The House That Burned Down

from Another Forty Fables by Adam Acidophilus

Late one summer’s night, in a comfortable hayloft, in an old barn close to a great country mansion, the old gardener – who was dozing in the hayloft – was awoken by an agitated stable boy.

“Misser gard’ner sir! Misser gard’ner sir! Wake up – I can smell smoke!” hissed the stable boy.

The gardener woke.

“P’raps the ’ouse is burnin’ down!” added the boy.

The gardener slapped him. “What you doin’ wakin’ me up?” he cursed. “You think I have all day to sleep like you do? D’you know who I am? Dint they never teach you respect for head gardeners where you come from? Don’t you dare wake me up, you young scamp, not if it’s gunsmoke and you can hear cannon fire!”

The stable boy retreated from the hayloft, and went back to sleep in the stable; and the gardener lay awake, unable to sleep. And, smelling the smoke, and reflecting that – just possibly – there might be some grounds for investigation, slipped down the ladder and crept to the kitchen door.

Through the keyhole he could see the old cook sleeping under the table, for it was baking day and her bread was to be baked before dawn.

“Wake up! Wake up!” hissed the gardener, rattling the kitchen door. “I can smell smoke – and it ain’t comin’ from the stove!”

Presently the cook awoke, and crawled to the door.

“Oh thank you very much,” she grunted sarcastically. “S’if I don’t get too little sleep already, I have to contend with the likes of you, disturbin’ me when I’ve got such a busy day ahead! S’all right for you gardeners, hard to tell if you ever do any work at all; you don’t have to launder your clothes or wash your ‘ands. But I have responsibilities in this house! One slip, and I fear to imagine the consequences. Now you get out of here, you filthy old rogue, or I’ll have you shooed off the estate!”

The gardener went away, and the old cook went back to her nest under the table; but, smelling the smoke, and reflecting that – just possibly – there might be some sense in checking, she tied her hair, put on her apron, and sought out the butler.

“I do not know – “ began the butler – “of a prior occasion upon which a butler in this house has been awoken – in his nightclothes! – by a cook! on such a trivial pretext. Is this an acceptable behaviour elsewhere?”

The cook apologised “ – Only I thought it was for the best,” she stammered, “in case of a fire? Not knowing the rules, having only arrived thirty year ago.”

The butler sent her back to the kitchen; however, smelling the smoke, and reflecting that – just possibly – it might be appropriate to inform him; he dressed, shaved, shone his shoes, linked his cuffs and made his way to his master’s bedchamber.

“My apologies for awakening you, m’lord,” the butler began, “but there is a distinct aroma of combustion about the premises, skyward a flickering orange glow, and, I suspect, an audible crackling from somewhere not beyond the confines of your Lordship’s domicile.”

“Is there, begod?” growled the master. “Then it only remains for me to enquire as to whether you might be an anarchist or a Bolshevik? There is a difference between the two you know – for the anarchist should be slowly tortured, whereas the Bolshevik should be dispatched with a pistol, like a wounded animal.

The butler gulped.

“You awake me in the event of war, or death of monarch,” explained his master. “Don’t say nothing about orange glows, does it?” he asked.

“No m’lord.”

“No indeed. You’ll pack your things, there’s a train every week – you can wait at the station. I shan’t pay you, but I shan’t beat you either.”

The butler thanked his master for the forty years of shelter, and was out of the building in ten minutes.

But as the old man lay there, smelling the smoke, seeing the glow and hearing the crackle, he reflected that he may as well seek a professional opinion.

Unwilling to invite the local firefighters onto his land, and have the pond pumped out when he’d so recently restocked it, he made his way instead to the telephone on the landing – finding the house agreeably warm for that time of night.

He telephoned his club.

“May I speak with the general?” he began. “Yes. The general. That’s right. Bit of bother. House, possibly, aflame. General experienced with. Trench warfare etcetera. Might have a tip or two.

“I see. Not after midnight? Club rules. Understand. No telephone calls at all? “Review membership? Damn and blast. Profuse apologies – butler’s fault. Quite understand. No, don’t do that. I’ll write.”

Moral: Lucky it was only a house.

© Adam Acidophilus 2011