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Robert Michael Ballantyne
Life in the Red Brigade


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Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England


<p>CHAPTER ONE.</p><br />

Wet, worn and weary-with water squeaking in his boots, and a mixture of charcoal and water streaking his face to such an extent that, as a comrade asserted, his own mother would not have known him-a stout young man walked smartly one morning through the streets of London towards his own home.

He was tall and good-looking, as well as stout, and, although wet and weary, had a spring in his step which proved beyond all question that he was not worn-out. As the comrade above referred to would have said, "there was plenty of go in him still." His blue and belted coat, sailor's cap, and small hatchet, with the brass helmet swinging by its chin strap on his left arm, betokened him a member of "The Red Brigade,"-a London fireman-one of those dare-anything characters who appear to hold their lives remarkably cheap, for they carry these lives in their hands, as the saying goes, night and day; who seem to be able to live in smoke as if it were their native element; who face the flames as if their bodies were made of cast iron; and whose apparent delight in fire is such that one is led to suspect they must be all more or less distantly connected with the family of Salamander.

The young man's expression of countenance, as far as it could be discerned through the charcoal and water, was hearty, and his name- Dashwood-was in keeping with his profession. The comrade, whose opinion we have already quoted, was wont to say that he ought to change it to Dashwater, that being his chief occupation in life. We need scarcely say that this comrade was rather fond of his joke.

Arrived at a small street, not far from the Regent Circus, young Dashwood entered a fire-station there, and found the comrade above referred to in the act of disposing himself on a narrow tressel-bed, on which there was no bedding save one blanket. The comrade happened to be on duty that night. It was his duty to repose on the tressel-bedstead, booted and belted, ready at a moment's notice to respond to "calls." Another fireman lay sleeping at his side, on another tressel-bed, similarly clothed, for there were always two men on duty all night at that station. The guard-room, or, as it was styled, the "lobby," in which they lay, was a very small room, with a bright fire in the grate, for it was winter; a plain wooden desk near the window; a plain deal table near the door, on which stood four telegraphic instruments; and having the walls ornamented with a row of Wellington boots on one side, and a row of bright brass helmets on the other, each helmet having a small hatchet suspended by a belt below it.

The comrade, who looked very sleepy, glanced at a small clock, whose tick was the only sound that fell upon the ear, and whose hands indicated the hour of half-past two.

On hearing the door open, the comrade, whose name was Bob Clazie, raised himself on one elbow.

"Ah, Joe,-that you?" he said, with a somewhat violent yawn.

"All that's left of me, anyhow," replied Joe Dashwood, as he hung up his helmet and axe on his own particular peg. "Bin much doin', Bob?"

"Not much," growled Bob; "but they don't give a poor fellow much chance of a sleep with them telegraphs. Roused me four times already within the last hour-stops for chimbleys."

"Ha! very inconsiderate of 'em," said Dashwood, turning towards the door. "It's time I had a snooze now, so I'll bid 'ee good night, Bob."

Just as he spoke, one of the sharp little telegraphic bells rang viciously. He waited to ascertain the result while Clazie rose-quickly but not hurriedly-and went to read the instrument with sleepy eyes.

"Another stop for a chimbley," he muttered, with a remonstrative growl. By this he meant that the head office in Watling Street had telegraphed that a chimney had gone on fire in some part of London; that it was being looked after, and that he and his comrades were to stop where they were and pay no attention to it, even although some one should rush into the office like a maniac shouting that there was a fire in that particular place. This use of the telegraph in thus stopping the men of the Brigade from going out in force to trifling fires, is of the greatest service, because it not only prevents them from being harassed, the engines from being horsed, and steam got up needlessly, but it prevents rascals from running from station to station, and getting several shillings, instead of the one shilling which is due to the first intimator of any fire.

Having acknowledged the message, Bob Clazie lay down once more, gave another expostulatory grunt, and drew his blanket over him; while Joe Dashwood went home.

Joe's home consisted of a small apartment round the corner of the street, within a few seconds' run of the station. Off the small apartment there was a large closet. The small apartment was Dashwood's drawing-room, dining-room, and kitchen; the large closet was his bed-room.

Dashwood had a wife, "as tight a little craft, with as pretty a figurehead," he was wont to say, "as you could find in a day's walk through London." That was saying a good deal, but there was some truth in it. When Joe entered, intending to go to bed for the night, he found that Mary had just got up for the day. It was "washing-day," or something of that sort, with Mary, which accounted for her getting up at about three in the morning.

"Hallo, lass, up already!" exclaimed the strapping fireman as he entered the room, which was a perfect marvel of tidiness, despite washing-day.

"Yes, Joe, there's plenty to do, an' little May don't give me much time to do it," replied Mary, glancing at a crib where little May, their first-born, lay coiled up in sheets like a rosebud in snow.

Joe, having rubbed the water and charcoal from his face with a huge jack-towel, went to the wash-tub, and imprinted a hearty kiss on Mary's rosy lips, which she considerately held up for the purpose of being saluted. He was about to do the same to the rosebud, when Mary stopped him with an energetic "Don't!"

"W'y not, Molly?" asked the obedient man.

"'Cause you'll wake her up."

Thus put down, Joe seated himself humbly on a sea-chest, and began to pull off his wet boots.

"It's bin a bad fire, I think," said Mary, glancing at her husband.

"Rather. A beer-shop in Whitechapel. House of five rooms burnt out, and the roof off."

"You look tired, Joe," said Mary.

"I am a bit tired, but an hour's rest will put me all to rights. That's the third fire I've bin called to to-night; not that I think much about that, but the last one has bin a stiff one, an' I got a fall or two that nigh shook the wind out o' me."

"Have something to eat, Joe," said Mary, in a sympathetic tone.

"No thankee, lass; I need sleep more than meat just now."

"A glass of beer, then," urged Mary, sweeping the soap suds off her pretty arms and hands, and taking up a towel.

The fireman shook his head, as he divested himself of his coat and neckcloth.

"Do, Joe," entreated Mary; "I'm sure it will do you good, and no one could say that you broke through your principles, considerin' the condition you're in."

Foolish Mary! she was young and inexperienced, and knew not the danger of tempting her husband to drink. She only knew that hundreds of first-rate, sober, good, trustworthy men took a glass of beer now and then without any evil result following, and did not think that her Joe ran the slightest risk in doing the same. But Joe knew his danger. His father had died a drunkard. He had listened to earnest men while they told of the bitter curse that drinking had been to thousands, that to some extent the tendency to drink was hereditary, and that, however safe some natures might be while moderately indulging, there were other natures to which moderate drinking was equivalent to getting on those rails which, running down a slight incline at first-almost a level- gradually pass over a steep descent, where brakes become powerless, and end at last in total destruction.

"I don't require beer, Molly," said Dashwood with a smile, as he retired into the large closet; "at my time o' life a man must be a miserable, half-alive sort o' critter, if he can't git along without Dutch courage. The sight o' your face and May's there, is better than a stiff glass o' grog to me any day. It makes me feel stronger than the stoutest man in the brigade. Good night, lass, or good mornin'. I must make the most o' my time. There's no sayin' how soon the next call may come. Seems to me as if people was settin' their houses alight on purpose to worry us."

The tones in which the last sentences were uttered, and the creaking of the bedstead indicated that the fireman was composing his massive limbs to rest, and scarcely had Mrs Dashwood resumed her washing, when his regular heavy breathing proclaimed him to be already in the land of Nod.

Quietly but steadily did Mrs Dashwood pursue her work. Neat little under-garments, and fairy-like little socks, and indescribable little articles of Lilliputian clothing of various kinds, all telling of the little rosebud in the crib, passed rapidly through Mary's nimble fingers, and came out of the tub fair as the driven snow. Soon the front of the fire-place became like a ship dressed with flags, with this difference, that the flags instead of being gay and parti-coloured, were white and suggestive of infancy and innocence. The gentle noise of washing, and the soft breathing of the sleepers, and the tiny ticking of the clock over the chimney-piece, were the only audible sounds, for London had reached its deadest hour, four o'clock. Rioters had exhausted their spirits, natural and artificial, and early risers had not begun to move.

Presently to these sounds were added another very distant sound which induced Mary to stop and listen. "A late cab," she whispered to herself. The rumbling of the late cab became more distinct, and soon proved it to be a hurried cab. To Mary's accustomed ear this raised some disagreeable idea. She cast a look of anxiety into the closet, wiped her hands quickly, and taking up a pair of dry boots which had been standing near the fire, placed them beside her husband's coat. This was barely accomplished when the hurried cab was heard to pull up at the neighbouring fire-station. Only a few seconds elapsed when racing footsteps were heard outside. Mary seized her husband's arm-

"Up, Joe, up," she cried and darted across the room, leaped on a chair, and laid violent hands on the tongue of the door-bell, thereby preventing a furious double ring from disturbing the rosebud!

At the first word "up," the bed in the closet groaned and creaked as the fireman bounded from it, and the house shook as he alighted on the floor. Next moment he appeared buttoning his braces, and winking like an owl in sunshine. One moment sufficed to pull on the right boot, another moment affixed the left. Catching up his half-dried coat with one hand, and flinging on his sailor's cap with the other, he darted from the house, thrust himself into his coat as he ran along and appeared at the station just as four of his comrades drew the fire-engine up to the door, while two others appeared with three horses, which they harnessed thereto-two abreast, one in front-with marvellous rapidity. The whole affair, from the "Up, Joe, up," of Mrs Dashwood, to the harnessing of the steeds, was accomplished in less than five minutes. By that time Joe and several of his mates stood ready belted, and armed with brass helmets on their heads, which flashed back the rays of the neighbouring street lamp and the engine lanterns.

There was wonderfully little noise or fuss, although there was so much display of promptitude and energy; the reason being that all the men were thoroughly drilled, and each had his particular duty to perform; there was, therefore, no room for orders, counter-orders, or confusion.

The moment the call was given, Bob Clazie, having received no telegraphic "stop," had at once run to ring up the men, who, like Dashwood, had been sleeping close at hand. He rang up the driver of the engine first. At the same moment his comrade on duty had run round to the stable, where the horses stood ready harnessed, and brought them out. Thus the thing was done without a moment's delay. The driver, when roused, flung on his coat and helmet, and ran to the engine. It was a steam fire-engine; that is, the pumps were worked by steam instead of by hand. The firing was ready laid, and the water kept nearly at the boiling point by means of a jet of gas. He had scarcely applied a light to the fire and turned off the gas, when four comrades ran into the shed, seized the red-painted engine, and dragged her out, as we have seen.

Much shorter time did it take to do all this than is required to describe it.

When the driver mounted his box, the others sprang on the engine. Crack! went the whip, fire flew from the paving-stones, fire poured from the furnace, the spirited steeds tore round the corner into Regent Street, and off they went to the fire, in the dark winter morning, like a monster rocket or a vision of Roman gladiators whirled away by a red fiery dragon!

Mrs Dashwood heard them go, and turned with a little sigh to her washing-tub. She was very proud of Joe, and she had good reason to be, for he was one of the best men in the Red Brigade, and, what was of more importance to her, he was one of the best husbands in the world. Perhaps this was largely owing to the fact that she was one of the best of wives! His career as a fireman had been short, but he had already become known as one of the daring men, to whom their Chief looked when some desperate service had to be performed. On several occasions he had, while in charge of the fire-escape, been the means of saving life. Upon the whole, therefore, it is not surprising that Mary was proud of her husband-almost as proud of him as she was of the little rosebud; but in regard to this she was never quite sure of the exact state of her mind.

Meditating on Joe, and giving an occasional glance at May, whose sweet upturned face seemed nothing short of angelic, Mrs Dashwood continued energetically to scrub the fairy-like habiliments, and make the soapsuds fly.


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