It took Humphrey approximately three seconds to comprehend the scale of the disaster and a further two seconds to realize that his own life was quite possibly in grave danger. The parish of St Agatha, less than a hundred yards from his home, was consumed by fire. The Golden Cocke was sending out a funnel of sparks; the Fox and Grapes was a smoking ruin. Humphrey peered through the pall of smoke and realized that the pitched leaded roof of old St Pauls, which he could just make out, seemed to be a molten torrent. Liquid metal was pouring from the gargoyles and splashing onto the ground below.
He raced down the back stairs and out onto the lane. The air was a soupy mixture of acrid smoke much stronger and more pungent than it had been in his own chamber. Humphrey could smell pitch and tar and burning brimstone.
Foster Lane was crowded with people women, squealing babies, maids and soldiers. Broken furniture lay strewn across the cobbles. Carts and wagons were blocking the street.
What in the devils name is happening? roared Humphrey to a passing soldier. Where should we go?
The whole city is afire, came the reply. Get yourself down to the riverside.
As soon as he realized that escape was still open to him, and that his own life was therefore not in imminent danger, Humphreys thoughts became desperately focused on his shop.
My cheeses, he thought. What shall I do with my cheeses?
Several options flashed through his mind. He could load them onto a wagon. He could pay people to carry them to the waterfront. He could try hauling them down into the cellars. But when he stared down the lane and saw it choked with people, he realized that none of these was realistic. London was on fire and no one would help to save his cheese.
The flames were growing dangerously close. The very air had been heated to a furnace and flames and squibs were dropping from the heavens. King Street and Milk Street were now ablaze and several dwellings on Lothbury were burning fiercely. It was only a matter of time before the wall of fire would reach Trencoms.
When the flames did arrive, they came in a relentless wave. They latched themselves onto the corner shop Mr Georges, the vintner grasping at the woodwork before tearing off the roof. Humphrey watched, horrified yet fascinated, as the gable end detached itself from the building and crashed to the ground in an explosion of flame. The Olde Bear was the next to be consumed; the flames fuelled by tuns of brandy in the cellars made short shrift of the wattle walls. They then tore through Number 12 and the Olde Supply Store before sniffing hungrily at the parch-dry facade of Trencoms cheese shop.
Humphrey moved as close as he dared to the flames, observing with detached horror the impending ruination of his life. The heat was intense a pulsing, scalding blast yet he seemed incapable of fleeing until he had witnessed with his own eyes the destruction of his livelihood.
The flames licked at the wooden timbers as if they wished to sniff and taste the cheeses before taking their first big lunge. The ancient beams, which had been set into the ground more than two centuries earlier, were as dry as an old corpse. London had not seen rain for more than three months and the parched surface of the timber was charred in seconds. Then, all at once, the entire front of the shop burst spectacularly into flame.
The little windowpanes held out valiantly against the rush of heat, but only for a few more seconds. Humphrey could not tell which melted first the lead or the glass but he noticed that the famous Trencoms shopfront, bought at a cost of more than twenty guineas, fell from its casement in a dramatic molten collapse. Moments later, the darting tops of the flames began filtering inside the ground floor of the building, sniffing out anything that might be combustible.
Copyright © 2007 by Giles Milton. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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