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   Chapter 12 EMERGENCIES.

We Girls: a Home Story By A. D. T. Whitney Characters: 25302

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Mrs. Hobart has a "fire-gown." That is what she calls it; she made it for a fire, or for illness, or any night alarm; she never goes to bed without hanging it over a chair-back, within instant reach. It is of double, bright-figured flannel, with a double cape sewed on; and a flannel belt, also sewed on behind, and furnished, for fastening, with a big, reliable, easy-going button and button-hole. Up and down the front-not too near together-are more big, reliable, easy-going buttons and button-holes. A pair of quilted slippers with thick soles belong with this gown, and are laid beside it. Then Mrs. Hobart goes to bed in peace, and sleeps like the virgin who knows there is oil in her vessel.

If Mrs. Roger Marchbanks had known of Mrs. Hobart's fire-gown, and what it had been made and waiting for, unconsciously, all these years, she might not have given those quiet orders to her discreet, well-bred parlor-maid, by which she was never to be "disengaged" when Mrs. Hobart called.

Mrs. Hobart has also a gown of very elegant black silk, with deep, rich border-folds of velvet, and a black camel's-hair shawl whose priceless margin comes up to within three inches of the middle; and in these she has turned meekly away from Mrs. Marchbanks's vestibule, leaving her inconsequential card, many wondering times; never doubting, in her simplicity, that Mrs. Marchbanks was really making pies, or doing up pocket-handkerchiefs; only thinking how queer it was it always happened so with her.

In her fire-gown she was destined to go in.

Barbara came home dreadfully tired from her walk to Mrs. Dockery's, and went to bed at eight o'clock. When one of us does that, it always breaks up our evening early. Mother discovered that she was sleepy by nine, and by half past we were all in our beds. So we really had a fair half night of rest before the alarm came.

It was about one in the morning when Barbara woke, as people do who go to bed achingly tired, and sleep hungrily for a few eager hours.

"My gracious! what a moon! What ails it?"

The room was full of red light.

Rosamond sat up beside her.

"Moon! It's fire!"

Then they called Ruth and mother. Father and Stephen were up and out of doors in five minutes.

The Roger Marchbanks's stables were blazing. The wind was carrying great red cinders straight over on to the house roofs. The buildings were a little down on our side of the hill, and a thick plantation of evergreens hid them from the town. Everything was still as death but the crackling of the flames. A fire in the country, in the dead of night, to those first awakened to the knowledge of it, is a stealthily fearful, horribly triumphant thing. Not a voice nor a bell smiting the air, where all will soon be outcry and confusion; only the fierce, busy diligence of the blaze, having all its own awful will, and making steadfast headway against the sleeping skill of men.

We all put on some warm things, and went right over.

Father found Mr. Marchbanks, with his gardener, at the back of the house, playing upon the scorching frames of the conservatory building with the garden engine. Up on the house-roof two other men-servants were hanging wet carpets from the eaves, and dashing down buckets of water here and there, from the reservoir inside.

Mr. Marchbanks gave father a small red trunk. "Will you take this to your house and keep it safe?" he asked. And father hastened away with it.

Within the house, women were rushing, half dressed, through the rooms, and down the passages and staircases. We went up through the back piazza, and met Mrs. Hobart in her fire-gown at the unfastened door. There was no card to leave this time, no servant to say that Mrs. Marchbanks was "particularly engaged."

Besides her gown, Mrs. Hobart had her theory, all ready for a fire. Just exactly what she should do, first and next, and straight through, in case of such a thing. She had recited it over to herself and her family till it was so learned by heart that she believed no flurry of the moment would put it wholly out of their heads.

She went straight up Mrs. Marchbanks's great oak staircase, to go up which had been such a privilege for the bidden few. Rough feet would go over it, unbidden, to-night.

She met Mrs. Marchbanks at her bedroom door. In the upper story the cook and house-maids were handing buckets now to the men outside. The fine parlor-maid was down in the kitchen at the force-pump, with Olivia and Adelaide to help and keep her at it. A nursery-girl was trying to wrap up the younger children in all sorts of wrong things, upside down.

"Take these children right over to my house," said Mrs. Hobart. "Barbara Holabird! Come up here!"

"I don't know what to do first," said Mrs. Marchbanks, excitedly. "Mr. Marchbanks has taken away his papers; but there's all the silver-and the pictures-and everything! And the house will be full of men directly!" She looked round the room nervously, and went and picked up her braided "chignon" from the dressing-table. Mrs. Marchbanks could "receive" splendidly; she had never thought what she should do at a fire. She knew all the rules of the grammar of life; she had not learned anything about the exceptions.

"Elijah! Come up here!" called Mrs. Hobart again, over the balusters. And Elijah, Mrs. Hobart's Yankee man-servant, brought up on her father's farm, clattered up stairs in his thick boots, that sounded on the smooth oak as if a horse were coming.

Mrs. Marchbanks looked bewilderedly around her room again. "They'll break everything!" she said, and took down a little Sèvres cup from a bracket.

"There, Mrs. Marchbanks! You just go off with the children. I'll see to things. Let me have your keys."

"They're all in my upper bureau-drawer," said Mrs. Marchbanks. "Besides, there isn't much locked, except the silver. I wish Matilda would come." Matilda is Mrs. Lewis Marchbanks. "The children can go there, of course."

"It is too far," said Mrs. Hobart. "Go and make them go to bed in my great front room. Then you'll feel easier, and can come back. You'll want Mrs. Lewis Marchbanks's house for the rest of you, and plenty of things besides."

While she was talking she had pulled the blankets and coverlet from the bed, and spread them on the floor. Mrs. Marchbanks actually walked down stairs with her chignon in one hand and the Sèvres cup in the other.

"People do do curious things at fires," said Mrs. Hobart, cool, and noticing everything.

She had got the bureau-drawers emptied now into the blankets. Barbara followed her lead, and they took all the clothing; from the closets and wardrobe.

"Tie those up, Elijah. Carry them off to a safe place, and come back, up here."

Then she went to the next room. From that to the next and the next, she passed on, in like manner,-Barbara, and by this time the rest of us, helping; stripping the beds, and making up huge bundles on the floors of the contents of presses, drawers, and boxes.

"Clothes are the first thing," said she. "And this way, you are pretty sure to pick up everything." Everything was picked up, from Mrs. Marchbanks's jewel-case and her silk dresses, to Mr. Marchbanks's shaving brushes, and the children's socks that they had had pulled off last night.

Elijah carried them all off, and piled them up in Mrs. Hobart's great clean laundry-room to await orders. The men hailed him as he went and came, to do this, or fetch that. "I'm doing one thing," he answered. "You keep to yourn."

"They're comin'," he said, as he returned after his third trip. "The bells are ringin', an' they're a swarmin' up the hill,-two ingines, an' a ruck o' boys an' men. Melindy, she's keepin' the laundry door locked, an' a lettin' on me in."

Mrs. Marchbanks came hurrying back before the crowd. Some common, ecstatic little boys, rushing foremost to the fire, hustled her on her own lawn. She could hardly believe even yet in this inevitable irruption of the Great Uninvited.

Mrs. Lewis Marchbanks and Maud met her and came in with her. Mr. Marchbanks and Arthur had hastened round to the rear, where the other gentlemen were still hard at work.

"Now," said Mrs. Hobart, as lightly and cheerily as if it had been the putting together of a Christmas pudding, and she were ready for the citron or the raisins,-"now-all that beautiful china!"

She had been here at one great, general party, and remembered the china, although her party-call, like all her others, had been a failure. Mrs. Marchbanks received a good many people in a grand, occasional, wholesale civility, to whom she would not sacrifice any fraction of her private hours.

Mrs. Hobart found her way by instinct to the china-closet,-the china-room, more properly speaking. Mrs. Marchbanks rather followed than led.

The shelves, laden with costly pottery, reached from floor to ceiling. The polish and the colors flashed already in the fierce light of the closely neighboring flames. Great drifts and clouds of smoke against the windows were urging in and stifling the air. The first rush of water from the engines beat against the walls.

"We must work awful quick now," said Mrs. Hobart. "But keep cool. We ain't afire yet."

She gave Mrs. Marchbanks her own keys, which she had brought down stairs. That lady opened her safe and took out her silver, which Arthur Marchbanks and James Hobart received from her and carried away.

Mrs. Hobart herself went up the step-ladder that stood there before the shelves, and began to hand down piles of plates, and heavy single pieces. "Keep folks out, Elijah," she ordered to her man.

We all helped. There were a good many of us by this time,-Olivia, and Adelaide, and the servant-girls released from below, besides the other Marchbankses, and the Hobarts, and people who came in, until Elijah stopped them. He shut the heavy walnut doors that led from drawing-room and library to the hall, and turned the great keys in their polished locks. Then he stood by the garden entrance in the sheltered side-angle, through which we passed with our burdens, and defended that against invasion. There was now such an absolute order among ourselves that the moral force of it repressed the excitement without that might else have rushed in and overborne us.

"You jest keep back; it's all right here," Elijah would say, deliberately and authoritatively, holding the door against unlicensed comers; and boys and men stood back as they might have done outside the shine and splendor and privilege of an entertainment.

It lasted till we got well through; till we had gone, one by one, down the field, across to our house, the short way, back and forth, leaving the china, pile after pile, safe in our cellar-kitchen.

Meanwhile, without our thinking of it, Barbara had been locked out upon the stairs. Mother had found a tall Fayal clothes-basket, and had collected in it, carefully, little pictures and precious things that could be easily moved, and might be as easily lost or destroyed. Barbara mounted guard over this, watching for a right person to whom to deliver it.

Standing there, like Casabianca, rough men rushed by her to get up to the roof. The hall was filling with a crowd, mostly of the curious, untrustworthy sort, for the work just then lay elsewhere.

So Barbara held by, only drawing back with the basket, into an angle of the wide landing. Nobody must seize it heedlessly; things were only laid in lightly, for careful handling. In it were children s photographs, taken in days that they had grown away from; little treasures of art and remembrance, picked up in foreign travel, or gifts of friends; all sorts of priceless odds and ends that people have about a house, never thinking what would become of them in a night like this. So Barbara stood by.

Suddenly somebody, just come, and springing in at the open door, heard his name.

"Harry! Help me with this!" And Harry Goldthwaite pushed aside two men at the foot of the staircase, lifted up a small boy and swung him over the baluster, and ran up to the landing.

"Take hold of it with me," said Barbara, hurriedly. "It is valuable. We must carry it ourselves. Don't let anybody touch it. Over to Mrs. Hobart's."

"Hendee!" called out Harry to Mark Hendee, who appeared below. "Keep those people off, will you? Make way!" And so they two took the big basket steadily by the ears, and went away with it together. The first we knew about it was when, on their way back, they came down upon our line of march toward Elijah's door.

Beyond this, there was no order to chronicle. So far, it seems longer in the telling

than it did in the doing. We had to work "awful quick," as Mrs. Hobart said. But the nice and hazardous work was all done. Even the press that held the table-napery was emptied to the last napkin, and all was safe.

Now the hall doors were thrown open; wagons were driven up to the entrances, and loaded with everything that came first, as things are ordinarily "saved" at a fire. These were taken over to Mrs. Lewis Marchbanks's. Books and pictures, furniture, bedding, carpets; quantities were carried away, and quantities were piled up on the lawn. The men-servants came and looked after these; they had done all they could elsewhere; they left the work to the firemen now, and there was little hope of saving the house. The window-frames were smoking, and the panes were cracking with the heat, and fire was running along the piazza roofs before we left the building. The water was giving out.

After that we had to stand and see it burn. The wells and cisterns were dry, and the engines stood helpless.

The stable roofs fell in with a crash, and the flames reared up as from a great red crater and whirlpool of fire. They lashed forth and seized upon charred walls and timbers that were ready, without their touch, to spring into live combustion. The whole southwest front of the mansion was overswept with almost instant sheets of fire. Fire poured in at the casements; through the wide, airy halls; up and into the rooms where we had stood a little while before; where, a little before that, the children had been safe asleep in their nursery beds.

Mrs. Marchbanks, like any other burnt-out woman, had gone to the home that offered to her,-her sister-in-law's; Olivia and Adelaide were going to the Haddens; the children were at Mrs. Hobart's; the things that, in their rich and beautiful arrangement, had made home, as well as enshrined the Marchbanks family in their sacredness of elegance, were only miscellaneous "loads" now, transported and discharged in haste, or heaped up confusedly to await removal. And the sleek servants, to whom, doubtless, it had seemed that their Rome could never fall, were suddenly, as much as any common Bridgets and Patricks, "out of a place."

Not that there would be any permanent difference; it was only the story and attitude of a night. The power was still behind; the "Tailor" would sew things over again directly. Mrs. Roger Marchbanks would be comparatively composed and in order, at Mrs. Lewis's, in a few days,-receiving her friends, who would hurry to make "fire-calls," as they would to make party or engagement or other special occasion visits; the cordons would be stretched again; not one of the crowd of people who went freely in and out of her burning rooms that night, and worked hardest, saving her library and her pictures and her carpets, would come up in cool blood and ring her door-bell now; the sanctity and the dignity would be as unprofanable as ever.

It was about four in the morning-the fire still burning-when Mrs. Holabird went round upon the out-skirts of the groups of lookers-on, to find and gather together her own flock. Rosamond and Ruth stood in a safe corner with the Haddens. Where was Barbara?

Down against the close trunks of a cluster of linden-trees had been thrown cushions and carpets and some bundles of heavy curtains, and the like. Coming up behind, Mrs. Holabird saw, sitting upon this heap, two persons. She knew Barbara's hat, with its white gull's breast; but somebody had wrapped her up in a great crimson table-cover, with a bullion fringe. Somebody was Harry Goldthwaite, sitting there beside her; Barbara, with only her head visible, was behaving, out here in this unconventional place and time, with a tranquillity and composure which of late had been apparently impossible to her in parlors.

"What will Mrs. Marchbanks do with Mrs. Hobart after this, I wonder?" Mrs. Holabird heard Harry say.

"She'll give her a sort of brevet," replied Barbara. "For gallant and meritorious services. It will be, 'Our friend Mrs. Hobart; a near neighbor of ours; she was with us all that terrible night of the fire, you know.' It will be a great honor; but it won't be a full commission."

Harry laughed.

"Queer things happen when you are with us," said Barbara. "First, there was the whirlwind, last year,-and now the fire."

"After the whirlwind and the fire-" said Harry.

"I wasn't thinking of the Old Testament," interrupted Barbara.

"Came a still, small voice," persisted Harry. "If I'm wicked, Barbara, I can't help it. You put it into my head."

"I don't see any wickedness," answered Barbara, quickly. "That was the voice of the Lord. I suppose it is always coming."

"Then, Barbara-"

Then Mrs. Holabird walked away again.

The next day-that day, after our eleven o'clock breakfast-Harry came back, and was at Westover all day long.

Barbara got up into mother's room at evening, alone with her. She brought a cricket, and came and sat down beside her, and put her cheek upon her knee.

"Mother," she said, softly, "I don't see but you'll have to get me ready, and let me go."

"My dear child! When? What do you mean?"

"Right off. Harry is under orders, you know. And they may hardly ever be so nice again. And-if we are going through the world together-mightn't we as well begin to go?"

"Why, Barbara, you take my breath away! But then you always do! What is it?"

"It's the Katahdin, fitting out at New York to join the European squadron. Commander Shapleigh is a great friend of Harry's; his wife and daughter are in New York, going out, by Southampton steamer, when the frigate leaves, to meet him there. They would take me, he says; and-that's what Harry wants, mother. There'll be a little while first,-as much, perhaps, as we should ever have."

"Barbara, my darling! But you've nothing ready!"

"No, I suppose not. I never do have. Everything is an emergency with me; but I always emerge! I can get things in London," she added. "Everybody does."

The end of it was that Mrs. Holabird had to catch her breath again, as mothers do; and that Barbara is getting ready to be married just as she does everything else.

Rose has some nice things-laid away, new; she always has; and mother has unsuspected treasures; and we all had new silk dresses for Leslie's wedding, and Ruth had a bright idea about that.

"I'm as tall as either of you, now," she said; "and we girls are all of a size, as near as can be, mother and all; and we'll just wear the dresses once more, you see, and then put them right into Barbara's trunk. They'll be all the bonnier and luckier for her, I know. We can get others any time."

We laughed at her at first; but we came round afterward to think that it was a good plan. Rosamond's silk was a lovely violet, and Ruth's was blue; Barbara's own was pearly gray; we were glad, now, that no two of us had dressed alike. The violet and the gray had been chosen because of our having worn quiet black-and-white all summer for grandfather. We had never worn crape; or what is called "deep" mourning. "You shall never do that," said mother, "till the deep mourning comes. Then you will choose for yourselves."

We have had more time than we expected. There has been some beautiful delay or other about machinery,-the Katahdin's, that is; and Commander Shapleigh has been ever so kind. Harry has been back and forth to New York two or three times. Once he took Stephen with him; Steve stayed at Uncle John's; but he was down at the yard, and on board ships, and got acquainted with some midshipmen; and he has quite made up his mind to try to get in at the Naval Academy as soon as he is old enough, and to be a navy officer himself.

We are comfortable at home; not hurried after all. We are determined not to be; last days are too precious,

"Don't let's be all taken up with 'things,'" says Barbara. "I can buy 'things' any time. But now,-I want you!"

Aunt Roderick's present helped wonderfully. It was magnanimous of her; it was coals of fire. We should have believed she was inspired,-or possessed,-but that Ruth went down to Boston with her.

There came home, in a box, two days after, from Jordan and Marsh's, the loveliest "suit," all made and finished, of brown poplin. To think of Aunt Roderick's getting anything made, at an "establishment"! But Ruth says she put her principles into her unpickable pocket, and just took her porte-monnaie in her hand.

Bracelets and pocket-handkerchiefs have come from New York; all the "girls" here in Westover have given presents of ornaments, or little things to wear; they know there is no housekeeping to provide for. Barbara says her trousseau "flies together"; she just has to sit and look at it.

She has begged that old garnet and white silk, though, at last, from mother. Ruth saw her fold it up and put it, the very first thing, into the bottom of her new trunk. She patted it down gently, and gave it a little stroke, just as she pats and strokes mother herself sometimes.

"All new things are only dreary," she says. "I must have some of the old."

"I should just like to know one thing,-if I might," said Rosamond, deferentially, after we had begun to go to bed one evening. She was sitting in her white night-dress, on the box-sofa, with her shoe in her hand. "I should just like to know what made you behave so beforehand, Barbara?"

"I was in a buzz," said Barbara. "And it was beforehand. I suppose I knew it was coming,-like a thunderstorm."

"You came pretty near securing that it shouldn't come," said Rosamond, "after all."

"I couldn't help that; it wasn't my part of the affair."

"You might have just kept quiet, as you were before," said Rose.

"Wait and see," said Barbara, concisely. "People shouldn't come bringing things in their hands. It's just like going down stairs to get these presents. The very minute I see a corner of one of those white paper parcels, don't I begin to look every way, and say all sorts of things in a hurry? Wouldn't I like to turn my back and run off if I could? Why don't they put them under the sofa, or behind the door, I wonder?"

"After all-" began Rosamond, still with the questioning inflection.

"After all-" said Barbara, "there was the fire. That, luckily, was something else!"

"Does there always have to be a fire?" asked Ruth, laughing.

"Wait and see," repeated Barbara. "Perhaps you'll have an earthquake."

We have time for talks. We take up every little chink of time to have each other in. We want each other in all sorts of ways; we never wanted each other so, or had each other so, before.

Delia Waite is here, and there is some needful stitching going on; but the minutes are alongside the stitches, they are not eaten up; there are minutes everywhere. We have got a great deal of life into a little while; and-we have finished up our Home Story, to the very present instant.

* * *

Who finishes it? Who tells it?

Well,-"the kettle began it." Mrs. Peerybingle-pretty much-finished it. That is, the story began itself, then Ruth discovered that it was beginning, and began, first, to put it down. Then Ruth grew busy, and she wouldn't always have told quite enough of the Ruthy part; and Mrs. Holabird got hold of it, as she gets hold of everything, and she would not let it suffer a "solution of continuity." Then, partly, she observed; and partly we told tales, and recollected and reminded; and partly, here and there, we rushed in,-especially I, Barbara,-and did little bits ourselves; and so it came to be a "Song o' Sixpence," and at least four Holabirds were "singing in the pie."

Do you think it is-sarcastically-a "pretty dish to set before the king"? Have we shown up our friends and neighbors too plainly? There is one comfort; nobody knows exactly where "Z--" is; and there are friends and neighbors everywhere.

I am sure nobody can complain, if I don't. This last part-the Barbarous part-is a continual breach of confidence. I have a great mind, now, not to respect anything myself; not even that cadet button, made into a pin, which Ruth wears so shyly. To be sure, Mrs. Hautayne has one too; she and Ruth are the only two girls whom Dakie Thayne considers worth a button; but Leslie is an old, old friend; older than Dakie in years, so that it could never have been like Ruth with her; and she never was a bit shy about it either. Besides-

Well, you cannot have any more than there is. The story is told as far as we-or anybody-has gone. You must let the world go round the sun again, a time or two; everything has not come to pass yet-even with "We Girls."


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