She ran along her family’s beautiful, lush green lawn and looked up. The sun shone in her clear blue eyes. It was impossible to see the shuttlecock that was flying through the air, having been hit with force by her younger sister just a moment ago. Ruth swung her racket through the air, hoping to connect with the shuttlecock, but missed. Instead, the racket flew out of her hand and somersaulted through the air, coming to a stop on the lawn between herself and her Sophia. “Horsefeathers!” At once, she slapped a hand in front of her mouth and looked around for Mrs. Hascomb, their governess. She did not permit any such language from the two young girls and was always quick to chastise them. Fortunately, the woman was entirely unaware of the outburst as she was seated in a chair under her parasol, fast asleep in the sunshine. “Ruuuth! Can’t you at least try to hit it properly?” Her sister whined and stomped her feet in frustration. A moment later she threw her racket in the air with force, sending it flying through the afternoon air. Her beautiful blonde hair bounced as she stomped angrily, her pale cheeks turning red. Ruth shook her head. At eight years old, her sister tended to behave much younger than her years, while at aged ten, Ruth was quite the opposite. She had what her mother called an old soul.
“Stop upsetting yourself Sophia, it is only a game,” she said as she approached her sister, stopping only to pick up both rackets. She reached her hand out, attempting to entice her sister to take it back. However, she was in no mood and instead plopped on the grass in the most unladylike manner. “It is not a fun game if you don’t try to play properly. We haven’t been able to keep it in the air more than three times in a row because you keep dropping the shuttlecock.” Ruth shrugged, as shuttlecock was not her favorite game and she only played it to please her little sister. “Then let us play something else. How about seesaw? Or hide and go seek?” Her sister shook her head, her blue eyes full of dejection. Ruth had a good idea that this tantrum wasn’t about the errant game at all. No, her sister was upset for other reasons altogether. “This is not fair. Yes, I declare it is entirely unfair. We should be at the seaside with all our cousins and friends, not stuck in Coventry. There isn’t even a lake nearby!” Sophia sighed heavily. This was of course the real reason for her sister’s malcontent.
Ruth sat down beside her sister, making sure her gown did not smudge in the grass, and rubbed Sophia’s arm. “It is not, but it cannot be helped. Grandmother is too ill to go to Bath this year and Mama has to look after her.” “We could have been sent with Aunt Viola. It isn’t right that everyone is at Bath and Brighton, swimming and frolicking while we have to remain here.” “We can’t leave Mama here all alone. With Papa in London for Parliament, she’d be here all by herself. That wouldn’t be very nice, would it? Besides, we can go to the seaside when grandmother is recovered. We will all go.” Her sister lay back in the grass, looking at the sky. “And what will become of us in the meantime? I am tired of all our games; I wish there was something different we could do.” Ruth was about to suggest they take up water coloring when her sister sat up with a snap. A grin spread on her face and at once, Ruth knew there was mischief on her sister’s mind. “Ruthie!” She nodded, “I know just what adventure we should undertake.” Hesitantly, Ruth tilted her head, her thick brown hair falling to one side.
“You do?” “Let us venture into the wine cellar.” Ruth shook her head, sending her hair flying around her face. “No! We are not allowed in the wine cellar. Papa will be ever so mad.” “Papa is in London and Mama is occupied with grandmother. And Mrs. Hascomb -” She nodded toward the still sleeping governess. “Nobody will know. It isn’t locked.” Ruth bit her bottom lip hard. The wine cellar was never locked. It was assumed that Sophia and Ruth would obey their father’s orders not to go into the wine cellar unless accompanied by an adult. Usually, that would be the case, but she often found herself led astray by Sophia who was by far the more mischievous one of the two. Ruth found herself often unable to resist her sister’s ideas, although this particular one made her feel more uncomfortable than usual. “I don’t know, Sophia.
It seems rather dangerous to be going down there. And there is nothing exciting to do there but look at barrels upon barrels and bottles.” Her sister grabbed her wrist. “But Ruthie! We can play hide and go seek! It will be a delight to play it down there instead of up here in the boring garden.” Ruth pursed her lips. She loved hide and go seek. It was among her most favorite games. And playing it in the dark, mysterious wine cellar was appealing. She nodded at last. “Very well. Come, let us go!” Sophia jumped up and took Ruth’s hand, together the two girls ran toward the wine cellar at the back of the house. “Faith, it is dark!” Sophia complained after they’d managed to make their way down the steps and into the cellar. It was cool down there, and Ruth rubbed her hands along her arms. She felt along the ledge by the steps for the matches, knowing just where her father kept them. “Fetch me a candle, Sophia,” she said, and her sister obeyed.
Carefully, she lit the match and then lit enough candles to allow them to see around the cellar. The wine cellar consisted of two rooms. One smaller in the front by the staircase, and a larger one further back through a narrow passageway. Most of the wine was stored in the back area on large wooden shelves that held the barrels. The front area by the stairs contained additional barrels, as well as a small table where her father would occasionally host wine tastings. Sophia clapped her hands together, her pretty round face looking even lovelier than usual in the gentle candlelight. “How thrilling it is! Now, come Ruthie. You count to ten and I will hide.” She pushed her sister gently to make her turn toward the wall where dozens of barrels were lined up against it. Obeying, Ruth closed her eyes and counted loudly from then. When she got to five, she heard a rather concerning bang as well as a shattering of glass and turned. “Sophia? What has happened?” “Nothing!” Her sister’s voice came from far away. “I tripped and broke a bottle. It’s rolled under the barrel. Wait.
Don’t turn!” Ruth stayed where she was, listening to her sister move around. “Oh no! I’ve dropped the candle now too. It’s rolled under the barrel as well. I have to fetch another.” Ruth frowned. This did not sound promising. “Is the candle out?” “Course!” Her sister replied. “I got another one. Start the count again.” It is just like Sophia to drop her candle. She is such a clumsy girl, and a gabster, to boot. She smiled. Ruth adored her sister, as overly dramatic and upsetting as she could be. She was her dearest friend and Ruth imagined it would always be this way. With a chuckle, she started to count back from ten once more.
When she was done, she at once rushed toward the back area, knowing her sister was sure to have hidden there. She much preferred the hide portion of the game while her sister loved both. Ruth knew she should slow down and pretend as though she could not find Sophia, but she was not in the mood to procrastinate, as she was eager to hide herself. “Ready or not, here I come!” She called out in a sing-song voice and peeked behind barrels. For a moment, she thought she spotted movement in the front room and turned. However, there was nothing to see there but the dust particles which floated through the air in front of the candles. She turned her attention back to the task at hand and a moment later saw her sister’s dress poke out from behind a barrel. She rushed over to it and pointed at Sophia with a giggle. “Got you!” “Faith! You are good!” Sophia rose, grinning. “Now you! Go hide.” She turned where she stood and Ruth rushed around the room, looking for a good hiding spot. The space between two barrels near the edge of the room proved a good spot for her and she squeezed in, sitting with her back against one barrel, her feet pulled up in front of her. She’d just heard her sister count down to one when a strange smell tickled her nose. It reminded her of the day Mrs. Norris, their cook, had forgotten about a loaf of bread in the oven and it had burnt, drenching the entire servant area in thick smoke that even made its way up into the residential parts of the house.
She peeked out from the barrel and gasped. There was indeed smoke drifting into the room coming from the front wine-tasting area. She moved and squeezed herself out from behind the barrels. When she stood, she realized that the smoke was traveling with alarming speed and the temperature in the room had risen. “Sophia?” She called out, suddenly fearful. “Where did you say the candle rolled?” Sophia did not answer at once, she was standing with her face against the wall, counting still. “There’s a fire! Sophia, come quickly. There’s a fire in the wine-tasting area.” “What?” Her sister turned and looked at her with a frown on her face as if the information did not quite make sense to her. “A fire? But the candle was out and…” She shrieked at the sound of wine bottles exploding from the heat. Just then, flames shot out; the barrels were now on fire. Ruth grabbed Sophia by the arm. “Quickly, we must get out and sound the alarm. Come!” Her sister was frozen in terror at the sight, but Ruth knew there was no time. She yanked on her sister’s arm, dragging her out of the room.
“Ruthie, I’m scared!” She turned and placed an arm around her sister. “Come, we must get past before the flames get larger.” She felt the heat in the room intensify. She flinched as more bottles exploded, sending glass flying in every direction. Beside her, Sophia screamed. Without thinking, Ruth pulled her sister through the narrow passage and into the room, gasping as she entered. The smoke was so thick it was impossible to see anything. With horror, she saw that one of the chairs used for the wine tastings had also caught fire. The dry wood burning at a terrifying speed. There was a bone-chilling sound of creaking amidst the crackling of the fire, but she didn’t know what it was. With haste, she pushed her sister forward. “Along the wall! Feel your way along the wall to the stairs.” Whimpering, Sophia went in the direction she’d been pushed. Ruth followed. Suddenly the creaking sound intensified, and she realized with stark horror that the wooden shelves which had held up the barrels were breaking.
“Sophia! Run!” She yelled into the smoke and a moment later, the shelving structure gave way. Barrels rolled down from the burning shelves, several smashing as they hit the ground. Others, to her dismay, rolled forward and blocked her path to the stairs. She attempted to push a barrel out of her way but found herself not strong enough. “I’m trapped, Sophia. Get help!” She called but there was no answer. Or if there was, the sounds of the roaring fire were too loud for her to hear any reply. Did Sophia make it? Or was she crushed, laying injured beneath the barrels? For a moment, time seemed to stand still, but then as if by miracle, the sound of the cellar door opening drew her attention. Sophia had made it out. The sudden rush of fresh air seemed to stoke the fire as the flames shot up higher, further igniting the wood structures and barrels in the room. Ruth stood with her back against the wall, watching as everything around her seemed to catch alight. She shivered, even though it was burning hot in the room and sweat ran down her body. I will die here. I cannot get out; the barrels are blocking me. Even if Sophia brings help, it may be too late.
I will die! The realization was even more terrifying than the fire around her. A coughing fit overcame her, and she sunk to the floor unable to remain standing for a moment longer. Closer to the floor, she found breathing was easier and thus, she decided to lay down as flat as she could, her face pointed to the concrete floor. She breathed slowly, using her sleeve to cover her mouth as she prayed for rescue. “Ruth?” Her name found its way to her ears and she forced her eyes open only to shut them again with fright. Flames. They were everywhere now. She wasn’t sure how much time passed. The heat was so intense she could hardly breathe and when she did dare take a breath, it was as if she were inhaling flames directly into her lungs. Her skin felt as though it were on fire. “Ruth?” The voice sounded again. “Call out!” Mama! It is Mama. She has come for me. I will be safe now! The sound of her beloved mother’s voice gave her the strength to sit up. “Here!” She called but it was only a croak that came out.
Still, it was enough for her mother. “Stay there. I will get you!” A moment later, a figure came through the flames. It was her mother. She looked like an angel from heaven in her white dress and blonde hair. She moved one of the heavy barrels blocking her path aside with strength Ruth never thought her mother possessed. Then she was beside her, draping a wet piece of cloth over Ruth’s hot body. Her mother lifted her to her feet. “Stay by me, we will get out.” The fire was so close now it licked at Ruth’s body, but her mother pushed her forward. They were almost at the door when – “Go!” her mother pushed her forward with such force, Ruth tumbled and fell. A deafening sound filled the air and her mother screamed. Ruth turned and saw with horror how the beams from the ceiling, all of them on fire, had crashed down, trapping her mother beneath them. “Mama!” She called and attempted to walk back through the smoke. “Do not turn back.
Go. Go now!” her mother shouted. For a moment she could see her face through the beams. She was on her side, her eyes wide with terror but when she saw Ruth, a serenity seemed to fall over her. “Go, my love. I will be fine. I love you. I will see you very soon!” Ruth did not want to leave, but she knew she had to. She had to get more help, otherwise, her mother’s life would be lost. She felt her way along the wall to the stairs and ran as fast as she could. As she broke through the door and into the afternoon air, she knew she was safe. It wasn’t until she saw the horrified faces of her sister and the governess, who’d rushed to help that she realized – her clothes had all but burnt off her body and her brown hair was entirely singed black. “Mama…” she said but before another word could pass her lips, her eyes rolled back in her head and the entire world went black.