A FIRE-FIGHTER'S RESCUE FROM THE FLAMES
By Arthur Quiller-Couch
About a hundred years ago, long before James Braidwood had arisen
to organise the fire-brigades of Edinburgh and London and set the
example which has since been followed by every town in the civilised
world, late on a dark afternoon a young stableman, John Elliot by
name, was sauntering carelessly homewards down Piccadilly, London,
when a glare in the sky, the confused murmurs of a large crowd,
and the hurrying footsteps of pedestrians who passed him, told of
a not distant fire.
Following the footsteps of the passers-by, he found himself in one
of the side streets leading off Piccadilly, and there at the end
of the street, a large house was blazing furiously. He worked his
way vigorously through the spectators, now so densely gathered as
to form a living wedge in the narrow street and block it against all
traffic, and at length found himself in a position to see clearly
the ruin that had already been wrought on the burning pile.
As a matter of fact, all was pretty well over with the house. How
far the upper storeys were intact he had little means of judging;
but he saw that the ceilings of the first and second floors had
given way, and also that the fire was running along the rafters of
the floor above. Flames were pouring from half a dozen windows. He
turned to a man who stood next him in the concourse.
"The house is nearly done for," he remarked.
"Quite," replied the man. "You see it is burned through, and it
is only a question of minutes before the roof must tumble in. The
firemen do not dare to make any further attempt. It is a dreadful
"Why, don't you know? This is Lady Dover's house—poor old soul!
and she is still there, in the top room. No one can save her now,
but it is a hideous death all the same."
Elliot looked about him and now understood the pallor on the upturned
faces of the crowd. He looked at the house again. The whole street
was wrapped in a crimson mist; the falling streams of water which
the firemen still continued to direct on the blaze were hissing
impotently, and seemed only to feed the fire. In the crowd that
watched there was hardly a sound; one could almost hear men's hearts
beating as they waited for the conclusion of the tragedy which
they knew to be inevitable. But further down the street, where it
was not understood that human life was at stake in the midst of
this spectacle, rose the sounds of girls laughing, men quarrelling
and fighting, whistling, oaths, and merriment. Caps were flying
about, and the mass was jostling and swaying to and fro, as before
Newgate on a Monday morning.
"Do you mean to say," asked Elliot, after a moment, "that the poor
old lady is up there and nobody is going to save her?"
"What's the use?" answered the man. "If you think it possible,
better try for yourself." But this reply was not heard, for the
young stableman had already begun to push his way forward to the
group of firemen that stood watching the conflagration in despair.
He was a man of extraordinary strength, and now with a set purpose
to inspire him still further, he scattered the crowd to right and
left, elbowing, pushing, and thrusting, until he stood before the
firemen and repeated his question.
He met with the same answer. "It was impossible," they said.
Everything had been done that could be, and now there was nothing
but to wait for the end.
"But it is a question of human life," he objected.
In reply they merely pointed to the flame-points now running along
every yard of woodwork still left in the building.
Elliot caught a ladder from their hands and, running forward with
it, planted it firmly against the house. He had to choose his place
carefully, as almost every one of the windows above was belching
out an angry blaze.
"Which is the window where they were last seen?" he asked.
The firemen pointed. The crowd at length finding that a brave man
was going to risk his life, raised a cheer as they caught sight of
him, and standing on tiptoe, peered over each other's shoulders to
get a better view of the work that was forward.
"Now then," said Elliot, "don't try to stop the flames, for that
is useless, but keep the water playing on the ladder all the time."
He slipped off his shoes, and amid another cheer from the crowd,
dashed up it as quick as thought. The window to which the fireman
had pointed was clear of flames. On gaining it, Elliot sprang on
to the sill and jumped down into the room.
It was lighted brilliantly enough by the glow from the street, and
through the dense smoke that was already beginning to fill it he
saw two figures.
Both were women, and for a moment the gallant man doubted that he
had come in time; for so still and motionless were they that it
seemed as if the smoke must have already stifled them, and left them
in these startling attitudes. One—a very old lady—was kneeling
by the bedside, her head bent forward in despair, her hands flung
out over the counterpane. The other—a tall, heavy-looking woman—was
standing bolt upright by the window. Neither spoke nor stirred,
and the kneeling woman did not even raise her head at the noise
of his entrance; the other, with eyes utterly expressionless and
awful, supported herself with one hand against the wall, and gazed
at him speechlessly. Awestruck by this sight, Elliot had to pause
a moment before he found his speech.
"Which is Lady Dover?" he cried at last.
The kneeling woman lifted her head, saw him, and with a cry, or
rather a smothered exclamation of hope, got upon her feet and ran
forward to him. He hurried her to the window. She obeyed him in
silence, for it was clear that terror had robbed her tongue of all
articulate speech. He clambered out, turned on the topmost rung,
and flinging an arm round her waist, was lifting her out, when the
other figure stepped forward and set a hand on his shoulder. The
look on this woman's face was now terrible. Something seemed working
in her throat and the muscles of her face: it was her despair
struggling with her paralysed senses for speech.
"Me too," she at length managed to mutter hoarsely; but the sound
when it came was, as Elliot afterwards declared, like nothing in
heaven or earth.
"If life is left in me, I will come back for you," he cried.
But his heart failed him when he saw the distance he should have
to go, and still more when he noted her size. For the ladder was
slippery from the water which the firemen kept throwing upon it, and
which alone saved it from catching on fire. Moreover, the clouds
of smoke in the room had thickened considerably since his entrance,
and it could not be many minutes now before the floor gave way, or
the roof crashed in, or both. He had felt his feet scorched through
his stockings, when he set foot on the boards.
Down in the street the crowd had increased enormously; gentlemen from
the clubs, waiters and loungers from a distance had all gathered
to look. As Elliot descended the ladder with his burden a frantic
storm of cheering broke forth—for every soul present understood
the splendid action that had just been performed; and the crush
around the foot of the ladder of those who pressed forward to
express their admiration was terrific.
But they knew, of course, nothing of the stout lady still left in
the bedroom; and when Elliot, heedless of the cheers and hand-shakes that
met him, flung Lady Dover into the arms of the nearest bystander,
and turned again towards the ladder, they were utterly at a loss
to understand what he could be about.
But he kept his word, A dead hush fell again upon the spectators,
as once more the brave man dashed up the ladder, upon which the
firemen had ceased now to play. Half-way up he turned.
"Keep on at the pumps!" he called; and then again was up to
the window and looked in. The lady had still preserved her former
attitude, though leaning now further back against the wall and
panting for breath in the stifling smoke. He put his hand out to
"Catch hold of my neck and hold tightly round it," he said.
But again she was speechless and helpless. Her eyes lit up as she
saw him, but beyond this she hardly seemed to understand his words.
Elliot groaned, and finding, after another trial, that she did not
comprehend, boldly reached in and grasped her round the waist.
She was heavier even than he had imagined, and for one fearful
moment, as he stood poised on the topmost rung, he thought that
all was over. It seemed impossible that they should ever reach the
ground except by tumbling off the ladder. By a superhuman effort,
however, he managed to drag her out, and then clasping her waist
with one arm, whilst with the other he held on like grim death, he
hung breathless for a moment, and then began slowly to descend.
Up to this point there had been no sound in the street below. But
now, as the watchers saw his feet moving down the ladder, their
enthusiasm broke out in one deep sigh, followed by yells and shouts
of admiration. As the young stableman slowly descended, and finally,
by God's mercy, reached the ground with his burden, these feelings
broke all bounds. Men rushed round him; guineas were poured by the
handful into his pockets; and when these and his hands were full,
the gold was even stuffed into his mouth.
But, in the midst of this excitement, a sudden crash caused the
spectators to look upwards again. It was the roof of the house
that had fallen in, only a minute after Elliot had set his foot
upon the ground.
The lady whom he had saved by this second brave ascent was a relative
of Lady Dover, by name Mile, von Hompesch. It is pleasant to hear
that her preserver was rewarded by the family of Lady Dover, who
bestowed a pension upon him. At a later period he was in the service
of the first Lord Braybrooke, and this narrative was preserved by
a member of the family who had often heard Elliot relate it. Like
all brave men, he never spoke vaingloriously of his exploit; but
always professed great gratitude for his reward, which seemed to
him considerably higher than his deserts.