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   Chapter 6 The Ever Unpractical Feminine

The Two Vanrevels By Booth Tarkington Characters: 14515

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


It was an investigating negro child of tender years, who, possessed of a petty sense of cause and effect, brought an illuminative simplicity to bear upon the problem of the force-pump; and a multitudinous agitation greeted his discovery that the engineers had forgotten to connect their pipes with the river.

This naive omission was fatal to the second warehouse; the wall burst into flame below Crailey Gray, who clung to the top of the ladder, choking, stifled, and dizzily fighting the sparks that covered him, yet still clutching the nozzle of the hose-line they had passed to him. When the stream at last leaped forth, making the nozzle fight in his grasp, he sent it straight up into the air and let the cataract fall back upon himself and upon the two men beneath him on the ladder.

There came a moment of blessed relief; and he looked out over the broad rosy blur of faces in the street, where no one wondered more than he how the water was to reach the roof. Suddenly he started, wiped his eyes with his wet sleeve, and peered intently down from under the shading arm. His roving glance crossed the smoke and flame to rest upon a tall, white figure that stood, full-length above the heads of the people, upon a pedestal wrought with the grotesque images of boys: a girl's figure, still as noon, enrapt, like the statue of some young goddess for whom were made these sacrificial pyres. Mr. Gray recognized his opportunity.

A blackened and unrecognizable face peered down from the eaves, and the voice belonging to it said, angrily: "Why didn't they send up that line before they put the water through it?"

"Never mind, Tom," answered Crailey cheerfully, "I'll bring it up." "You can't; I'll come down for it. Don't be every kind of a fool!"

"You want a monopoly, do you?" And Crailey, calling to Tappingham Marsh, next below him, to come higher, left the writhing nozzle in the latter's possession, swung himself out upon the grappling-ladder, imitating the chief's gymnastics, and immediately, one hand grasping the second rung, one knee crooked over the lowest, leaned head down and took the nozzle from Marsh. It was a heavy weight, and though Marsh supported the line beneath it, the great stream hurtling forth made it a difficult thing to manage, for it wriggled, recoiled and struggled as if it had been alive. Crailey made three attempts to draw himself up; but the strain was too much for his grip, and on the third attempt his fingers melted from the rung, and he swung down fearfully, hanging by his knee, but still clinging to the nozzle.

"Give it up, Crailey; it isn't worth it," Vanrevel called from overhead, not daring the weight of both on the light grappling-ladder.

But though Crailey cared no more for the saving of Robert Carewe's property than for a butterfly's wing in China, he could not give up now, any more than as a lad he could have forborne to turn somersaults when the prettiest little girl looked out of the school-house window. He passed the nozzle to Tappingham, caught the second rung with his left hand, and, once more hanging head downward, seized the nozzle; then, with his knee hooked tight, as the gushing water described a huge semicircle upon the smoke and hot vapor, he made a mad lurch through the air, while women shrieked; but he landed upright, half-sitting on the lowest rung. He climbed the grappling-ladder swiftly, in spite of the weight and contortions of the unmanageable beast he carried with him; Tom leaned far down and took it from him; and Crailey, passing the eaves, fell, exhausted, upon the roof. Just as he reached this temporary security, a lady was borne, fainting, out of the acclaiming crowd. Fanchon was there.

Word had been passed to the gentlemen of the "Engine Company" to shut off the water in order to allow the line to be carried up the ladder, and they received the command at the moment Tom lifted the nozzle, so that the stream dried up in his hands. This was the last straw, and the blackened, singed and scarred chief, setting the trumpet to his lips, gave himself entirely to wrath.

It struck Crailey, even as he lay, coughing and weeping with smoke, that there was something splendid and large in the other's rage. Vanrevel was ordinarily so steady and cool that this was worth seeing, this berserker gesture; worth hearing, this wonderful profanity, like Washington's one fit of cursing; and Crailey, knowing Tom, knew, too, that it had not come upon him because Carewe had a daughter into whose eyes Tom had looked; nor did he rage because he believed that Crailey's life and his were in the greater hazard for the lack of every drop of water that should have issued from the empty nozzle. Their lungs were burdened with smoke, while the intolerable smarting of throat, eyes, and nostrils was like the incision of a thousand needles in the membranes; their clothes were luminous with glowing circles where the sparks were eating; the blaze widened on the wall beneath them, and Marsh was shouting hoarsely that he could no longer hold his position on the ladder; yet Crailey knew that none of this was in Tom's mind as he stood, scorched, blistered, and haggard, on the edge of the roof, shaking his fist at the world. It was because his chance of saving the property of a man he despised was being endangered.

Crailey stretched forth a hand and touched his friend's knee. "Your side of the conversation is a trifle loud, Tom," he said. "Miss Carewe is down there, across the street, on a pile of boxes."

Tom stopped in the middle of a word, for which he may have received but half a black stroke from the recording angel. He wheeled toward the street, and, shielding his inflamed eyes with his hand, gazed downward in a stricken silence. From that moment Mr. Vanrevel's instructions to his followers were of a decorum at which not the meekest Sunday-school scholar dare have cavilled.

The three men now on the long ladder, Marsh, Eugene Madrillon, and Will Cummings, found their position untenable; for the flames, reaching all along the wall, were licking at the ladder itself, between Marsh and Eugene. "I can't stand this any longer," gasped Tappingham, "but I can't leave those two up there, either."

"Not alone," shouted Cummings from beneath Madrillon. "Let's go up."

Thus it happened, that when the water came again, and Vanrevel let it fall in a grateful cascade upon Crailey and himself, three manly voices were heard singing, as three men toiled through the billows of rosy gray, below the beleaguered pair:

"Oh the noble Duke of York, He had Ten thousand men; He marched them up the side of a house, And marched them down again!"

A head appeared above the eaves, and Marsh, then Eugene, then Cummings, came crawling over the cornice in turn, to join their comrades. They were a gallant band, those young gentlemen of Rouen, and they came with the ironical song on their lips, and, looking at one another, ragged and scarified, burst into hoarse but indomitable laughter.

Two others made an attempt to follow, and would not be restrained. It was noticed that parts of the lower ladder had been charring; and the ladder-men were preparing to remove it to a less dangerous point, when old General Trumble and

young Jefferson Bareaud made a rush to mount it, and were well upon their upward way before the ladder, weakened at the middle, sagged, splintered, and broke, Trumble and Bareaud falling with it. And there was the grappling-ladder, dangling forty feet above the ground; and there were the five upon the roof.

The Department had no other ladder of more than half the length of the shattered one. Not only the Department, but every soul in Rouen, knew that; and there rose the thick, low sigh of a multitude, a sound frightful to hear. It became a groan, then swelled into a deep cry of alarm and lamentation.

And now, almost simultaneously, the west wall of the building, and the south wall, and all the southwestern portions of the roof, covered them-selves with voluminous mantles of flame, which increased so hugely and with such savage rapidity that the one stream on the roof was seen to be but a ridiculous and useless opposition.

Everybody began to shout advice to his neighbor; and nobody listened even to himself. The firemen were in as great a turmoil as was the crowd, while women covered their eyes. Young Frank Chenoweth was sobbing curses upon the bruised and shaking Trumble and Jefferson Bareaud, who could only stand remorseful, impotently groaning, and made no answer.

The walls of the southernmost warehouse followed the roof, crashing inward one after the other, a sacrificial pyre with its purpose consummated; and in the seeth and flare of its passing, Tom Vanrevel again shaded his eyes with his hand, and looked down across the upturned faces. The pedestal with the grotesque carvings was still there; but the crowning figure had disappeared-the young goddess was gone. For she, of all that throng, had an idea in her head, and, after screaming it to every man within reach, only to discover the impossibility of making herself understood in that Babel, she was struggling to make her way toward the second warehouse, through the swaying jam of people. It was a difficult task, as the farther in she managed to go, the denser became the press and the more tightly she found the people wedged, until she received involuntary aid from the firemen. In turning their second stream to play ineffectually upon the lower strata of flame, they accidentally deflected it toward the crowd, who separated wildly, leaving a big gap, of which Miss Betty took instant advantage. She darted across, and the next moment, unnoticed, had entered the building through the door which Crailey Gray had opened.

The five young men on the roof were well aware that there was little to do but to wait, and soon they would see which was to win, they or the fire; so they shifted their line of hose to the eastern front of the building-out of harm's way, for a little time, at least-and held the muzzle steady, watching its work. And in truth it was not long before they understood which would conquer. The southern and western portions of the building had flung out great flames that fluttered and flared on the breeze like Titanic flags; and steadily, slowly, at first, then faster as the seconds flew, the five were driven backward, up the low slope of the roof toward the gable-ridge. Tom Vanrevel held the first joint of the nozzle, and he retreated with a sulky face, lifting his foot grudgingly at each step. They were all silent, now, and no one spoke until Will Cummings faltered:

"Surely they'll get a rope up to us some way?"

Will knew as well as did the others that there was no way; but his speech struck the sullen heart of the chief with remorse. He turned. "I hope you'll all forgive me for getting you up here."

A sound, half sob, half giggle, came from the parched lips of Eugene Madrillon, as he patted Tom on the shoulder without speaking, and Crailey nodded quietly, then left the group and went to the eastern edge of the roof and looked out upon the crowd. Cummings dropped the line and sat down, burying his hot face in his arms, for they all saw that Vanrevel thought "it was no use," but a question of a few minutes, and they would retreat across the gable and either jump or go down with the roof.

Since the world began, idle and industrious philosophers have speculated much upon the thoughts of men about to die; yet it cannot be too ingenuous to believe that such thoughts vary as the men, their characters, and conditions of life vary. Nevertheless, pursuant with the traditions of minstrelsy and romance, it is conceivable that young, unmarried men, called upon to face desperate situations, might, at the crucial moment, rush to a common experience of summoning the vision, each of his heart's desire, and to meet, each his doom, with her name upon his lips.

An extraordinary thing occurred in the present instance, for, by means of some fragmentary remarks let fall at the time, and afterward recalled such as Tappingham Marsh's gasping: "At least it will be on her father's roof!" and from other things later overheard, an inevitable deduction has been reached that four of the five gentlemen in the perilous case herein described were occupied with the vision of the same person, to wit: Miss Elizabeth Carewe, "the last-the prettiest-to come to town!"

Crailey Gray, alone, spoke not at all; but why did he strain and strain his eyes toward that empty' pedestal with the grotesque carvings? Did he seek Fanchon there, or was Miss Carewe the last sweet apparition in the fancies of all five of the unhappy young men?

The coincidence of the actual appearance of the lady among them, therefore seemed the more miraculous, when, wan and hopeless, staggering desperately backward to the gable-ridge, they heard a clear contralto voice behind them:

"Hadn't you better all come down now?" it said.-"The stairway will be on fire before long."

Only one thing could have been more shockingly unexpected to the five than that there should be a sixth person on the roof, and this was that the sixth person should be Miss Betty Carewe.

They turned, aghast, agape, chopfallen with astonishment, stunned, and incredulous.

She stood just behind the gable-ridge, smiling amiably, a most incongruous little pink fan in her hand, the smoke-wreaths partly obscuring her and curling between the five and her white dress, like mists floating across the new moon.

Was it but a kindly phantasm of the brain? Was it the incarnation of the last vision of the lost Volunteers? Was it a Valkyrie assuming that lovely likeness to perch upon this eyrie, waiting to bear their heroic souls to Valhalla, or-was it Miss Betty Carewe?

To the chief she spoke-all of them agreed to that afterward-but it was Crailey who answered, while Tom could only stare, and stand wagging his head at the lovely phantom, like a Mandarin on a shelf.

"My mother in heaven!" gasped Crailey. "How did you come up here?"

"There's a trap in the roof on the other side of the ridge," she said, and she began to fan herself with the pink fan. "A stairway runs all the way down-old Nelson showed me through these buildings yesterday-and that side isn't on fire yet. I'm so sorry I didn't think of it until a moment ago, because you could have brought the water up that way. But don't you think you'd better come down now?"

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