V.C. Magazine, May 14, 1903
THE BRAVEST DEED I EVER SAW.
AN AMERICAN FIREMAN.
Told by Mr. Forbes Robertson.
The third act of the ninety-eighth performance of “The Light that Failed” had just come to an end, and Dick Heldar, bearing with wonderful fortitude the fact that he had a few moments before lost his eyesight under dramatic circumstances, was sitting smoking a cigarette and waiting for the call-boy to announce the beginning of the fourth and last act.
“I want you to tell me,” I said, “which of all the things you have ever seen—it is rather a sweeping question—impressed you as being the most courageous, either morally or physically.”
Mr. Robertson pondered.
“Well,” he said, “of course moral courage is rather a subtle thing. It would take a good deal longer time than I am afraid I shall be able to give to the subject to recall the finest instance of moral courage in my experience. And as for physical courage, the civilian has so few opportunities of seeing it, and what sights he does see are, as a rule, less striking than those of the battlefield. However——”
“Yes?” I said.
“Well, I once saw a fireman save a girl in a rather curious way. But then, of course, he was merely doing his duty.”
“Not once, nor twice, in our rough island story,” I murmured.
“Just so. This happened in America.”
“Oh,” I said. “Something always seems to militate against the aptness of my best quotations.”
“It took place years and years ago. It was an interesting episode for several reasons. In the first place, it was, as I say, the pluckiest thing I have ever seen. And then it is a good example of the difference between the methods of English and American firemen. Also it deserves notice simply as a gymnastic feat. What happened was this. It was a pretty big blaze, and the fire had got fairly hold of the house, inside mostly. The girl was in a third-storey room, and when the place got too hot she climbed out of the window on to the coping of the window of the room below. And there she was. Well, they hadn’t any ladders. All they had were long iron poles with steps up the side, and a ratchet at the end with teeth in it. It is rather difficult to describe them exactly. You want a drawing, really. How long were they? Well, let me see. How high is this room? Oh, they must have been about fifteen feet long. Hollow, too, I suppose. And the ratchet at the end about three feet. The man took one of these, swung it over his head with both hands, and brought it down with a crash through the glass of the first storey window. The teeth of the ratchet caught on to the sill, and up he went, carrying two more of the poles with him. Yes, they must have been hollow, or they would have been too heavy. When he got on to the sill of the first storey window he took one of the poles and smashed it through the window above, where it caught on to the sill as before. He sent it through a top pane and then dragged it down through the glass till it caught. That was the window with the coping on which the girl was sitting. He climbed up the second pole on to the next sill, and then repeated the smashing process with the last pole. That fixed itself in the third storey sill, which was about two—no, three—feet above the girl’s head. So now he had a sort of ladder in three parts, each part hanging from a window-sill. He swarmed up the last section, held on with his right hand while he seized the girl with his left, and finally came down the three poles, still using only his right hand. It was a most extraordinary thing to watch. It was a wonderful feat of strength, too, for the double weight must have been a tremendous strain on his one arm. But he got down all right, and saved the girl.”
“That was good,” I said. And I wished the hero of the adventure had been an Englishman. But I consoled myself by remembering that the records of the English fire brigades contain many cases equally fine. Whether he work in New York or London, there is never much wrong in the matter of courage with the man in the brass helmet.
“What sort of building was it?” I asked. “A skyscraper?”
“Oh, no! Just an ordinary private house. It was in Fifth Avenue.”
“I saw another plucky performance,” said Mr. Forbes Robertson after a pause. “It happened in France this time, and, like the fire episode, a great many years back. It was not quite so sensational as the fire affair, and the danger averted was not so close as in that case, but there would certainly have been a very nasty accident if it had not happened; and the man who did the thing did not belong, like the fireman, to a class from which one expects courage as a matter of course. He was a French priest, and what he did was to stop a great big country horse, which was running away with a heavy cart behind it. It was just outside Rouen. The man was a friend of mine. We were stopping at the same place. I was walking to Rouen one day; I was just coming up a lane leading into the high road, when the horse and cart dashed across the top of it along the high road in the direction of Rouen. When I got out of the lane I saw my friend coming towards me. The cart was between us. He stood in the middle of the road and jumped at the horse’s mouth as it was passing. He was a strong man. Not young, about fifty. He was rather badly knocked about, but he stopped the cart, and we walked home together. Nobody was in any actual danger at the moment, but the streets a little way on were full, and there were children about, so that it was a good thing that the cart went no further.”
I thought so too. I asked where the driver had been all the time. He had dismounted to refresh himself. Voilà comment des accidents arrivent. I rather wavered in my allegiance to the fireman after this story. Stopping runaway horses is child’s play in fiction. The hero does it with one hand, and says, “Don’t mention it,” when thanked. But in real life it is an operation that takes some doing, and I was conscious of a very solid respect for that French priest.
But at this moment somebody came up and spoke to Mr. Forbes Robertson, and I gathered that the time had come for him to be Dick Heldar once more. He disappeared, and a minute afterwards the sound of a chorus made itself heard from the depths of the earth:
When we go, go, go away from here,
Our creditors will weep and they will wail,
Our absence much regretting
When they find that we’ve been getting
Out of England by next Tuesday’s Indian mail.
The fourth act had begun, and I came away.
P. G. Wodehouse.
Harold Begbie assigned the eager P.G. a couple of straightforward interview
pieces, for which he paid £2.2 each: the theme being ‘The Bravest
Deed I Ever Saw,” something for V.C. readers to relate to. Sir Johnston
Forbes-Robertson was an English actor and theatre manager and widely considered
to have been the finest Hamlet of the day. He starred in the dramatic adaption
of Kipling’s first novel, The Light that Failed, which
opened at the Lyric Theater on February 7 and moved to the New Theater
in April, which is probably where the ‘interview’ took place.
I doubt very much the conversation between P.G. and Forbes-Robertson took
place between acts, as P.G. frames the interview. More likely, after the
show. The entire piece is rather stagy and the construction seems awkward;
Robertson relating a story about a valiant American fireman saving a child’s
life between acts of a Kipling play while he smokes a cigarette? P.G. manages
to sneak a little Tennyson in:
‘Well, I once saw a fireman save a girl in a rather curious way. But then, of course, he was merely doing his duty.’
‘Not once, nor twice, in our rough island story,’ I murmured.
The quote is from Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington”:
Not once or twice in our rough island-story,
The path of duty was the way to glory:
In the Kipling novel The Light that Failed, the “chorus” quoted at the end of the article is sung joyfully by “a voice on the staircase.”