"Quite," replied the man. "You see it is burned through, and it is only a question of minutes before the roof must tumble in. The firemen do not dare to make any further attempt. It is a dreadful business."
"Why, don't you know? This is Lady Dover's house--poor old soul!
and she is still there, in the top room. No one can save her now, but it is a hideous death all the same."
Elliot looked about him and now understood the pallor on the upturned faces of the crowd. He looked at the house again. The whole street was wrapped in a crimson mist; the falling streams of water which the firemen still continued to direct on the blaze were hissing impotently, and seemed only to feed the fire. In the crowd that watched there was hardly a sound; one could almost hear men's hearts beating as they waited for the conclusion of the tragedy which they knew to be inevitable. But further down the street, where it was not understood that human life was at stake in the midst of this spectacle, rose the sounds of girls laughing, men quarrelling and fighting, whistling, oaths, and merriment. Caps were flying about, and the mass was jostling and swaying to and fro, as before Newgate on a Monday morning.
"Do you mean to say," asked Elliot, after a moment, "that the poor old lady is up there and nobody is going to save her?"
"What's the use?" answered the man. "If you think it possible, better try for yourself." But this reply was not heard, for the young stableman had already begun to push his way forward to the group of firemen that stood watching the conflagration in despair.
He was a man of extraordinary strength, and now with a set purpose to inspire him still further, he scattered the crowd to right and left, elbowing, pushing, and thrusting, until he stood before the firemen and repeated his question.
He met with the same answer. "It was impossible," they said.
Everything had been done that could be, and now there was nothing but to wait for the end.
"But it is a question of human life," he objected.
In reply they merely pointed to the flame-points now running along every yard of woodwork still left in the building.
Elliot caught a ladder from their hands and, running forward with it, planted it firmly against the house. He had to choose his place carefully, as almost every one of the windows above was belching out an angry blaze.
"Which is the window where they were last seen?" he asked.
The firemen pointed. The crowd at length finding that a brave man was going to risk his life, raised a cheer as they caught sight of him, and standing on tiptoe, peered over each other's shoulders to get a better view of the work that was forward.
"Now then," said Elliot, "don't try to stop the flames, for that is useless, but keep the water playing on the ladder all the time."
He slipped off his shoes, and amid another cheer from the crowd, dashed up it as quick as thought. The window to which the fireman had pointed was clear of flames. On gaining it, Elliot sprang on to the sill and jumped down into the room.
It was lighted brilliantly enough by the glow from the street, and through the dense smoke that was already beginning to fill it he saw two figures.
Both were women, and for a moment the gallant man doubted that he had come in time; for so still and motionless were they that it seemed as if the smoke must have already stifled them, and left them in these startling attitudes. One--a very old lady--was kneeling by the bedside, her head bent forward in despair, her hands flung out over the counterpane. The other--a tall, heavy-looking woman--was standing bolt upright by the window. Neither spoke nor stirred, and the kneeling woman did not even raise her head at the noise of his entrance; the other, with eyes utterly expressionless and awful, supported herself with one hand against the wall, and gazed at him speechlessly. Awestruck by this sight, Elliot had to pause a moment before he found his speech.
"Which is Lady Dover?" he cried at last.
The kneeling woman lifted her head, saw him, and with a cry, or rather a smothered exclamation of hope, got upon her feet and ran forward to him. He hurried her to the window. She obeyed him in silence, for it was clear that terror had robbed her tongue of all articulate speech. He clambered out, turned on the topmost rung, and flinging an arm round her waist, was lifting her out, when the other figure stepped forward and set a hand on his shoulder. The look on this woman's face was now terrible. Something seemed working in her throat and the muscles of her face: it was her despair struggling with her paralysed senses for speech.
"Me too," she at length managed to mutter hoarsely; but the sound when it came was, as Elliot afterwards declared, like nothing in heaven or earth.
"If life is left in me, I will come back for you," he cried.
But his heart failed him when he saw the distance he should have to go, and still more when he noted her size. For the ladder was slippery from the water which the firemen kept throwing upon it, and which alone saved it from catching on fire. Moreover, the clouds of smoke in the room had thickened considerably since his entrance, and it could not be many minutes now before the floor gave way, or the roof crashed in, or both. He had felt his feet scorched through his stockings, when he set foot on the boards.
Down in the street the crowd had increased enormously; gentlemen from the clubs, waiters and loungers from a distance had all gathered to look. As Elliot descended the ladder with his burden a frantic storm of cheering broke forth--for every soul present understood the splendid action that had just been performed; and the crush around the foot of the ladder of those who pressed forward to express their admiration was terrific.
But they knew, of course, nothing of the stout lady still left in the bedroom; and when Elliot, heedless of the cheers and hand-shakes that met him, flung Lady Dover into the arms of the nearest bystander, and turned again towards the ladder, they were utterly at a loss to understand what he could be about.
But he kept his word, A dead hush fell again upon the spectators, as once more the brave man dashed up the ladder, upon which the firemen had ceased now to play. Half-way up he turned.
"Keep on at the pumps!" he called; and then again was up to the window and looked in. The lady had still preserved her former attitude, though leaning now further back against the wall and panting for breath in the stifling smoke. He put his hand out to her.
"Catch hold of my neck and hold tightly round it," he said.
But again she was speechless and helpless. Her eyes lit up as she saw him, but beyond this she hardly seemed to understand his words.
Elliot groaned, and finding, after another trial, that she did not comprehend, boldly reached in and grasped her round the waist.
She was heavier even than he had imagined, and for one fearful moment, as he stood poised on the topmost rung, he thought that all was over. It seemed impossible that they should ever reach the ground except by tumbling off the ladder. By a superhuman effort, however, he managed to drag her out, and then clasping her waist with one arm, whilst with the other he held on like grim death, he hung breathless for a moment, and then began slowly to descend.
Up to this point there had been no sound in the street below. But now, as the watchers saw his feet moving down the ladder, their enthusiasm broke out in one deep sigh, followed by yells and shouts of admiration. As the young stableman slowly descended, and finally, by God's mercy, reached the ground with his burden, these feelings broke all bounds. Men rushed round him; guineas were poured by the handful into his pockets; and when these and his hands were full, the gold was even stuffed into his mouth.
But, in the midst of this excitement, a sudden crash caused the spectators to look upwards again. It was the roof of the house that had fallen in, only a minute after Elliot had set his foot upon the ground.
The lady whom he had saved by this second brave ascent was a relative of Lady Dover, by name Mile, von Hompesch. It is pleasant to hear that her preserver was rewarded by the family of Lady Dover, who bestowed a pension upon him. At a later period he was in the service of the first Lord Braybrooke, and this narrative was preserved by a member of the family who had often heard Elliot relate it. Like all brave men, he never spoke vaingloriously of his exploit; but always professed great gratitude for his reward, which seemed to him considerably higher than his deserts.
HOW NAPOLEON REWARDED HIS MEN
By Lieutenant-General Baron de Marbot
After crossing the Traun, burning the bridge at Mauthhausen, and passing the Enns, Napoleon's army advanced to Molk, without knowing what had become of General Hiller. Some spies assured us that the archduke had crossed the Danube and joined him, and that we should on the morrow meet the whole Austrian army, strongly posted in front of Saint-Polten. In that case, we must make ready to fight a great battle; but if it were otherwise, we had to march quickly on Vienna in order to get there before the enemy could reach it by the other bank. For want of positive information the emperor was very undecided. The question to be solved was, Had General Hiller crossed the Danube, or was he still in front of us, masked by a swarm of light cavalry, which, always flying, never let us get near enough to take a prisoner from whom one might get some enlightenment?
Still knowing nothing for certain, we reached, on May 7, the pretty little town of Molk, standing on the bank of the Danube, and overhung by an immense rock, on the summit of which rises a Benedictine convent, said to be the finest and richest in Christendom. From the rooms of the monastery a wide view is obtained over both banks of the Danube. There the emperor and many marshals, including Lannes, took up their quarters, while our staff lodged with the parish priest. Much rain had fallen during the week, and it had not ceased for twenty-four hours and still was falling, so that the Danube and its tributaries were over their banks. That night, as my comrades and I, delighted at being sheltered from the bad weather, were having a merry supper with the parson, a jolly fellow, who gave us an excellent meal, the aide-de-camp on duty with the marshal came to tell me that I was wanted, and must go up to the convent that moment. I was so comfortable where I was that I found it annoying to have to leave a good supper and good quarters to go and get wet again, but I had to obey.
All the passages and lower rooms of the monastery were full of soldiers. On reaching the dwelling-rooms, I saw that I had been sent for about some serious matter, for generals, chamberlains, orderly officers, said to me repeatedly, "The emperor has sent for you." Some added, "It is probably to give you your commission as major." This I did not believe, for I did not think I was yet of sufficient importance to the sovereign for him to send for me at such an hour to give me my commission with his own hands. I was shown into a vast and handsome gallery, with a balcony looking over the Danube; there I found the emperor at dinner with several marshals and the abbot of the convent, who has the title of bishop. On seeing me, the emperor left the table, and went toward the balcony, followed by Lannes. I heard him say in a low tone, "The execution of this plan is almost impossible; it would be sending a brave officer for no purpose to almost certain death." "He will go, sir,"
replied the marshal; "I am certain he will go: at any rate we can but propose it to him."
Then, taking me by the hand, the marshal opened the window of the balcony over the Danube. The river at this moment, trebled in volume by the strong flood, was nearly a league wide; it was lashed by a fierce wind, and we could hear the waves roaring. It was pitch-dark, and the rain fell in torrents, but we could see on the other side a long line of bivouac fires. Napoleon, Marshal Lannes, and I being alone on the balcony, the marshal said, "On the other side of the river you see an Austrian camp. Now, the emperor is keenly desirous to know whether General Hiller's corps is there, or still on this bank. In order to make sure he wants a stout-hearted man, bold enough to cross the Danube, and bring away some soldier of the enemy's, and I have assured him that you will go." Then Napoleon said to me, "Take notice that I am not giving you an order; I am only expressing a wish. I am aware that the enterprise is as dangerous as it can be, and you can decline it without any fear of displeasing me. Go, and think it over for a few moments in the next room; come back and tell us frankly your decision."
I admit that when I heard Marshal Lannes's proposal I had broken out all over in a cold sweat; but at the same moment, a feeling which I cannot define, but in which a love of glory and of my country was mingled, perhaps, with a noble pride, raised my ardor to the highest point, and I said to myself, "The emperor has here an army of 150,000 devoted warriors, besides 25,000 men of his guard, all selected from the bravest. He is surrounded with aides-de-camp and orderly officers, and yet when an expedition is on foot, requiring intelligence no less than boldness, it is I whom the emperor and Marshal Lannes choose." "I will go, sir," I cried, without hesitation.
"I will go; and if I perish, I leave my mother to your Majesty's care." The emperor pulled my ear to mark his satisfaction; the marshal shook my hand--"I was quite right to tell your Majesty that he would go. There's what you may call a brave soldier."
My expedition being thus decided on, I had to think about the means of executing it. The emperor called General Bertrand, his aide-de-camp, General Dorsenne, of the guard, and the commandant of the imperial headquarters, and ordered them to put at my disposal whatever I might require. At my request an infantry picket went into the town to find the burgomaster, the leader of the boatmen, and five of his best hands. A corporal and five grenadiers of the old guard who could all speak German, and had still to earn their decoration, were also summoned, and voluntarily agreed to go with me. The emperor had them brought in first, and promised that on their return they should receive the Cross at once. The brave men replied by a "Vive l'Empereur!" and went to get ready. As for the five boatmen, on its being explained to them through the interpreter that they had to take a boat across the Danube, they fell on their knees and began to weep. The leader declared that they might just as well be shot at once as sent to certain death. The expedition was absolutely impossible, not only from the strength of the current, but because the tributaries had brought into the Danube a great quantity of fir trees recently cut down in the mountains, which could not be avoided in the dark, and would certainly come against the boat and sink it. Besides, how could one land on the opposite bank among willows which would scuttle the boat, and with a flood of unknown extent? The leader concluded, then, that the operation was physically impossible. In vain did the emperor tempt them with an offer of 6,000 francs per man; even this could not persuade them, though, as they said, they were poor boatmen with families, and this sum would be a fortune to them. But, as I have already said, some lives must be sacrificed to save those of the greater number, and the knowledge of this makes commanders sometimes pitiless. The emperor was inflexible, and the grenadiers received orders to take the poor men, whether they would or not, and we went down to the town.
The corporal who had been assigned to me was an intelligent man.
Taking him for my interpreter, I charged him as we went along to tell the leader of the boatmen that as he had to come along with us, he had better in his own interest show us his best boat, and point out everything that we should require for her fitting. The poor man obeyed; so we got an excellent vessel, and we took all that we wanted from the others. We had two anchors, but as I did not think we should be able to make use of them, I had sewn to the end of each cable a piece of canvas with a large stone wrapped in it. I had seen in the south of France the fishermen use an apparatus of this kind to hold their boats by throwing the cord over the willows at the water's edge. I put on a cap, the grenadiers took their forage caps, we had provisions, ropes, axes, saws, a ladder--everything, in short, which I could think of to take.
Our preparations ended, I was going to give the signal to start, when the five boatmen implored me with tears to let the soldiers escort them to their houses, to take perhaps the last farewell of their wives and children; but, fearing that a tender scene of this kind would further reduce their small stock of courage, I refused.
Then the leader said, "Well, as we have only a short time to live, allow us five minutes to commend our souls to God, and do you do the same, for you also are going to your death." They all fell on their knees, the grenadiers and I following their example, which seemed to please the worthy people much. When their prayer was over, I gave each man a glass of wine, and we pushed out into the stream.
I had bidden the grenadiers follow in silence all the orders of the syndic, or leader, who was steering; the current was too strong for us to cross over straight from Molk: we went up, therefore, along the bank under sail for more than a league, and although the wind and the waves made the boat jump, this part was accomplished without accident. But when the time came to take to our oars and row out from the land, the mast, on being lowered, fell over to one side, and the sail, dragging in the water, offered a strong resistance to the current and nearly capsized us. The master ordered the ropes to be cut and the masts to be sent overboard: but the boatmen, losing their heads, began to pray without stirring. Then the corporal, drawing his sword, said, "You can pray and work too; obey at once, or I will kill you." Compelled to choose between possible and certain death, the poor fellows took up their hatchets, and with the help of the grenadiers, the mast was promptly cut away and sent floating. It was high time, for hardly were we free from this dangerous burden when we felt a fearful shock. A pine-stem borne down by the stream had struck the boat. We all shuddered, but luckily the planks were not driven in this time. Would the boat, however, resist more shocks of this kind? We could not see the stems, and only knew that they were near by the heavier tumble of the waves. Several touched us, but no serious accident resulted.
Meantime the current bore us along, and as our oars could make very little way against it to give us the necessary slant, I feared for a moment that it would sweep us below the enemy's camp, and that my expedition would fail. By dint of hard rowing, however, we had got three-quarters of the way over, when I saw an immense black mass looming over the water. Then a sharp scratching was heard, branches caught us in the face, and the boat stopped. To our questions the owner replied that we were on an island covered with willows and had succeeded in passing the obstacle, we found the stream much less furious than in the middle of the river, and finally reached the left bank in front of the Austrian camp. This shore was bordered with very thick trees, which, overhanging the bank like a dome, made the approach difficult, no doubt, but at the same time concealed our boat from the camp. The whole shore was lighted up by the bivouac fires, while we remained in the shadow thrown by the branches of the willows. I let the boat float downward, looking for a suitable landing-place. Presently I perceived that a sloping path had been made down the bank by the enemy to allow the men and horses to get to the water. The corporal adroitly threw into the willows one of the stones that I had made ready, the cord caught in a tree, and the boat brought up against the land a foot or two from the slope.
It must have been just about midnight. The Austrians, having the swollen Danube between them and the French, felt themselves so secure that, except the sentry, the whole camp was asleep.