Great God! he thought. Wheres everyone gone? I must get out I must get myself to the river.
He allowed himself one final glance at the still-burning corpse of what had only recently been Trencoms cheese shop before turning on his heels and fleeing down the lane, stumbling over charred timbers and mounds of fallen masonry.
His mind was focused absolutely on saving his own skin and it was not until he at last reached the waterfront that he began to assess his predicament with a degree of clarity. As he did so, his thoughts performed several somersaults before turning in a most unexpected direction. He began to ask himself if the fire was the sign that his mother, in her characteristically cryptic fashion, had told him to one day expect. She had always insisted that the Trencom family was awaiting some sort of signal from the heavens and that when it came he would not fail but to notice it.
Watch out for it, Humphrey, she had said to him when he was still a young boy, and seize the moment. The sign will mark your destiny and it will also mark the destiny of the Trencoms. Yes, it will betoken good tidings for our family for generation upon generation.
As a small boy, Humphrey had often asked his mother to tell him more, but she would only ever offer him one of her customary monologues. All the noble courts of Europe once sought our blood, she would say with a vigorous nod of her head. Oh, yes. And we could have married into some of the very greatest dynasties. Tsar Ivan the Terrible proposed to Irene, your great-great-great-grandmother. And King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden offered one of your aunts the city of Lutzen in Saxony as her dowry.
The youthful Humphrey had listened entranced to his mothers litany of royal names and houses. He had heard these stories so many times that he knew, almost to the word, what was coming next.
Here it comes here it comes, he would think to himself, mimicking in his head his mothers strange accent. And I could have married Prince Christian IV of Denmark, Norway and the Lofoten Islands.
And I, she said right on cue, could have married the Holy Roman Emperor himself yes, indeed Ferdinand III. But I didnt like the cut of his moustache.
Humphrey had involuntarily gulped when he realized that the well-worn script had suddenly acquired a new and most illustrious personality.
Really, mother? he had said. Are you sure it wasnt Prince Christian IV of Denmark, Norway and the Lofoten Islands?
Aye, had been her answer as she spat in the dust. Him as well. I could have married them all. But I we didnt want to mix our blood with such inferiors.
Then why, Humphrey had asked tentatively, did you marry my father?
There was a long pause as his mother, Zoe, looked dreamily at the cob and timber dwelling that had been her home for the last ten years.
I fell in love, she had replied, wiping her eyes on her kirtle. And I knew that together we could produce the son who would reclaim our patrimony. Thats you, Humphrey. And when I saw your nose when I saw that you had inherited my nose I felt sure that it was only a question of time. We had left our homeland in a welter of fire and flame and a welter of fire and flame would surely send us back there again.
What exactly had his mother meant by these words? Humphrey had never known for certain, but now, as he turned his head towards the burning skyline, he quickly convinced himself that the fire was the mysterious portent of which she had spoken. To his way of thinking, the flames that had destroyed his shop heralded something of the utmost importance.
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