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Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Short Stories

The Fire
Before the bell had time to sound the alarm a huge pillar of smoke and flame,
leaping high in the breathless August night, told the whole village the news of the
fire. Men, women, and children hurried to the burning place. The firemen
galloped down the rutty road with their barrels of water and hand-pumps, yelling.
The bell rang, with hurried, throbbing beats. The fire, which was further off than it
seemed to be at first sight, was in the middle of the village. Two houses were
burning--a house built of bricks and a wooden cottage. The flame was
prodigious: it soared into the sky like the eruption of a volcano, and the wooden
cottage, with its flat logs and blazing roof, looked like a sacrificial pyre consuming
the body of some warrior or Viking. In the light of the flames the soft sky, which
was starless and flooded with stillness by the large full moon, had turned from
blue to green. A dense crowd had gathered round the burning houses.
The firemen, working like bees, were doing what they could to extinguish the
flames and to prevent the fire spreading. Volunteers from the crowd helped them.
One man climbed up on the edge of the wooden house, where the flames had
been overcome, and shovelled earth from the roof on the little flames, which
were leaping like earth spirits from the ground. His wife stood below and called
on him in forcible language to descend from such a dangerous place. The crowd
jeered at her fears, and she spoke her mind to them in frank and unvarnished
terms. It was St. John the Baptist's Day. Some of the men had been celebrating
the feast by drinking. One of them, out of the fulness of his heart, cried out: "Oh,
how happy I am! I'm drunk, and there's a fire, and all at the same time!" But most
of the crowd--they looked like black shadows against the glare--looked on quietly,
every now and then making comments on the situation. One of the peasants tried
to knock down the burning house with an axe. He failed. Someone not far off was
playing an accordion and singing a monotonous rhythmical song.
Amidst the shifting crowd of shadows I noticed a strange figure, who beckoned to
me. "I see you are short-sighted," he said, "let me lend you a glass." His voice
sounded thin and distant, and he handed me a piece of glass which seemed to
be more opaque than transparent. I looked through it and I noticed a difference in
The cottages had disappeared; in their place were great high buildings with lofty
porticos, broad columns and carved friezes, but flames were leaping round them,
intenser and greater than before, and the noise of the fire had increased. In front
of me was an open court, in the centre of which was an altar, and to the right of
this altar stood an old bay-tree. An old man and a grey-haired woman were
clinging to this altar; it was drenched with blood, and on the steps of it lay several
bodies of young men clothed in armour, but squalid with dust and blood.
I had scarcely become aware of the scene before a great cloud of smoke passed
through the court, and when it rose I saw there had been another change: in that
few moments' space the fire seemed to have wrought incredible havoc. Nothing
was left of all the tall pillared buildings, the friezes and the porticos, the altar, the
bay-tree and the bodies--nothing but the pile of logs which vomited a rolling cloud