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Authors: Cora Harrison

The Deadly Fire (4 page)

BOOK: The Deadly Fire

At the end of school time, Mr Elmore brought the whole school into the big room downstairs to see the fun. Over fifty children were standing around laughing as time after time Alfie tested Mutsy. Every time Mutsy saw the word
he barked and wagged his tail, and every time he saw the word
he growled and stripped his teeth.

‘Make a great new trick, this. We should earn some more money with the reading dog,' said Jack and looked around for Tom to share the joke.

But there was no sign of Tom anywhere and now school was finishing for the evening.

Tom had been missing for over two hours.

Where had he gone?

The figure of Joseph Bishop flashed through Alfie's mind.


‘Oh!' exclaimed Sarah.

‘What's the matter?' asked Sammy. Alfie said nothing; he was too busy scanning the crowd in St Giles High Street, looking for Tom. Jack, he noticed, was doing the same thing with a worried look on his freckled face.

‘I've left my key behind,' explained Sarah. ‘I took it out of my pocket because Mr Elmore asked us to write about an everyday object and I forgot to put it back when I had finished describing it.'

‘We'll go back – Mr Elmore will probably still be there,' said Alfie. In a way, he was glad of an excuse
not to go home. What was he going to do if Tom was not there when they arrived back at the cellar in Bow Street? He and Jack would have to go out again and look for him. But what about Sammy? He didn't fancy dragging his blind brother around the midnight streets of St Giles. He didn't fancy any of them being out with the menace of Joseph Bishop or Mary Robinson hanging over them!

‘Let's go quickly,' he said decisively, setting such a fast pace that after a few minutes, he and Sarah were well ahead of Jack, Sammy and Mutsy.

The fog was very dense that night; even the gas lamps in the High Street were dimmed by it. But when they turned the corner, they stopped in amazement.

Streatham Street had no gas lamps, but the whole street was bathed in a red-gold radiance lighting up one of the windows of the Ragged School.

And there was a strange smell. Not the usual stench of rotting filth. A sharp smell, a scorching, smoking, blistering, breath-robbing stink. The foggy air seemed to hold something else, too: some tiny particles of black that Sarah brushed hastily from her face.

‘The school's on fire!' shouted Alfie. For a moment he and Sarah stared at each other, and then
both rushed towards the burning building. Sarah immediately seized the large round knob of the heavy front door and twisted it.

‘Mr Elmore must still be inside! The door is unlocked!'

‘Wait!' exclaimed Alfie, but he was too late. Sarah had already flung the door open, allowing the air to rush in.

First there was a roar which dulled the sound of drunken laughter from the nearby public house on the corner. Then there was a crash.

The windows of the crazy old house burst out of their rotten frames with a huge explosion of sound. The flames rushed out, licking upwards, and then travelling along the worm-eaten crumbling wood of the building. Alfie turned his head away; the heat was scorching his face and his bare legs.

‘Quick!' Alfie seized Sarah by the hand and dragged her away.

‘Fire!' he shouted. ‘Fire! Help! Fire!'

A moment later, the doors of the Cock & Pye public house opened and dozens of drinkers spilled out on to the pavement.

‘Mr Elmore!' screamed Sarah, her face red with heat and twisted with anxiety. ‘We must rescue him!'
She moved towards the burning building and then stepped back, defeated by the searing heat.

‘What about Tom? What if he's in there?' Jack was now at Alfie's elbow, his face glistening white in the glare of the fire and his eyes large and terrified. Sammy was a few paces away, standing patiently with his hand on Mutsy's collar and his blind eyes turned towards the scorching heat coming from what was once the Ragged School of St Giles.

‘Send for the fire engine, someone, please!' Sarah begged the crowd that were gathering around, gazing with fascination at the burning house.

‘No insurance plaque, Missy,' shouted one man, slightly less drunk than the others. ‘No chance of getting a fire engine if the building hasn't been insured.'

That was true; Alfie knew that. Only the rich could afford insurance. The poor relied on their neighbours and just hoped for the best. ‘Let's get some water from the pump,' he shouted.

‘Free drink for everyone who helps to put the fire out!' shouted the pub landlord. He disappeared rapidly back into the pub and then reappeared with a boy who was sent running down towards St Martin's Lane.

‘The pump is over here,' shouted somebody and everyone surged forward.

It was useless, though. Alfie knew that as soon as they started. The landlord provided a few buckets, some people from the rookeries used their own buckets – not wanting to trust these precious objects to any stranger who might steal them – but most people were just dashing pewter pint pots filled with water against the flames. Soon they abandoned their efforts and queued up for the free gin.

‘What about Tom?' Jack's voice trembled as he asked the question again. Alfie pulled himself together.

‘Jack, you know that Tom is not in there. He was missing for the whole evening. Why should he go back in there after school was over?'

‘He might have been hiding somewhere . . . in a cupboard or something.' Jack's voice broke on a sob and he passed his fist over his eyes.

‘Never.' Alfie put all his energy into a tone of scorn. ‘Why should he hide in a cupboard? Mr Elmore doesn't keep anyone at the school. They are free to go if they want to. Tom's at home. That's where he is, probably toasting his toes by the fire.'

‘Here's the fire brigade,' shouted someone from the back of the crowd and everyone cheered.

The heat from the fire had got hotter and hotter and hotter and the crowd had all moved back. Every
head turned towards the large cart drawn by four strong horses preceded by the excited boy from the public house. There were ten men in uniform on top of the cart and a large barrel with a pump and a hose.

‘There's a man in there, in that building,' yelled Alfie, but something told him that he was wasting his breath.

‘Over here,' shouted the landlord. ‘The fire brigade is for my public house. I pay the Sun Insurance Company every year. They're coming to protect
property.' He pointed up to the lead plaque with a picture of the sun embossed into the lead and painted a bright yellow.

The men on the cart had already spied the plaque. They whipped their horses and forced a way through the crowd. In a moment the water was sprayed over the front of the public house, the spray drenching the poor rags of the crowd around.

‘Turn the hose on the Ragged School,' shouted one man, pointing to the burning building. ‘Have some mercy.'

‘Please!' cried Sarah, tears rolling down her cheeks. ‘The teacher might still be in there.'

The fire brigade men made no answer. They were probably used to turning a deaf ear to such pleas and
continued to soak the front of the public house.

And then there was a loud sound, rather like a groan, but a groan from a giant. The flames from the Ragged School blazed higher for a moment, then the whole building began to tilt backwards, and, with an enormous crash, it fell and came to rest in a pile of smoking timbers and clouds of dusty plaster.

‘Let's get out of here.' Alfie took the decision suddenly. He grabbed Jack by one arm and Sammy by the other. ‘Come on, Sarah, there's nothing can be done now. We'll see you home.'

She followed them. He knew she would. Like himself she had been born into poverty, had to look after herself from an early age, had to see terrible things and live through terrible times. He thought he heard her sob, but when she joined him she was walking steadily and she said nothing until they reached the grand house at Bloomsbury Street.

‘I've no key; I'll have to wake up the cook,' she said in a voice that she tried to make normal. ‘She's a nice woman. I'll tell her about the school and the fire.'

She went down the steps and Alfie waited until he saw the door opened. Once Sarah had gone in, he touched Jack on the arm and they turned back towards home.

Down Endell Street they went without speaking a word, hurrying past Rats' Castle, a lopsided old building housing men and women who would murder for the price of an evening meal. Then into Buckeridge Street, known to be full of thieves, whose cellars joined up with those of Jones Court, so that a person could dodge the police endlessly in the rabbit warren of passages. Jones Court was inhabited by a hard-working colony, well-known for turning out false coins; and Rose Lane, lined with rotting houses, was famous as a training ground for young pickpockets. Was Tom anywhere here? Alfie found himself wondering. During one of their frequent quarrels, his young cousin had threatened to run away and to join the gang led by Jemima Matthews of Rose Lane, a well-known thief-trainer.

It was a relief to get out of St Giles – a place where there was not a single sewer and where the streets were full of unmentionable filth – into the fresher air of Long Acre and then Bow Street. Whatever happened, thought Alfie, resolutely turning his mind from the idea that Mr Elmore, and even Tom, might be dead . . . whatever happened, survival for the living was his business. The rent for the cellar at Bow Street had to be found every week. He had to keep a roof over the
heads of himself, his blind brother and his two cousins. A clever boy who could read and write could go far: Mr Elmore had told him that. Perhaps he could train as a teacher, or get a job as a clerk. He didn't dare to think that could be possible, but he knew that even the most educated man would not get a job if he lived in St Giles. The thing was to look respectable and have as respectable an address to live in as possible. Bow Street wasn't great, but it was better than St Giles. And there would be no need to mention that he just lived in a cellar.

‘No light on,' said Jack, his voice hoarse, as they rounded the corner of Bow Street. Although the cellar window was below ground, it had a small yard in front of it and usually the light spilled out on to the pavement above.

‘He's fallen asleep and let the fire go out.' Alfie was satisfied that his voice was light and reassuring, but he saw Sammy turn his ear towards him. His blind brother could never be fooled. He read the tones of voices as easily as Mr Elmore read the Bible. Still, the important thing was to keep Jack's hopes up so, as they stumbled down the dark steps to the cellar door, Alfie continued, ‘He'll be there, Jack. Where else would he have gone?'

But the door was still locked. And the cellar was cold, dark and empty.

Tom had not come home.


There wasn't much to eat for breakfast next morning – not that it mattered. No one had the appetite for it. Sammy chewed a dry crust of bread and then said thoughtfully, ‘Let's get Mutsy to track Tom.'

Jack said nothing. He still had most of his slice of stale bread left. Alfie took a bite of his own slice and chewed resolutely. He would need his strength. Tom had to be found.

‘Do you think that Mutsy could do that?' Alfie asked.

Sammy shrugged. ‘Why not?' he said. ‘You trained him to find me, didn't you?'

This was true and there was a time when that had saved Sammy's life. Even Jack looked up with a spark of interest.

‘Let's go, then,' said Alfie. He swallowed the rest of his bread and got to his feet. ‘I'll tie a rope to him,' he said. ‘That way we can follow him and see where he looks. Here Mutsy, boy, where's Tom? Here, sniff here.' He pushed the dog's nose towards the place where Tom usually slept. ‘Where's Tom, then, boy?'

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