Author: P Hana

Page 74


“Fire,” he said. “God, I think it’s in Leith Wynd!”

At the same moment, someone farther down the street raised the cry of “Fire!” and as though this official diagnosis had given them leave to run at last, the hurrying figures below broke loose and cascaded down the street like a herd of lemmings, anxious to fling themselves into the pyre.

A few saner souls ran upwards, past us, also shouting “Fire!” but presumably with the intent of alerting whatever passed for a fire department.

Jamie was already in motion, tugging me along as I hopped awkwardly on one foot. Rather than stop, I kicked the other shoe off, and followed him, slipping and stubbing my toes on the cold wet cobbles as I ran.

The fire was not in Leith Wynd, but next door, in Carfax Close. The mouth of the close was choked with excited onlookers, shoving and craning in an effort to see, shouting incoherent questions at one another. The smell of smoke struck hot and pungent through the damp evening air, and waves of crackling heat beat against my face as I ducked into the close.

Jamie didn’t hesitate, but plunged into the crowd, making a path by main force. I pressed close behind him before the human waves could close again, and elbowed my way through, unable to see anything but Jamie’s broad back ahead of me.

Then we popped out in the front of the crowd, and I could see all too well. Dense clouds of gray smoke rolled out of both the printshop’s lower windows, and I could hear a whispering, crackling noise that rose above the noise of the spectators as though the fire were talking to itself.

“My press!” With a cry of anguish, Jamie darted up the front step and kicked in the door. A cloud of smoke rolled out of the open doorway and engulfed him like a hungry beast. I caught a brief glimpse of him, staggering from the impact of the smoke; then he dropped to his knees and crawled into the building.

Inspired by this example, several men from the crowd ran up the steps of the printshop, and likewise disappeared into the smoke-filled interior. The heat was so intense that I felt my skirts blow against my legs with the wind of it, and wondered how the men could stand it, there inside.

A fresh outbreak of shouting in the crowd behind me announced the arrival of the Town Guard, armed with buckets. Obviously accustomed to this task, the men flung off their wine-red uniform coats and began at once to attack the fire, smashing the windows and flinging pails of water through them with a fierce abandon. Meanwhile, the crowd swelled, its noise augmented by a constant cascade of pattering feet down the many staircases of the close, as families on the upper floors of the surrounding buildings hastily ushered hordes of excited children down to safety.

I couldn’t think that the efforts of the bucket brigade, valiant as they were, would have much effect on what was obviously a fire well underway. I was edging back and forth on the pavement, trying vainly to see anything moving within, when the lead man in the bucket line uttered a startled cry and leaped back, just in time to avoid being crowned by a tray of lead type that whizzed through the broken window and landed on the cobbles with a crash, scattering slugs in all directions.

Two or three urchins wriggled through the crowd and snatched at the slugs, only to be cuffed and driven off by indignant neighbors. One plump lady in a kertch and apron darted forward, risking life and limb, and took custody of the heavy type-tray, dragging it back to the curb, where she crouched protectively over it like a hen on a nest.

Before her companions could scoop up the fallen type, though, they were driven back by a hail of objects that rained from both windows: more type trays, roller bars, inking pads, and bottles of ink, which broke on the pavement, leaving big spidery blotches that ran into the puddles spilled by the fire fighters.

Encouraged by the draft from the open door and windows, the voice of the fire had grown from a whisper into a self-satisfied, chuckling roar. Prevented from flinging water through the windows by the rain of objects being thrown out of them, the leader of the Town Guard shouted to his men, and holding a soaked handkerchief over his nose, ducked and ran into the building, followed by a half-dozen of his fellows.

The line quickly re-formed, full buckets coming hand to hand round the corner from the nearest pump and up the stoop, excited lads snatching the empty buckets that bounced down the step, to race back with them to the pump for refilling. Edinburgh is a stone city, but with so many buildings crammed cheek by jowl, all equipped with multiple hearths and chimneys, fire must be still a frequent occurrence.

Evidently so, for a fresh commotion behind me betokened the belated arrival of the fire engine. The waves of people parted like the Red Sea, to allow passage of the engine, drawn by a team of men rather than horses, which could not have negotiated the tight quarters of the wynds.

The engine was a marvel of brass, glowing like a coal itself in the reflected flames. The heat was becoming more intense; I could feel my lungs dry and labor with each gulp of hot air, and was terrified for Jamie. How long could he breathe, in that hellish fog of smoke and heat, let alone the danger of the flames themselves?

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Ian, forcing his way through the crowd despite his wooden leg, had appeared suddenly by my elbow. He grabbed my arm to keep his balance as another rain of objects forced the people around us back again.

“Where’s Jamie?” he shouted in my ear.

“In there!” I bellowed back, pointing.

There was a sudden bustle and commotion at the door of the printshop, with a confused shouting that rose even over the sound of the fire. Several sets of legs appeared, shuffling to and fro beneath the emergent plume of smoke that billowed from the door. Six men emerged, Jamie among them, staggering under the weight of a huge piece of bulky machinery—Jamie’s precious printing press. They eased it down the step and pushed it well into the crowd, then turned back to the printshop.

Too late for any more rescue maneuvers; there was a crash from inside, a fresh blast of heat that sent the crowd scuttling backward, and suddenly the windows of the upper story were lit with dancing flames inside. A small stream of men issued from the building, coughing and choking, some of them crawling, blackened with soot and dampened with the sweat of their efforts. The engine crew pumped madly, but the thick stream of water from their hose made not the slightest impression on the fire.

Ian’s hand clamped down on my arm like the jaws of a trap.

“Ian!” he shrieked, loud enough to be heard above the noises of crowd and fire alike.

I looked up in the direction of his gaze, and saw a wraithlike shape at the second-story window. It seemed to struggle briefly with the sash, and then to fall back or be enveloped in the smoke.

My heart leapt into my mouth. There was no telling whether the shape was indeed Young Ian, but it was certainly a human form. Ian had lost no time in gaping, but was stumping toward the door of the printshop with all the speed his leg would allow.

“Wait!” I shouted, running after him.

Jamie was leaning on the printing press, chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath and thank his assistants at the same time.

“Jamie!” I snatched at his sleeve, ruthlessly jerking him away from a red-faced barber, who kept excitedly wiping sooty hands on his apron, leaving long black streaks among the smears of dried soap and the spots of blood.

“Up there!” I shouted, pointing. “Young Ian’s upstairs!”

Jamie stepped back, swiping a sleeve across his blackened face, and stared wildly at the upper windows. Nothing was to be seen but the roiling shimmer of the fire against the panes.

Ian was struggling in the hands of several neighbors who sought to prevent his entering the shop.

“No, man, ye canna go in!” the Guard captain cried, trying to grasp Ian’s flailing hands. “The staircase has fallen, and the roof will go next!”

Despite his stringy build and the handicap of his leg, Ian was tall and vigorous, and the feeble grasp of his well-meaning Town Guard captors—mostly retired pensioners from the Highland regiments—was no match for his mountain-hardened strength, reinforced as it was by parental desperation. Slowly but surely, the whole confused mass jerked by inches up the steps of the printshop as Ian dragged his would-be rescuers with him toward the flames.

I felt Jamie draw breath, gulping air as deep as he could with his seared lungs, and then he was up the steps as well, and had Ian round the waist, dragging him back.

“Come down, man!” he shouted hoarsely. “Ye’ll no manage—the stair is gone!” He glanced round, saw me, and thrust Ian bodily backward, off-balance and staggering, into my arms. “Hold him,” he shouted, over the roar of the flames. “I’ll fetch down the lad!”

With that, he turned and dashed up the steps of the adjoining building, pushing his way through the patrons of the ground-floor chocolate shop, who had emerged onto the pavement to gawk at the excitement, pewter cups still clutched in their hands.

Following Jamie’s example, I locked my arms tight around Ian’s waist and didn’t let go. He made an abortive attempt to follow Jamie, but then stopped and stood rigid in my arms, his heart beating wildly just under my cheek.

“Don’t worry,” I said, pointlessly. “He’ll do it; he’ll get him out. He will. I know he will.”

Ian didn’t answer—might not have heard—but stood still and stiff as a statue in my grasp, breath coming harshly with a sound like a sob. When I released my hold on his waist, he didn’t move or turn, but when I stood beside him, he snatched my hand and held it hard. My bones would have ground together, had I not been squeezing back just as hard.

It was no more than a minute before the window above the chocolate shop opened and Jamie’s head and shoulders appeared, red hair glowing like a stray tongue of flame escaped from the main fire. He climbed out onto the sill, and cautiously turned, squatting, until he faced the building.

Rising to his stockinged feet, he grasped the gutter of the roof overhead and pulled, slowly raising himself by the strength of his arms, long toes scrabbling for a grip in the crevices between the mortared stones of the housefront. With a grunt audible even over the sound of fire and crowd, he eeled over the edge of the roof and disappeared behind the gable.

A shorter man could not have managed. Neither could Ian, with his wooden leg. I heard Ian say something under his breath; a prayer I thought, but when I glanced at him, his jaw was clenched, face set in lines of fear.

“What in hell is he going to do up there?” I thought, and was unaware that I had spoken aloud until the barber, shading his eyes next to me, replied.

“There’s a trapdoor built in the roof o’ the printshop, ma’am. Nay doubt Mr. Malcolm means to gain access to the upper story so. Is it his ’prentice up there, d’ye know?”

“No!” Ian snapped, hearing this. “It’s my son!”

The barber shrank back before Ian’s glare, murmuring “Oh, aye, just so, sir, just so!” and crossing himself. A shout from the crowd grew into a roar as two figures appeared on the roof of the chocolate shop, and Ian dropped my hand, springing forward.

Jamie had his arm round Young Ian, who was bent and reeling from the smoke he had swallowed. It was reasonably obvious that neither of them was going to be able to negotiate a return through the adjoining building in his present condition.