First published in 1948 in The Second Chalet Book for Girls, pages 29-39.
"I'm going now. If it were anything else, I'd cancel; as it is, I must go. Be good, both of you! Keepa nice fire here, and have tea ready when we come in. Oh, by the way, I said a 'nice fire' but be careful what you're doing. I have a creepy conviction that the chimney needs sweeping, so don't build the fire too high. We don't want any alarms and excursions, remember!"
"Jo, if you don't look out you'll grow into a regular old fusser!"
"Oh, no, I shan't! But I know what Rob is when she gets buried in a book; and you're a harum-scarum at the best of times."
"I like that! You were always so careful and thoughtful yourself, weren't you? Never did mad things, either - oh, dear no!"
Jo Maynard laughed. "You have me there! Sorry, Daisy-girl! I didn't mean to be insulting. Only I'm really nervous about that chimney, and we're so far away from a fire engine if anything did happen."
"You'll be late for your appointment if you don't hurry," said the third member of the party. "It was for two-thirty, wasn't it? It's two now - nearly."
"Oh Jumping Jehosaphat!" Jo swung round and calley up the stairs, "Children! Aren't you ready? Come along quickly!" Then she ran out to get into the car and start the engine, for 'Caroline' was inclined to warm up slowly in cold weather: and it was very cold, with snow thick on the ground, and a hard frost promised for that night, though it had not come yet.
The two in the morning-room followed out to the hall, and stood watching the descent of a little girl of ten, and three tinies of four, while a stout, smiling Tirolean followed them, a sturdy boy of nearly one year old in her arms.
"Why, are you going now, Prim?" asked Daisy of the ten-year-old.
"Yes; Auntie Jo said she's drop me at the Round House gates, and she knew Aunti Madge wouldn't mind my being early. I wish you were coming too, Daisy!" And Primula looked up at her big sister with troubled blue eyes.
"I wasn't asked, my child. Run along and enjoy yourself. It's only Sybs and Co. and two or three others from school, and you know them all. You musn't be silly and shy, you know." Daisy spoke bracingly. Primula had always been desperately shy, and the years and school seemed to have done little to cure her.
"Children!" came an impatient call from the car; and Primula ran out obediently.
The two big girls followed to help settle the party safely. Primula was put into the front seat with Margot, youngest of the Maynard triplets, squashed in beside her. Anna sat in a corner with Stephen, Len, Con and the other two at the back. Robin, Jo's adopted sister, tucked the rugs round them, while Daisy saw to Primula and Margot. Then the doors were slammed, and in another minute they were gliding down the drive. Normally, the run to Armiford, whither all the party but Primula was bound, would have taken twenty minutes or so; but with the roads in their present condition, it meant careful driving.
"It's horrid cold!" shivered Daisy as she and Robin turned out and went into the house. "And I don't envy Jo with that crowd at the photographer's! Still, it'll be rather nice to have a decent photo of the family. The girls haven't been done since they were babies of eighteen months; and Stephen was only six weeks old when he was taken. What are you going to do, Rob?"
"I've got a letter to write, and then I want to finish my book. What will you do, Daisy?" Robin smiled up at the long-legged schoolgirl beside her. She was the elder by two years; but she was built on a miniature scale, while Daisy was a sturdy five foot nine.
Daisy returned the smile. Then she considered. "I think I'll make Welsh cakes for tea. Jo loves them, and they'll be comforting after that chilly drive with all her family. Look, Robin! Bring your letters to the kitchen and do them there. We'll put some coal on the morning-room fire, and it'll be all right. Anna has a big log fire in the kitchen I know, and it's very comfy. Besides, if I get into a muddle, you can help me out," she added calmly.
Robin chuckled. "So long as you don't put five times as much baking powder as you ought into your cakes so that they rise to Heaven, I don't see that you can very well go wrong," she said, with an impish reference to some cookery of Daisy's the previous year. "Still, I'll come. I love the kitchen; Anna keeps it so cosy."
"Right! You go and get your writing case, and I'll fetch a pinny!" was Daisy's reply. She passed over Robin's reference with a grin. As she frequently said, that particular cookery had not been altogether her fault. "Come on! I'll race you upstairs!" And off she went.
"Not fair!" Robin cried. "Just look at the difference in our legs, you - you giraffe!" Then she tore after Daisy, and ten minutes later they were both in the kitchen, Daisy pulling on her big blue overall, while Robin established herself at the small table by the window with her writing case and fountain pen. Both had forgotten the morning-room fire.
Daisy set to work to seek her materials, while Robin began on a letter to a friend living in Yorkshire, and soon they were so absorbed in what they were doing that they heeded nothing else.
Daisy mixed her ingredients together, added the milk and water, stirred them thoroughly, and then turned out the dough on to the baking board.
"Oh, bother my hair!" she exclaimed. "Rob, be a dear and come and push these ends out of my eyes, or I'll develop a squint!"
Robin grinned as she came to push the straight wisps off Daisy's brow. "It's a pity your wig's so straight. Curls like mine are much easier to manage. Of course they are rather awful to keep combed," she added thoughtfully.
"I did suggest having it permed, but Jo and Auntie Madge made such a row over the idea, I piped down. When I get to Oxford it may be done but as long as I'm at school it will be better to be a good child and obey the orders." Daisy grinned back at her.
"Well, I suppose you wouldn't look like our Daisy if you did. We'll wait till Oxford, anyhow. However, if you're thinking of having it done and saying nothing till you can come and show yourself off, may I be there to see the result! That's all!" And Robin's dark eyes danced at the idea, and her lovely face dimpled with laughter.
"I'll promise you faithfully you shall be there if it comes off," said Daisy solemnly, flouring her rolling-pin. "Now where is the cake cutter? Oh, here!"
"Have you greased your girdle?" demanded Robin as she sat down to her letter once more.
"Yes, Granny: I did it first thing! And it's on the gas getting hot. Er - about how thick do you think they ought to be to begin with?"
"Oh, about half an inch or so. They should rise a fair amount. Make them a little more rather than less. Remember you want to be able to split them to put in butter."
"Marg, you mean! All right; I can get on now!" And Daisy flourished her rolling-pin before she set to work to roll out her dough.
"You've made an awful lot," said Robin critically.
"Well, we eat an awful lot. Besides, Jack may be back for tea, and you know what he is when it comes to Welsh cakes," said Daisy, referring to Jo's husband, Dr Maynard.
"Oh, if Jack's likely to be home for tea, that lot won't be any too much," agreed Robin. Then she turned to her letter in earnest, and Daisy rolled out the dough, cut out the little cakes, and having tested her girdle, filled it with the first batch.
"Bake them slowly," advised Robin. "Are they rising?"
"Beautifully, thank you. I'll only do them lightly, so that we can give them a last turn when tea-time comes. What is the time, by the way?"
"Just three. You've plenty of time. Now don't talk. I simply must finish my letter this afternoon. Zephyr will think I'm never going to answer her last, and she's awfully easily upset."
"That's what comes of never having any sort of chum till you're nearly twenty or so," Daisy replied oracularly. Then she fell silent, and began to turn her cakes.
The girdle was filled three more times, and the big dish, on which she placed the cakes as they came off it, was piled high by the time the kitchen clock chimed the half-hour, and she was ready to bake the last batch. Robin had finished her letter by this time. She sealed it, stamped it, and then shut up her case.
"That's done! Have you finished with these things? I'll begin to clear them while you bake that lot. Then - Oh, goodness! The morning-room fire! I forgot all about it!"
"Mercy! So did I! It'll be black out by this time. Leave those things Rob, and go and see to it. Jo will be ramping if she comes back to find no fire and an icy room."
Robin dropped the baking-powder tin and bag of flour, and went racing off to see what had happened. The fire was very low, but it was not quite out. She hurried back, and into the scullery in quest of sticks and coal to set it going again. She came into the kitchen with a very rueful look on her face.
"Anna hasn't put the sticks out to dry yet, and these are horribly damp; they'll never catch, and that fire is as nearly out as makes no matter. What on earth shall we do?"
Daisy cast a frantic look at the clock. "It's a quarter to four now and Jo should be back by half-past at the latest. What idiots we were!"
"Well, don't burn the cakes, anyhow. They want turning."
Daisy began to turn them. Then she glanced across at the big fire blazing in the old-fashioned range. "Of course! We must take a shovelful or so from here. It's wood, so it'll soon burn up. If you put those damp sticks on that, they'll dry in no time and catch beautifully. Don't worry, Rob. Go and get me the big shovel, and I'll carry some in while you give an eye to these. Is the room very cold? Out of the way, Rufus!" she called out to Jo's big St Bernard dog.
"I've known it warmer," said Robin as she dropped her damp sticks on the fender and went to get the big coal-shovel. She came back and handed it to Daisy. "There you are. Take off that cotton pinny of yours. We don't want any accidents. And for goodness sake be careful what you are doing and don't trip over anything!"
"Keep cool; I'll be careful," said Daisy soothingly, as she picked up the rake, and, began to manoeuvre the flaming logs on to the shovel. "There; your sticks and a shovel of coal, and stick up a paper over the guard, and we'll have a rousing fire in two two's! Out of the way!" And she set off carefully, holding the shovel well away from her, for the burning wood was very hot, and scorched her face as it was.
She got it safely there, and another as well. Then the girls added the sticks and some coal, and, completely forgetful of Jo's injunctions, set up the flat wire guard with a paper over it, and retired to clear up in the kitchen, satisfied that the fire would soon burn up.
They tidied the kitchen, and Robin went to lay the tea table while Daisy ran up to the bathroom to wash her hands and make herself fit to be seen.
"The fire's blazing nicely," though Robin complacently as she spread the dainty cloth on a table at one side of the hearth, and brought gay china, adorned with rims of green and gold, to set out on it. "It's just roaring up the chimney. We'll have the room really cosy for Jo when she comes. Where's the sugar basin? Oh, hello, Daisy! Clean and in your right mind, once more?"
"Don't be so insulting!" began Daisy. Then she stopped. "I say! Is it the fire making that row? We'd better take the paper down, I should think. It'll be catching, and then the tiles will be all blackened, and Anna will have something to say, even if Jo hasn't. She washed and polished those tiles this morning when she turned the room out." And she lifted the paper away from the guard.
The very next moment, there came a muffled rushing sound, and on the fire, bow blazing gaily away, there fell down the chimney a mass of burning soot It flared up at once, and some of it fell through the wire mesh of the guard on to the tiled hearth. A further avalanche sent the guard over, for Daisy had perched it perilously on top of the front of the grate.
"The rug!" shrieked Robin, making a dive for Jo's treasured bearskin and bundling it up. "The whole chimney's on fire!"
Thick black smoke poured out into the room, nearly stifling the girls, and setting them coughing violently. With a memory of fire-frill at school Daisy leapt to the door and shut it. Then she snatched up the small shovel in the empty coal scuttle and tried to shovel the red-hot soot off the carpet. And all the time that frightening roaring went on in the chimney, and further falls of soot made things worse and worse.
"We can't manage alone!" gasped Robin between coughs. "We'll have to ring up the fire station!"
Daisy had already groped her way through the thick fog of black smoke to the telephone, which stoof on a little table near one window. Robin heard the bell go as her friend lifted the receiver, and pulled the tea table, once so dainty, out of the way of the burning soot. Then she heard Daisy gasping, "Plas Gwyn, Howells village. We're on fire! Send the brigade!" The receiver was slammed down, and Daisy was beside her, helping her to turn back the carpet, which was already singed in places.
Then they could do no more. Both were choking, and the tears were puring down their cheeks as Robin, clutching Daisy firmly by the arm, dragged her from the room, and shut the door.
Mercifully, the brigade was already on its way, having just come in from another fire when the call went through, and almost before the terrified girls had realised it, the engine was dashing up the drive to the door, the men tumbling off it, and the leader demanding to know where the fire was.
"In the morning-room chimney! The soot feel on to the fire, and it's all over the floor." This was Daisy. Robin, more matter-of-fact for once, wasted no words, but led them to the room.
The men surveyed it. Then the leader demanded, "Any shovels? Buckets? Right you are! Bring 'em at once! Jones, you and Parsons clear out here! Evans, up to the roof! Now, Miss," he turned to Robin, "show me the room over this!"
In less than a moment, so it seemed, Daisy had brought the coal shovel and a smaller one as well. Then she tore back for the buckets which Anna kept in a neat pile under the scullery sink. The men promptly began to shovel up the burning soot, and one of them opened the window and dumped a bucketful on to Jo's cherished rose border. Mercifully, there was deep snow, and the soot resigned itself to its fate, and went black. As for Robin, after taking the man to her own bedroom, where he felt the wall above the fireplace, and peered up the chimney, she had to take him to the top storey to Anna's room. Even as they entered, there was a "Whoosh - whoosh!" and the soot which had been coming down into the fireplace vanished beneath a torrent of some chemical, bearing with it the last of the smouldering substance.
"That'll settle it," said the leader. "But this is an old house, Miss. We must see there ain't any beams charred or smouldering." He glanced at Robin, who was a sight to behold. "You can't do no more, Miss. Best go and get the other young lady, and 'ave a wash. No need to worry, for we'll stay a bit to make sure nothing else 'as caught. But we was only just in time. Another five minutes, and the whole room 'ud 'ave been abalze."
Shuddering at the bare idea, Robin left him, and went in search of Daisy. She found that intrepid damsel still in the room, carrying various pieces of furniture out, while the men were just clearing the last of the soot out of the hearth. And at that very moment, there was the sound of 'Caroline's' horn!
"Jo!" gasped Daisy, who was red-eyed and sore of throat, but valiantly determined to save everything she could from the room. She was sure that the fire would spread.
"Jo!" cried Robin, and joined her in a mad rush to the door, just as Jo, staring with all her eyes at the fire engine blocked the way, drew up behind it, wrenched the door of the car open, and sprang out to rush into the house and see where the girls were.
The parti-coloured objects that met her on the step robbed her momentarily of any breath, so they were able to inform her that the danger was over now - at least, Robin did so. Daisy, now that she was away from the scene of action, felt too tired even to speak.
"But what's happened?" cried Jo loudly. "Where is the fire?"
"In the morning-room chimney - but it's out now," croaked Robin. "There is a man on the roof pouring stuff down, and another in Anna's bedroom looking for smoldering beams, and two others shovelling the soot out into the garden. But they say it's all right now; only they'll stay for a while to make sure nothing has caught, as this is an old house, and there may be charred beams."
Daisy pulled herself together. "The room's in an awful mess, and the carpet is scorched, and what Anna will say about her tiles I don't know. However, it's safe, I think. Oh, and the hot soot has been tossed out on the rose border."
This tale of woe was interrupted by the leader, who had heard 'Caroline' and come downstairs to reassure the mistress of the house.
"It's all right now, Mum," he said. "The fire's out, and not much damage done, I think. We'll stay a bit to make sure. That chimney of yours sure wanted sweeping. Come you with me!" And he beckoned the dazed Jo to follow him round the house to the rose border when her pointed to some black, rock-like heaps lying round the Irish Elegance and Frau Karl Druschki. "See that? It's soot clinkers that is. Stuff that the sweep 'asn't got away when he swept, and it's corroded and gone like stone. The fire's out now, Mum, and I'll lay your chimney ain't been so clean, not for years. We'll 'ang about a bit to be sure it's all right, but you needn't worry. I think, Mum, if I was you I'd take the young ladies to get a wash and a change and 'ave a cupper tea. It's been a shock, like, to them."
Jo, glancing at the pair, who were white where they were not black, fully agreed with him. She had had a shock herself. "You are sure it's quite safe now?" she asked him.
"Bless you, yes, Mum," he said indulgently. "We're only staying as a precaution, like, but we'll be gone in about an hour, I reckon."
"Thank you." Jo went out to the car. "Anna, bring the children into the nursery, I think. We'll leave the car. The doctor can put her away when he comes. Come along, you three. Give me Steve, Anna." And she took the big, bonny lad in her arms while Anna got out of the car.
"What a horrid smell!" said Len, elevating her small nose and sniffing like a dog as she entered the house. "Oh, and where is Rufus?"
"In the kitchen asleep," said Daisy. "I rushed and shut him in when I got the shovels and buckets, Anna," and she began to giggle, "I don't know what you'll say when you see those buckets! They are soot from base to rim!"
"Now you just stop that silly giggling," said Jo sternly. "I'm not going to have any hysterics here, I can tell you. Rob, take her up the kitchen stairs, and go to the bathroom, both of you. You'll need to have baths and wash your heads. Drop your clothes and leave them. I'll bring you clean ones."
"I only wonder you don't offer to come and scrub us!" said Daisy, with another feeble giggle. "You look rather like it. Come on, Rob. We'd better try to get clean. That'll be something anyhow."
As Robin fully agreed with this, they went off, and when Jack Maynard returned an hour later, he found the fire engine gone, the house reeking of burnt soot, tea laid in the kitchen, and his wife pouring out for two abnormally clean creatures. Their damp hair hung over the big turkish towels they wore tastefully drapped round them, while they eyes were red, and both spoke in croaking voices.
"Come and have tea and Welsh cakes," said his wife. "Yes; we've had a blazing chimney, and the morning-room looks like nothing on earth, but no one has been hurt, and there's comparatively little damage done, so let us be thankful. Here's your cup. Have you put the cars away?"
"Yes, I have. And I was going to tell you what I thought of you for leaving your precious "Caroline" out there without even putting a rug over the radiator. She was stone cold, and I had a fine job to get her round to the garage, I may tell you. However, in the circumstances, I'll forgive you. Daisy, another of those cakes, please! And now you can tell me what you've all been up to."
Between them they related the whole story. Then, while Jo went upstairs to put Stephen to bed, Jack went to examine the damage for himself.
"It might have been worse," he said to his wife later on, when everyone had gone to bed but themselves, and they were sitting by the drawing-room fire for a quiet half-hour. "Not much, I admit. That room will have to be papered again, and everything thoroughly cleaned, judging by what I can see. One side of the fireplace is badly scorched; and the carpet will never be the same again. Still, there were no lives lost, and the girls seem to have come off without any burns, though their eyes will be sore for a day or two. Likewise, it'll be a time before we get rid of this awful stench of soot, but that's the limit of it." He paused. Then he went on with a wicked twinkle in his eye which made him look startingly like his youngest daughter. "I've only one real regret."
"And what may that be?" demanded Jo, stooping to hug her beloved St Bernard, Rufus, who had been lying at her feet, and now stood up to lay his magnificent head on her knee. "What do you regret?"
"Only that I wasn't here to take a snapshot of those two and you when they broke the news!"