Albert ran through the crowd to the open gate and sprinted across the yard. Those trying to rescue the master and his orphans saw him and called out to him to stop. He paid no attention. At the side of the building, he found an unlocked door, probably the one his father had used minutes earlier. He went inside and felt his way through the darkness, keeping one hand on the wall as he searched for the stairs. The fire, and the light from it, hadn’t reached this area. He kicked his foot against a solid protrusion and bent down and touched a step, then a second one, and a third one. He scrambled up them and got to the first floor. Here it was much lighter, and hotter. He looked down the corridor. Flames leapt about at the other end. He saw an open door part way along and tried to get to it, but searing heat knocked him back. He took out his handkerchief, covered his face and ran headlong for the door and darted inside.
The room was full of smoke. A man lay on the floor. It didn’t look like his father – too heavy. He bent down and struggled to turn him over. Then he recognised the face he hadn’t seen in five years. It was much rounder than he remembered. In fact, his father was altogether larger. But it was definitely him.
‘Dad, wake up. Dad!’
Henry gave a faint groan.
‘It’s me – Albert.’
Henry’s eyes shot open and he tried to raise himself. ‘Albert?’
‘Yes, your son, remember?’
‘What are you doing here? I thought you were in London.’
‘London? Did Benjamin tell you …?’
‘No, I …’
‘Never mind. I’ve come to rescue you.’ The smoke was thick and Albert got down low. They were both coughing.
‘The money,’ Henry said, attempting to get up.
‘Stay down. You can get it later. The safe will still be here.’
‘No, most of it’s hidden in the desk drawer.’ He pointed to his wooden desk on the other side of the office, but it was on fire, huge flames dancing around on top of it. He went to crawl towards it and Albert pulled him back.
‘You can’t go over there.’
‘I need the money for tomorrow. I’m buying a fine house in the country.’ Henry tried to fight his son off in his desperation.
‘You won’t live that long if you keep this up.’
Henry persisted, surprising Albert with his strength, and wriggled closer to the desk.
‘We have to get out of here before we both die.’
Albert tugged at his father’s legs. Somehow Henry broke free and got up and staggered towards the desk. But the heat was too great and the smoke too thick and he fell back down. Albert shielded his own face with his handkerchief and reached out for him.
(cover of A Weaver’s Web, showing the Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, 1819)
‘Grab my hand.’
‘Grab it!’ Albert yelled.
They were three feet apart and he couldn’t get any closer. Finally he threw the handkerchief aside and lunged forward and clutched Henry’s legs and heaved him back.
‘Ahh, let go,’ he cried. ‘You’re twisting my ankle.’
Again his father got free. To subdue him, Albert sat on his chest and held his shoulders to the floor.
‘Get off me and let me get my …’
‘Listen! You go that way and you’ll surely die.’ He tilted his head in the direction of the desk. ‘Let me take you this way,’ he said, tossing his head towards the door, ‘and we’ll get out.’
But the moment Albert eased his grip slightly, Henry squirmed about with what little energy he had left and got a few inches nearer the desk.
‘You’re squashing me,’ he gasped.
They were now almost encircled by flames.
‘Dad, this is your last chance.’
The heat became too much for Albert. He got to his hands and knees and crawled towards the door. But Henry called out to him.
‘Don’t leave me here.’
‘I beg you.’
Albert turned around and looked at him, lying helpless, nearly unconscious. He recalled the time his father had saved him from a factory. He was about to go back for him, but he thought of all the heartache Henry had caused him and the family. Whatever he did, he knew he had to act quickly as the fire was nearly up to the doorway. He realised Henry was at his mercy and decided some hasty bargaining was in order. He slid along on his stomach, got next to him and jolted him hard.
‘I’ll rescue you if you promise not to move house.’
He choked from the smoke. ‘There’ll be no money to move.’
‘And you’ll be nice to Mum and let her work and won’t put her back in the madhouse if she gets sick again?’
‘How did you know she was in the asylum?’
‘Just promise me she won’t be sent back.’
‘I promise. Hurry.’
‘And can Benjamin and Charlotte stay, and their baby, no matter what, and can Martha be reinstated?’
The heat was becoming unbearable.
‘Yes, anything. Get me out.’
Albert put his arms around Henry’s chest and pulled him a foot or so towards the door. But he glanced up and saw wild flames crisscrossing the doorway. He knew they were both doomed. He realised his mistake. Had he not spent time bribing his father, they may have got out.
‘Dad, it’s too late. I’m sorry.’
There was no response. He put his head down and kept an arm around his father as they lay on the floor. He shut his eyes.
Suddenly there was a loud thump.
– end of excerpt –
My historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, is at Amazon and other book sellers:
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Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H52SEEK
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