THE furnace fire in the schoolhouse at Redmont had been suppressed so persistently for forty-eight hours that on Thursday afternoon it became discouraged, and went out. It was Indian summer weather, warm and hazy; and as a freshly built blaze would make the heat in the recitation-rooms too great, Pat, who looked after the furnace, was told not to relight the fire the next day.
Toward the end of February there came another warm season; but as at this time the fires were never allowed to go out, the school-rooms were most uncomfortable. In nearly all of them some of the windows were opened at the top.
It was about ten o’clock in the morning, and the lessons for the day were fairly started, when a cry of “Fire! fire!” rang through the house in a man’s tones, clear as a bell, and full of the insistence of imminent danger. Close upon this many other voices took up the shout, until “Fire! fire!”—the whole building echoed with it.
“Young ladies,” said Miss Waring, turning pale, “remember!”
She bent her head in stately fashion to the youngest row of girls, who rose and marched quietly from the room. Pale and self-controlled, Madge Dayton dropped from the line and took her stand by the desk.
“I intend to wait for you,” she said; and for an answer Miss Waring reached out and took the young girl’s hand in hers.
“Fire! fire!” rang out the man’s voice again. The danger was pressing. “Fire! fire!” shouted many other voices, in accents of terror.
There was no agitated break among the swiftly moving lines of girls.
“Young ladies,” said Miss Waring again, “remember!”
From everywhere in the house came the soft tread of passing feet and the rustle of women’s garments, and still the cry of fire continued. “Fire! fire! Fire! fire!” As Madge helped Miss Waring—the last to leave the house—down the stairs, the air fairly rang with it.
Outside, on the gravelled road, the girls were standing, drawn up in rows in military precision—all the classes but those of the two recreant professors.
“Where are the rest of them?” said Miss Waring. “The class in elocution is one of the largest!”
“O Miss Waring,” cried a thin, nervous teacher from the academical department, “they must be locked in! The alarm comes from their room! It has been horrible, most horrible! We have been standing on the terrace since the very first, literally hearing them roasting alive! Their cries have been agonizing—blood-curdling!”
“Why did you not send and let them out?” cried Miss Waring. “Let some one go, quick!”
No one started, for just then the clear voice of the professor of elocution sounded over their heads through his open window:
“Now, young ladies, try to give the thing as I do. Put some reality into it. Don’t read like a lot of wooden dolls; speak as if the prairie fire were upon you, scorching the very roots of your hair. Fire! Fire! FIRE! FIRE! That is the way to read about a conflagration!”
“Fire! Fire! FIRE! FIRE!” shouted the class in elocution, enthusiastically.
“Oh!” said Madge Dayton, and she sank on the steps, burying her face in her hands.
“Margaret,” said Miss Waring, severely, “no hysterics!”
“It is not hysterics,” replied Madge, in a stifled voice.
“Young ladies,” said Miss Waring, “file back to your respective rooms in the order of your respective departments, and, young ladies, remember, no laughing!”
After that day no one cared to practise the fire-drill. All knew it too well.
On the first day of April a little class in German was reciting out in the hall. The regular German teacher was ill, and had sent her husband to take her place. He was now engaged in hearing one very little scholar decline the definite article.
The little scholar thought that the yellow book the German laid before him was a grammar—a mistake which a wider knowledge of modern languages and literature would have prevented.
As it was, she went on innocently with: “Die, der, den, die. Der, dener, denen, des.”
“Ja wohl,” said the German, not looking up from his book. “Now go on mit de feminine.”
“Der, des, dem, den; die, desem, derer, die.”
“Ja wohl,” again said the teacher, buring himself in his novel, and becoming so lost in an exciting situation that he gave no further orders.
The child’s eyes wandered all about the hall, from the red, white and blue striped window at the west to the wide, swinging door at the east.
“Oh, look at that!” she cried, suddenly, pointing to the register.
A narrow blue flame, tipped with crimson, was making its pointed way through the hardwood boards next the opening.
The German glanced carelessly over the top of his spectacles. “Dat ish nodings,” he said. “So haf I often see it come up!”
“But the house is on fire!” cried the child.
“Den must it be extinguish!”
He rose ponderously and bent his head low over the tiny blaze. There was a disagreeable little sizzle, and the flame went out. “De class ish now dismiss,” he said, retiring to his seat.
Just about this time several girls up in Miss Waring’s room were seen to sniff the air suspiciously.
“Something is burning,” said one of them.
Miss Waring rose and went to the register.
“Margaret,” she said to Madge Dayton, “will you be kind enough to go down-stairs to the laboratory, and ask Mr. Morgan to order Patrick not to smoke that vile pipe in the furnace cellar? The whole atmosphere is contaminated.”
Now there was more than one man who smoked in the lower part of the house; and as there had been a feud between Miss Waring and Mr. Morgan since the February fire, Miss Waring’s messages to Patrick were generally regarded as roundabout rebukes to another culprit.
The feud originated in the extreme youth and innocence of the professor of elocution, which rendered him, as Miss Waring said, “incapable of a vulgar hoax;” and in fact he had almost admitted that the description of a prairie fire which had caused the February trouble had been selected for him by the professor of chemistry!
With a broad smile on her face Madge went down and knocked at the laboratory door, which was opened to her by Mr. Morgan. He had a cigar in his hand.
“What is the matter now?” he asked, serenely. “Is Pat contaminating the atmosphere?”
“Yes,” said Madge.
Mr. Morgan’s eyes twinkled. “Please tell Miss Waring,” he said, “that Pat is down in the garden digging me a mole to put under the receiver of the air-pump.” And Miss Waring was an earnest and active member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals!
Still smiling, Madge turned away and began slowly to ascend the stairs from the basement. At the first landing, however, she stopped, and after looking inquiringly down at her thinly shod feet, she stooped, and putting her hand to the boards, drew it away quickly.
“I thought it was warm,” she muttered, “but it is burning!”
Without an instant’s delay she ran back to Mr. Morgan, who threw away his cigar and hurried to the furnace cellar.
“The floor is nearly charred through,” he called back to Madge, who had followed him. “The whole thing will be in a blaze in fifteen minutes! Tell Miss Waring to get the girls out as quickly as she can, and a few at a time! There must be no risk of a crowd in the lower hall. Tell them not to keep step coming out; it rocks the floor, and this will not stand it; and there is no time for strapping up books or any nonsense of that kind!”
Madge ran up the stairs as if endowed with winds, and in an undertone delivered the message to Miss Waring, who stiffened herself rigidly in her chair and bit her lip. She had recalled the fact that it was the first day of April.
“Will you be kind enough to go back and tell Mr. Morgan that the members of the classical department are perfectly aware of the day of the month?” she said aloud and very distinctly. The young ladies looked up with amused faces.
“But Miss Waring!” whispered Madge, “it is true! Hear them coming out down-stairs!”
Miss Waring bent her head and listened.
“Oh hurry! There is no time to lose!” said Madge aloud.
Miss Waring looked at her steadily an instant, and then turning to the waiting schoolgirls, she smiled indulgently.
“Young ladies,” she said, “Mr. Morgan has been kind enough to send us word that the house is on fire.” There was a burst of laughter, but Miss Waring held up her hand for silence. “As the day is fine,” she continued, “I have no objection to allowing you this last hour for a short run about the grounds. We will suspend the rule for silence, and you may leave the room ten at a time. The young ladies in the first row.”
She bowed to them in her usual calm state, and a hubbub of laughing voices arose.
“Don’t stop to gather your books,” called Miss Waring, in sharp, decisive tones, to the lingering girls, “and go!”
There was a little thrill of surprise among them, and they began to leave the room quickly.
“The smoke is coming up the register!” said Miss Waring, in a low voice to Madge; “go shut it, and stand on it.” Madge went.
“Is it a joke?” added one of her friends as she passed her.
“Yes,” said Madge, “a dreadful joke. Get out as quickly as you can, or you will not be in time to see the fun of it.”
“You need not think that we, any of us, believe that the house is on fire,” said another.
“Only hurry!” said Madge; but by that time the number of those left in the room had dwindled to eight or ten of the older scholars, while the gathering smoke and distant crackle of flames betrayed the truth.
“Come, Miss Waring!” cried two of the largest girls, making what is called a “ladies’ chair” of their hands; but Miss Waring drew back with dignity.
“I shall be the last to leave the ship,” she said. “Young ladies! Young ladies! Re—”
Before she could finish, two pairs of strong young arms had gathered her up, and in a breathless rush she was borne down the stairs and out of the house.
Madge Dayton followed them. The smoke was beginning to be stifling, and as she glanced back in the lower hall, she fancied that above the roar and crackle she heard a sound of crying.
“Get out of the way—quick, Madge!” some one called behind her, and Miss Travis, with the mistress of the preparatory school and several others, swept by her, carrying the school piano.
Bumping and dragging it, they landed it at last on the porch; and then its excited bearers, without stopping or taking breath, pushed forward to the top of the hill and deposited their treasure on a sidewalk in front of the boarding-house.
“Are they all safe?” panted Miss Travis. “Where is Madge Dayton?”
“O Miss Travis!” cried a voice. “Ellen Saunderson says that she can’t find her two little sisters!”
“They were in the writing-room,” said the mistress of the preparatory school; “I sent them up there to study.”
“I looked in the writing-room five minutes ago,” some one called, “and it was empty.”
Without a word, the mistress of the preparatory school turned and ran toward the schoolhouse.
“Stop her!” cried some one. “It isn’t safe!”
But it was of no avail. Eluding the hands stretched out to detain her, she gained the door, there to meet Madge Dayton blowing the smoke from her lungs and gasping.
“There is some one in the building, but I can’t tell where,” said Madge; “I have been to every room.”
“It is the little Saundersons; they are in the writing-room at the end of the hall!”
“But I have been there!” said Madge. “Oh, don’t go! The floor will burn the shoes from your feet!”
Again a pitiful little cry sounded down the burning passageway.
“They are there! Where else could that sound come from?” Calling, “I am coming, I am coming, darlings!” the mistress of the preparatory school darted across the already yielding floor.
On gaining the writing-room she found the air so much less smoky than in the hall that it took but a glance to assure her that no one was there. Running to the window, she leaned out to take a breath of fresh air before starting back again.
Something gently pulled her gown, and the little wailing cry sounded from almost under her feet. She stooped to look; the two little Saundersons were huddled together, hiding under a school bench.
Dragging out the larger child, she fled with her down the hall and thrust her into Madge’s arms.
“Take her out!” she gasped, “she is almost suffocated. I am going back for the other!”
Madge staggered through the door with the heavy child. “Oh, the brave little woman! The brave little woman!” she kept sobbing, “the floor was all on fire!”
“They have taken a ladder around to the window!” said one.
“It isn’t long enough!” presently cried another.
There was a sudden crash inside the house. The smoke burst in a great billow from the doorway.
“Help me!” cried a strange, hoarse voice; and the little mistress of the preparatory school fell forward on her face in the portico, unhurt, carrying the youngest Saunderson child in her arms.
There was nothing to be done after that but stand on the hilltop and watch the schoolhouse go to pieces. The roof fell in; the flames licked the blackened rafters, and finally, with a roar, the chimney went down on the top of everything.
It was about this time that the fire-engines arrived from the city.
Two or three days later, the professor of elocution and English literature, wishing to improve the occasion, requested Madge Dayton to write an essay describing “a conflagration;” but she begged to be excused.
I can remember nothing,” she said; “not a thing but the expression on the face of that dearest and bravest little woman, when she turned back for the youngest Saunderson child; and that is something I do not care to desecrate by describing. What are we, wretched and frivolous creatures, to have a deed like that done among us?”
She whirled away in a tempest of tears.
The professor of elocution and English literature thrust his hands deep in his pockets; and when the last sound of Madge’s footsteps had died away in the upper hall, he indulged himself in a long, low whistle.
“How do you feel now?” said the professor of chemistry looking up from his newspaper; for this conversation had taken place in the large hall of the boarding-house.
“Deliver me from girls!” ejaculated the professor of elocution and English literature, devoutly.
“Three Fires at Redmont” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in The Youth’s Companion no. 3550, June 6, 1895; reprinted in Beginning Alone, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2008.
Note: the first web edition of this story previously posted lacked roughly one column of text from the original publication’s text. The editor regrets the error, and the present edition corrects the omission. —BPK, Oct. 27, 2008.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is ©2008-2009 by Brian Kunde.
1st web edition posted
2nd web edition posted 10/27/2008.
This page last updated 2/19/2009.
Published by Fleabonnet Press.