The world was on fire. Skeletal fingers of incandescent light and heat joggled their way high into the chocking smoke that blanketed the sky. The moon, full like the eye of god, fought vainly to shine through those unnatural clouds. An explosion rocked the other side of the city, a blooming flower of smoke and flame bound into the air. On a tall hill just far enough away from the chaos and horror to allow for some level of emotional detachment, two men watched the carnage.
“By the grace of god, even the water is alight,” Mr. Withers exclaimed. The dismay he expressed was so out of character for the impassive shopkeeper that Mr. Brinks thought some strange creature had replaced his companion’s body and soul. Mr. Withers looked east; as sure as daylight, streaks of flame coated the inky surface of the river that bisected the city. Flaming boats floundered half in and half out of the water. “Have you ever seen such a sight, Mr. Brinks?”
Mr. Brinks had seen such a sight, though the scale of it seemed laughable now. Ten summers ago he’d watched a whaler succumb to a fire below its decks; some foolish sailor and a lantern tipped in clumsiness the likely culprit. The flames raced through the ships midsection bisecting it from port to starboard. The sound was unlike anything Mr. Withers had ever heard and recalling the event he could hear them now, mixing with the apocalyptic sounds coming from the city; the angry crack of splintering wood, the twang of ropes and scaffolding snapping from the pressure, and the screams, oh the screams he heard. Mr. Withers dreamed of those men who were trapped below when the ship broke apart and burned on the water’s surface for several months, though he never told a soul. The barrels of prepared oil that the ship had loaded spilled out and over each other like an avalanche, when she split in two. Some cracked open, spilling their precious seed like the whoremongers of old. There the oil stayed, clinging to the surface in long multi colored ribbons. A flaming piece of canvas flittered into the oil coated river and a great firestorm erupted. Men burned or dove and those that chose to dive had to come up eventually and they burned too, then the smell reached the observers… These days, Mr. Brinks didn’t much care to go near the docks.
“Aye,” was all Mr. Brinks could coerce from his parched mouth for his old friend. He was more than grateful that Mr. Brinks didn’t press the discussion.
Glass exploded and buildings collapsed as the inferno ravaged through the city; shadowed against the flames, hordes of struggling city folk fled in every direction. Behind them marched the soldiery responsible for the engulfed capital, their rifles slung or carried low and uniforms pitch black against the raging backdrop. Other soldiers or rather what might have amounted to men giving their best imitation of soldiering met in a park. From this distance, the rifle fire sounded like a child’s play thing rather than a weapon of war. Pop pop pop pop the rifles barked as a mansion was eaten by flames behind them.
The lines of soldiery exchanged several disjointed volleys. One side, the ‘imitators’, fell back disordered and short several of the men that came with them.
“How did it come to this?” Mr. Withers asked, his face an unflinching, unfailing mask. That was the question of the day. Mr. Brinks wiped at his eyes. Best to let the man think me rubbing ash from my face then let him know a tear flows down these cheeks he thought. The city had been so beautiful to take in, despite all the construction and grime and smells. The city was a place of wonders and horrors but most importantly, it was home. He’d grown up there and he felt he knew everything there was to know about it. The places you never went in your Saturday best, the pubs to go to for clean glasses, and he could take a visitor to it all. There won’t be any more clean glasses for a while after this. More screams and in his mind’s eye, Mr. Brinks saw that whaler; another magnificent thing that had been brought down through ironic fate (or hubris). It was a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Where did this horror come from? He thought he might know the answer. Mr. Brinks was an educated man, you had to be such a person to make a business not just sustainable but profitable as well. He kept up with the news coming out of the wider world, the reports that sailed home with the ships. He remembered when the two countries had seen fit to end their hostilities. He was but a lad of 9 when the criers went street to street announcing the divorce. Their bellowing mouths reminding him of the wailing mother whose child had taken ill and fallen into that sleep that is always final. And there was just that, finality to the conflict that would forever guide both countries. “The War is over, my boy.” His father had beamed, “all for the best, I say. A merchant can’t prosper if half his customers are leagues across the sea from each other and locked in bitter conflict.”
From their position on the rather tall hill, Mr. Brinks and Mr. Withers observed the streaming masses escaping the flames. There were so many of all ages; men and women; Old scoundrels who’d seen so much, terrified youth that had likely never ventured far from their mothers bosom, all coal black with soot and dirt. Some had their clothes burnt right off their backs but they walked just the same as everyone else, to hell with their shame. Of course, these were just the street raff or those too poor or uneducated to realize they needed to leave. Mr. Brinks had no doubt that his representatives in the house had vanished as soon as they heard the invaders boats were bottoming out on the beaches.
Years passed for the budding American country and its former master on the other side of the Atlantic. The tension was there, lying under the surface of every diplomatic tryst, but there were closer and far more dangerous predators for Britain. France’s revolution had seen a country tear itself apart and be rebuilt in the image of a Corsican. How mighty the French had become with their Emperor and his Grande Armèe. Britain needed another way. Trafalgar had checked the French but it wasn’t enough, the French Empire must starve if they were going to ever truly be humbled.
The wind pushed a fresh wave of heat towards the two observers, acrid smoke and other horrid smells that accompanied a burning city assaulted their senses. The wisps curled up into their noses and singed their nostrils. Mr. Withers wiped at a dab of blackened snot that ran from his beaky nose, “Do you think there was any way to avoid this?” Mr. Brinks stood there, feeling the heat, the smoke, the death press in on him from the city he’d been born in. He contemplated a newspaper he’d seen just a few weeks prior, “Do you think man an impulsive creature?” Mr. Withers turned to him, tearing his eyes away from the inferno, “what was that?”
Mr. Brinks continued, “I’d read just recently of a British Captain whose name escapes me,” a stream of fleeing civilians began making their way up towards Mr. Brinks and Mr. Withers. Mr. Brinks felt the slightest pang of reproach, it was his hill and he had gotten here first. Before the distraught mass began the climb, they moved around the base, foregoing the hill all together. Pushing any thoughts for the survivors to the back of his mind, he continued his story, “I don’t remember the captain but I remember the ship, The Leopard. You see, the good captain of the Leopard was doing his duty and enforcing the Orders of Council and they had come across an American ship, the Chesapeake. A frigate doing god knows what though I suspect the captain was doing his own ordained duty, same as the Leopards.” A distant neigh signaled a water wagons arrival, six strong men encircled it, ready to do what little they could against such hateful nature. A line of soldiers, the same from the skirmish Mr. Brinks and his companion had witnessed earlier, halted the convoy short of a burning warehouse. The distance and noise too great to ever know what was said but the soldiers, still shades against the burning hell around them, leveled muskets. The water wagon and its escort departed.
Mr. Brinks continued, “Britain needed men, and a frigate full of Americans seemed a ripe plum to pick indeed.” Mr. Brinks paused a moment to think on the possibilities, the what-if’s, the maybe’s and the should have been’s; it all seemed almost too much. “Of course no American would let himself be taken peacefully, or at least I would hope not, and a great melee swirled between the two devils.” Mr. Withers found some irony in his friend’s description of two ships at sea being called devils as a countries’ capital burned in front of them. This is where the real devils reside now thought Mr. Withers. Mr. Brinks continued none the wiser, “The Leopard finally got the upper hand and boarded the American ship. The frigate was overwhelmed and the Leopard’s Captain offered amnesty for impressment and do you know what the American Captain did?” An explosion somewhere off in the city punctuated the question.
“He spat on the Leopard’s Commander!” Mr. Brinks gave a dry cough and chocked out a halfhearted laugh.
“That sounds appropriate given the situation, doesn’t it?” Mr. Withers chuckled. A horse ran by, smoke trailing from its burned flanks. The air that wafted up from it forced Mr. Brink back to that day on the docks, the men they pulled from the water and those they didn’t…
“Well, needless to say, the heated emotions prevailed and the British slaughtered the Americans to a man.”
“How did this news make its way back to America and Britain then?” inquired Mr. Withers.
“Bloody hell should I know how it got back, it just did.” Mr. Brinks paused a moment, that was a devious question, just how had that news reached the mainland? “Likely, one or more of the men from the Leopard spat off about it to someone they shouldn’t have and the story caught on very much like the fire we are watching right now.”
Mr. Withers grunted his approval of the assumption, “Do you think we could have been capable of doing something like this? Something this monstrous?”
Mr. Brinks stood for a long time watching the city collapse in on itself as more people materialized from the flames. The soldiers and their incendiaries were approaching the hill the two men were sharing. As they closed on his position Mr. Brinks could at last make out their cobalt blue uniforms. He could finally hear the brutish colonial accent as the officers gave orders. The Americans are coming he thought the Americans are here. Mr. Brinks thought that perhaps he had an answer for his eternally inquisitive friend, “The British people are an honorable bunch, we tried to fight the colonists on fair terms and they engage us with the savages’ rules of war. We issue fair and necessary embargoes in a time of conflict and they ignore it. No, my old friend, I do not think the leaders of our good nation would ever have the heart to burn an entire city to the ground.”
“You should go into politics, I’m sure there will be a few seats in the house left vacant after this.” Mr. Withers smirked.
Mr. Brinks guffawed, “I must say the thought has tempted me more than once, I have the resources and contacts but there is one issue that would likely cause me a great deal of trouble.”
Mr. Withers raised an inquisitive eyebrow, “and what might that be?”
An American officer and two men marched at the two old friends, weapons and saber raised defensively, “Be you combatants?” The officer asked. Mr. Brinks noted he was quite young. “Young lad, we are just a couple of miserly businessmen watching you Americans bungle everything up.” Mr. Withers smiled broadly, his porcelain teeth reflecting the yellows and red of the fire. The Officer ignored the jest, “Well, I need you two gentlemen to vacate this hill, my commander requires it for strategic advantage on the chance you redcoats decide to counter attack, so go on or we will be forced to arrest you.”
Mr. Brinks stared off into the distance, a parting of the cloying smoke revealed Westminster to him. It, too, was aflame. “If the roles were reversed in some way and the Americans, in their youthful brashness, had done something to the extent that his Majesty’s captain had done on that frigate…” He paused, swallowing and grimacing from the dry pain of it, “I’d have thrown the first damn torch to burn the District of Columbia to ash.” Mr. Withers grunted again, his demeanor cooled once more. Then, before the soldiers pushing them to leave decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to let them go, both men turned to leave and London continued to burn.