Chapter Forty-Four

Our home is engulfed in fire

A great clamour came to me as I hurried to escape the fire. The flames ate away at the floorboards, raced up the table legs, and caught on the linen that hung on a drying rack. My face was blackened and my hands burned some from trying to save poor Daisy. I now feared for all our lives. We must not be in the house when the fire found John Bradley’s still and the barrels of gin and brandy. I reached the parlour and shouted at Mother Shadbolt to come with us, for the house was burning and we would soon be engulfed. She did no more than load her arms with plates and candlesticks, silver spoons and such-like.

“Leave them,” I screamed at her, as my sisters ran from the house. Their horrified screams rent the evening air. 

Mother Shadbolt was all of a fluster. “I cannot leave the takings,” she said.

She tried to go upstairs, but I pulled her back and shouted that she must leave now or surely die. Craddock came towards me. He had failed to find Captain Somerville.

“Get out now,” he said. “Go.” 

Flames began to lick at our drapes. A window exploded. Timbers barked at the heat. I pushed Mother Shadbolt before me and we ran out together. Outside, a great commotion was under way. People poured from every doorway into Covent Garden. Another window shattered. Screams came from the house next to ours. John Bradley ran from his shop. In his arms, he carried a small barrel of brandy. As he came towards us, we heard an explosion and the very ground on which we stood shuddered, as if the Devil had opened his terrible mouth to swallow us whole. Pieces of wood and plaster, glass and brick rained down.

“God, it’s the still,” Bradley cried, and fell to his knees.

The bagnio, the portrait painter’s, the hummums - all the way down to the privy passage, was now aflame. Thick smoke choked the early evening sky and rained soot and debris down on us. Screams and cries came from all quarters. People ran hither and thither. How I wish I had managed to save poor Daisy, who surely would be naught but ash by now.  

In a very short time, a line of people formed from The Finish, itself surely in danger, as it was only built of wood, and not a great distance from the fire. They handed buckets and bowls, jugs and jars from person-to-person. The last man in the line flung the contents of each receptacle at the flames. It was all to no avail. Even when the fire machine arrived, the water they pumped out did nothing to prevent the houses from burning.

We stood there, hugging ourselves and each other as we watched the fire take our home and those of our neighbours. Craddock had disappeared. I assumed, to help fight the fire. I spied Lucius through the crowd. I ran to him and fell into his arms.

“Are you injured?” he asked.

“No, but Daisy… Oh, Lucius, Daisy is dead.” 

He held me tight as the fire burned bright behind us, and I sobbed for my dear sister and for the nightmare she had endured at the hands of a mad man.

“There’s nothing left of it, Kitty.” 

The voice brought me to my senses. I turned to see Craddock standing before me. 

“Westman is innocent. It was not him,” I said. I took Craddock by the coat front and shook him. “Do you hear me?” I shouted. “I was wrong. He is an innocent man.”

Craddock scowled at me.

“You must believe me,” I screamed. “You heard him. You heard that mad man, Somerville. He confessed his sins. He took Daisy prisoner. He is responsible for all this.” 

I pointed at the fire, which now engulfed the entirety of the Little Piazza from corner to corner.

“Daisy… she died. Oh Jim… She died in a most terrible way, and it was not Westman’s doing.” 

I felt the tears coming, and I covered my face. Craddock took me in his arms. 

“I am as guilty as the Captain. I should not have wound that handle.”

“You had no choice. I do not blame you,” I sobbed.

 “I lost Somerville in the crowd,” said Craddock. “Like as not he’ll head for the docks. A man like him sees the sea as a means of escape.”

I took in a deep breath, pushed away from Craddock and held both him and Lucius at arm’s length while I regained my composure.

“I must go to Westman,” I said. “I blamed him for everything and he…” 

The crowd parted before me as I ran. I cared little whether Craddock or Lucius followed me. I only knew that I had branded my lover a murderer, and he was nothing of the sort - though he was still a devil of a man.

It seemed as if all of London had emptied itself onto the streets to see the great fire in Covent Garden. I pressed forward against the tide of people. By the time I reached the Brown Bear, I could barely speak for exhaustion and worry.

The inn was silent. Even the bar keeper had left his position. Charles Jealous was nowhere to be seen. As I entered the back room I heard a ticking clock and the scratch of mice in the wainscot. The sight of the beaten man in the corner came to me slowly. I fell to my knees and lifted his head. He gazed up at me through swollen eyes. His face was cut and bruised, bleeding and crusted both, puffed and pummelled so that he was barely recognisable as a man at all, let alone a man named William Westman.

“I told you you’d come to me,” he muttered. “I told you.”


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