The House by the Lock/Chapter 24
I went to bed determined not to sleep, but to keep my ears open for any sound in the passage outside. Luckily there was a creaky board on which he had stepped a few minutes ago. If he attempted to go away during the night he would very possibly step on it again. But I was exceedingly tired after my long journey. Before I had been in bed an hour I was dreaming so vividly a pursuit of my quarry through the streets of San Francisco, that I fully believed I had waked, got up, and gone out after him.
In the end the dream seemed to change. The pretender had boarded a railway train, and I was with the engine-driver of another, following at a dare-devil speed. The place was reeking hot. In my dream I choked in the smoke which flew into my face, and was dazzled with the red glare of the fire, on which the engine-driver was piling great pieces of fat bacon. As we flew along the rails the locomotive swayed from side to side, and I could hear a loud rattling of wheels and of window glass.
Suddenly a puff of smoke seemed on the very point of stifling me, and I awoke to find myself sitting up in bed and gasping for breath.
I had not dreamed the rattling of glass, nor the jarring sensation, nor yet the smoke and heat and lurid light. The walls shook with a dull vibration, and the window-panes were like castanets. Through the glass transom over the door I could see a shimmering, ruddy glow that rose and fell, and was brightened by bursting sparks and little darting tongues of yellow flame. Apart from this one lurid spot all was thickly curtained into darkness by a heavy pall of smoke.
Had I lain for a few moments longer I must have suffocated in my sleep. Even as it was, my brain felt dull and stupid, and I could scarcely collect my senses.
Choking and coughing, tears running from my eyes that smarted with the pungent wood smoke, I sprang out of bed, and then sat down again with a slight exclamation, drawing up my feet. The floor was so hot that the touch of it, even for an instant, had almost scorched my skin.
Close at hand were my boots. I drew them on and then fumbled about for one or two articles of clothing. The wild light that rushed past the transom told me that escape by way of the passage was already cut off, and even as I looked a small, curling tress of flame blew in through the crack between the door and the worn sill.
The window was less easy to find. As I felt for it through the veil of smoke strange conjectures stole into my brain. What if this were the plan of Carson Wildred's wily accomplice for getting safely rid of me?
I had no intention of being got rid of thus easily, however. I found the window and opened the lower sash. With the rush of air from outside my oppressed lungs got relief for a second or two, but the draught drew in the flames that rioted through the hall; the glass in the transom, already cracked, burst with a loud explosive sound, and a torrent of fire and smoke poured in through the aperture.
Had I not leaped on to the window-sill, and without an instant's hesitation let myself swing over, I could not have kept my senses in that raging furnace.
If I had had a room in the main building of the hotel, I should only have had to step on to a verandah outside my window, but in this wing (which I had chosen as my place of residence because I had inhabited it before) there was nothing of the sort, and I had now the space of about ten seconds to decide whether to jump or have my hands burnt off my wrists.
In any case the decision could not have been a difficult one, but, as it happened, the need was rendered the more imperative by the fact that smoke had already begun to pour from the window below. Very shortly escape would be cut off in all directions.
My room was on the second floor, high enough to give me a severe fall, perhaps a fatal one, and I felt that my life was of value now. Cautiously but hurriedly I reached out with one hand to the side of the window, hanging with all my weight from the other, which clutched the sill. My groping fingers came in contact with a twisted rope of creepers; bare of leaves for winter, and serviceable for the use I wished to put it to. I grasped the thick stems for dear life, and went down hand over hand, dimly hearing voices from below cheering me in my descent.
I had been unconscious of the noise until that moment, but as my feet touched the ground I was received with acclamations, and saw that a crowd was rapidly collecting on the spot. The firemen were arriving, and as I reached terra firma a great spout of water went up over the burning wing.
The main portion of the house, which was built of stone, save for the surrounding verandahs was still uninjured, but the wing at the back, which had been a later addition, run hastily up to meet the needs of business, was of frame, and it was burning like tinder. Though it seemed that the alarm had only been given five minutes before my appearance on the scene, already it was beyond saving. My reason for preferring the wing I have already stated, but what the pretended Harvey Farnham's had been I had yet to learn, for so far was the main portion of the hotel from being crowded on this occasion, that we two had been the only ones who slept in the annex. Otherwise the alarm must have been given from inside, instead of by a policeman, who had seen a sudden light leap up while passing on his beat.
Where was Mr. Farnham? That was the question asked by the excited landlord, who, half-dressed, had come out to give what help he could. By this time a sheet of flame was pouring from his windows, so much more violent than in any other portion of the fated wing, that I could but fancy, as I looked up, that the fire must have started thereabouts.
The only hope was to save the main building–the frame addition had been doomed from the first. Everyone had come out, guests and servants alike, in varying stages of deshabille, which might under ordinary circumstances have struck one as comic enough, but the supposed Farnham was nowhere to be seen.
When it became known that there was another occupant of the burning annex, the firemen made heroic efforts to reach the windows on their ladders, but each time they were beaten back by the blinding flame and smoke–a salamander could not have existed there for an instant.
Murmurs of horror and dismay came from the lips of the crowd as they stared with a species of fearful fascination at the flames, which must long ago have destroyed, not only life, but all vestiges of humanity, if indeed a human being had been there when they began their revel. But I said nothing. I thought now that I understood the reason why my friend had taken the room in the frame addition to the Santa Anna Hotel. The plan commenced to take form in my mind, and I believed that the cablegram had only precipitated its execution.