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   Chapter 5 Nero not the Last Violinist of his Kind

The Two Vanrevels By Booth Tarkington Characters: 16502

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Miss Carewe was at her desk, writing to Sister Cecilia, whom she most loved of all the world, when the bells startled her with their sudden clangor. The quill dropped from her hand; she started to her feet, wide-eyed, not understanding; while the whole town, drowsing peacefully a moment ago, resounded immediately with a loud confusion. She ran to the front door and looked out, her heart beating wildly.

The western sky was touched with a soft rose-color, which quickly became a warm glow, fluctuated, and, in the instant, shot up like the coming of a full Aurora. Then through the broken foliage of the treetops could be seen the orange curls of flames, three-quarters of a mile away though they were.

People, calling loudly that "it was Carewe's warehouses," were running down the street. From the stable, old Nelson, on her father's best horse, came galloping, and seeing the white figure in the doorway, cried out in a quavering voice, without checking his steed.

"I goin' tell yo' pa, Miss Betty, he in de kentry on lan' bus'ness. Go back in de house, Missy!"

The other servants, like ragged sketches in the night, flitted by, with excited ejaculations, to join the runners, and Miss Betty followed them across the dew-strewn turf in her night slippers, but at the gate she stopped.

From up the street came the sound of a bell smaller than those of the churches and courthouse, yet one that outdid all others in the madness of its appeal to clear the way. It was borne along by what seemed at first an indefinite black mass, but which-as the Aurora grew keener, producing even here a faint, yellow twilight-resolved itself into a mob of hoarsely-shouting men and boys, who were running and tugging at ropes, which drew along three extraordinary vehicles. They came rapidly down the street and passed Miss Betty with a hubbub and din beyond all understanding; one line of men, most of them in red shirts and oil-cloth helmets, at a dead run with the hose-cart; a second line with the hand-engine; the third dragging the ladder-wagon. One man was riding, a tall, straight gentleman in evening clothes and without a hat, who stood precariously in the hose-cart, calling in an annoyed tone through a brazen trumpet. Miss Betty recognized him at once; it was he who caught her kitten; and she thought that if she had been Fanchon Bareaud she must have screamed a warning, for his balance appeared a thing of mere luck, and, if he fell, he would be trampled under foot and probably run over by the engine. But, happily (she remembered), she was not Fanchon Bareaud!

Before, behind, and beside the Department, raced a throng of boys, wild with the joy experienced by their species when property is being handsomely destroyed; after them came panting women, holding their sides and gasping with the effort to keep up with the flying procession.

Miss Betty trembled, for she had never seen the like in her life; she stood close to the hedge and let them go by; then she turned in after them and ran like a fleet young deer. She was going to the fire.

Over all the uproar could be heard the angry voice through the trumpet, calling the turns of the streets to the men in the van, upbraiding them and those of the other two companies impartially; and few of his hearers denied the chief his right to express some chagrin; since the Department (organized a half-year, hard-drilled, and this its first fire worth the name) was late on account of the refusal of the members to move until they had donned their new uniforms; for the uniforms had arrived from Philadelphia two months ago, and tonight offered the first opportunity to display them in public.

"Hail Vanrevel!" panted Tappingham Marsh to Eugene Madrillon, as the two, running in the van of the "Hose Company," splattered through a mud-puddle. "You'd think he was Carewe's only son and heir instead of his worst enemy. Hark to the man!"

"I'd let it burn, if I were he," returned the other.

"It was all Crailey's fault," said Tappingham, swinging an arm free to wipe the spattered mud from his face. "He swore he wouldn't budge without his uniform, and the rest only backed him up; that was all. Crailey said Carewe could better afford to lose his shanties than the overworked Department its first chance to look beautiful and earnest. Tom asked him why he didn't send for a fiddle," Marsh finished with a chuckle.

"Carewe might afford to lose a little, even a warehouse or two, if only out of what he's taken from Crailey and the rest of us, these three years!"

"Taken from Vanrevel, you mean. Who doesn't know where Crailey's-Here's Main Street; look out for the turn!"

They swung out of the thick shadows of Carewe Street into full view of the fire, and their faces were illuminated as by sunrise.

The warehouses stood on the river-bank, at the foot of the street, just south of the new "covered bridge." There were four of them, huge, bare-sided buildings; the two nearer the bridge of brick, the others of wood, and all of them rich with stores of every kind of river-merchandise and costly freight: furniture that had voyaged from New England down the long coast, across the Mexican Gulf, through the flat Delta, and had made the winding journey up the great river a thousand miles, and almost a thousand more, following the greater and lesser tributaries; cloth from Connecticut that had been sold in Philadelphia, then carried over mountains and through forests by steam, by canal, by stage, and six-mule freight-wagons, to Pittsburg, down the Ohio, and thence up to Rouen on the packet; Tennessee cotton, on its way to Massachusetts and Rhode Island spindles, lay there beside huge mounds of raw wool from Illinois, ready to be fed to the Rouen mill; dates and nuts from the Caribbean Sea; lemons from groves of the faraway tropics; cigars from the Antilles; tobacco from Virginia and Kentucky; most precious of all, the great granary of the farmers' wheat from the level fields at home; and all the rich stores and the houses that held them, as well as the wharves upon which they had been landed, and the steamers that brought them up the Rouen River, belonged to Robert Carewe.

That it was her father's property which was imperilled attested to the justification of Miss Betty in running to a fire; and, as she followed the crowd into Main Street, she felt a not unpleasant proprietary interest in the spectacle. Very opposite sensations animated the breast of the man with the trumpet, who was more acutely conscious than any other that these were Robert Carewe's possessions which were burning so handsomely. Nor was he the only one among the firemen who ground his teeth over the folly of the uniforms; for now they could plainly see the ruin being wrought, the devastation threatened. The two upper stories of the southernmost warehouse had swathed themselves in one great flame; the building next on the north, also of frame, was smoking heavily; and there was a wind from the southwest, which, continuing with the fire unchecked, threatened the town itself. There was work for the Volunteer Brigade that night.

They came down Main Street with a rush, the figure of their chief swaying over them on his high perch, while their shouting was drowned in the louder roar of greeting from the crowd, into which they plunged as a diver into the water, swirls and eddies of people marking the wake. A moment later a section of the roof of the burning warehouse fell in, with a sonorous and reverberating crash.

The "Engine Company" ran the force-pump out to the end of one of the lower wharves; two lines of pipe were attached; two rows of men mounted the planks for the pumpers, and, at the word of command, began the up-and-down of the hand-machine with admirable vim. Nothing happened; the water did not come; something appeared to be wrong with the mechanism. As everyone felt the crucial need of haste, nothing could have been more natural than that all the members of the "Engine Company" should simultaneously endeavor to repair the defect; therefore ensued upon the spot a species of riot which put the engine out of its sphere of usefulness.

In the meantime, fifty or sixty men and boys who ran with the machines, but who

had no place in their operation, being the Bucket Brigade, had formed a line and were throwing large pails of water in the general direction of the southernmost warehouse, which it was now impossible to save; while the gentlemen of the "Hook-and-Ladder Company," abandoning their wagons, and armed with axes, heroically assaulted the big door of the granary, the second building, whence they were driven by the exasperated chief, who informed them that the only way to save the wheat was to save the building. Crailey Gray, one of the berated axemen, remained by the shattered door after the others had gone, and, struck by a sudden thought, set his hand upon the iron latch and opened the door by this simple process. It was not locked. Crailey leaned against the casement and laughed with his whole soul and body.

Meanwhile, by dint of shouting in men's ears when near them, through the trumpet when distant, tearing axes from their hands, imperiously gesticulating to subordinate commanders, and lingering in no one spot for more than a second, Mr. Vanrevel reduced his forces to a semblance of order in a remarkably short time, considering the confusion into which they had fallen.

The space between the burning warehouse and that next it was not more than fifty feet in width, but fifty feet so hot no one took thought of entering there; an area as discomfiting in appearance as it was beautiful with the thick rain of sparks and firebrands that fell upon it. But the chief had decided that this space must be occupied, and more: must be held, since it was the only point of defence for the second warehouse. The roof of this building would burn, which would mean the destruction of the warehouse, unless it could be mounted, because the streams of water could not play upon it from the ground, nor, from the ladders, do much more than wet the projecting eaves. It was a gable roof, the eaves twenty feet lower on the south side than on the north, where the ladders could not hope to reach them. Vanrevel swung his line of bucketeers round to throw water, not upon the flames, but upon the ladder-men.

Miss Carewe stood in the crowd upon the opposite side of the broad street. Even there her cheeks were uncomfortably hot, and sometimes she had to brush a spark from her shoulder, though she was too much excited to mind this. She was watching the beautiful fiery furnace between the north wall of the burning warehouse and the south wall of its neighbor, the fifty feet brilliant and misty with vaporous rose-color, dotted with the myriad red stars, her eyes shining with the reflection of their fierce beauty. She saw how the vapors moved there, like men walking in fire, and she was vaguely recalling Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, when, over the silhouetted heads of the crowd before her, a long black ladder rose, wobbled, tilted crazily, then lamely advanced and ranged itself against the south wall of the second warehouse, its top rung striking ten feet short of the eaves. She hoped that no one had any notion of mounting that ladder.

A figure appeared upon it immediately, that of a gentleman, bareheaded and in evening dress, with a brass trumpet swinging from a cord about his shoulders; the noise grew less; the shouting died away, and the crowd became almost silent, as the figure, climbing slowly drew up above their heads. Two or three rungs beneath, came a second-a man in helmet and uniform. The clothes of both men, drenched by the bucketeers, clung to them, steaming. As the second figure mounted, a third appeared; but this was the last, for the ladder was frail, and sagged toward the smoking wall with the weight of the three.

The chief, three-fourths of the way to the top, shouted down a stifled command, and a short grappling-ladder, fitted at one end with a pair of spiked iron hooks, was passed to him. Then he toiled upward until his feet rested on the third rung from the top; here he turned, setting his back to the wall, lifted the grappling-ladder high over his head so that it rested against the eaves above him, and brought it down sharply, fastening the spiked hooks in the roof. As the eaves projected fully three feet, this left the grappling-ladder hanging that distance out from the wall, its lowest rung a little above the level of the chief's shoulders.

Miss Betty drew in her breath with a little choked cry. There was a small terraced hill of piled-up packing-boxes near her, possession of which had been taken by a company of raggamuffinish boys, and she found herself standing on the highest box and sharing the summit with these questionable youths, almost without noting her action in mounting thither, so strained was the concentration of her attention upon the figure high up in the rose-glow against the warehouse wall. The man, surely, surely, was not going to trust himself to that bit of wooden web hanging from the roof! Where was Miss Bareaud that she permitted it? Ah, if Betty had been Fanchon and madwoman enough to have accepted this madman, she would have compelled him to come down at once, and thereafter would lock him up in the house whenever the bells rang!

But the roof was to be mounted or Robert Carewe's property lost. Already little flames were dancing up from the shingles, where firebrands had fallen, their number increasing with each second. So Vanrevel raised his arms, took a hard grip upon the lowest rung of the grappling-ladder and tried it with his weight; the iron hooks bit deeper into the roof; they held. He swung himself out into the air with nothing beneath him, caught the rung under his knee, and for a moment hung there while the crowd withheld from breathing; then a cloud of smoke, swirling that way, made him the mere ghostly nucleus of himself, blotted him out altogether, and, as it rose slowly upward, showed the ladder free and empty, so that at first there was an instant when they thought that he had fallen. But, as the smoke cleared, there was the tall figure on the roof.

It was an agile and daring thing to do, and the man who did it was mightily applauded. The cheering bothered him, however, for he was trying to make them understand, below, what would happen to the "Engine Company" in case the water was not sent through the lines directly; and what he said should be done to the engineers included things that would have blanched the cheek of the most inventive Spanish Inquisitor that ever lived.

Miss Betty made a gesture as if to a person within whispering distance. "Your coat is on fire," she said in an ordinary conversational tone, without knowing she had spoken aloud, and Mr. Vanrevel, more than one hundred feet away, seemed particularly conscious of the pertinence of her remark. He removed the garment with alacrity, and, for the lack of the tardy water, began to use it as a flail upon the firebrands and little flames about him; the sheer desperate best of a man in a rage, doing what he could when others failed him. Showers of sparks fell upon him; the smoke was rising everywhere from the roof and the walls below; and, growing denser and denser, shrouded him in heavy veils, so that, as he ran hither and thither, now visible, now unseen, stamping and beating and sweeping away the brands that fell, he seemed but the red and ghostly caricature of a Xerxes, ineffectually lashing the sea. They were calling to him imploringly to come down, in heaven's name to come down!

The second man had followed to the top of the ladder against the wall, and there he paused, waiting to pass up the line of hose when the word should come that the force-pump had been repaired; but the people thought that he waited because he was afraid to trust himself to the grappling-ladder. He was afraid, exceedingly afraid; though that was not why he waited; and he was still chuckling over the assault of the axes.

His situation had not much the advantage of that of the chief: his red shirt might have been set with orange jewels, so studded it was with the flying sparks; and, a large brand dropping upon his helmet, he threw up his hand to dislodge it and lost the helmet. The great light fell upon his fair hair and smiling face, and it was then that Miss Betty recognized the Incroyable of her garden.

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