The sergeant saluted—“May I fire it, sir?”
“No, thank you, sergeant; clear everybody out.” The sergeant was evidently disappointed, and vented this on the civilian public.—“That” said he, turning a blackened thumb over his shoulder, “is a ’eap of gunpowder. It’s just a going to be hexploded.” There was no need to “clear everybody out.” They went. And we found ourselves alone with the soldiers, who were laughing, and saying that the crowd had taken a big cast-iron tank for the heap of gunpowder. We stood a little aside in obedience to a wave of the young officer’s arm. Then he crossed the street to pick up a long piece of burning wood, and came back, the moonlight and the firelight playing by turns upon him.
I honestly confess that, fierce as the heat was, I turned cold. The experiences of the next few minutes were as follows: I saw the young engineer fire the train, and I heard a puff, and then I saw him fall, face downwards, behind the tank. I gave a cry, and started forward, and was brought up short by a back-hander on my chest from the sergeant. Then came a scrambling, rushing sound, which widened into a deep roar, shaking the ground beneath our feet, and then the big building at which we were gaping seemed to breathe out a monstrous sigh, and then it fell in, and tumbled to pieces, quietly, swiftly, and utterly, like a house of cards.
And the fantastic-looking young officer got up and shook himself, and worried the bits of charred wood out of his long yellow moustaches.
“Die Welt kann
dir nichts darbieten, was sie von dir nicht
empfinge.”—SCHILLER, Der Menschenfeind.
After Alister had done the captain’s business, he made his way to the post-office and got our letters, thinking, as he cannily observed, that in widespread misfortunes the big are implicated with the little, that fire spares public buildings no more than private residences, and that if the post-office was overtaken by the flames, we might lose not only words of affection, but perhaps enclosures of value. In short, he had brought our letters, and dearly welcome they were.
I had three; one from my father, one from my mother (with a postscript by Jem), and a long one from Charlie. I read my father’s first; the others were sure to be tender and chatty, and I could enjoy them at leisure.
My father’s letter was, for him, a wonderful effort of composition, and it was far kinder than I had expected or deserved. He blamed me; but he took some blame to himself for our misunderstandings, which he hoped would never recur. He said (very justly) that if he had spoken harshly, he had acted as he believed to be best for me. Uncle Henry’s office was an opening many parents envied for their sons, and he had not really believed that my fancy for the sea was more than a boyish whim. He was