Oh, my! It’s time for my post again, and I had to really think about what I wanted to write about.
Darcy Chooses was my first novel, and there was a chapter that included a fire that summer when there had been no rain for a considerable time in Derbyshire. One of my readers was a bit irked and felt like it had no bearing on the story. But there were actually three reasons for my including it in the book: the first was it showed the concern that Darcy had for the lives of the people in the area and that he had no qualms about joining with the other men and helping them fight the fire; the second one showed how tender-hearted Georgiana was concerning her friend; but the third one was personal.
When I was five, the huge field behind our house caught fire because a hot, dry July and firecrackers from a stand about a half mile away don’t mix. The fire came right up to our little wooden fence that surrounded the backyard. We were fortunate that the fire department got there in time and our house didn’t burn down nor was anyone harmed…or so we thought.
My pregnant mother was so traumatized by being frightened by the possibility that she, my younger brother, and I might have been killed, that she gave birth to a boy at seven months. Unfortunately, the doctors could never get him to breathe.
Writing this chapter gave me the opportunity to mourn the little boy who never had a chance at life.
The next morning, Darcy broke his fast and then rode out on Windstorm. He noted the grass seemed drier than other summers and the crops presented the same dry appearance. If the rains didn’t come soon, many of the crops might be lost. That afternoon he was to meet with his steward, and he would emphasize how important it was for the tenants and all the residents to avoid any rubbish burning or any fires other than those for cooking food that should be done only indoors. No outdoor fires of any kind would be tolerated until they had rain and no chance of an accidental conflagration.
Later in his study, while finishing some correspondence, he heard someone yelling his name—for the second time in less than a week—from the front of the house. Darcy jumped up and started running toward the door.
Ned Stone had all but shoved Reynolds out of the way when the butler opened the entry to Pemberley.
“Mr. Darcy! Mr. Darcy! Fire! Fire! There’s a grass fire down at Ken Johnson’s place.”
Darcy had darted out of his study at Stone’s shouts. “Has Benjamin Driscoll been alerted?”
“Yes, sir. He and his men are already hitching the horses to all the water wagons. They’re also wetting down blankets and gathering the gunpowder. Everything else is ready, but the wind has increased, and the fire is spreading fast.”
Darcy’s worst nightmare was being realized. “Bloody hell! Everything is extremely dry after no rain for eight weeks. Johnson’s place is not that far from Kympton either. Is the fire headed that direction?”
“Slowly, sir. However, the wind is blowing from the north, northeast, and the fire is rapidly heading for Lambton.”
“We’ll need the gunpowder for additional firebreaks. Hopefully, we can head it off in time. Are the horses saddled?”
“Windstorm and the others, sir.”
“Good man. Give me five minutes to change clothes, and we’ll join the water wagons. Reynolds, alert the male servants and have them meet us at the stables.”
Six years earlier a grass fire had prompted Gerald Darcy to have fire wagons—that would be horse drawn—be built and kept ready in case of another devastating fire. Draft horses with strength and speed—trained to tolerate fire and smoke—were purchased and were capable of pulling the fully loaded wagons. These were outfitted with steam engines that had the ability to shoot water through leather hoses to spray on any fire. Men were hired to keep the animals and equipment prepared for fires in the future with the men periodically training and learning how to fight any outbreaks. Old Darcy had been determined to not let fire threaten the tenants, their livings or his own home, Pemberley, ever again. What happened that day would prove whether or not his forward thinking would yield good results as they were currently under the first real threat of any size for several years.
Like his sire, Fitzwilliam Darcy was not one to leave the more important things to others. Today would prove his mettle as this would be the most important event he would be involved with since becoming the master of Pemberley. He would be found, doing his best, along with the other firefighters as they worked to protect the people and the livelihood of the area. His father would have expected nothing less.
As Stone and Darcy, along with most of the male servants, raced toward the stables, Darcy asked about what had started the fire.
“Johnson was burning rubbish behind his place when the wind picked up. He and his family got away safely but his house is gone.”
“Blasted idiot. That’s why no rubbish was to be burned until we had rainfall.”
Ordinarily, Darcy did not swear, but he found himself furious at the disregard for safety, not only to Johnson’s family but anyone five to ten miles around who could be burned out.
Vaulting onto Windstorm’s back, Darcy urged him into a gallop and headed toward the huge stone stables that housed the water wagons and the big draft horses. He found Driscoll already had the horses hitched to the seven water wagons, and they were ready to move toward the main portion of the fire.
“Driscoll, did the outriders alert the tenants in the path of the fire?”
“Yes, Mr. Darcy, even the tenants north of the fire as well. And riders were sent to Kympton and Lambton to recruit more men and those towns’ water wagons. The ones from Kympton will take the nearest flank and part of the back edge, and Lambton’s men will take the other flank and the balance of the back edge while we take the head of the fire.”
“And are your men prepared to use the gunpowder in making additional firebreaks?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve been having them drill with small amounts of gunpowder to get them familiar with the explosions, and they know the correct amounts to use in case of a real fire.”
“Excellent, Driscoll. We’ll hope that all your preparations and your men can save lives and property. Come on.”
As Darcy jerked his arm over his head in a commanding gesture, men and wagons poured out of the stables and headed toward the site of the fire. Heartbeats and breathing increased as they anticipated fighting a beast—although they were prepared for it—a beast that was fear inspiring. Darcy was not the only one praying for a safe resolution to the current dilemma, hoping it would not prove deadly.
A short distance, out of the path of the fire, Darcy and the other riders abandoned their horses to a number of grooms and rode the rest of the way on the water wagons. When they reached the site, they could see the wind picking up due to the air temperature increasing, and knew they had a fight on their hands. If they were unable to stop the wall of flames or were in danger of being caught by it, the attendants minding the horses would bring the mounts closer so the firefighters could get out of the way. As it was, they were facing a half-mile swath of a wheat crop fully engulfed that had begun when the wildfire jumped the plowed firebreak a mile back.
Men from Kympton and Lambton were needed to fight the fire as well as any tenants who were available. Many hands would be necessary to beat the beast before it devastated the area.
Catching up with Driscoll, Darcy quickly quizzed him about the distribution of the water wagons and where they could be refilled.
“Five of the wagons will fight the head of the fire, and one each will sweep around and fight part of the flanks. Then we planned on taking the empty wagons to the river for refilling, sir.”
“Driscoll, we need to make use of Miller’s Springs, which is closer than the river. That pond has kept its level in spite of the drought. What about taking three of the wagons to the springs before they are completely empty and returning them to fight the fire before the others empty and head toward the river? Could we keep at least a few of the wagons at the fire while others replenish their supply?”
“That would be much better than having all of them gone at the same time. I’ll alert the drivers as to the order they need to follow.” Turning on his heel, Driscoll ran toward the closest wagon and began giving commands to his men.
In the meantime, Darcy had men hosed down to keep sparks from setting their clothes on fire. It would help, but only for a short while as the hot wind was drying their shirts and trousers rapidly. It wasn’t a foolproof plan.
Darcy had been beating at the fire for about a half-hour when suddenly there was a scream from his left. Whirling he saw one of the men—whose shirt was ablaze from sparks—start running. Grabbing a wet blanket, Darcy sprinted after him and managed to tackle the man before he got too far. Wrapping him in the blanket, he began rolling him on the ground until the flames were out. “Dawson,” Darcy shouted, “where’s the doctor?”
“He’s with the horses. I’ll signal him to come over.”
“Have him bring an extra horse for this man. He’s burned pretty badly.”
Dawson had several colored flags that could be seen at a distance, and soon two grooms and two extra horses came closer to the men. They still had to stay a short distance away from the firefighters, as the animals were skittish and hard to handle.
“Two of you men pick him up and carry him to the doctor. Move it! Now!” Darcy was impatient to get back to stopping the encroaching flames and knew they would be fortunate if they only saw one injury that day. The severely burned man was put up in front of one of the grooms—after the doctor did a quick check—and all three men left the area to Darcy’s relief.
Farther ahead of the fire, Darcy spotted Driscoll and ran to him to inquire about the gunpowder and if they were ready to widen the firebreak.
“Almost, sir. We’re still laying some stockpiles and fuses but should be ready in about four minutes. Make sure the men stay well away from the explosives.”
Darcy told him he would see to it and began warning all the men fighting the flames in the area. Five minutes later, the explosives blew and the plowed firebreak was widened by about fifteen feet. Driscoll’s men began laying more gunpowder stockpiles and fuses to increase the firebreak farther before it was jumped while Darcy and the other men continued their efforts.
After six hours of grueling work, the fire had been extinguished. Darcy saw that Driscoll had everything in hand, so he found one of the outriders and gave him orders to pass along to the others. These orders meant that throughout the night they would take shifts traveling the route of the fire and beyond to make sure no hot spots still existed. The semi-darkness with only a half moon would contribute to their ability to locate any and alert the firefighters who would also work in shifts. Each would grab a few hours’ sleep and then head out again. No one would get a full night’s sleep until the fire was totally gone.
Georgiana was waiting for her brother when he returned. “William, are you all right?”
“Yes, sweetheart. Other than a few burns from sparks, I am well…and exhausted, though my clothes will need to be replaced. We were fortunate in that the many firebreaks we had helped exceedingly along with the water wagons and the many men who fought the blaze…Please tell Mrs. Reynolds I need food and a bath as well as some of her burn ointment. After bathing, I’ll sleep for about two hours and then return to help the outriders ensure there is no more fire. It will be a very long night.”
“Are the tenants and homes safe?” his sister asked anxiously.
“Sit down, Georgie.” His sister sat but with trepidation. Was something wrong? Darcy paused and determined how to tell her. “Only three homes were lost, but several people were injured with one severely, a larger number suffered from the heat, and…there was one death.”
“Oh, no! Who died?”
“The fire frightened Jenny Baker so much that her babe came early. Mrs. Baker is recuperating, but the babe was lost. The midwife…never could get the child to breathe. The Bakers, of course, are bereft.”
Georgiana couldn’t help bursting into tears. “But it was her first child, and she so looked forward to it. She and her husband were both so happy. I can’t imagine how sad they must be.” Finally, when her tears had ceased, she sniffled and made plans to take food and some flowers to help comfort her friend. A true Darcy, she knew and loved all the tenants and their children. However, Jenny was a special friend, only three years older, and she and Georgie both had been excited about the coming babe. And now it would never be, and it broke her heart.
Three hours later found Darcy riding the ten-mile perimeter of his property and speaking with outriders he met along the way. Other than a small stand of trees that had caught fire and been doused, there had been no other sign that any fire lingered. When dawn came, however, the men did not stop their patrols for the next forty-eight hours until they were sure the fire was completely out.
Although injuries due to sparks had been minor, for the most part, Darcy made arrangements to meet with Driscoll about clothing that would help protect the firefighters. Oil cloth or clothing that was very tightly woven and waterproof might help in that regard. However, Darcy knew they had to do more to not only protect against fire in the future, they needed to protect the men’s lives also. No stone would be left unturned in that regard.
Three days later, it rained.
I included thirteen twists on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that I hope you will enjoy.
The Darcy and Elizabeth Collection includes Women of Longbourn, Attending a Ball, Darcy Chooses Parts 1 and 2, and Elizabeth’s Choice. The Collection is available at half price through the end of the year.