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The Fire by Maurice Baring

 

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 things:

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 of flame and smoke into the sky. The moon was still shining calmly, and the sky was softer and greener. On the ground there were hundreds of dead and dying men; the dying were groaning in their agony. Far away on the horizon there was a thin line of light, a faint trembling thread as though of foam, and I seemed to hear the moaning of the sea.

All at once a woman walked in front of the burning pile. She was tall, and silken folds clothed the perfect lines of her body and fell straight to the ground. She walked royally, and when she moved her gestures were like the rhythm of majestic music. The firelight shone on her hair, which was bound with a narrow golden band. Her hair was like a cloud of spun sunshine, and it seemed brighter than the flames. She was walking with downcast eyes, but presently she looked up. Her face was calm, and faultless as skilfully-hewn marble, and it seemed to be made of some substance different from the clay which goes to the making of men and women. It was not an angel's face; it was not a divine face; neither was it a wicked face, nor had it anything cruel, nor anything of the siren or the witch. Love and pleasure seemed to have moulded the flower-like lips; but an infinite carelessness shone in the still blue eyes. They seemed like two seas that had never known what winds and tempests mean, but which bask for ever under unruffled skies lulled by a slumber-scented breeze.

She looked up at the fire and smiled, and at that smile one thought the heavens must open and the stars break into song, so marvellous was its loveliness, so infinitely radiant the glory of it. She was a woman, and yet more than a woman, a creature of the earth, yet fashioned of pearls and dew and the petals of flowers: delicate as a gossamer, and yet radiant with the flush of life, soft as the twilight, and glowing with the blood of the ruby; and, above all things, serene, calm, aloof, and unruffled like the silver moon. When the dying men saw her smile they raised their eyes towards her, and one could see that there shone in them a strange and wonderful happiness. And when they had looked they fell back and died.

Then a cloud of smoke blinded me. When it rose the full moon was still shining in a sky even bluer and softer than it had yet been. The fire was further off, but it had spread. The whole village was on fire; but the village had grown; it seemed endless, and covered several hills. Right in front of me was a grove of cypresses, dark against the intense glow of the flames, which leapt all round in the distance: a huge circle of light, a chain of fiery tongues and dancing lightnings.

We were on the top of a hill, and we looked down into a place where tall buildings and temples stood, where the fire had not penetrated. This place was crowded with men, women and children. It was the same shifting crowd of shadows: some shouting, some gesticulating, some looking on indifferent. And straight in front of me was a short, dark, and rather fat man with a low forehead, deep-set eyes, and a heavy jaw. He was crowned with a golden wreath, and he was twanging a kind of harp. In the distance suddenly the cypress trees became alive with huge flaring torches, which lit the garden like Bengal lights. The man threw down his harp and clapped his hands in ecstasy at the bright fireworks. Again a cloud of smoke obscured everything.

When it lifted I was in the village once more, and once more it was different. It was on fire, and it seemed infinitely larger and more straggling than when I had arrived. The moon was still in the sky, but the air had a chilly touch. Instead of one church there was an infinite number of churches, for in the glare countless minarets and small cupolas were visible. There was no crowd, no voices, and no shouting; only a long line of low, blazing wooden houses. The place was deserted and silent save for the crackling blaze. Then down the street a short, fat man on horseback rode towards us. He was riding a white horse. He wore a grey overcoat and a cocked hat. I became aware of a rhythmical tramping: a noise of hundreds and hundreds of hoofs, a champing of bits, and the tramp of innumerable feet and the rumble of guns. In the distance there was a hill with crenelated battlements round it; it was crowned with the domes and minarets of several churches, taller and greater than all the other churches in sight. These minarets shone out clean-cut and distinct against the ruddy sky.

The short man on horseback looked back for a moment at this hill. He took a pinch of snuff.