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F were full of smoke, and the children so dead asleep that we could n't rouse them to a walking state.
Many times during the next hour did I thank Providence-and Percy Witherspoon-for those vociferous fire-drills we have suffered weekly. The twenty-four oldest boys, under his direction, never lost their heads for a second. They divided into four tribes, and sprang to their posts like little soldiers. Two tribes helped in the work of clearing the dormitories and keeping the terrified children in order. One tribe worked the hose from the cupola tank until the firemen came, and the rest devoted themselves to salvage. They spread sheets on the floor, dumped the contents of lockers and bureau drawers into them, and bundled them down the stairs. All of the extra clothes were saved except those the children had actually been wearing the day before, and most of the staff's things. But clothes, bedding-everything belonging to G and F went. The rooms were too full of smoke to make it safe to enter after we had got out the last child.
By the time the doctor arrived with Luellen and two neighbors he had picked up, we were marching the last dormitory down to the kitchen, the most remote corner from the fire. The poor chicks were mainly barefooted and wrapped in blankets; we told them to bring their clothes when we wakened them, but in their fright they thought only of getting out.
By this time the halls were so full of smoke we could scarcely breathe. It looked as though the whole building would go, though the wind was blowing away from my west wing.
Another automobile full of retainers from Knowltop came up almost immediately, and they all fell to fighting the fire. The regular fire department did n't come for ten minutes after that. You see, they have only horses, and we are three miles out, and the roads pretty bad. It was a dreadful night, cold and sleety, and such a wind blowing that you could scarcely stand up. The men climbed out on the roof, and worked in their stocking
feet to keep from slipping off. They beat out the sparks with wet blankets, and chopped, and squirted that tankful of water, and behaved like heroes.
The doctor meanwhile took charge of the children. Our first thought was to get them away to a place of safety, for if the whole building should go, we could n't march them out of doors into that awful wind, with only their night-clothes and blankets for protection. By this time several more automobiles full of men had come, and we requisitioned the cars.
Knowltop had providentially been opened for the week-end in order to entertain a house-party in honor of the old gentleman's sixty-seventh birthday. He was one of the first to arrive, and he put his entire place at our disposal. It was the nearest refuge, and we accepted it instantaneously. We bundled our twenty littlest tots into cars, and ran them down to the house. The guests, who were excitedly dressing in order to come to the fire, received the chicks and tucked them away into their own beds. This pretty well filled up all the available house room, but Mr. Reimer (Mr. Knowltop's family name) has just built a big new stucco barn, with a garage hitched to it, all nicely heated, and ready for us.
After the babies were disposed of in the house, those helpful guests got to work and fixed the barn to receive the next older kiddies. They covered the floor with hay, and spread blankets and carriage robes over it, and bedded down thirty of the children in rows like little calves. Miss Matthews and a nurse went with them, administered hot milk all around, and within half an hour the tots were sleeping as peacefully as in their little cribs.
But meanwhile we at the house were having sensations. The doctor's first question upon arrival had been:
"You 've counted the children? You know they're all here?"
"We 've made certain that every dormitory was empty before we left it," I replied.
You see, they could n't be counted in
that confusion; twenty or so of the boys were still in the dormitories, working under Percy Witherspoon to save clothing and furniture, and the older girls were sorting over bushels of shoes and trying to fit them to the little ones, who were running about underfoot and wailing dismally.
Well, after we had loaded and despatched about seven car-loads of children, the doctor suddenly called out:
There was a horrified silence. No one had seen her.
And then Miss Snaith stood up and shrieked. Betsy took her by the shoulders, and shook her into coherence.
It seems that she had thought Allegra was coming down with a cough, and in order to get her out of the cold, had moved her crib from the fresh-air nursery into the store-room-and then forgotten it.
Well, my dear, you know where the store-room is! We simply stared at one another with white faces. By this time the whole east wing was gutted and the third-floor stairs in flames. There did n't seem a chance that the child was still alive. The doctor was the first to move. He snatched up a wet blanket that was lying in a soppy pile on the floor of the hall and sprang for the stairs. We yelled to him to come back. It simply looked like suicide; but he kept on, and disappeared into the smoke. I dashed outside and shouted to the firemen on the roof. The store-room window was too little for a man to go through, and they had n't opened it for fear of creating a draft.
I can't describe what happened in the next agonizing ten minutes. The thirdfloor stairs fell in with a crash and a burst of flame about five seconds after the doctor passed over them. We had given him up for lost when a shout went up
from the crowd on the lawn, and he appeared for an instant at one of those dormer-windows in the attic, and called for the firemen to put up a ladder. Then he disappeared, and it seemed to us that they'd never get that ladder in place;
but they finally did, and two men went The opening of the window had created a draft, and they were almost overpowered by the volume of smoke that burst out at the top. After an eternity the doctor appeared again with a white bundle in his arms. He passed it out to the men, and then he staggered back and dropped out of sight!
I don't know what happened for the next few minutes; I turned away and shut my eyes. Somehow or other they got him out and half-way down the ladder, and then they let him slip. You see, he was unconscious from all the smoke he 'd swallowed, and the ladder was slippery with ice and terribly wobbly. Anyway, when I looked again he was lying in a heap on the ground, with the crowd all running, and somebody yelling to give him air. They thought at first he was dead. But Dr. Metcalf from the village examined him, and said his leg was broken, and two ribs, and that aside from that he seemed whole. He was still unconscious when they put him on two of the baby mattresses that had been thrown out of the windows and laid him in the wagon that brought the ladders and started him home.
And the rest of us, left behind, kept right on with the work as though nothing had happened. The queer thing about a calamity like this is that there is so much to be done on every side that you don't have a moment to think, and you don't get any of your values straightened out until afterward. The doctor, without a moment's hesitation, had risked his life to save Allegra. It was the bravest thing I ever saw, and yet the whole business occupied only fifteen minutes out of that dreadful night. At the time it was just an incident.
If Miss Snaith had believed a little more in fresh air and had left the window open, the fire would have eaten back; but fortunately Miss Snaith does not believe in fresh air, and no such thing happened. If Allegra had gone, I never should have forgiven myself for not letting the Bretlands take her, and I know that Sandy would n't.
Despite all the loss, I can't be anything but happy when I think of the two horrible tragedies that have been averted; for seven minutes, while the doctor was penned in that blazing third floor, I lived through the agony of believing them both. gone, and I start awake in the night trembling with horror.
But I'll try to tell you the rest. firemen and the volunteers-particularly the chauffeur and stablemen from "Knowltop"-worked all night in an absolute frenzy. Our newest negro cook, who is a heroine in her own right, went out and started the laundry fire and made up a boilerful of coffee. It was her own idea. The non-combatants served it to the firemen when they relieved one another for a short rest, and it helped.
We got the remainder of the children off to various hospitable houses, except the older boys, who worked all night as well. as any one. It was absolutely inspiring to see the way this entire township turned out and helped. People who have n't appeared to know that the asylum existed came in the middle of the night and put their whole houses at our disposal. They took the children in, gave them hot baths and hot soup, and tucked them into bed. And so far as I can make out, not one of my one hundred and seven chicks is any the worse for hopping about on drenched floors in their bare feet, not even the whooping-cough cases.
It was broad daylight before the fire was sufficiently under control to let us know just what we had saved. I will report that my wing is entirely intact, though a little smoky, and the main corridor is pretty nearly all right up to the center staircase; after that everything is charred and drenched. The east wing is
a blackened, roofless shell. Your hated Ward F, dear Judy, is gone forever. I wish that you could obliterate it from your mind as absolutely as it is obliterated from the earth. Both in substance and in spirit the old John Grier is done for.
I must tell you something funny; I never saw so many funny things in my life as happened through that night. When everybody there was in extreme negligée, most of the men in pajamas and ulsters, and all of them without collars, the Hon. Cyrus Wykoff put in a tardy. appearance, arrayed as for an afternoon tea. He wore a pearl scarf-pin and white spats! But he really was extremely helpful. He put his entire house at our disposal, and I turned over to him Miss Snaith in a state of hysterics, and her nerves so fully occupied him that he did n't get in our way the whole night through.
I can't write any more details now; I 've never been so rushed in the whole of my life. I'll just assure you that there's no slightest reason for you to cut your trip short. Five trustees were on the spot early Saturday morning, and we are all working like mad to get affairs. into some semblance of order. Our asylum at the present moment is scattered over the entire township; but don't be unduly anxious. We know where all the children are. None of them is permanently mislaid. I did n't know that perfect strangers could be so kind. My opinion of the human race has gone up.
I have n't seen the doctor. They telegraphed to New York for a surgeon, who set his leg. The break was pretty bad, and will take time; they don't think there are any internal injuries, though he is awfully battered up. As soon as we are allowed to see him I will send more detailed particulars. I really must stop if I am to catch to-morrow's steamer.
Good-by. Don't worry. There are a dozen silver linings to this cloud that I 'll write about to-morrow. SALLIE.