Fire at Hungerford Hall

Chapter 14

And so Ragazzo became a shop boy, living and working in the pastry shop in Hungerford Hall, sleeping under the counter at night, serving all day, always sweeping out and cleaning up, and although he liked it well enough and Lorenzo Branca was fair, Ragazzo was lonely.

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In the late summer evenings he would wander down to the river to watch the boats coming and going and the hay boats unloading their great bundles of hay on the quay for the Haymarket close by. Or he would go up to Signor Carlo's cafe in the Great Hall to talk to the other boys who worked there. But they were always too busy or too tired to pay much attention. In his wanderings, he discovered that they held shows and exhibitions in the Great Hall and it was there by chance that he saw a diorama for the first time the - Funeral of the Duke of Wellington with its procession through the streets of London.

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He had never believed he would visit the show. The Gattis had been and Rosa had given him a confused account of its marvels when she and her mother had passed by the shop, but as even the cheapest seats were sixpence each, there was no chance that he could get in.

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Then one dinner time he had wandered into the Great Hall and up the steps to the entrance to the diorama. A small crowd had collected waiting for the doors to open for the afternoon performance and Ragazzo stood longingly by the door, craning his neck to see into the dark interior.

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"Psst." A lad about his own age, just inside the door beckoned to him. Ragazzo looked round. The doorkeeper was turned away talking to a lady with a little girl. Swiftly he moved in. It was very dark inside but following the boy he walked down a central aisle between rows of seats. In front of him, a wide screen with a painted cloth stretched on rollers, filled the far end of the hall.

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Phutt, phutt. Two jets of gas flared suddenly behind the screen and Ragazzo could see horsemen and buildings appear on the painted cloth, and behind a man with a taper, moving. The man put his head round the side of the cloth.
"Jack, Fred, come on, light up. It's near opening time. George, we must roll back the cloth."

Engraving of Hungerford Market

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He handed the taper to another boy, who appeared from the darkness, and started to turn a handle at the side of the screen. Magically the horsemen and carriages began to move backwards until the scene changed into one of a great castle by the sea.

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Round at the back, Fred with the taper was lighting further gas jets but turning them down low so that the castle on the screen appeared subdued and mysterious. Ragazzo watched in wonder.

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"That's it, Jack," said the man, making fast the cloth. "You can get the doors open now and let 'em in."

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At that, Ragazzo's new found friend went to tell the doorkeeper all was ready. The doors were flung open and an eager crowd began to make its way warily forward in the semi-darkness, to their seats. Ragazzo stood nervously in the shadows till Jack returned. Jack beckoned again and disappeared behind the screen. Ragazzo followed. To his surprise he found there a bass drum on a stand, a chime of bells and beyond that a man seated at a small portable organ. After a few minutes, the first man stationed himself at the side of the screen. Jack picked up the drumsticks and at the man's signal, sounded a roll of drums. This silenced the audience and the show began.

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It was a moonlit scene at Walmer Castle where the great Duke died. There were 'oos' and 'ahhs' from the audience. Then the sad music crept in and the scene changed to his Lying in State at Chelsea Hospital. Fred moved swiftly, lighting more of the gas jets, and suddenly it was day and before all eyes the great funeral procession began to move through the streets of London, to the measured beat of a funeral march. There were contingents of infantry and the Guards on their fine horses. There were the great guns of the artillery and behind them the huge funeral chariot, pennants waving, drawn by twelve black horses, the bier draped with a deep black velvet pall and on top of all, the Duke's scarlet coffin bound with brass, with his Cap and Sword.

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By now Ragazzo had crept round to the front of the screen. He stood entranced, the slow march and the drums beating in his ears. On the procession wound, through Hyde Park and Piccadilly, past St. James Palace, down the Mall and into Trafalgar Square and the Strand. It had in fact come past Hungerford Market.

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Hungerford Market - the shop! He should be in the shop! He turned and stumbled blindly out of the darkened hall, with people complaining and shushing him as he reached the door. Breathless he ran down to the Main Hall.

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"Where have you been, Ragazzo? You've been away nearly an hour. You're lucky Signor Branca's not here. You would have been for it."

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But now he was running, running to fetch Signor Carlo. It was night and behind him there was a red glow in the sky. Hungerford Hall and the diorama were burning! As he reached the end of the Strand, he heard shouts "Hi, hi, hi," and looking down into Fleet Street, he saw the fire engine coming towards him, the firemen shouting as they drove along. For a moment the horses were checked by the traffic, but then the cabs and carts pulled aside and the horses surged forward again, the driver slapping the reins on their backs and the two brakesmen standing on either side of him ready to brake the engine to a halt or swerve it round some obstacle on just two wheels.

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Crowds were forming in the street, people coming out of their shops to find where the trouble was. Ragazzo made a dive down an alleyway past the Bull Inn and took the short cut he knew through the maze of small streets and courts towards Holborn.

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By the time he reached the Hill, his chest felt it would burst, the blood was drumming in his temples and he almost fell into the shop. At the bottom of the stairs he shouted. "Signore, Signore, vieni subito. Come quickly. The Market's on fire!"

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The Signora appeared at the top of the stairs frightened and distrait. Then Signor Carlo came, putting on his coat, followed by Luke Corazza and some of the other workmen.

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"We'll take a hansom," said Carlo, "Luke, Barthes come with me, the rest of you follow on as fast as you can." He was out in the street now, hailing a cab.

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"Ragazzo, get in, you can tell us what's happened as we go."

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They all crammed into the cab. Ragazzo was thrust forward, jammed against the folding doors just above the horses' hindquarters and the smell of the horses and the musty hay strewn on the floor of the cab was overpowering.

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"They say it was the gas. One of the boys lighting the jets accidentally let the taper touch the cloth and it caught fire."
"Jesue, not in that crowded hall - all those people."
"No, no the evening performance hadn't started."
"God be praised," said Carlo.
"They called the fire engine. It was coming down the Strand as I ran up."
"You did well," and turning to Luke, Carlo said, "That's the second fire we've had in the Market."
"Well, what can you expect? I always did say that new-fangled gas was dangerous."

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The cab had set a good pace until they reached the Strand, but there they found the street crowded with people some of whom were moving down the road in a solid mass. Shouting abuse and raising his whip, the driver tried to force a way through but all to no avail. In a moment the cab seemed stuck fast.

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"Best to walk from here," said Carlo. "Quicker."

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They all got out of the cab and began to push their way through the crowds. Carlo with his hand on Ragazzo's shoulder was sometimes forced to lift Ragazzo right off the ground to force a way through.

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"Hi, hi, hi!" As they reached Hungerford Street they heard the shouts of another fire engine coming through Trafalgar Square. The police constables shouted to the crowd to stand back as the horses dashed into the street and pulled up close to one of the Market entrances. Six men climbed down from the box. Two went inside the building to inspect, another began to dig into the street to tap the water main and another called for volunteers on the pumps. Frothing at the mouth and flecked with sweat the horses were led away to a safe distance and tied up. Another fireman unrolled the hose. The Chief Fireman returned.
"We'll run the hose in as far as we can and see if we can damp things down. Engine 5A is working from the other side. Have you got your pumpers?"

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"All hands to the pump. We need twenty volunteers."

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Luke Corazza broke through the crowd followed by the others. There was a surge of men round the engine.

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"We need ten this side and ten the other. Get a hold of the rail. Up, down, up, down, up, down. Now keep going. . . . " A gush of water swept through the leather hose and two firemen holding the nozzle disappeared into the building spraying as they went. The street was lit in a rosy glow, the air was full of smoke. There was a smell of burning everywhere and a distant crackling as parts of the building fell in. Up, down, up, down. Ragazzo's heart was pounding as he tried to put his full weight onto the rail. It seemed never ending. He felt faint with exhaustion. Then suddenly the pumping slackened.

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Another tall impressive fireman had arrived, in gray uniform with a great crested helmet.
"What's going on Constable," said Luke.
"That's James Braidwood, the Chief Officer of the Fire Establishment. That means things are real bad. They're bringing in three more engines and the fire float is on its way down river."
"Constable, I have property in the Market, my shop, cafe, stock. Can I go in to see what I can salvage?" said Carlo.
"Not here you can't, but if you go round the west side you may be able to find out more. But don't you go near the fire. They say there's a lot of falling glass and rafters. The Great Hall is burnt out. What they're trying now is to save the rest of the buildings."
Carlo looked aghast. Ragazzo couldn't believe it. The shop was now both his workplace and his home. He had no other.
"Come," said Carlo and as they left more men stepped forward to take their place on the pumps, for there was beer money to be made at pumping and there was never a lack of volunteers.

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Skirting the market complex, they made their way to the riverside. Two engines had arrived here and because there was no mains water available, the firemen had dug a deep hole in the pavement to provide a reservoir of water and a line of volunteers had formed a human chain to the river, passing up a continuous stream of leather buckets to fill the hole. There were more men on the pumps and it was there they found Carlo's other workmen from Holborn. The Manager of Hungerford Market was also there, trying to soothe other anxious shopkeepers and those who lived on the premises, some of whom were in their night-clothes.

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"They are, I believe, beginning to bring the blaze under control." he said, "I can't say more. Thank God at least no lives have been lost. I shudder to think what might have happened if the hall had been full. All of you who are insured will, of course, be compensated."

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Ragazzo sat down abruptly at the quayside. His legs felt like water. A dreadful fear crept into his mind. Where was Jack - and Fred - and the men who ran the Diorama? Nobody had mentioned them. He still had so little English he had no way of asking about them and anyway everybody else was too busy to help him.

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The fire float had arrived now, ready to pump in water directly from the river but just as it was edging up to the quay there seemed a subtle change in the fierceness of the fire. The glow in the sky seemed to lessen and the smoke round the groups of pumpers began to thin. It looked as if all the firemen's efforts had brought the fire under control.

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"Ragazzo, are you alright?" It was Signor Agostino from across the river, bending over him. "Is Signor Carlo here? What's happened to the cafe?"

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"They say the Hall's all burnt out, Signore, but Signor Carlo is here somewhere."

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"On the pumps, I expect," said Agostino with a smile.
"We always say he can turn his hand to anything."

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"Yes, Signore."

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In fact both Luke and Carlo were taking their turn in the human chain, passing up buckets of water to fill the dam. Their coats were off, their sleeves rolled up and their faces and arms smeared with sweat and grimy smoke. Seeing Agostino, Carlo handed over to Lutini who quickly slipped into the rhythm of the task.

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"Why, Agostino, what brings you here?"

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"Why the fire of course, you can see it for miles. I was afraid some of the boys sleeping in the cafe might be in danger and that you out in Holborn would know nothing of it."

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"No, Ragazzo came to fetch us." Carlo smiled at Ragazzo. "He's a good lad. But come, they say the worst of the danger is over and it's safe to go into the Fish Market. We may be able to get some idea of the damage."

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As they walked into the great quadrangle, Ragazzo saw one of the men from the Diorama. A wave of relief swept over him. Excitedly he ran up to the man. "Dove e Giacomo, dove e Giacomo?"

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"What's he on about?" said the man turning away irritably. "Here, let go."

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But Ragazzo clung to his arm, "Dove e Giacomo?"
"I don't know what he's saying."

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"He's asking where Jack is," said Agostino.

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A tall gentleman stepped forward. "I'm sorry to say Jack is missing. My men here ran out to raise the alarm and when they returned, the flames were so intense they couldn't get into the hall and we have no further news of the boys."

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"Dicono che Jack no che," Agostino said. Ragazzo's heart missed a beat. Jack was missing.

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"I'm Mr. Nelson," the gentleman said, "The owner of the Diorama. I'm very sorry about the boys."

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"This must be a very sad moment for you, Sir," said Signor Carlo. "Yes, £2,000 - £3,000 of work burnt in a night and nothing insured. Just now I don't know where to turn,"

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"My sympathies," said Carlo. A clock chimed the hour. It was one o'clock. The fire had been burning for over five hours and still the firemen would let no one enter the area.

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"Well there's not much we can do till morning," said Carlo. "Best go back to Holborn." Then, seeing Ragazzo white, tired, his young face drawn and smoke-stained, he put out his hand gently. "Come along Ragazzo, Luke will find a corner for you to sleep in the attic."

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As Luke joined them he said, "I'm really sorry for that Mr. Nelson, to have lost everything like that."

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"The Lord be praised that you are at least insured," said Luke.

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But as Ragazzo followed them to Holborn he thought - Jack wasn't insured. Who cared about Jack? Jack had been his friend. Although they had never spoken, Jack had understood and had invited him in to see the Diorama. And now it was all destroyed and Jack was missing. Poor, poor Jack. Even the pleasure of seeing Rosa and all the Gatti family and Carrie, could not erase his sorrow.