How unlike the paradise of which Sweet Gove spoke is this place! Heaps of smouldering iron litter the school grounds like the litterings of that hound of hell, Cerberus. The fragrant countryside air has long since fled and in its place? Dense smoke billowing out of the Iron-Slitting furnace and wreathing the cold grey stone of the chapel in it’s choking embrace. The grounds of Molten Tussock Academy may be likened to the very bowels of hell wherein that great beast – the spirit of Mammon- is said to abide, mired in the slough of despond, that place which impoverished Iron-Slitting apprentices are said to endure.
A second beast has arisen from that selfsame pit dear reader, but he is not as the first. For this one is a half-burned facsimile of a reverend of the Goveen Brotherhood, and one whose unbridled love for the tenets of Sweet Gove have unmanned him! Goveen adulation has altered him dear reader, and now here he stands,transformed from a spritely but naive youth to a pitiful ego fixated degenerate! Hunched over and limping towards the bell tower in his soot covered cassock, the far-from-saintly Reverend Tout Puissant is the very embodiment of vindictive malice…
Indeed, one doubts not that once he has climbed the bell tower and surmounted its pinnacle, all who have forsworn Goveen Matins will rue the day they were born!
“Bar the door Obed Plum! Bar it! Quickly now! The rapscallion is almost upon us! Can ye not hear him?” they all can, for t’is the bellowing, braying, rage of a crazed fanatic intent upon first seizing and then punishing his prey! T’is a scandal dear reader,a scandal and a disgrace! But once humility has fled (dragging reason along with it) who may say what will take its place?
Now rocked from pillar to post by one violent explosion after another and now choked savagely by the vast plumes of smoke wreathing the chapel like a shroud the Iron-Slitting apprentices are terror stricken. But amongst them there is one who is not swayed, and dropping to his knees in a newly acquired attitude of prayer he speaks these words,
“I am not nor ever was a churchgoing man but if ever we need thy help god, t’is now! HELP!!”
By the standards of the tenets of Sweet Gove, his, is a succinct prayer (mercifully!), and is soon joined by dozens of others “Help us God! Send swift deliverance!”
Help is not long in coming, indeed it is almost at hand for look you, here is the UNION REP! Wrapped loosely in a cloak that has been drenched in water and struggling valiantly across the school grounds he stops just short of the tower, looking up he cannot see ought through the smoke, but he can hear the dim cries of Master Parnham and the apprentices.
“If ever we’ve needed thee Jehovah it is now!” the faint strains of mournful singing float down from that dismal place and in such a place as this! Where the fires rage and burn at every crevice and corner of the chapel, except at this one where the bell tower lies. Time wasted,thinks the Union Rep, is souls lost!
“Master Knowham! Have you the grappling hooks and the ropes!”
“Aye! I have em! Dear God we have arrived just in time!”
“Then let us begin!!”
Throwing off their sodden cloaks and rolling up their shirt sleeves the men throw up their grappling hooks until the hooks are fast secured upon the wall of that great bell tower. Their climb is an arduous one, many times are they tempted to turn back as the flames leap high beneath them and grey smoke billows above. But the desolate wails issuing forth from the tower compell them to tighten their grips on the soot blackened ropes and keep climbing,
“How goes it Master Knowham!” the Union Rep yells though his voice can scarce be heard over the raging flames,
“Climb sir! Climb!” comes the reply, “There is no time to waste, climb or the boys are for it!” roars Master Knowham as he climbs fist over fist, doing all within his power to reach the top of the bell tower and his son before the flames do.
How best to describe the infernal vista Molten Tussock had become, best not to describe it, but to give thanks to the farmers of Molten Tussock minor, that humble village on the outskirts of Molten Tussock major. For on spying the smoke some distance from their village, the alarm bells are rung and the fire wagons rushed out speeding towards Molten Tussock as if for all the world the devil is at their heels. Oh how the flames sought to drive them back as they rushed to and fro in a frenzy seeking well water and pump water with which to put the fires out!
And all the while the terrible sound of braying issuing forth from within the chapel, “Ere but don’t that sound like-” says one farmer as he fills his bucket at the pump for the upteenth time, “The madman whats burned down iz own school with them poor kids in it?” replied another glaring balefully at the chapel door,”best to let mad men lie if you ask me! We’ve enuf to be going on with,more water?”
“Drive that wagon closer to the chapel! Man the pump boys! Man the pump!” the more the fire crackles and rages, the faster the men move, driving the wagons up against the base of the church and streaming water up and around till the ground is sodden and the bricks give off a vaporous mist.
“Climb damn ye! Keep climbing! We’re almost there!” hauling themselves over the wall of the bell tower the two men seek those pitiful souls whose wailing cries have urged them onto the rescue. See there huddled fast against the hot bricks, two dozen tormented apprentices pleading so loudly for deliverance that they can scarce believe their eyes when it arrives. Bundling them towards the wall and over it, Master Knowham tries to rescue Master Parnham, but just as he is about to do so the bell tower door buckles inward, and the Reverend Tout-Puissant staggers out of the smoky darkness.
“Where are they? Where are my charges?” but his apprentices have been swiftly bundled up in warm blankets and the wagons carrying them gallop as far away and as fast away as the stamina of the horses will allow!
“It’s you! T’is your infernal inspections that have unravelled all my good work!”
“Not I sir! Look roundabout you!” the farmers have done all they can, the blackened ruins of a farmhouse, the dying embers of the iron furnace, these are all that remain. The fire has swept over all, devoured all, all but the Goveen chapel towering oppressively over the bleak landscape.
“What should I do? What will I do? They are gone, all gone! My darling ones!” and with that the Reverend, staggering towards the bell tower wall, hurls himself over it.
“Shocking simply shocking!” declares Master Parnham who was as he has said, deeply troubled and shocked.
“Shocking and scandalous!” opined Master Knowham as he prepares to descend the bell tower once more.
“A ruinous waste of a perfectly good school, the Bow & Bromley Board shall hear of it!” declares the Union Rep gleefully.
For the Bow and Bromley Education Board had accompanied him on the journey down from London. So that they might inquire as to the disappearance of Master Parnham, however as soon as the coach entered Molten Tussock village they had observed the blaze. And desiring to avoid all association with yet another Goveen scandal, they had retired to the village inn for the night. How appalled they would be once they’d heard all that had transpired, and how eager they would be to redeem their reputations by funding another Hesketh-Elderberry-McTavish Ragged School!