed were properly carried out.