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Moth and Rust; Together with Geoffrey's Wife and The Pitfall By Mary Cholmondeley Characters: 16812

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"... a strong man from the North,

Light-locked, with eyes of dangerous grey."

It was a little after twelve as Janet entered the central hall, and the salvage men were coming down for their dinner. A cord had been stretched across the foot of the grand staircase, and a policeman guarded it. As Janet hesitated, a young man and woman came boldly up to him, and demanded leave to pass.

"I can't let you up, sir," said the policeman. "It ain't safe."

"I have the right to go up to my own flat on the fourth floor," said the man. "Here is my card. You will observe my address of these Mansions is printed on it."

"Yes, my lord; certainly, my lord," said the policeman, looking at the card with respect. "The fire ain't touched anything lower than the fifth floor; but we have to keep a sharp look-out, as a many strange characters are about trying to get up, to see what they can lay hands on."

Janet had drawn up close behind the young couple, and when the cord was withdrawn went upstairs as if with them. They did not even see her. They were talking eagerly to each other. When they reached the first landing she slackened her pace, and let them go on in front.

The fire had broken out on the seventh floor of the great block of buildings, and had raged slowly downwards to the sixth and fifth. But at first, as Janet mounted the sodden staircase, there was hardly any trace of the devastation save in the wet, streaked walls, and the constant dropping of water from above.

But the fourth floor bore witness. The ceilings were scored with great cracks. The plaster had fallen in places, and everything-walls, ceilings, doors, and passages-was blackened as if licked by great tongues of smoke.

The young couple were standing at the further end of a long empty passage, trying to open a door. As Janet looked, she saw the man put his shoulder to it. Then she turned once more to the next flight of the staircase. It was strewn with wreckage. The bent iron banisters, from which the lead hung in congealed drops, supported awkwardly the contorted remains of the banisters from above, which had crashed down upon them. The staircase had ceased to be a staircase. It was a steep, sliding mass of fallen débris, down which the demon of fire had hurled, as into a well, the ghastly entrails of the havoc of his torture chambers above.

Janet looked carefully at the remnants of the staircase. The heat had reached it, but not the fire. She climbed half way up it, securing a foothold where she could among the débris. But, halfway, the banisters from above blocked her passage, tilted crazily towards her, insurmountable. She dared not touch them for fear of bringing them, and an avalanche of piled rubbish behind them, down upon her. She turned back a few steps, deliberately climbed, in her short country skirt, over the still standing banisters, and, holding firmly by them, went up the remainder of the flight, cautious step by step, as she and Fred had done as children, finding a foothold where she could, and not allowing her eyes to look down into the well below her. At the next landing she climbed over the banisters again, felt them for a sickening moment give under her weight, and stopped to take breath and look round her.

She was on the fifth floor.

Even here the fire had not actually been, but the heaps of sodden ashes, the gaping, burst panels, the seared doors, the blackness of the disfigured passages, the long, distraught wires of the electric lighting, showed that heat had been here; blinding, scorching, blistering heat.

The Brands' flat was on the sixth floor.

Janet looked up once more, and even her steady eyes were momentarily daunted.

The staircase was gone. A raging fire had swept up its two last flights as up a chimney, and had carried all before it. What the fire had refused it had flung down, choking up the landing below. Nothing remained of the staircase save the iron supports, sticking out of the wall like irregular, jagged teeth, and marking where each step of the stairs had been.

Higher still a zinc bath remained sticking against the charred, naked wall. The bathroom had fallen from it. The bath and its twisted pipes remained. And above all the blue sky peered down as into a pit's mouth.

Janet looked fixedly at the iron supports, and measured them with her eye. Her colour did not change, nor her breath quicken. She felt her strength in her. Then, hugging the black wall till it crumbled against her, and shading her eyes till they could see only where to tread, she went swiftly up those awful stairs, and reached the sixth floor.

Then her strength gave way, and she sank down upon something soft, and shuddered. A faint sound made her look back.

One of the supports, loosened by her footstep, stirred, and then fell. It fell a long way.

Even her marvellous inapprehensiveness was shaken. But her still courage returned to her, the quiet confidence that enabled her to break in nervous horses with which her recklessly foolhardy brother could do nothing.

Janet rose slowly to her feet, catching them as she did so in something soft. Stamped into the charred grime of the concrete floor by the feet of the firemen were the remains of a sable cloak, which, as her foot touched it, showed a shred of rose-coloured lining. A step further her foot sank into a heap of black rags, evidently hastily flung down by one in headlong flight, through the folds of which gold embroidery and a pair of jewelled clasps gleamed faintly.

Janet stood still a moment in what had been the heart of the fire. The blast of the furnace had roared down that once familiar passage, leaving a charred, rent hole, half filled up and silted out of all shape by ashes. Nevertheless her way lay down it.

She crept stumbling along it with bent head. Surely the Brands' flat was exactly here, on the left, near the head of the staircase. But she could recognise nothing.

She stopped short at a gaping cavity that had once been a doorway, and looked through it into what had once been a bedroom. The fire had swept all before it. If there had once been a floor and walls, and ceiling and furniture, all was gone, leaving a seared, egg-shaped hole. From its shelving sides three pieces of contorted iron had rolled into the central puddle-all that was left of the bed.

Could this be the Brands' flat?

Janet passed on, and peered through the next doorway. Here the flames had not raged so fiercely. The blackened semblance of a room was still there, but shrunk like a mummy, and ready to crumble at a touch. It must have been a servant's bedroom. The chest of drawers, the bed, were still there in outline, but all ashes. On pegs on the wall hung ghosts of gowns and hats, as if drawn in soot. On the chest of drawers stood the effigy of a bedroom candlestick, with the extinguisher over it.

Yes, it was the Brands' flat. The outer door and little entrance hall had been wiped out, and she was inside it. This evidently had been the drawing-room. Here were signs as of some frightful conflict, as if the room had resisted its fate to the death, and had only been overpowered after a hideous struggle.

The wall-paper hung in tatters on the wall. Remnants of furniture were flung about in all directions. The door was gone. The windows were gone. The bookcase was gone, leaving no trace, but the books it had contained had been thrown all over the room in its downfall, and lay for the most part unscorched, pell-mell, one over the other. Among the books crouched an agonised tangle of wires-all that was left of Cuckoo's grand piano. The pictures had leapt wildly from the walls to join in the conflict. A few pieces of strewed gilding, as if torn asunder with pincers, showed their fate. Horror brooded over the place as over the dead body of one who had fought for his life, and died by torture, whom the destroyer had not had time to mutilate past recognition.

Had the wind changed, and had the fiend of fire been forced to obey it, and leave his havoc unfinished? Yes, the wind must have changed, for at the next step down the passage, Janet reached Cuckoo's boudoir.

The door had fallen inward, and by some miracle the whole strength of the flames had rushed down the passage, leaving even the door unburnt. Janet walked over the door into the little room and stood amazed.

The fire had passed by on

the other side. Everything here was untouched, unchanged. The yellow china cat with an immensely long neck was still seated on its plush footstool on the hearthrug. On the sofa lay an open fashion paper, where Cuckoo had laid it down. On every table photographs of Cuckoo smiled in different attitudes. The gaudy room, with its damask panels, bore no trace of smoke, nor even of heat, save that the two palms in tubs, and the hydrangeas in the fireplace, were shrivelled up, and in the gilt bird-cage in the window was a tiny, motionless form, with outstretched wings, that would fain have flown away.

For a moment Janet forgot everything except the bullfinch-the piping bullfinch that Monkey Brand had given to his wife. She ran to the cage, brushing against the palms, which made a dry rustling as she passed, and bent over the little bird.

"Bully," she said. "Bully!" For that was the name which, after much thought, Monkey Brand had bestowed upon it.

But "Bully" did not move. He was pressed against the bars of his Chinese pagoda, with his head thrown back and his beak open. "Bully" had known fear before he died.

Janet suddenly remembered the great fear which some one else was enduring, to whom death was coming, and she turned quickly from the window.

De Rivaz's extraordinary portrait of Cuckoo smiled at Janet from the wall, in all its shrewd, vulgar prettiness. The hard, calculating blue eyes, which could stare down the social ladder so mercilessly, were mercilessly portrayed. The careful touch of rouge on the cheek and carmine on the lip were faithfully rendered. The manicured, plebeian hands were Cuckoo's, and none but Cuckoo's. The picture was a studied insult, save in the eyes of Monkey Brand, who saw in it the reflection, imperfect and inadequate, but still the reflection of the one creature whom, in his money-getting life, he had found time to love.

Janet never could bear to look at it, and she turned her eyes away.

Directly underneath the picture stood the Italian cabinet, with its ivory figures let into ebony. It was untouched, as Cuckoo had feared. The mermaid was still tranquilly riding a whale on the snaffle, in the midst of a sea with a crop of dolphins' tails sticking up through it.

Janet fitted the key into the lock, and then instinctively turned to shut the door. But the door lay prone upon the floor. She stole into the passage and listened.

There were voices somewhere out of sight. Human voices seemed strangely out of place in this cindered grave. They came nearer. A tall, heavily-built man came stooping round the corner, with another shorter, slighter one behind him.

"The floors are concrete; it's all right," said the first man.

Janet retreated into the room again, to wait till they had passed. But they were in no hurry. They both glanced into the room, and, seeing her, went on.

"Here you have one of the most extraordinary effects of fire," said the big man, stopping at the next doorway. "This was once a drawing-room. If you want to paint a realistic picture, here is your subject."

"I would rather paint an angel in the pit's mouth," said the younger man significantly, leaning his delicate, artist hand against the charred doorpost. "Do you think, Vanbrunt, this is a safe place for angels without wings to be going about alone? You say the floors are safe, but are they?"

Stephen Vanbrunt considered a moment.

Then he turned back to the room where Janet was. He did not enter it, but stood in the doorway, nearly filling it up-a tall, powerfully-built, unyouthful-looking man with shaggy eyebrows and a grim, clean-shaved face and heavy jaw. You may see such a face and figure any day in the Yorkshire mines or in a stone-mason's yard.

The millionaire took off his hat with a large blackened hand, and said to Janet: "I trust the salvage men have warned you that the passages on your right are unsafe?" He pointed towards the way by which she had come. It was evidently an effort to him to speak to her. He was a shy man.

His voice was deep and gentle. It gave the same impression of strength behind it that a quiet wave does of the sea. He stood with his head thrown slightly back, an austere, massive figure, not without a certain dignity. And as he looked at Janet, there was just room in his narrow, near-sighted slits of eyes for a stern kindliness to shine through. Children and dogs always made a bee-line for Stephen.

As Janet did not answer, he said again.

"I trust you will not attempt to go down the passage to your right. It is not safe."

"No," said Janet, and she remembered her instructions. "I am only here to see if De Rivaz' picture of Mrs Brand is safe."

"Here is De Rivaz himself," said Stephen. "May we come in a moment and look at it? I am afraid I came in without asking last night, with the police inspector."

"Do come in," said Janet.

The painter came in, and glanced at the picture.

"It's all right," he said indifferently. "Not even a lick of smoke. But," he added, looking narrowly at Janet, "if Mr Brand wishes it I will send a man I can trust to revarnish it."

"Thank you," said Janet.

"Here is my card," he continued, still looking at her.

"Thank you," said Janet again, wondering when they would go.

"You are, no doubt, a relation of the Brands?" he continued desperately.

"I am a friend."

"I will come and see Mr Brand about the picture," continued the young man, stammering. "May I ask you to be so kind as to tell him so?"

"I will tell him," said Janet; and she became very pale. While this man was manufacturing conversation Cuckoo was dying-was dying, waiting with her eyes on the door. She turned instinctively to Stephen for help.

But he had forgotten her. He was looking intently at the dead bird in the cage, was touching its sleek head with a large gentle finger.

"You are well out of it, my friend," he said below his breath. "It is not good to be afraid, but it was a short agony. And it is over. You will not be afraid again. You are well out of it. No more prison bars. No more stretching of wings to fly with that may never fly. No more years of servitude for a cruel woman's whim. You are well out of it."

He looked up and met Janet's eyes.

"We are trespassers," he said instantly. "We have taken a mean advantage of your kindness in letting us come in. De Rivaz, I will show you a background for your next picture a few yards further on. Mr Brand knows me," he continued, producing a card in his turn. "We do business together. He is my tenant here. Will you kindly tell him I ventured to bring Mr De Rivaz into the remains of his flat to make a sketch of the effects of fire?"

"I will tell him," said Janet, only half attending, and laying the card beside De Rivaz'. Would they never go?

They did go immediately, Stephen peremptorily aiding the departure of the painter.

When they were in the next room De Rivaz leaned up against the blackened wall, and said hoarsely: "Vanbrunt, did you see her?"

"Of course I saw her."

"But I must paint her. I must know her. I shall go back and ask her to sit to me."

"You will do no such thing. You will immediately apply yourself to this scene of desolation, or I shall take you away. Look at this charnel-house. What unchained devils have raged in it! It is jealousy made visible. What is the use of a realistic painter like yourself, who can squeeze all romance out of life till the whole of existence is as prosaic as a string of onions; what is the use of a wretched worm like you making one of your horrible portraits of that beautiful, innocent face?"

"I shall paint her if I live," said De Rivaz, glaring at his friend. "I know beauty when I see it."

"No, you don't. You see everything ugly, even beauty of a high order. Look at your picture of me."

Both men laughed.

"I will paint her," said De Rivaz. "Half the beauty of so-called beautiful women is loathsome to me because of the sordid or frivolous soul behind it. But I will paint a picture of that woman which will show to the world, and even to rhinoceros-hided sceptics like you, Vanbrunt, that I can make the beauty of the soul shine through even a beautiful face, as I have made mean souls shine through lovely faces. I shall fall damnably in love with her while I do it, but that can't be helped. And the picture will make her and me famous."

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