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Chapter I.: A VERY HOT MORNING. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
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A VERY HOT MORNING.
The gray light of a summer's morning was dawning on the cathedral towers of the city of——, when Mr. Burke, a surgeon, returned on horseback from tile country, where he had been detained by a patient till past midnight. It was Sunday morning, and he was therefore less surprised than grieved to see what kind of people they were who still loitered in the streets, and occasionally disturbed the repose of those who slept after their weekly toils. Here and there lay on a door-step, or in the kennel, a working man, who had spent his week's wages at the alehouse, and on being turned out when the clock struck twelve, had sunk down in a drunken sleep. Farther on were more of the same class, reeling in the middle of the street, or holding by the walls of the houses, with just sense enough to make their way gradually homewards, where their wives were either watching anxiously, or disturbed with miserable dreams on their account. The sound of the horse's hoofs on the pavement roused the watchmen, of whom one rubbed his eyes, and came out of his box to learn the hour from the church clock, while another began to make a clearance of the tipplers, bidding them move on with threats which were lost upon their drowsy ears. One of these guardians of the night, however, was too far gone in slumber to be roused like the rest. Perhaps his own snoring prevented his hearing that any one passed by. Mr. Burke tickled this man's ear with his riding whip, and asked him the meaning of certain clouds of dun smoke which were curling up, apparently at some little distance, between the gazers and the pale eastern sky. The watchman's wit served him just so far as to suggest that there ought to be no smoke in that direction at this hour of a Sunday morning, and that he supposed smoke must come from fire. Upon this hint, Mr. Burke rode off at full trot, through such byways as would lead him most directly to the spot. Before he got there, however, his fears were confirmed by the various methods in which information of a fire is given. Rattles were sprung in quick succession, shouts and whoops were echoed from street to street, a red blaze was reflected from every chimney, and glittered like the setting sun on the windows of the upper storys, and the clangor of bells followed in less time than could have been supposed possible. Window after window was thrown up, as Mr. Burke passed, and night-capped heads popped out with the incessant inquiry—“Fire! Where?”
This was what Mr. Burke was as anxious as any one to know, and he therefore increased his speed till he arrived on the spot, and found that it was not a dwelling-house, but a large grocery warehouse, that was in flames. Having satisfied himself that no lives were in danger, and that every one was on the alert, he hastened homewards to deposit his horse, and quiet his sister's alarms, and returned to give assistance.
When he came back, two or three engines were on the spot, but unable to work from a deficiency of water. The river was not far distant; but so many impediments arose from the disposition of some of the crowd to speculate idly on the causes of the fire, and of others to bustle about without doing any good, that the flames were gaining ground frightfully. As more gentlemen arrived, however, they assisted Mr. Burke in his exertions to form two lines down to the river side, by one of which the full, and by the other the empty, buckets might be passed with regularity and speed. Meanwhile, the crowd felt themselves at liberty to crack their jokes, as nothing but property was yet at stake.
A child clapped its hands in glee, as a pale blue flame shot up where there had been no light before.
“That's rum,” said a man. “If there be raisins beside it, 'tis a pity we are not near enough to play snap-dragon.”
“There will be a fine treat for the little ones when all is cool again,” observed another. “A fine store of lollipops under the ruins. Look how the hogsheads of sugar light one after another, like so many torches!”
“They say tea is best made of river water,” said a third; “and it can't but boil in such a fire; so suppose you fetch your tea-service, neighbour.”
“Rather tea than beer,” replied another. “Did you taste the beer from the brewery fire? Pah! 'twas like what sea-water will be when the world is burnt.”
“I missed my share then,” answered the neighbour; “but I got two or three gallons of what was let out because the white-washer's boy was drowned in it. That was none the worse, that I could find out. My wife was squeamish about it, so I had it all to myself. Heyday! what's this about? Why, they won't let a man look on in peace!”
The constables were now vigorously clearing a space for the firemen, as there was some apprehension that the flames were spreading backwards, where there were courts and alleys crowded with dwellings of the poor. The fear was soon perceived to be too well founded. From an arched passage close by the burning building there presently issued a half-dressed woman with two children clinging to her, a third girl shivering and crying just behind, and a boy following with his arms full of clothes and bedding. Mr. Burke was with them instantly.
“Have the houses behind caught fire?”
“Ours has, sir; and it can't be saved, for there is no way to it but this. Not a thing could we get out but what we have on; but, thank, God, we are all safe!”
“O, mammy, mammy!” cried the elder girl. “She has not been out of bed this week, .sir. She'll die with cold.”
Mr. Burke had observed the ghastly look of the woman. He now bade her compose herself, and promised that the children should be taken care of, if she would tell him where she wished to go. She answered doubtfully that her sister lived in the next street.
“O, not there, mother!” said the boy. “Let us go to John Marshall's.”
“Tis too far, Ned. My sister will surely take us in at such a time as this. Lord have mercy! The flames dizzy one so!”
And the poor woman fell against the wall. Mr. Burke raised her, and bidding Ned go before to show the way, he half led and half carried her the short distance to her sister's house, the little ones running barefooted, holding by the skirts of his coat. On their way, they met a man whom the children proclaimed with one voice to be John Marshall.
“I was coming to you,” said he, supporting the widow Bridgeman on the other side. “This is a sad plight I see you in, cousin; but cheer up! If you can get as far as our place, my wife bids me say you will be kindly welcome.”
Mr. Burke thought the nearest resting-place was the best; and Marshall yielded, hoping the sister's door would be open, as it ought. It was but half open, and in that half stood the sister, Mrs. Bell, arguing with Ned that the place was too small for her own family, and that his mother would be more comfortable elsewhere, and so forth. Mr. Burke cut short the argument by pushing a way, and depositing his charge upon the bed within. He then gave his name to the amazed Mrs. Bell, desired her to lend the children some clothing, and to keep her sister quiet till he should come again, sent Marshall for his wife, who would apparently nurse the widow Bridgeman better than her own sister, and then returned with Ned to see if any of the widow's little furniture could be saved. Before they reached the spot, however, the tenement was burned to the ground, and the two or three next to it were pulled down to stop the fire, so that nothing more was to be done.
The widow seemed at first so much revived by the treatment which Mr. Burke ordered, and her cousin Marshall administered, that there was room for hope that the shock would leave her little worse than it found her; and the benevolent surgeon went home at six o'clock to refresh himself, bearing tidings to his sister, not only that the fire was extinguished, but that it appeared to have done no irreparable mischief beyond the destruction of property. He was not fully aware, however, in how weak a state his patient had previously been.
“Mammy!” said little Ann Bridgeman, who sat on a low stool, with a blue apron of her aunt's over her shoulders, her only covering except her shift, “Mammy, there goes the church bell.”
“Hush!” said Jane, the eldest, who was more considerate.
“Mammy is awake,” persisted Ann, looking again into the curtainless bed to see that the widow's eyes were open. “Do you hear the bell, mammy? And we cannot go to church.”
“'Tis a strange Sunday, indeed, my child,” replied her mother. “When I prayed last night, after all our work was done, that this might be a day of rest, I little thought what would happen.”
Her cousin, Mrs. Marshall, came to her and begged that she would try to rest, and not to trouble herself with uneasy thoughts.
“My mind is so tossed about!” replied the poor woman. “It distracts me to think what we are to do next. And there sit the poor children without so much as a petticoat to wear; and the room is all as if the fire was roaring about me; and a letter from my husband, the only one I ever had, that I thought to have carried to my grave with me, is burned; and I might as well have saved it, if I had had a minute's thought; and———”
The sick woman burst into a hysterical cry which shook her frame so, that her cousin began to think how she could calm her. She ventured on a bold experiment when she found that her patient's talk still ran upon the letter, and that the consolations of Mrs. Bell, who now came to the bedside, only made the matter worse.
“Well now, I wonder,” said Mrs. Bell, “that you should trouble yourself so about a letter, when you will be sure to remember what is in it. One would think it was a bank note by the way you cry after it.”
“A bank note!” cried the poor woman. “I would have set light to my house with a handful of bank notes, if I had had them, sooner than lose that letter; and yet nobody would think so by the way I left it behind me. There it was in the box with my rent, and with my mother's gold thimble, nigh at hand as I got out of bed, and 1 might just as well have saved it. O Lord! what a wretch I am!” she cried. “Take the children away! Don't let them come near me any more. Lord forgive me! Lord have mercy upon me!” and she raved fearfully.
“She's out of her senses,” said Mrs. Bell, “and all for that trumpery letter. I'll make her believe we have found it.”
“And so make her worse than ever when she discovers the trick,” said Mrs. Marshall. “No, that won't do.” And she turned to the sick woman,— “I say, Mary, you would not mind so much about the letter if you were to see your husband very soon, would you?”
“Surely no,” replied the widow, looking perplexed, but immediately calm. “But my husband is gone, long ago, is not he? But perhaps I am going too. Is that what you mean, cousin Marshall?”
“I don't know whether you be or no, Mary; but you have no strength for raving as you did just now. If you wish to live for your children's sake, you must be quiet.”
“I was thinking a deal about dying last night, and what was to become of the children; but I forgot all about it to-day. Poor things! they have no friends but you,” looking from Mrs. Bell to her cousin Marshall. “You will see to them, I am sure. You will not cast them out upon the world; and depend upon it, it will be repaid to you. I will pray God day and night, just as I would here, to watch over them and reward those that are kind to them; particularly whichever of you takes Sally; for I am much afraid Sally will go blind.” As she gazed earnestly in the faces of her relations, Mrs. Bell tried to put her off with bidding her make her mind easy, and trust in Providence, and hope to live. Her cousin Marshall did better.
“I will take charge of Sally and of one of the others,” said she. “I promise it to you; and you may trust my promise, because my husband and I have planned it many a time when we saw what a weakly way you were in. They shall be brought up like our own children, and you know how that is.”
“God bless you for ever, cousin! And as for the other two———”
“Leave that to me,” replied Mrs. Marshall, who saw that the patient's countenance began to resume its unsettled expression. “Leave it all to me, and trust to my promise.”
“Just one thing more,” said the widow, starting up as her cousin would have retired. “Dear me! how confused my head is,—and all because you have moved the bed opposite the window, which my head never could bear. Listen now. In the cupboard on the left side the bed, —at least, that is where it was,—you will find a japanned box that I keep my rent in. At the bottom of that box there is a letter———”
“Well, well, Mary. That will do by-an-by.”
“Let me finish, cousin. Give that letter to Ned, and bid him keep it, because———”
“Aye, I understand. Because it is his father's writing, and the only one you ever had.”
“Why, you know all about it!” exclaimed the widow, smiling, with a look of surprise. “I did not know I had ever told anybody. Well, now, I can't keep awake any longer; but be sure you wake me in time in the morning. I must be up to wash the children's things, for they want them sadly.”
She dropped asleep instantly when her cousin had hung a shawl at the foot of the bed to hide the strange window. Ned had gone some minutes before for Mr. Burke, who pronounced, on seeing her, that she would probably never wake again. This proved true; and before night she was no more.
The fire created a great sensation in the city. The local newspapers described it as the most awful that had occurred in the place within the memory of man; and the London prints copied from them. Strangers came in from the country to visit the smoking ruins, and the firm to whom tile warehouses belonged were almost overwhelmed with sympathy and offers of assistance. Mrs. Bell was disposed to make a profit out of all this. She would have stationed Ned, in a tattered shirt, on the ruins of his mother's dwelling to beg, and have herself carried about a petition in behalf of the orphan children. The funeral, at least, ought, she thought, .to be paid for by charity; but , there was no moving the Marshalls on any of these points. They were so sure that the widow would have died, at all events, in a very short time, that they could not see why the fire should throw the expense of her funeral on the public; and even Mrs. Bell could not pretend that anything of much value had been lost in the fire except the rent, which would never be called for. The Marshalls countenanced Ned's dislike, to go near the idle boys who were practising leaping on the ruins, and found it a far more natural and pleasant thing to dress the little Bridgemans in some of their own children's clothes and take them home, than to appeal to strangers on their behalf.
“You may do as you please, neighbour,” cried Mrs. Bell, after an argument upon this subject. “If you choose to burden yourselves with two children in addition to your own five, it is no concern of mine; only don't expect me to put any such dead-weight upon my husband's neck.”
“Your husband earns better wages than mine, Mrs. Bell.”
“And that is what makes me wonder at your folly in not sending the children to the workhouse at once. No need to tell me what a little way a man's wages go in families like yours and mine.”
“You have a good deal of help in other ways to make out with, indeed, neighbour,” observed Mrs. Marshall. “You have found the gentry very kind to you this year; so much so that I think the least you can do is to keep these children from being a burden on the rates, for the little time till they can shift for themselves.—I believe you bought neither coals nor blankets last winter.”
“Bless your heart, cousin, the coals we got did not last half the winter through; for my husband likes a good fire when he can get it, and always expected to find one in the grate when he came home from the Leopard, however late at night it might be; and I had to sell one of the blankets presently. The other, on the bed there, is the only one we have till winter, when I hope to get a new one, if the ladies are not too particular about my having had two already. But, really, it tries one's patience to wait upon them ladies. Do you know I am disappointed again about the bag of linen against my confinement. I may be down any day now, and every bag is engaged, so that they can't promise with any certainty. So I must just take my chance for getting through somehow.”
“And how is your baby provided?”
“O, they gave me a few trifles for it, which will do till I get about again, and can carry it to show how poorly it is off”
“Well,” said Mrs. Marshall, “I do wonder you can bear to live from hand to mouth in that way. You got your first set of baby-linen at the same time that I did, and with your own money; and why yours should not have lasted as well as mine, I can't think. Mine are not all worn out yet, and I always managed to replace, by timely saving, those that were. However, if you can't clothe your own children, I don't wonder so much that you will not feed your sister's. Poor things! must they go to the workhouse?”
“Unless you choose to take them all, cousin. So wonderful a manager as you are, perhaps you might contrive it.”
Mrs. Marshall shook her head mournfully. She had not lodging room for more than two girls among her own, and could not have engaged that her husband's rent should be ready if more than two in addition were to share their daily meals. As it was, they must give up one dish of meat a week, and make some other reductions of the same kind.
“Better ask the gentry to help you, at once,” said Mrs. Bell; “but I suppose you are too proud?”
“We will try what our own charity can do before we ask it from those who have less concern in the matter,” said Mrs. Marshall. “There is one thing I mean to ask, however, because I cannot anyhow get it for them myself; and that is, to have them taught like my own children. Poor Sally must learn to knit while she has some eyesight left.”
“Which of the others do you mean to take?” enquired Mrs. Bell, as if quite unconcerned in the matter.
Mrs. Marshall called in the four children from the next room to consult them, to her cousin's utter amazement. She told them the plain truth, —that she had promised their mother to take charge of two of them, and that one of the two should be Sally; that the other two must live in the workhouse till they could earn their own subsistence; and that she wished them to agree with her which had best remain with her and Sally. Ned looked at his aunt with tears in his eyes; to which she answered by promising to see him sometimes, and to bring him some gingerbread when she had a penny to spare. Ned, who was too old to be spoken to in this way, brushed his sleeve across his eyes, and observed to cousin Marshall that Jane had better go with him to the workhouse, because she was the oldest and would be soonest out of it, and because Sally liked to have little Ann to do things for her that she could not see to do herself. Cousin Marshall was quite of this opinion; and so the matter was settled.
A long private conversation followed after Mrs. Bell had left the room; if conversation it might be called which consisted of sobs and tears on the part of the children, and exhortations and pity on that of their friend.
“Remember, Ned,” said she, “the one thing you must be always thinking about after you go into the workhouse is how soon yon can get out again. It is God's will that has taken your mother from you, and that has made your relations poor, and so we must try and not think your lot a disgrace; but it will be a disgrace if you stay long. Keep this up in Jane's mind too, for I am afraid of her forgetting it, as she is rather giddy.—I am not sorry, Jane, to see you cry so much, because I hope it will make you remember this strange day. I have heard of workhouse frolics, my dear. Never let me hear of them from you. You will have a service, I hope, in a few years, and you must try to make yourself fit to live with a different sort of people from those you will find in the workhouse.”
Mrs. Bell, who had come back in time to hear the last few words, began to tell all she had heard about tile pleasant kind of life people might lead in a workhouse if they chose; but her cousin cut her short by bidding the children take leave at once.
Few events wrung tears from this stout-hearted woman; but she kept her apron to her eyes the whole way home, and could not speak to any body all day.