River Steamer Fire

Excerpt from “The Lamplighter” 1854

By Maria Cummins

     Several times since they left Albany, had the boat passed and repassed another of similar size, with living freight, and bound in the same direction. Occasionally, during their headlong course, the continuity of the two boats excited serious alarm. They were racing, and racing desperately. Some few, regardless of danger, watched with pleased eagerness the mad career of rival ambition, but by far’ the majority of the company, who had reason and sense, looked on in indignation and fear. The usual stopping places on the river were either recklessly passed by, or only paused at, while, with indecent haste, passengers were shuffled backwards and forwards at the risk of life and limb, their baggage (or somebodys’ else) unceremoniously flung after them, the panting, snorting engine in the meantime bellowing with rage at the check thus unwillingly imposed upon its freedom.

     Gertrude sat with her hand locked in Emily’s, anxiously watching every indication of terror, and endeavoring to judge from the countenances and words of her most intelligent-looking fellow-travelers the actual degree of their insecurity. Emily, rendered through her acute hearing, conscious of the prevailing alarm, was calm, though very pale, and from time to time questioned Gertrude concerning the vicinity of the other boat, a collision with which was the principal cause of fear.

     At length their boat for a few moments distanced its competitor, the assurance of perfect safety was impressively assorted, anxiety began to be relieved, and most of the passengers gained their wonted composure. Emily looked palid, and, as Gertrude fancied, a little faint. "Let us go below, Emily,” she said, “it appears now to be very quiet and safe.”

     Gertrude opened her traveling-basket, which contained their luncheon. It consisted merely of such dry morsels as had been hastily collected and put up at their hotel, in Albany, by Dr. Jeremy’s direction. Gertrude was hesitating which she could recommend to Emily, when a waiter appeared, bearing a tray of refreshments, which he placed upon the table.

     “This is not for us,” said Gertrude. “You have made a mistake.”

     “No mistake,” replied the man, “Orders was for de blind lady and hansum young miss. I only ‘beys orders. Anything furder, miss?”

     Gertrude dismissed the man with the assurance that they wanted nothing more and then, turning to Emily, asked, with an attempt of cheerfulness, what they should do with this Aladdin-like repast.

     “Eat it, my dear, if you can,” said Emily, “it is no doubt meant for us.”

     “But to whom are we indebted for it?”

     “To my blindness and your beauty, I suppose,” said Emily, smiling. “perhaps the chief steward, or master of ceremonies, took pity on our inability to come to dinner, and so sent the dinner to us.”

     The sable waiter, when he came to remove the dishes, really looked sad to see how little they had eaten. Gertrude drew out her purse, and after bestowing a fee upon the man, inquired whom she should pay for the meal.

     “Pay, miss!” said the man, grinning. “Bless my stars! De gentleman pays for all!”

     “Who? What gentleman?” asked Gertrude in surprise.

     But before he could reply another waiter appeared and beckoned to his fellow-waiter, who snatched up his trey and trotted off, leaving Gertrude and Emily to wonder who the gentleman might be.

     “What time is it?” Asked she, on awakening.

     “Nearly a quarter-past three.” replied Gertrude, glancing at her watch (a beautiful gift from a class of her former pupils.)

     Emily started up. “We can’t be far from New York,” said she, “where are we now?”

     “I think we must be near the Palissdes,” said Gertrude, “stay here, I will go and see.” She passed across the saloon, and was ascending the staircase, when she was alarmed by a rushing sound, mingled with hurried steps. She kept on, however, and had gained the head of the stairway, when a man rushed past gasping for breath, and shrieking, “Fire! Fire!” a scene of dismay and confusion ensued too terrible for description. Shrieks rose upon the air, groans and cries of despair burst from hearts that were breaking with fear for others, or maddened at the certainty of their own destruction. They who had never prayed before poured out their souls in the fervent ejaculation, “Oh, my God!”

     Gertrude gazed around upon every side. Towards the center of the boat, where the machinery, heated to the last degree, had fired the vessel, a huge volume of flames was visible, darting out its fiery fangs, and causing the stoutest hearts to shrink and crouch in horror. She gave but one glance then bounded down the stairs to save Emily. But she was arrested at the very onset. One step only had she taken when she was encircled by two powerful arms, and a movement made to rush with her upon the deck, while a familiar voice gasped forth, "Gertrude! My child! My own darling! Be quiet -- Be quiet! -- I will save you!”

     She was struggling madly. “No, no!” shouted she, “Emily! Emily! Let me die! But I must find Emily!”

     “Where is she?” asked Mr. Phillips, for it was he.

     “There, there,” pointed Gertrude -- “in the cabin. Let me go! Let me go!”

     He cast one look around him, then said, in a firm tone, “Be calm, my child! I can save you both, follow me closely!”

     With a leap he cleared the staircase, and rushed into the cabin, in the furtherest corner knelt Emily, her hands clasped, and her face like that of an angel.

     Gertrude and Mr. Phillips were by her side in an instant. He stooped to lift her in his arms, Gertrude at the same time exclaiming, “Come, Emily, come! He will save us!” But Emily resisted. “Leave me, Gertrude -- leave me, and save yourselves! Oh!” said she, imploringly, “leave me, and save my child.” But ere the words had left her lips she was borne half way across the saloon, Gertrude followed closely.

     “If we can cross to the bows of the boat we are safe!” Said Mr. Phillips, in a husky voice.

     To do so, however, proved impossible. The centre of the boat was now one sheet of flame. “Good Heavens!” exclaimed he, “We are too late! We must go back!”

     With much difficulty they regained the saloon. The boat, as soon as the fire was discovered, had been turned towards the shore, struck on the rocks, and parted in the middle. Her bows were brought near to the land, near enough to almost ensure the safety of such persons as were at the top part of the vessel. But, alas for those near the stern!

     Mr. Phillips’ first thought was to beat down a window-sash, spring upon the guards, and drag Emily and Gertrude after him, Some ropes hung upon the guards, he seized one and made it fast to the boat, then turned to Gertrude, who stood firm by his side. “Gertrude,” said he, “I shall swim to the shore with Emily. If the fire comes too near, cling to the guards, as a last chance hold on to the rope. Keep your veil flying I shall return.”

     “No, no!” cried Emily. “Gertrude, go first.”

     “Hush, Emily!” exclaimed Gertrude, “We shell both be saved.”

     “Cling-to my shoulder in the water, Emily.” said Mr. Phillips, utterly regardless of her protestations. He took her once more in his arms, there was a splash, and they were gone. At the same instant Gertrude was seized from behind. She turned and found herself grasped by Isabel Clinton, who kneeling upon the platform, and frantic with terror, was clinging so closely to her as utterly to disable them both, she shrieked out, “Oh, Gertrude! Gertrude! Save me!” but Gertrude thus imprisoned, she was powerless to do anything for her own or Isabel’s salvation. She looked forth in the direction Mr. Phillips had taken, and, to her joy, she saw him returning. He had deposited Emily on board a boat, and was now approaching to claim another burden, a volume of flame swept so near the spot where the two alarmed girls were stationed that Gertrude felt the scorching heat, and both were almost suffocated with smoke. An heroic resolution was now displayed by Gertrude. One of them could be saved, for Mr. Phillips was within a few rods of the wreck, it should be Isabel! She had called on her for protection, and it should not be denied! Moreover, Willie loved Isabel. Willie would weep for her loss, and that must not be. He would not weep-for Gertrude -- at least, not much. And, if one must die, it should be she. “Isabel,” said she -- “Isabel, do you hear me? Stand up on your feet, do as I tell you, and you shall be saved. Do you hear me, Isabel?”

     She heard, shuddered, but did not move. Gertrude stooped down, and wrenching apart the hands which were convulsively clenched, said, sternly, “Isabel, if you do as I tell you, you will be on shore in five minutes, safe and well, but if you stay here we shall both be burnt to death. For mercy’s sake, get up quickly, and listen to me!” Isabel rose, fixed her eyes upon Gertrude’s calm, steadfast face, and said, “What must l do? I will try”

     “Do you see that person swimming this way?”


     “He will come to this spot, Hold fast to that piece of rope, and I will let you gradually down to the water. But, stay!” -- and snatching the deep blue veil from her head, she tied it round the neck and flung it over the fair hair of Isabel. Mr. Phillips was within a rod or two. “Now, Isabel, now!” exclaimed Gertrude, “Or you will be too late!” Isabel took the rope, but shrunk back, appalled at the sight of the water. One more hot burst of fire gave her renewed courage to brave a mere seeming danger, and, aided by Gertrude, who helped her over the guards, she allowed herself to be let down to the water’s edge. Mr. Phillips was just in time to receive her, for she was so utterly exhausted that she could not have clung long to the rope. Gertrude had no opportunity to follow them with her eye, her own situation was now all-engrossing, the flames had reached her. She could hardly breathe. She could hesitate no longer. She seized the piece of rope, and grasping it with all her might, leaped over the side of the vessel. How long her strength would have enabled her thus to cling -- how long the guards as yet unapproached by the fire, would have continued a sure support for the cable -- there was no opportunity to test, for, just as her feet touched the cold surface of the water, which came foaming and dashing up against the boat, and, as it swept away again, bore with it the light form of Qertrude.


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by - Estate of Andre Norton

 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.