FIRE!

To run at full speed across a Derbyshire moor by the uncertain light
of a wintry moon is a feat not unattended with difficulty and danger,
especially when the runner is not quite accustomed to the course; but
it would have taken greater pitfalls than even those moors present to
have made Count Litvinoff choose a longer and easier way. For when
that shout had been borne to him on the wind he scented excitement and
danger, and excitement and danger were to him as the breath of life.
He was almost certain that the men meant mischief, and he intended to
do his best to prevent it. His sympathies really were, as he had told
Roland, entirely with them, and he was genuinely anxious that they
should not add a criminal prosecution for riot to their other troubles.
At the same time he looked forward with some pleasure to the scene in
which he was now hastening to take a part.

He had been in a fretful and irritable state of mind ever since he had
left London, and he cordially welcomed a row, and did not care much if
in that row he got a knock on the head that would put an end to his
visit and his life at the same time. At any rate, the situation offered
a chance of action, and it was action more than anything that he had
been longing for lately.

As he got nearer the valley in which the mill lay he was able to form a
better idea of what was toward, for the shouts seemed to get louder and
louder. He quickened his pace at the moment when he reached the brow
of the hill, from the foot of which all the noise and clamour arose,
and paused, looking down; a lurid flash of flame lighted up for an
instant the semi-darkness before him, and as suddenly died out again.

‘_Diable!_’ he said. ‘I shall be too late for anything. I have some
power over men, but I am not a fire-engine–‘

He made the descent rather more cautiously, though not much less
rapidly, than he had done the rest of the journey, and pushed his way
through the little wood to within a hundred yards or so of the mill.
Then he stopped, peering forward to ascertain the exact state of things
before he went on.

The mill was not one of those square, many-windowed blocks which remind
one of children’s toy-houses, but a group of irregular buildings of all
sorts and sizes, built of grey stone and roofed with slate. There was a
paved yard surrounded by outhouses, some mere sheds of wood and thatch,
and it was round the outhouse nearest to the mill itself that the men
were crowding. There was plenty of light now for Litvinoff to discern
every detail of the scene before him, for two sheds were on fire and
burning merrily in the frosty air. The door of a certain room where
he remembered to have seen quantities of cotton waste and inflammable
rubbish, and which opened directly on to the yard, had been battered
in by the men, and, the hinges having given way, hung crookedly by its
strained, bent, but still strong, lock. Some of the men were hurrying
to and fro between this room and the outbuilding, carrying armfuls
of wood and straw, and these men were for the most part silent. The
shouting, of which there was a good deal, was done by those who were
doing nothing else.

Count Litvinoff had not been the only one to hear that first yell, and
to interpret it as the note of something unusual, for dark heads were
moving along the brow of the hill on the other side, and dark figures
were hurrying down the stone steps.

The situation was obvious, and it was obvious too that no time was
to be lost, for the crowd was becoming wilder and wilder, drunk with
the strong wine of excitement as well as with the more habitual beer.
Rioting, like everything else, grows by what it feeds on, and the
higher the flames went the higher rose the cries that accompanied them.
There is always something exciting about a fire–in the breaking loose
of the tremendous force which we keep mostly as our servant. The fire
was still small enough to be quenched if its originators so chose,
but they saw well enough that soon it would be beyond their control,
and would be their master in the place where it had been their slave.
And they, too, had broken from their old place to-night. They were no
longer the humble dependants of a rich man. Their hand was against
him, and against all his class, and the new sense of independent,
self-chosen action was intoxicating them all, and had driven far from
them all thought of forbearance or of fear. For there was danger to the
men themselves in this hell they were making. The out-buildings and
the mill formed a square, and, once kindled, all would burn rapidly;
and, from the slight eminence where he stood, the onlooker, cool and
free from the madness that surged in the brain of the actors, could see
plainly that the incendiaries ran a very fair chance of being caught
in their own trap, and of perishing like rats in a barn. The big iron
gates were closed immovably, and the only exit was by a narrow door.
If once a panic began, and the men lost their heads in trying to pass
this door, there might be a tragedy more terrible than Litvinoff cared
to contemplate. He knew that if once the fire began in the mill itself
there would be no chance of saving it, or anything else, and he could
see that the men were beginning to drag burning fragments from the
out-buildings, and he knew that they would be dragged to that room
with the broken-in door. He paused no longer. That door was the _point
d’appui_ of the defence, and for that door he made.

He came rapidly down the hill and along the path that led to the little
gate by which alone entrance to the yard could be effected. In the
confusion of hurrying figures no one noticed the one figure more which,
in a few strides, crossed the yard and planted itself just inside that
broken door. Count Litvinoff glanced behind him and by the lurid glare
of the burning timber opposite he could see the pile of straw and
faggots in the room ready for the horrible bonfire. Just inside the
lintel of the door something lay on the floor, gleaming redly in the
firelight. He picked it up; it was a light, bright, long-handled steel
hatchet.

‘Aha,’ he said; ‘this is a gift from the gods!’

As he faced the yard, a great noise of mingled cheers and shouts went
up from the crowd. It was not because they had seen their solitary
opponent, but because the attack on what they thought the undefended
mill was about to begin in earnest. All the active members of the riot
were making for the door, headed by half-a-dozen stalwart fellows
dragging blazing timbers.

‘Stop!’ shouted Litvinoff, in a voice that rang above the confused
shouting of the crowd like a trumpet call.

And stop they did–and for quite twenty seconds held their tongues, to
boot. Then arose a storm of indignation and derision when they saw that
only one man stood in the way. They could not see who he was, and they
cared little. The leaders made a forward movement, when–

‘Stop!’ he cried again, and his tones rose clear above the yells of the
rioters, and were heard by timorous listeners on the hillside. ‘Stop,
and clear out of this as quick as you can get! Get to your homes, you
fools!’

‘Clear out yourself,’ said a ringleader, ‘or we’ll clear you out!’ But
the forward movement had stopped. A parley had begun, and Litvinoff
always felt that a chance of speaking meant for him a chance of winning.

‘Put out that fire, and get back to your homes!’ he cried. ‘I’ve come
down here to save you from penal servitude, and I mean to do it. Not a
man of you gets inside this door!’

By this time all the crowd had come up, and formed a semicircle in
front of him, about fifteen yards off. They could see his face better
than he could see theirs, for the light of the flames behind them fell
full upon him. He was deadly pale, but he looked deadly determined
too. There was a dangerous gleam in his eyes, and a gleam still more
dangerous from the bright blade of the axe which he had swung up on to
his shoulder. Standing on the raised step of the door he looked tall
and strong and bold.

Already the effect of this lion in the path made itself felt, for a
faint cheer went up from the outside edge of the crowd, and a voice
cried,–

‘He’s right. Let un be, lads–let un be, and go yer ways home.’

‘All those of you who’ve got any sense left turn round and put out
that fire. The work you’ve done to-night already is worth ten years in
prison.’




‘Then let’s finish our work, lads, and earn our wages! Ten years’ good
feedin’s better nor a month’s clemmin’,’ shouted a burly young fellow
of some six feet.

‘Well said, Isaac Potts!’ cried more than one. ‘Dang his cheek! Heave
him out of it!’

And some half-dozen rushed forward to suit the action to the word,
foremost among them Isaac Potts. In the position Litvinoff had
taken up, it was impossible for more than one man to attack him at
a time. As the young mill hand, armed with a piece of wood still
smouldering redly, sprang to lead the attack, a woman’s voice–his
sweetheart’s–sounded shrilly from behind the crowd,–

‘Keep back, Isaac–keep back; he’ll brain thee for sure!’

The warning was unheeded, or, if the young man heard it, it only urged
him on. He stopped an instant, hurled the wood at Litvinoff’s head,
and sprang forward to follow up his missile. The aim was not a good
one. The brand only hit the door lintel, struck out a shower of sparks,
and fell across the step. It was an unlucky miss for Isaac. Litvinoff
planted one foot firmly, and gave his axe a swing. It came down
crashing through collar-bone and shoulder blade, and almost severing
the arm from the body. Isaac staggered back upon the men behind him,
covering them with blood as he fell. There was a silence of a moment,
which seemed long. The crowd drew a deep breath.

All the devil in Litvinoff’s nature was roused now.

‘Come on, you madmen!’ he cried, as he recovered himself and brought
his axe to the shoulder again. ‘Come on! Get into this room now if you
can!’

But the general ambition to get into that room was a little damped
somehow, and the few who had been close on Isaac’s heels fell back, and
left him alone, all but one man, who stood glaring into Litvinoff’s
eyes. He held a heavy iron bar in his hand.

‘Back you go, or down you go!’ shouted Litvinoff, making a step towards
him, and giving the axe a swing in the air.

The man did not wait for the blow. He retreated, and joined the crowd
just as the girl who had shrieked that warning tore her way through to
the place where her lover was lying, and bent over him.

Litvinoff brought his weapon to his side. Then he said quietly,–

‘I told you none of you should get into this room, and none of you
shall, by God! if I have to treat twenty of you to the same fare as
this poor fellow. If you’re sane men, pick him up and see to him, and
perhaps nothing worse may come to you after all. Remember that every
man who does not help to put that fire out breaks the law. For Heaven’s
sake be reasonable men. There are some here who know me. Do you think
I care for this cursed mill? I came down here to save _you_. Help me to
do it.’

The moderate party was a good deal stronger by this time; the axe had
been a first-rate argument.

‘Well done, sir!’ ‘Quite right, sir!’ ‘Hear, hear!’ went up from
the crowd, and two or three men came forward. Litvinoff resumed
his defensive attitude, but they were not for attack. They busied
themselves with their wounded friend.

‘Is John Hatfield there?’ called Litvinoff, seeing that he had
prevailed. ‘I want him. Hatfield, can’t you manage to get a dozen of
your friends to put out that fire? The best thing you can do is to
knock down the sheds on each side, and then it will burn itself out and
do no harm.’

‘We will, sir,’ Hatfield answered. ‘You’re right; this has been a mad
night’s work.’

All danger of further riot was at an end. The men who had been foremost
in the work of destruction had made off as quickly as possible, and
those who were left worked zealously under Hatfield’s orders. The
wounded man was carried off on a shutter to the nearest cottage. The
fire was effectually put out with water from the reservoir. The men
loafed off in twos and threes, and darkness and quiet settled down
once more on Thornsett. Litvinoff and Hatfield remained till the last
lingerer had left. Then Hatfield said,–

‘Ah suppose this means the ‘sizes for a goodish few o’ us.’

‘I hope not,’ Litvinoff answered; ‘I’ll do my best for you–that is,
I shall not know who was here to-night. But I advise you to clear out
as early as you can to-morrow, and, if your friends who were in this
business are wise, they’ll do the same. Where have they taken that
fellow I knocked over? I’d better go and see after him.’

They turned their back on the mill, and climbed the hill to the
cottage, where the doctor who had been sent for was already busy with
his patient.

‘Is he going to live?’ Litvinoff asked sharply.

‘I think so,’ was the answer; ‘the greatest danger is loss of blood. He
has been bleeding like a bull.’

‘Oh, you must pull him through it, doctor,’ said the Count. He slipped
some gold into the hand of the woman who owned the cottage. ‘Let him
have everything the doctor orders, and you’ll do all you can, I know.
I’ll be down to-morrow.’

He looked towards the girl who was crouching at the head of the bed as
though he would have spoken to her, but seemed to think better of it,
and rejoined Hatfield outside.

‘I think he’ll be all right,’ he said, holding his hand out. ‘Good-bye,
Hatfield; don’t forget what I said. Drop me a line to the Post Office,
Charing Cross, London, to say where you are; and do let me beg of you,
if it’s only for your wife’s sake, not to get mixed up in any more of
this sort of thing. It must be on a much bigger scale before it’ll be
successful, my boy,’ he ended, resuming his most frivolous manner, and
turning away.

‘I think I deserve a cigar,’ he said to himself, as he started on the
long return walk, by the road this time. And he lighted one accordingly.

About a quarter of a mile from Thornsett he met Roland Ferrier, who was
walking quickly along, Gates by his side.

‘Where have you come from?’ the former asked abruptly. ‘Here’s Gates
tells me the men are burning the mill, and I don’t know what beside.’

‘Oh, no, no,’ the Count answered lightly; ‘there’s been a little
orating and so forth, in which I have borne a distinguished part, but
it’s all over now. They wound up with a hymn or two, and went home to
their wives. Come along back. I’ll tell you all about it when we get
in,’ and, catching an arm of each, he wheeled them round and marched
them back to Thornsett Edge.