by Stephen Crane
In the First Act there had been a farm
scene, wherein real horses had drunk real water out
of real buckets, afterward dragging a real wagon off
stage left. The audience was consumed with admiration
of this play, and the great Theatre Nouveau rang to
its roof with the crowd's plaudits.
The Second Act was now well advanced. The hero, cruelly
victimised by his enemies, stood in prison garb, panting
with rage, while two brutal wardens fastened real
handcuffs on his wrists and real anklets on his ankles.
And the hovering villain sneered.
"'Tis well, Aubrey Pettingill," said the prisoner.
"You have so far succeeded; but mark you, there will
come a time--"
The villain retorted with a cutting allusion to the young
lady whom the hero loved.
"Curse you," cried the hero, and he made as if to spring
upon this demon; but, as the pitying audience saw, he
could only take steps four inches long.
Drowning the mocking laughter of the villain came cries
from both the audience and the people back of the wings.
"Fire! Fire! Fire!" Throughout the great house
resounded the roaring crashes of a throng of human beings
moving in terror, and even above this noise could be heard
the screams of women more shrill than whistles. The
building hummed and shook; it was like a glade which
holds some bellowing cataract of the mountains. Most of
the people who were killed on the stairs still clutched
their play-bills in their hands as if they had resolved to
save them at all costs.
The Theatre Nouveau fronted upon a street which was not
of the first importance, especially at night, when it only
aroused when the people came to the theatre, and aroused
again when they came out to go home. On the night of the
fire, at the time of the scene between the enchained hero
and his tormentor, the thoroughfare echoed with only the
scraping shovels of some street-cleaners, who were loading
carts with blackened snow and mud. The gleam of lights
made the shadowed pavement deeply blue, save where lay
some yellow plum-like reflection.
Suddenly a policeman came running frantically along the
street. He charged upon the fire-box on a corner. Its red
light touched with flame each of his brass buttons and the
municipal shield. He pressed a lever. He had been standing
in the entrance of the theatre chatting to the lonely man in
the box-office. To send an alarm was a matter of seconds.
Out of the theatre poured the first hundreds of fortunate
ones, and some were not altogether fortunate. Women, their
bonnets flying, cried out tender names; men, white as death,
scratched and bleeding, looked wildly from face to face.
There were displays of horrible blind brutality by the strong.
Weaker men clutched and clawed like cats. From the theatre
itself came the howl of a gale.
The policeman's fingers had flashed into instant life and
action the most perfect counter-attack to the fire. He
listened for some seconds, and presently he heard the
thunder of a charging engine. She swept around a corner,
her three shining enthrilled horses leaping. Her consort,
the hose-cart, roared behind her. There were the loud clicks
of the steel-shod hoofs, hoarse shouts, men running, the flash
of lights, while the crevice-like streets resounded with the
charges of other engines.
At the first cry of fire, the two brutal warders had dropped
the arms of the hero and run off the stage with the villain.
The hero cried after them angrily--
"Where are you going? Here, Pete--Tom--you've left me
chained up, damn you!"
The body of the theatre now resembled a mad surf amid rocks,
but the hero did not look at it. He was filled with fury
at the stupidity of the two brutal warders, in forgetting
that they were leaving him manacled. Calling loudly, he
hobbled off stage L, taking steps four inches long.
Behind the scenes he heard the hum of flames. Smoke,
filled with sparks sweeping on spiral courses, rolled
thickly upon him. Suddenly his face turned chalk-colour
beneath his skin of manly bronze for the stage. His voice
"Pete--Tom--damn you--come back--you've left me chained
He had played in this theatre for seven years, and he
could find his way without light through the intricate
passages which mazed out behind the stage. He knew that
it was a long way to the street door.
The heat was intense. From time to time masses of
flaming wood sung down from above him. He began to
jump. Each jump advanced him about three feet, but
the effort soon became heartbreaking. Once he fell,
and it took time to get up on his feet again.
There were stairs to descend. From the top of this
flight he tried to fall feet first. He precipitated
himself in a way that would have broken his hip under
common conditions. But every step seemed covered with
glue, and on almost every one he stuck for a moment.
He could not even succeed in falling downstairs.
Ultimately he reached the bottom, windless from the
There were stairs to climb. At the foot of the flight
he lay for an instant with his mouth close to the floor
trying to breathe. Then he tried to scale this frightful
precipice up the face of which many an actress had gone
at a canter.
Each succeeding step arose eight inches from its fellow.
The hero dropped to a seat on the third step, and pulled
his feet to the second step. From this position he
lifted himself to a seat on the fourth step. He had not
gone far in this manner before his frenzy caused him to
lose his balance, and he rolled to the foot of the flight.
After all, he could fall downstairs.
He lay there whispering. "They all got out but I. All
but I." Beautiful flames flashed above him, some were
crimson, some were orange, and here and there were tongues
of purple, blue, green.
A curiously calm thought came into his head. "What a fool
I was not to foresee this! I shall have Rogers furnish
manacles of papiermâché tomorrow.
The thunder of the fire-lions made the theatre have a
Suddenly the hero beat his handcuffs against the wall,
cursing them in a loud wail. Blood started from under
his finger-nails. Soon he began to bite the hot steel,
and blood fell from his blistered mouth. He raved like
Peace came to him again. There were charming effects
amid the flames.... He felt very cool, delightfully
cool.... "They've left me chained up."