One dark night at the end of March
we went down to the works all four, meaning to watch
two and two through the dark hours. The wind
blew hard and the rain fell, and as we reached the
lane we could hear the water lapping and beating against
the sluice and the stones that formed the head of
the dam, while the waste rushed away with a hollow
“Pity to lose so much good power,” said
“Sun and wind will bring it
back to the hills,” said Uncle Dick gravely.
“There is no waste in nature.”
I half expected to see a group of
men, friends or enemies, waiting about; but not a
soul was in sight, and as we reached the gates I shivered
involuntarily and thought that people must have very
serious spite against us if they left their snug firesides
to attack us on a night like that.
Uncle Dick opened the little door
in the gate and we stepped in, but to our surprise
there was no low growl and then whine of recognition
said Uncle Jack suspiciously, and he walked on quickly
to the door of the building and listened.
There was no dog there, and his chain
and collar did not hang over the kennel as if they
had been taken from the dog’s neck. They
This seemed very strange, and what
was more strange still, though we went from grinding-shop
to smithy after smithy, furnace house and shed, there
was no sign of the dog, and everything seemed to point
to the fact that he had been led away by his chain,
and was a prisoner somewhere.
“Looks like mischief,”
whispered Uncle Bob. “Where’s that
scoundrel lying asleep?”
We went upstairs to see, and expected
to find our careful watchman carefully curled up somewhere,
but there was no snoring this time, and Uncle Bob’s
threat of a bucket of water to wake him did not assume
substance and action.
For though we searched everywhere
it soon became evident that Searby was not present,
and that we had come to find the works deserted.
“Then there is going to be some
attack made,” said Uncle Dick. “I’m
glad we came.”
“Shall you warn the police?” I whispered.
“No,” said Uncle Jack
sharply. “If we warn the police the scoundrels
will get to know, and no attack will be made.”
“So much the better,” I said. “Isn’t
“No, my lad. If they did
not come to-night they would be here some other time
when we had not been warned. We are prepared
now, so let them come and we may give them such a
lesson as shall induce them to leave us in peace for
“Do you mean to fight, then?” I asked.
“Most decidedly, boy.
For our rights, for our place where we win our livelihood.
We should be cowards if we did not. You must
play the dog’s part for us with your sharp eyes
and ears. Recollect we have right on our side
and they have wrong.”
“Let’s put the fort in
a state of defence,” said Uncle Dick merrily.
“Perhaps it will turn out to be all nonsense,
but we must be prepared. What do you say divide
in two watches as we proposed, and take turn and turn?”
“No: we’ll all watch
together to-night in case anything serious should
It did seem so vexatious that a small
party of men should be able to keep up this system
of warfare in the great manufacturing town. Here
had my uncles brought a certain amount of prosperity
to the place by establishing these works; the men
had found out their worth and respected them, and
everything was going on in the most prosperous way,
and yet we were being assailed with threats, and it
was quite possible that at any moment some cruel blow
might be struck.
I felt very nervous that night, but
I drew courage from my uncles, who seemed to take
everything in the coolest and most matter-of-fact way.
They went round to the buildings where the fires were
banked up and glowing or smouldering, ready to be
brought under the influence of the blast next day
and fanned to white heat. Here every precaution
was taken to guard against danger by fire, one of
the most probable ways of attack, either by ordinary
combustion or the swift explosion of gunpowder.
“There,” said Uncle Jack
after a careful inspection, “we can do no more.
If the ruffians come and blow us up it will be pretty
“While if they burn us we are
handsomely insured,” said Uncle Dick.
“By all means then let us be
burned,” said Uncle Bob laughing. “There,
don’t let’s make mountains of molehills.
We shall not be hurt.”
“Well,” said Uncle Dick,
“I feel as if we ought to take every possible
precaution; but, that done, I do not feel much fear
of anything taking place. If the scoundrels
had really meant mischief they would have done something
“Don’t halloa till you
are out of the wood,” said Uncle Jack.
“I smell danger.”
“Where, uncle?” I cried.
“In the air, boy. How
the wind blows! Quite a gale. Brings the
smell of naphtha from those works half a mile away.
Shows how a scent like that will travel.”
“I say, boys,” said Uncle
Bob, “what a trade that would be to carry on
that or powder-mills. The scoundrels would regularly
hold one at their mercy.”
“Wind’s rising, and the
water seems pretty lively,” said Uncle Dick as
we sat together in the office, listening to the noises
of the night.
We were quite in the dark, and from
time to time we had a look round about the yard and
wall and that side of the building, the broad dam on
the other side being our protection.
“What a curious gurgling the
water makes!” said Uncle Bob as we sat listening;
“anyone might think that half a dozen bottles
were being poured out at once.”
“The water plays in and out
of the crevices amongst the stones, driving the air
forth. I’ve often listened to it and thought
it was someone whispering out there beneath the windows,”
said Uncle Dick.
Then came a loud gust of wind that
shook the windows, and directly after there was the
strong sour scent of naphtha.
“They must have had an accident upset
a tank or something of the kind,” said Uncle
Jack. “How strong it is!”
“Yes; quite stinging.
It comes each time with the puffs of wind. I
suppose,” continued Uncle Dick, “you would
consider that which we smell to be a gas.”
“Certainly,” said Uncle
Bob, who was, we considered, a pretty good chemist.
“It is the evaporation of the spirit; it is
so volatile that it turns of itself into vapour or
gas and it makes itself evident to our nostrils as
it is borne upon the air.”
“There must be great loss in
the manufacture of such a spirit as that.”
“Oh, they charge accordingly!”
said Uncle Bob; “but a great deal does undoubtedly
pass off into ”
He stopped short, for Uncle Jack laid
his hand upon his knee and we all listened.
“Nothing,” said the latter;
but I felt sure I heard a noise below.
“I heard the gurgling sound
very plainly,” said Uncle Dick. “There
it is again. One might almost think there was
water trickling into the building.”
“Or naphtha, judging by the
smell,” said Uncle Bob. “It’s
very curious. I have it!” he cried.
“What do you mean?” said Uncle Jack sharply.
“There has been an accident,
as we supposed, at the naphtha works, and a quantity
of it has floated down the stream and into our dam.”
“It has been very clever then,”
said Uncle Jack gruffly, “for it has floated
up stream a hundred yards to get into our dam, and Good
He sprang to the window and threw
it open, for at that moment a heavy dull explosion
shook the room where we were, and in place of the
darkness we could see each other distinctly, for the
place seemed to have been filled with reflected light,
which went out and then blazed up again.
“Ah!” ejaculated Uncle
Jack, “the cowards! If I had a gun!”
I ran to his side, and in the middle
of the dam, paddling towards the outer side, there
was a sort of raft with three men upon it, and now
they were distinctly seen, for the black water of the
dam seemed to have suddenly become tawny gold, lit
by a building burning furiously on our right.
That building was our furnace-house and the set of
smithies and sheds that connected it with the grinding-shops
Uncle Jack banged to the window and took the command.
“Cob,” he cried, “run
to the big bell and keep it going. Our lads will
come. Dick, throw open the gate; Bob, follow
me. Fire drill. We may nip the blaze in
The fire-bell was not rung, the gate
was not thrown open; for as we ran out of the office
and down the stairs it was to step into a pool of
naphtha, and in a few instants we found that a quantity
had been poured in at the lower windows to
what extent we could not tell but it was
evident that this had been done all along the basement
by the scoundrels on the raft, and that they had contrived
that some should reach one of the furnaces, with the
result that in an instant the furnace-house had leaped
into a mass of roaring flame, which the brisk gale
was fanning and making the fire run along the naphtha-soaked
buildings like a wave.
“Stop, stop!” roared Uncle
Jack; “we can do nothing to stay this.
Back to the offices and secure all books and papers.”
So swiftly was the fire borne along
by the gale that we had hardly time to reach the staircase
before it came running along, licking up the naphtha,
of which a large quantity had been spilled, and as
it caught there were dozens of little explosions.
I do not think either of us gave a
thought to how we were to get away again, for the
valuable books and plans had to be saved at all hazards;
so following Uncle Jack we rushed into the big office,
the safe was opened, and as rapidly as possible a
couple of tin boxes were filled with account-books,
and a number of papers were bound round with string.
“You must look sharp,” said Uncle Bob.
“But we must take my books,
and odds and ends, and fishing-tackle,” I cried.
“Better try and save our lives,”
said Uncle Bob. “Are you ready?”
“No; there are some plans we must take,”
said Uncle Dick.
“You must leave them,”
shouted Uncle Bob. “There, you are too
late!” he cried, banging to the door at the
end of the workshop; “the flame’s coming
up the stairs.”
“We can get out of the windows,” said
Uncle Jack coolly.
“The place beneath is all on
fire,” cried Uncle Bob, flinging himself on
his knees. “The floor’s quite hot.”
We should have been suffocated only
that there was a perfect rush of cold air through
the place, but moment by moment this was becoming hot
and poisonous with the gases of combustion. The
flames were rushing out of the grinding-shop windows
beneath us, and the yard on one side, the dam on the
other, were light as day.
In one glance over the fire and smoke
I saw our wall covered with workmen and boys, some
watching, some dropping over into the yard. While
in a similar rapid glance on the other side I saw through
the flame and smoke that on one side the dam bank
was covered with spectators, on the other there were
three men just climbing off a rough raft and descending
towards the stream just below.
“Now,” said Uncle Jack,
seizing one box, “I can do no more. Each
of you take your lot and let’s go.”
“But where? how?” I panted.
Uncle Jack gave vent to a long whistle
that was heard above the crackling wood, the roar
of flames carried along by the wind, and the shouts
and cries of the excited crowd in the yard.
“It’s worse than I thought,”
said Uncle Jack. “We can’t get down.
Keep cool, boys. We must save our papers.
Here, there is less fire at that window than at either
of the others let’s throw the boxes
out there. They’ll take care of them.”
We ran to the far corner window, but
as we reached it a puff of flame and smoke curved
in and drove us back.
It was so with every window towards
the yard, and escape was entirely cut off.
The men were trying to do something
to save us, for there was a tremendous noise and excitement
below; but they could do absolutely nothing, so rapidly
had the grinding-shop beneath us been turned into a
And now the flames had mastered the
end door, which fell inward, and flame and black and
gold clouds of smoke rolled in.
“Quick, Cob! into
the office!” roared Uncle Dick; and I darted
in with some of the papers, followed by the rest,
Uncle Jack banging to the door.
“Keep cool, all of you,”
he cried. “I must save these books and
“But we must save our lives,
Jack,” said Uncle Dick. “The floor’s
smoking. Our only chance is to jump into the
“Through that blaze of flame!” said Uncle
“It is our only chance,”
said Uncle Jack; “but let’s try to save
our boxes as well. They will float if we take
“Now, then, who’s first?”
The window was open, the tin boxes
and the packets on the table, the dam beneath but
invisible; for the flame and smoke that rose from the
window below came like a fiery curtain between us
and the water; and it was through this curtain that
we should have to plunge.
Certainly it would be a momentary
affair, and then we should be in the clear cold water;
but the idea of taking such a leap made even my stout
uncles shrink and vainly look round for some other
means of escape.
But there were none that we could
see. Above the roar and crackling of the flames
we could hear the shouting of the mob and voices shrieking
out more than crying, “Jump! Jump!”
Everything, though, was one whirl of confusion; and
I felt half-stifled with the terrible heat and the
choking fumes that came up between the boards and beneath
It was rapidly blinding as well as
confusing us; and in those exciting moments leadership
seemed to have gone, and if even I had made a bold
start the others would have followed.
At last after what seemed to have
been a long space of time, though it was doubtless
only moments, Uncle Jack cried fiercely:
“Look: the floor’s
beginning to burn. You, Dick, out first, Cob
shall follow; and we’ll drop the two tin boxes
to you. You must save them. Now!
Are you ready?”
“Yes,” cried Uncle Dick,
climbing on a chair, and thrusting his arm out of
As he did so, there was a puff like
some gigantic firework, and a large cloud of fiery
smoke rose up full of tiny sparks; and he shrank back
with an ejaculation of pain.
“Hot, Dick?” cried Uncle
Jack almost savagely. “Go on, lad; it will
be hotter here. In five minutes the floor will
be burned through.”
“Follow quickly, Cob,”
cried Uncle Dick; and then he paused, for there was
a curious rushing noise, the people yelled, and there
were shrieks and cries, and above all, a great trampling
We could see nothing for the flame
and smoke that rose before the window; and just then
the roar of the flames seemed to increase, and our
position became unendurable.
But still that was a curious rushing
noise in the air, a roar as of thunder and pouring,
hissing rain, and a railway train rushing by and coming
nearer and nearer every moment; and then, as Uncle
Dick was about to step forth into the blaze and leap
into the dam, Uncle Jack caught him and held him back.
Almost at the same moment the rush
and roar increased a hundred-fold, confusing and startling
us, and then, as if by magic, there was a tremendous
thud against the walls that shook the foundations;
a fierce hissing noise, and one moment we were standing
in the midst of glowing light, the next moment we
were to our waists in water dashed against the opposite
wall, and all was black darkness.
As we struggled to our feet the water
was sinking, but the horrible crashing, rushing noise
was still going on water, a huge river of
water was rushing right through our factory threatening
to sweep it away, and then the flood seemed to sink
as quickly as it had come, and we stood holding hands,
listening to the gurgling rush that was rapidly dying
“What is it?” panted Uncle Bob.
“Life. Thank heaven, we are saved!”
said Uncle Dick fervently.
“Amen!” exclaimed Uncle
Jack. “Why, Dick,” he cried, “that
great dam up in the hills must have burst and come
sweeping down the vale!”
Uncle Jack was right, for almost as
he spoke we could hear voices shouting “rezzyvoyer;”
and for the moment we forgot our own troubles in the
thought of the horrors that must have taken place up
But we could not stay where we were,
half suffocated by the steam that rose, and, opening
the door, which broke away half-burned through, we
stood once more in the long workshop, which seemed
little changed, save that here and there a black chasm
yawned in the floor, among which we had to thread
our way to where the stout door had been.
That and the staircase were gone,
so that our only chance was to descend by lowering
ourselves and dropping to the ground.
Just then we heard the splashing of
feet in the yard, and a voice we recognised as Pannell
“Mebbe they’ve got away.
Ahoy there, mesters! Mester Jacob!”
“Ahoy!” I shouted; and
a ringing cheer went up from twenty throats.
“We’re all right,”
I cried, only nearly smothered. “Can you
get a short ladder?”
“Ay, lad,” cried another
familiar voice; and another shouted, “Owd Jones
has got one;” and I was sure it was Gentles who
“How’s the place, Pannell?”
cried Uncle Dick, leaning out of one of the windows.
“So dark, mester, I can hardly
see, but fire’s put right out, and these here
buildings be aw reight, but wheer the smithies and
furnace was is nobbut ground.”
“Pretty well burned through
first, mester, and then the watter came and washed
it all clear. Hey but theer’s a sight of
mischief done, I fear.”
A short ladder was soon brought, and
the boxes and papers were placed in safety in a neighbouring
house, after which in the darkness we tramped through
the yard, to find that it was inches deep in mud, and
that the flood had found our mill stout enough to
resist its force; but the half-burned furnace-house,
the smithies, and about sixty feet of tall stone wall
had been taken so cleanly away that even the stones
were gone, while the mill next to ours was cut right
There was not a vestige of fire left,
so, leaving our further inspection to be continued
in daylight, we left a couple of men as watchers, and
were going to join the hurrying crowd, when I caught
Uncle Dick’s arm.
“Well?” he exclaimed.
“Did you see where those men went as they got
off the raft?”
“They seemed to be climbing
down into the hollow beside the river,” he said:
“Yes,” I whispered with
a curious catching of the breath, “and then the
He gripped my hand, and stood thinking for a few moments.
“It is impossible to say,”
he cried at last. “But come along, we may
be of some service to those in trouble.”
In that spirit we went on down to
the lower part of the town, following the course of
the flood, and finding fresh horrors at every turn.