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NIGHT SCENES IN ST. GILES'S.
ON the second or third night after we had taken up our
abode at the mission house, I was suddenly startled out of sleep, into which I
had just fallen, by a voice at our bedroom door. I listened, and heard a
knocking as if with the knuckle of a finger.
"Who is there?" I asked, without opening the door.
"It's only me, sir," was the reply, and I recognised the voice of the woman who had come to us as a servant.
"What is the matter ?" I asked.
"Well, sir, she replied, " I don't want to alarm you, but there's a dreadful fire at the back, and I thought I ought to come and tell you."
There was no time for further parley. My wife was already awake, and on learning the cause of the alarm, at once began quietly but swiftly to prepare for emergencies. Our little boy, a child of two years, was peacefully sleeping in his crib in the same room, and we did not think it necessary to disturb him; but he was not forgotten.
[-20-] I ran up to The Leads, and was soon followed by my wife. There the scene that presented itself to our eyes was magnificent, but awful. Right in front of us, and apparently quite close, there was a large fire which lighted up the heavens for miles around. Between the fire and us there was no street, no lane, no passage, to cut off communication - nothing but a solid mass of buildings, composed in great measure of dry old timber which would blaze up like shavings if it but once caught fire. But, happily for us, the wind was not in this direction, but drove the flames and fire-sparks another way. So, seeing that there was no immediate danger, I arranged with my wife that I should go out and visit the scene of the fire, in order to ascertain the extent of the danger, while she returned to her room and remained with the child.
I soon found it was the Freemasons' Hall that was on fire. It was therefore not only in my own district, on the south side of Great Queen Street, but in reality quite close to us. But so prompt and so effective was the aid given by the Fire Brigade, that not only was the fire prevented from spreading, but even the front part of the building itself was saved, the damage being, I believe, chiefly confined to the picture-gallery. So I returned home with good news and a thankful heart.
Another week, however, had scarcely passed away [-21-] before we were again roused up in the middle of the night by the alarm of fire. And this time, the fire, although not quite so close, was of a much more threatening character than that first described, and it seemed to be very near us, so large and so fierce was the conflagration. But whether there were any streets between us and the fire or not appeared to be a question of little importance. For there was a high wind blowing right in our faces; and as soon as we got up to The Leads, we plainly saw that we were in the midst of danger. The fire had the appearance of an immense blast furnace filled with blazing oil. It was oil, in fact, that was burning, the oil, and paint, and wood of one of the largest carriage-building establishments in Long Acre. But the comparative distance was in this case set at nought by the winds. Gigantic columns of fire shot up, one after another, into the air, and after describing beautiful arches, came with a rush straight down upon us, dropping, not mere sparks, but large clots of fire all around us, and even at our very feet.
"What a mercy it is that thatched roofs are no longer in vogue," I remarked to my wife; "all London would be on fire in no time."
"I am not so sure that a good many of these roofs will not be set on fire even as it is," she calmly replied, and not without good reason; for we [-22-] could plainly see that many of the fire-balls that fell around us continued burning some time after they had fallen.
It was a night long to he remembered in this neighbourhood, and more especially in and about Drury Lane, where the people actually began to remove their belongings, and where those who left their dwellings were prevented for hours from returning to them.
But in this case again the actual damage was confined to the street in which the fire occurred, the only person who sustained personal injury being, I believe, the gallant chief of the Fire Brigade.