Fire fire, p.1
Fire! Fire!, p.1Stuart Hill
I don’t know how long I ran through the burning streets of the city. The sky was dark with clouds of smoke, so I couldn’t guess the time and any church bells that still rang the hours had either been burnt down or their chimes were lost in the deafening roar of the fire. I could see no landmarks to guide me and I soon lost my way. One burning street looks much the same as another.
As I ran, I coughed and spluttered in the smoke. My hands were black with soot and I guessed that my face would be in the same state. My clothes were scorched too and peppered with small black holes where sparks had hit me and burned through the cloth. Some of these sparks had reached my skin and I could feel tiny burns all over my back, shoulders, arms and legs.
I knew I couldn’t go on for much longer; my chest ached from the smoke and fumes and I could hardly breathe. I had to get out of the fire and find a safe place to rest. Eventually I was forced to slow down by sheer exhaustion until I was barely shuffling forwards, pushed along by the crowds of people who were still cramming the streets as they ran from the fire. Despite feeling totally worn out, I forced myself to keep looking, to keep searching for any sign of him. Where was he? Why couldn’t I find him? But really I knew it was impossible. I suppose I secretly knew it always had been. How could I have hoped to find one individual in this huge city? Especially when the city was engulfed in flames?
The fire was closing in on everyone and everything. It would kill all living things in its path. What chance did any of us have against the fury of the flames?
My name’s Tom Hubbard and I’m twelve years old… I think. At least that’s what my mother told me, but we hardly ever discussed unimportant things like when I was born. We were too busy trying to find enough food to live on to worry about details like that. But everything changed when I got a job in the household kitchens of Master Samuel Pepys. My mother was so happy knowing that I’d be warm, well-fed and safe.
I even have my own room; although I’m the youngest of all the servants I can shut my door on everyone and have some space to myself. Most of the maids and serving men have to share with others in the attics or cellars, or sleep in whatever space they can find next to the kitchen fire.
“I can die in peace now,” Mother said to me when she heard about my new job. And sadly, within a few months she did die, though not in peace. Like thousands of others in the summer of last year, she died horribly of the plague. I was working in the kitchens at the time so even now I don’t know where she’s buried. I was told that her body was taken away in a cart with dozens of others and thrown into one of the plague pits where hundreds of people were buried together. So many people died and so quickly, there just wasn’t time or even space to bury them individually. The only thing I could do was to go to the nearest plague pit that had been filled in and lay some flowers on the huge mound of earth that covered it. I hope that mother understood that I did my best to say goodbye to her properly.
My new master, Samuel Pepys (it’s pronounced ‘Peeps’), was one of the most important people in London. He worked as Secretary to the Navy. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I knew it had something to do with the warships that kept our country safe from enemies and that my new master was very good at his job.
Of course that didn’t make much difference to me. Working all day in the heat and steam of the kitchens I never saw any of the important people who came to visit the house. I just had to help the cooks and kitchen maids get everything ready for the wonderful meals they ate. My day started early at five o’clock in the morning, and sometimes didn’t finish until the clocks were striking ten o’clock at night! I knew I was lucky to have a job in such an important household, but the work was hard. Things were made easier by my friend, Pip. He was the kitchen dog, a small black and white terrier whose job it was to kill any rats and mice that tried to steal food from the pantries and storerooms. He shared a sleeping space with me near the fires when I first arrived in the house and didn’t have my own room. Pip could always make me smile when I felt sad about my mother, and he’d growl a warning if anyone tried to steal our place next to the fire.
But then came a day when everything changed.
I was scrubbing the kitchen floor and the noise of the stiff brush bristles on the flagstones meant that I didn’t hear Master Pepys come into the kitchen. He was talking to the head steward about a dinner he was planning for some important friends.
“Will you stop that infernal noise!” a voice suddenly shouted and a hand pulled me roughly to my feet.
When I realized it was Master Pepys I was terrified. I could easily lose my job if he got angry with me and then I could be thrown onto the streets with nowhere to live! I started to say sorry, but he waved me to silence while he straightened his wig which had slipped to one side when he’d grabbed me. All fashionable men wore these long wigs, including the king and his court. But as my master settled the hairpiece in place he suddenly stopped and stared at me.
“What’s your name, boy?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Tom Hubbard, sir,” I almost whispered, dreading what he might say next.
“And are you fit and well? Can you run, boy? Can you stand up straight? Are you intelligent?”
“Yes, sir. To all of those things,” I answered, my voice coming back strongly as I guessed that perhaps an opportunity could be coming my way.
“Hmmm…” was the only reply Master Pepys gave. Then he turned back to the head steward. “A man of my standing needs a pageboy, Richards. Would this boy do?”
The head steward looked at me sternly. “He’s bright and he’ll clean up reasonably. With a bit of training I think he’d do well enough.”
“Good,” Master Pepys said. “Teach him his manners, get him a suit of clothes from the wardrobes and then send him to me. How long will it take?”
“A week should make him presentable as long as he only has to stand still when needed and run errands when asked. The rest he can learn as he goes along.”
I stood listening with my mouth open in excited amazement and then, remembering I was supposed to look like a pageboy, I snapped it shut again.
I was both terrified and thrilled at the thought of being Master Pepys’ personal servant, but I was now also determined to be the best pageboy there had ever been. It just goes to show how unexpected things can happen. When Master Pepys had grabbed me I thought I was about to lose my job, and now here I was in a new and much better position!
That all happened three months ago and now I have several fine suits of clothes and my own room in the attic, so I can be called whenever Master Pepys needs me. If only my mother had lived long enough to see all of this. She would’ve been so proud.
Having my own room meant that I no longer shared a sleeping place by the fires with Pip, the kitchen dog. But now every night he leaves his post in the pantries and sneaks up to my room using the backstairs, and I let him sleep on my bed. He’s a kind little creature who was my only friend when I first arrived in the house, and now he’s like family. I’ve no one else in all the world but him. I always make sure he gets enough to eat and take him for walks around the city whenever I have time off. We love exploring the streets together.
Then one hot and dry September night a strange thing happened. Pip jumped up off the bed and sta
I told Pip to be quiet and placed him back on the bed as I went to find out what was happening. I could hear Jane bustling down the flights of stairs ahead of me and I hurried after her. I caught up with her two floors down, just as she arrived at my master and mistress’s bedroom.
“What’s going on?” I asked in a hoarse whisper, but she ignored me and hammered on the door. I knew it had to be something really important if she was prepared to wake them up. What could it be?
The loud snores coming from the bedroom suddenly stopped as Jane knocked again and a sleepy and confused voice called out: “Who’s there…? What’s wrong…?”
Without waiting Jane pushed the door open and rushed in. I immediately followed, in case Master Pepys should need me… but also because I was desperate to know what was going on!
“I’m sorry, Sir and Madam,” Jane gabbled. “But I thought you should know… there’s a huge fire burning across the city!” She pointed out of the window and down towards where London Bridge crossed the river.
Master Pepys leapt out of bed, his nightshirt billowing like a sail on a warship and hurried over to the window to look. I moved to stand behind him and peered round his wide frame to see what was going on.
Far off in the distance, over the crowded roofs of all the houses and the tall spires of the churches, I could see a red glow in the sky somewhere near the Billingsgate area of the city. My mistress joined us, making a small crowd of four around the narrow window.
“Is that all?!” Master Pepys demanded, as he saw the flames. “A dog could wee on that and put it out!”
“Perhaps Pip could help,” I said with a quiet snigger, not really wanting to get Jane into trouble.
My mistress resettled her nightcap that had fallen over one eye. “Really, Jane, what a fuss about nothing! And so early… what time is it?”
“Three o’clock!” Master Pepys exploded. “Next time you see a fire, wait until it’s knocking on our door with fiery hands before you disturb us!”
Jane looked embarrassed and miserable, but managed a curtsey before apologizing and withdrawing. I followed her out and closed the door quietly behind me.
“Never mind,” I said, trying to be comforting. “You did what you thought best.”
She nodded but said nothing. I went back to my room and tried to settle Pip down again, but he jumped about excitedly until I picked him up. I stood on my bed so that I could peer out of the tiny window that was set into the sloping ceiling. I could still see the glow of the fire in the sky and thought that it might have got a little bigger and brighter, but it was hard to tell. Pip seemed interested and snuffled at the glass, so I lifted the handle and pushed the small window open. Immediately the warm night air rushed in, bringing with it the faint scent of smoke.
“London’s burning, Pip,” I said and he whimpered in reply.
I went back to bed and then woke again at my usual time and got up. It was five o’clock on September 2nd and the sun had not yet risen, but there was enough light in the sky for me to dress without needing to light a candle. Master Pepys wouldn’t be up for another three hours or so, but in the mornings I would help lay the fires in the kitchen and fetch and carry for the cooks and kitchen maids. Before I went down the service stairs, I stood on my bed with Pip in my arms again and gazed out of the window to where I’d seen the glow of the fire the night before. Only now it wasn’t a glow. It had definitely grown and spread in the last few hours and a huge plume of smoke rose up from it like a storm cloud. A shiver of fear went through me.
I’d seen lots of fires in the streets before, but they were usually put out quickly. This one had been burning all night and was still getting bigger. I felt a strange knotting in my stomach as I thought of all the people who could have been trapped by the flames and burned to death. And the knot got tighter when I realized that if it spread even further the fire could even reach Master Pepys’ house.
“My God, I hope they put it out soon, Pip. Otherwise we might be looking for a new home…” I paused and shivered in fear before adding: “if we’re still alive that is!”
Pip gave a small yap as though he understood what I’d said. But then he started to dance around. He needed to empty his bladder as usual so I quickly opened the door and followed the sound of his skittering claws down the back service stairs. When I reached the ground floor I slipped out into the garden to make sure Pip came back in and didn’t run off now that the fire was getting bigger. I couldn’t bear the thought of him getting lost in the chaos of fire and smoke. I don’t know what I’d do without him. As I leaned against the house and took a deep breath of the morning air I was immediately hit by the smell of burning. Master Pepys’ house stands on Seething Lane; it’s on a hill and looks down on most of the city north of the river, so I was able to look out over the houses south towards the Thames and Billingsgate where the fire was.
The billows of black smoke still rose up and the dawn sky was made much brighter by the flames I could now see raging over the roofs of the houses.
A wind moved through the old apple trees in the garden, sweeping from the south. It brought with it the distant sounds of roaring, crackling flames and what sounded like hundreds of people shouting and even screaming. Pip appeared at my feet at last, but instead of running madly in circles with his usual widemouthed panting, he snuggled up to my legs and sniffed worriedly at the smoky air.
“Come on, boy,” I said, opening the door back into the kitchens. “The fire’s a long way off and it’ll be out before the sun rises.”
The dog hurried inside and I followed him, glancing over my shoulder at the distant flames, not sure whether I believed my own words or not.
The conversation amongst the kitchen maids and boys was all about the fire as we started the ovens and prepared for the day ahead. But soon deliveries began to arrive from different shops and suppliers throughout the city, and with each delivery came news about the fire. Soon we found out that the flames were spreading quickly and that overnight over three hundred houses had been destroyed. It had started in a bakery in Pudding Lane and had now spread to Fish Lane and was heading for London Bridge. Nobody knew how many people had died, or if any had at all. There were so many different stories it was impossible to know what to think. But remembering the shouts and screams that’d been carried by the wind into the garden earlier, I couldn’t believe that nobody had been hurt.
When the time came to get my master up for the day, I almost ran up the stairs, bursting with the news.
“Three hundred houses destroyed!” he bellowed, as I helped him on with his shirt. “Has no one put the blessed thing out yet?!”
He hopped to the window with one shoe on while I followed after with the other. “Saints and sausages! It’s spread!” he gasped as he saw the huge billows of smoke rolling up into the sky. “The king must be told! My coat; my wig; we must be off!”
“Not without your trousers, sir,” I said quietly.
“What? Oh, no… not without my trousers,” he agreed, staring down at his bare legs. “The white silk ones, Tom. And the blue sash.”
I was so excited that I was going to see the king that I almost tripped over the trousers as I fetched them from the clothes chest. London was burning and that should have been the only thing in my thoughts, but I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t every day that a boy from a poor background like me got to go to a royal palace and stand before a king!
When we were finally ready, we burst out of the house and I took up the proper place of a pageboy, two paces behind Master Pepys. But as we went down the hill the streets began to fill with people and every sort of handcart and horse-dr
The bitter scent of smoke was much stronger now and the sounds of screaming and crackling flames wafted over us with every breath of wind. I looked south towards the fire and wondered how far away it was. Maybe not more than a couple of miles.
“Quick, Tom, to the Tower of London, that’s the best place to see this fire clearly and in safety,” my master said, and we both hurried as fast as we could down towards Tower Hill and the ancient fortress that stood on the banks of the Thames.
When we arrived beneath the stone-built walls we found the streets still packed with people all hurrying about in a state of panic. We forced our way through the crowds until we got to the gates that were guarded by soldiers. Master Pepys knew the Commander of the Tower so we were soon allowed in and then up onto the walls where we looked eastwards and saw the fire raging through the city. I gasped in horror at the terrible sight and for a moment Master Pepys bowed his head as we both thought of the poor people fleeing from the flames.
We could clearly see London Bridge too and already the flames had burst through the great gateway that defended the road leading onto the bridge itself. We could see people, tiny as ants from this distance, running back towards the safety of the south bank where the fire hadn’t reached. But others were bravely standing against it. They seemed to have formed a line and were handing buckets of water forward to throw onto the flames that had taken hold of the wooden bridge. But we could see it was hopeless. Soon there was a great creaking and groaning and as we watched a whole section of the bridge fell into the Thames with a mighty roar. Many of those fighting the fire must have fallen with it, but though I stared long and hard at the churning waters, I saw nobody swimming away.
I think I screamed aloud in horror, but my voice was lost amongst all the other cries. People were dying in this fire and nobody seemed able to stop it!
Fire! Fire! by Stuart Hill / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes