The party is in full swing. There are quite a few people who’ve paired off to dance in the center of the room, though many more officers and ladies have scattered themselves about, taking advantage of the fine drinks and sweets that can be expected at any admiral’s party. The whole room is bathed in light, the chandelier lit brightly above them. On one end of the room is a roaring fireplace, where several couples have congregated, laughing loudly at some officer’s old war story. On the other end is a new German Christmas tree, sitting proudly atop a table with candles burning hot on each stem. A few of the ladies have stopped there, huddled together as they gossip or catch up with old friends.
James estimates that about eighty-or-so people are in attendance, all in little clusters around the room. He’s circled the floor nine times in the past hour, indulging in conversation only as far as politeness dictates, before making some excuse and half-empty promise to speak again later before continuing to walk. His cane helps ward off any possible dance partners. Those already dancing are farthest from any of the flames, though they’re also farthest from the only two exits.
The larger set of doors - the one they were all ushered in through when the party began - is along the wall next to the fireplace. The smaller set, which James has only seen servants go through, is located on the neighboring wall of the tree’s. They have more luck if a candle tips forward, then; even if the tree is set alight, they may be able to rush in an orderly fashion to the main doors, or even douse the flames if the servants can dash to the nearest water source in time.
There’s a loud bang! to his left, in the direction of the tree. A gunshot, or the pop of wood snapping- No, a young couple laughing over a cracker toy by a tray of cakes on the table. James isn’t the only one who’s jumped at the sound - though most of them are laughing good-naturedly at the joke. James keeps a white-knuckled grip on his cane, his heart pounding against his ribs.
Of course, if any of the ladies near the tree fail to notice the flames in time, things will escalate quickly. There are much more ribbons and lace in the current fashions than James is used to. They remind him of a rocket’s fuse, burning up slowly, before reaching the end and igniting. Silk burns so quickly. Quite a few sailors wore dresses to Carnivale, though even they tied them loosely, without nearly as many layers as these ladies do. It’s difficult enough taking a dress off of a woman with her helping you and not on fire.
The fireplace worries him the most. He keeps close track of how close the women’s skirts are to the flames, how many layers they would need to remove to save them. It is possible, perhaps, as long as somebody can keep them calm. If a set of skirts is set ablaze, the woman in question might move in a panic and set something else on fire. If she herself is on fire, it would spread even faster, and that main exit may be lost entirely.
Panic would ensue, as the party-goers push and shove at each other. Injuries would be likely from falling or trampling. The servant’s doors aren’t anywhere near big enough to accommodate them all. There’s a blushing couple standing in front of it now, a sprig of mistletoe above them as they lean toward each other, taking advantage of the crowd’s (and their chaperone’s) diverted attention to block their last exit. The Christmas tree may fall as well, all of the candles tumbling over, and the other half of the room would soon be set slight.
The attendees start clapping suddenly. James absentmindedly follows suit, as the dancing stops with the music. Their party’s host stands in front of the fireplace to address them all, the crowd clapping and cheering at the appropriate places. James, if asked, would have no idea what he’s saying. He watches the admiral, silhouetted in front of the flames that are much too close to him. A bead of sweat travels down his own back at the heat, even as James stands several feet away at the edge of the crowd.
Maintaining order is the most important thing, if they’re all to escape in one piece. A calm and orderly exit may take some time, so smoke inhalation is a major concern. They’ll all have to keep themselves close to the ground, then, possibly crawling toward the exit. James isn’t sure how far away an escape outside the building is down that door, but in the worst scenario, they’ll have to try. It may be too far away to reach before the flames start taking over other rooms.
The admiral gestures in the band’s direction beside him. It’s a slow tune, unfamiliar to James. He realizes that it’s one of the new carols once the crowd starts to sing. They’re horribly out of tune, a cacophony of Christmas cheer, swaying along with the melody and the wine in their hands. They sing of angels and the Christ child while James remembers a rosy-cheeked lieutenant singing a ridiculous song about Hampstead with his paper-mache wings lopsided on his back. They weren’t on fire, but James imagines that they were.
If the whole wing of the building starts burning, then everyone will well and truly panic, screaming and shouting above the flames’ roar. There aren’t nearly enough doors, but there is a long line of tall windows on the wall opposite the main entrance. James can see the men taking chairs and tables in an attempt to smash the windows open, but the air would only make the flames rise higher and faster, possibly dooming anyone who doesn’t simply throw themselves against the glass. They might just injure themselves in the attempt, perhaps fatally, and it would all be for naught.
Anyone not against the wall is on fire by now. He supposes more ladies than men will burn, as their skirts would get in the way of any shoving in the throng of people and are far more attractive to the fire. This may be a room filled with gentlemen, though James knows better than to believe that panic and fear will encourage civility, or remind them that ladies are to be let out first when the flames nip at their heels. James has never seen a woman’s face burned. He imagines that it is not at all different than a man’s, an unrecognizable mass of flesh, charred black and bloody, all of the finery in the world not enough to protect them from the flame, bright and hot and roaring as it burns them, burns them all whole, and there’s nothing James can do, they’re all burning and there’s nothing he can do, they’re screaming, they’re burning, they’re all dead-
“Captain Fitzjames,” says someone from very far away. Much closer is the screaming, the crackling of fire, the caroling.
“Captain,” says that same voice, still so dull and faint, “You look quite pale. Are you alright?”
James breathes in and tastes smoke.
“Sir.” A touch on his arm. A shove, a brand, the fire upon him, the men upon him, pushing and shoving and begging and oh, God.
The cane falls to the ground before he does. It clatters as his knees buckle, a few shouts breaking out around him, and James feels like he’s burning on the cold floor beneath him. He is in the Arctic and London all at once, yet nowhere at all, everything so very distant and painful.
A more familiar Irish lilt calls out, “James!” but he, too, feels blocked off from him. The world is burning around James, but there is a peace behind his eyelids. He lets himself succumb.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices! O night divine! O night when Christ was born...