This is the twenty-ninth part of a fiction serial, in 842 words.
Aileen watched as the flames appeared through the top windows, where the servant’s quarters were located. The screams of the maids had stopped now, and she knew that was not good. The coachman and grooms had put down their pails, knowing that those few buckets of water would have little effect on the conflagration before their eyes. One of the stable-lads had already left by horse to summon help from the town, but by the time anyone could make the journey north to Dakin Hall, it would be too late.
Then someone appeared through the smoke billowing out of the still open front doors. Oscar stumbled toward her, clutching something that looked like a bundle of rags. He thrust it into her arms, and by the light from the flames, she could tell it was baby Edward. She looked up at Oscar, his face completely black, and his hair singed. She asked if he had seen Spencer, but he shook his head and turned to go back inside. The coachman tried to restrain him, but when Oscar pushed away the hand on his shoulder, the man followed him back into the smoke-filled entrance.
A few minutes later, both of them emerged carrying a body with obvious difficulty. As they dropped it onto the grass, Oscar collapsed next to it, fighting for breath. It was Spencer, his hands and face terribly burned, and the nightshirt ripped and blackened. The coachman pressed an ear to his face, and confirmed that he was still breathing, then he sat Oscar up, and tried to give him sips of water from a leather cup. Seconds later, the huge chimney stack to the west of the building collapsed, showering the ground below with rubble.
By the time people began to arrive from the town in carts and on horseback, baby Edward was at least crying, as Aileen carefully washed his small smoke-blackened face with cold water. The Mayor had taken charge, and advised them to retire to a safer distance, as he was sure that the house could not be saved now. Young Doctor England told her that Spencer was still alive, but his prognosis was not good. As for Oscar, he was no longer breathing, and the doctor gave his condolences before instructing the grooms to remove his body to the stables for the time being.
Some of the townsfolk found Henry’s servant behind the house, and the doctor was asked to attend to his broken legs. They also found the bodies of two housemaids, killed by the fall after jumping from the window of their attic room. By first light, the main roof had collapsed, and the dust covered eveyone at the scene. Nobody else left the house alive, and Aileen felt her body convulse as the enormity finally hit her. Penelope and Cicely, both dead. All the children dead, other than Edward. Oscar and Henry dead, and Spencer grimly hanging on to what might be the last moments of his life.
Then there was the butler, the cook, the scullery girl, and all the housemaids. At least two footmen who lived inside, and if he did not survive two broken legs, Henry’s servant too. If there had ever been a blacker day for the Dakin family, she didn’t know of it. The Mayor arranged for some workmen to remain to wait until the fire burnt out, then to begin to clear the debris, saving what they could. The coachman and grooms would see to the horses, and secure any property recovered later that day. Meanwhile, the mayor offered his hospitality to Aileen, adding that he would arrange for a nurse to care for baby Edward.
Accompanying the Mayor back to his town house in his coach, she was greeted cordially by his wife, who arranged a bath for her, and a change of clothes. The kindly old nurse was already there, and she took baby Edward away to one of the rooms to see to him. After cleaning herself, Aileen was shown to a comfortable bed and told to rest. But she was unable to sleep.
She knew that she would have to write to Richard, and give him the awful news. Then to George in India, with the news that almost all of the family he knew had perished on that same terrible night. She sat up in the bed, overwhelmed with the realisation that everything concerning the Dakin family would now rest on her shoulders. She would have to contact family lawyers and bankers, begin the painful process of arranging burials, all the time having to concern herself with the day to day business that had consumed Spencer’s every waking moment. Then there were the relatives of the poor dead servants, Cicely’s father to inform, and the daily routine of running the rest of the estate.
So much to do. So many thoughts occupying her mind.
Then just as she thought it could not get any worse, Doctor England arrived at the Mayor’s house with the news that Spencer had died.