I wrote this after reading about famous fire eaters and it appeared in a print magazine Tales of the Talisman. The names of the fire eaters in this are taken from two famous fire eaters from Georgian England. I also included a brief reference to Leigh Hunt, a famous, although mediocre poet. Hunt was running a newspaper at the time and shortly after this he was imprisoned for writing about the sexual excesses of the Prince of Wales. The title comes from a tone poem by the French poet Rimbaud.
See there! The clock of life has just stopped. I am no longer in the world – Theology is no joke, hell is certainly down below – and heaven above – Ecstasy, nightmare, slumber in a nest of flames. – Rimbaud
A Nest of Flames
By Keith P. Graham
Señor Antonio Lionetto threw down the paper in disgust. “A sensation they call her!” he barked at Mr. Beechum, his agent. “That is all she is – just a sensation.” The incombustible Señor Lionetto paced the floor, fuming. A wisp of smoke drifted from his nostrils even though his cigar lay dead in the tray. “I am no mere sensation. I am a legend!”
“I wouldn’t worry about a thing Mr. Lionetto” answered Beechum. (Beechum pronounced it lion-etto in his north country accent.) “They say the King himself asked about your show, just the other day. I expect you’ll be invited over to Buckingham Palace any day now.”
Beechum picked up Lionetto’s copy of the November 23, 1815 issue of The Examiner. “The editor is only interested in sensationalism. He takes the most ordinary events and colors them with purple prose. Here, listen to this.”
“I have read it already.”
“No, listen – ‘The Asbestos Signorina’, he calls her. I suppose that Leigh Hunt fellow fancies himself a poet and the phrase appeals to him. ‘Josephine Girardelli caused veritable sensation on her arrival from the continent.’ I happen to know she was born in Liverpool.”
Lionetto was literally fuming. A haze of smoke drifted after him as he paced back and forth. “She is fraud and uses cheap tricks. Can she breathe fire as I? I doubt it. Can she bathe in flames? I think not! Can she endure the fires of hell? Impossible!”
He threw down the paper on the sideboard. A thin line of smoke appeared over it and Beechum poured some water from a vase onto the charring corner of the Examiner.
There was a knock on the door and a voice from the other side growled “Two Minutes”.
“Now Señor, you’ve got to get ready for the show. I hear there are some men from the London Mirror and the Weekly Dispatch in the gallery today. There’s no sense not doing you best when this woman is right down the road trying to steal your audience.”
Beechum’s words only inflamed the volatile Spaniard.
The curtain went up. As usual, Beechum was standing at the back of the house so he could watch the act and gauge the audience.
Lionetto came on stage with a fanfare. The band played a popular Spanish waltz while Lionetto pointed at things on stage. As he pointed, a potted plant, an urn, a bust of Caesar and a stuffed lamb burst into flames. An army of small boys ran around the stage with buckets putting out fires. They ran into each other, fell down, and wound up getting as much water on themselves as on the fires, much to the amusement of the audience. Finally, several boys converged on Lionetto and tossed the contents of their buckets on him. The buckets, however, contained a mixture of naphtha and benzene. Lionetto burst into blue and yellow flames. Two young men ran from behind the curtain and immediately threw a blanket onto him to dowse the fire.
The orchestra played a ta-da, the audience burst into enthusiastic applause, and Señor Lionetto took a well-deserved bow. All the boys ran to the front of the stage, pushing and shoving each other to take their own bows and ham a little more for the audience.
Beechum felt a nudge and turned to see a tall thin man with a dark wooly beard. The two men looked at each other for a moment in amazement and then each reached for the other. They shook each other’s hands enthusiastically.
“Beechy!” the tall man said, “fancy meeting you here.”
“Marcus Random! As I live and breathe, I haven’t seen you in ages. What brings you to London? The last time I heard you were working through Ireland with that dog act.”
“I’m manage seven acts, now, Beechy. I’ve graduated to a promoter. I’ve come to take a look at that Lionetto chap. I want to check out his work – see what I could learn.”
“That Lionetto chap is mine!” Beechum said proudly. “I found him on a street corner in Chelsea and I’ve brought him right up to the first class houses. He’s my pride and joy, he is.”
“The boys running around like clowns, is it? I can spy out your hand in that. Now that I know, I can read Beechum all over it.”
Lionetto had finished making his speech and introduced several of the boys. As he pointed to them, smoke rose from their hair or clothing and the other boys threw water on the unlucky victim.
Beechum beamed at the praise from an old friend. “What might I have seen of your work?” he asked Random. “What theatres are you working?”
“Well, that’s why I’m here. My best act just opened down the road.”
Beechum’s smile turned to a strained grimace. The audience was hushed, making ooh-ing and ah-ing noises as Lionetto juggled five flaming hoops.
“You don’t mean… You manage… Down the street…”
“Yes, I’m handling the Asbestos Signorina.” he put his hand up aside his face in a conspiratorial gesture, “Jane O’Dell, is her real name.”
“But down the street from me!”
“It was all we could get. Don’t you think that I know enough not to split the audience?” Random protested. “Never give the audience an alternative. No less a man than you taught me that rule. I don’t want to have someone come down the street and have to decide between two shows that are almost the same thing. Each house will wind up half empty.”
“You should have thought about that before they signed you on!” Beechum was turning fiery red.
The audience burst into applause as the hoops that Lionetto was juggling exploded into thousands of red stars.
“I’m sorry Beechy, I did not know it was your act, or I would have waited until something better came along.” Beechum relaxed. Random was a good man and he thought that the apology was sincere. Lionetto was reaching the end of his run here, anyway.”
“In any case, I had this idea.” Random said a little shyly.
“What?” asked Beechum without thinking.
“I thought that a little rivalry might sell a few tickets.”
Beechum thought about this. There was a burst of applause and he turned his head towards Lionetto for a moment. The man was holding his hands out to a flaming ball that smoked and sputtered about 8 feet off the ground. As he gestured, the ball moved out over the audience, lighting the faces below with an orange glow.
Beechum turned back to Random. He was about to explain his objections when there was a woman’s scream from one of the rows near the stage. Both men turned towards the stage.
A woman was standing up directly under the ball of flame. She was a tall dark woman, dressed in the flowing toga-like robes that were the current fashion. Her dark hair, piled high on her head was on fire shooting up bright blue flames with golden sparks. A man took off his jacket in order to throw it on her. A nearby woman fainted. The flaming woman leapt to the aisle and ran towards the stage. As she ran, her hair flared in red and then green and then began to exude a thick yellow smoke.
“Excuse me old man.” Random said to Beechum. He stepped a few paces down the aisle and announced loudly: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Josephine Girardelli, the Asbestos Signorina, the Fireproof Maiden!”
The Asbestos Signorina threw a cup of some liquid directly onto the stage floor. It burst into waist high flames. She jumped into the middle of it and began to move with a sinuous rhythm. A sharp-witted oboe player in the orchestra began to play an eastern sounding melody line in coordinated with her movements and the audience began to clap in time.
Lionetto stepped forward and with one gesture of his hand, the flames disappeared. The music stopped and the clapping came to a ragged end.
“Get off of my stage!” Señor Lionetto ordered pointing at the woman. The Asbestos Signorina walked slowly towards the tall figure, rolling her hips, and as she walked, pieces of her robe fell on the floor. There were hushed voices as the audience reacted. The women twittered and the men made appreciative comments. Josephine stopped a few feet from Lionetto wearing nothing but a light petticoat.
You could hear Lionetto’s heavy breathing, even in the back of the theatre, as it passed through his clenched teeth.
Josephine rubbed her hands up her body, across her breasts and down her arms in a slow caress. Suddenly, she raised her arms above her head, snapped her fingers and a thin blue flame raced down her hands and arms and lit the stage with an actinic glow.
Lionetto snapped his fingers and the flame went out. Josephine made a gesture as if tossing a ball and sphere of red lightning shot towards the man. Instead of dodging the ball of flame, he caught it with one hand, and threw it into the air. As it passed over his head, he breathed on it. A huge wave of orange flame engulfed the red ball and it puffed into a smoky cloud that soon dissipated.
It was Lionetto’s turn to attack. He gestured with his arms, as though asking something to rise, and flames shot from the floor just in front of Josephine. He summoned them with the motion of his arms and the flames rose up in a wall of churning yellow light, blocking Josephine. He stepped towards the woman and the flames moved forward with him. The Asbestos Signorina stepped back and Lionetto took another step forward. The flames were pushing her off the stage. The audience gasped in awe.
The Asbestos Signorina motioned towards the orchestra and the leader nodded. Beechum gave Random a questioning look.
“Sorry, old man, but you must remember that you taught me everything I know. I tipped the bandleader a few bob before the show.” Random said.
The band started playing a Hungarian dance that had just hit the music halls. It started slowly, but increased in tempo at every bar.
Josephine rolled her hips in time to the music. The flames moved with her, swaying from side to side. She stepped forward and the undulating flames followed the movement of her body. The music sped up slightly and Josephine’s hips kept up with the timing. The flames danced along. She took another step forward and it was Lionetto’s turn to step back.
As Lionetto stepped back, he gestured with his arms again. The flames moved and wove back in forth in time to the rhythm of the romantic dance, but did not recede. Josephine stepped forward and the flames move with her.
Lionetto took a bottle from his jacket and filled his mouth. With a powerful exhalation produced a great flow of purple fire that struck the dancing yellow flames and merged with them. The two colors wrapped around each other in a sensual coil, merging and separating in time to the quickening pace of the music.
Josephine threw a ball of red flame into the mix, as did Lionetto, and the bonfire of bright passionate colors rose high above the stage.
The man and woman each took a step towards the flame. They took another step. They were touching the flame, now. It lit their sweaty faces in a multihued glow. They reached towards each other. Each wanted to stop the other. Each wanted control of the heat. They held their hands as though to grasp the flames, or were they reaching to caress?
There was a sharp whistle and some shouts at the back of the room. A dozen uniformed men burst into the theatre at almost the same instant. All the men were carrying buckets. Beechum realized that someone must have called the fire brigade when the Girardelli woman had first set herself on fire. Some idiot yelled “Fire!”, as though surprised to see the flames, and the audience, all of them obviously descended from cows, jumped to their feet and ran for the exits. The fire brigade reached the stage and a dozen buckets of muddy river water were pitched at the flames just as the fiery pair touched each other.
Thick steam filled the air as the flames died. The two performers stepped back gasping from the cold splashed water. The Asbestos Signorina realized that the water caused her thin petticoat to reveal much more than she wanted to display and she scrambled to find her robes. Lionetto began to curse loudly in a Cockney accent that revealed the secret of his origins.
Beechum turned to Random, a twinkle in his eye and said, “I think that we may have stumbled upon something here.”
Random smiled, shook Beechum’s hand, and offered him a cigar, which Beechum accepted gladly. “Do you have a light?” he asked.
When Beechum made it back to the Lionetto’s dressing room, the house manager was standing there with his mouth open, but not saying anything. Lionetto, still dripping wet, was cursing the man out in several languages with a wonderful expertise, although the Cockney accent was no longer present.
“But,” the manager managed to say, but Lionetto began to describe the man’s heritage starting with his mother and working around to his sisters and daughters.
“But,” the man said again.
“Lionetto!” yelled Beechum to get his attention. “What’s going on here?”
The fire-eater wiped his face with a damp towel.
“Sacked! We’ve been sacked! This…” he ran off a series of expletives in perfect French that described a sequence of unnatural acts with animals, “has just informed me that our services will no longer be required. As if I was a stable boy who had fallen asleep on the job. I’ve been sacked!”
“But sir, the Fire Society has refused to cover the theatre as long as you are here!” the manager managed to get it all out in one long breath before Lionetto could continue with his expletives.
Beechum let Lionetto vent. He said, “We’ll be gone in a few minutes, tell the owners.” into the manager’s ear. While Lionetto described the Fire Brigades in a very articulate Italian dialect, Beechum gathered up the wardrobe, makeup and work papers scattered around the room. When Lionetto paused for a breath, Beechum said, “I’ll pay of the brats and arrange to move the props back into storage.” By the time they went down the back stairs to the alley, Lionetto’s rage was reduced to shaking his head and muttering.
Beechum escorted Lionetto through the back streets of London to an out of the way alley. Lionetto’s boarding house was a dismal place with a leaky roof, and rooms that stank of mildew and chamber pots. Beechum settled the performer into his room with a bottle of brandy and a promise to return that evening to discuss their options.
Random was waiting for Beechum in a neat little public house in the theatre district. Seated next to him, was a young woman with bright red hair and a freckled face. She was attacking a plate of bangers and mash that took up most of the table. Random stood up and motioned for Beechum to take a seat.
“Mr. Robert Beechum, meet Jane O’Dell, better known as Josephine Girardelli, the Fireproof Maiden. Jane, meet my old master and good friend, Robert Beechum.”
“Please to meet you.” Jane said, her mouth partially full of potatoes and offered her hand, while her other hand scooped around on the plate with a spoon.
“Charmed, Miss O’Dell, charmed.” answered Beechum.
“Sit down, Beechy.” Random said and turning around in his seat was able to order another pitcher of Lager.
“I was discussing with Jane about the possibility of a joint show, a kind of a contest between Lionetto and herself.”
“I don’t know, he’s bleeding good at popping up a spark.” Jane said between swallows. “I’ve got a few tricks, but I think that this here Lion chap might have a trick or two on me.”
“Nonsense,” Random said, “It’s all just showmanship. It’s all an act. We’ll work it all out in advance.”
“No, the girl has a point. Lionetto has been performing for nearly twelve years. The King of France gave him a medal when he was just 27 and the Queen of Spain asked him to come back five times. The girl is a talented beginner, but I think it would be obvious to the audience who was in command.”
Jane felt that it was time to defend herself. “Like he was in command just now at the Sans Souci Theatre?” Jane asked. “I tell you, he was surprised at first, especially that I put one over on him so quick, but I held my own, I did. His tricks were good, but nothing I couldn’t handle.”
Beechum thought for a moment. On stage with a dark wig and stage makeup, he had thought Josephine Girardelli to be at least thirty-five years old. From her poise and confidence, he would never have guessed that she was a girl not much over 20.
“It might work. That was quite a performance that you two put on.”
“It weren’t no act. Him and me, we had at it good. I never met a man who could call a flame so well, but I bet he never met a woman who was such a sparker.” Jane laughed at her own pun and some mashed potato made it to the table.
Beechum folded his hands and tried to picture Lionetto’s reaction, “I don’t think the Señor Lionetto will agree, at least not without a clear understanding and a good chunk of the money. He’s a proud man.”
“I concede that he should get top billing. He is a legendary performer. Before him, fire-eaters were clowns at a carnival. He created the art, as Jane will concede.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s got a great act there. I picked up a few pointers just in the few minutes that I watched him.”
“But Jane now,” Random continued, “has got the youth and the energy and appeal to a different audience. She can bring in customers who would never dream of buying a ticket to see Lionetto.”
“It’s that shift I wear. All the men like it. In the bright lights it looks kind of see-through.” She giggled. She looked up at the two men who were staring at her in surprise. “It’s thick as a wool coat, it just gives that impression. My mother raised me right, you know.”
“Well anyway,” said Random, “She brings in half the crowd and she gets half the cut.”
“Less our little piece.” smirked Beechum.
Random placed his finger aside his nose and smiled, raising his mug. Beechum knocked his mug into Random’s and the two men drank deep. Jane went to work on the bangers.
That evening a slightly tipsy Beechum and Random rounded the turn to the alley where Lionetto’s boarding house lay slumped behind the river road. A heavy rain had started and neither man had remembered his umbrella. Jane walked between the men, keeping them centered on the path and warning them of obstacles. They carried with them a large jug of brandy, which was mostly still full. Their intention was to convince Lionetto that there should be a contest of fire at an early date that would feature the two as competing acts with a finale that would reproduce the conflagration at the Sans Souci Theatre.
As they walked up to the front door, it burst open and a young man ran out, falling down the steps. His hair was charred and smoldering. Where his eyebrows used to be were red burns.
“Keep him off of me, I didn’t do nothing.” The man yelled as he got up and limped down the road.
An angry Señor Antonio Lionetto appeared at the door. Smoke was pouring from his ears and the cloth of his topcoat steamed.
“Where is that churl?” he growled. “I’ll kill him!”
“Tony, Tony,” said Beechum soothingly, “He’s gone. He ran down the street howling. What did you do to the poor boy?”
“I put the fear of hellfire in him. He had the nerve to tell me I was washed up.”
“I should have never placed him in an actor’s boarding house.” Beechum said in an aside to Random, and the louder to Lionetto, “Philistines, my friend. They are nothing but Philistines, jealous of your talent and position in the arts.”
“I am surrounded by hacks and no talent hooligans in this place. I’m moving out as soon as I can find new accommodations.”
Beechum could tell that Lionetto had been drinking. He was a large man, though with huge resources, and he would need a bit more brandy before he could be talked into anything that was against his better nature.
“I’ve brought some brandy and some friends, Tony. Let’s sit in the parlor and talk.”
Señor Lionetto cleared the parlor with one black look. The half a dozen performers who didn’t have parts in that evening’s shows were sitting around an iron coal stove. They practically ran out of the room on spying Lionetto. One old man hesitated, looking at the jug of brandy covetously, but he left at a second glance from the fire-eater.
Lionetto calmed down after the first drink. Jane was far more charming than her table manners at the public house could ever have indicated. She laughed at his jokes and touched his arm and giggled when he complimented her. Strangely, she seemed sincere in her admiration of the man. One time Random caught Beechum’s eye and winked, while Lionetto and Jane were head to head in some discussion of the flash points of various kinds of paper. Lionetto seemed to have no idea that Jane was the elegant opponent that he had struggled with on the stage.
The Asbestos Signorina did not partake of the brandy, but babbled on about many subjects include the chemistry of fire with great knowledge that left Antonio Lionetto impressed. She did not refer to herself and he suspected nothing until, but when discussing using benzene as carrying agent for turpentine or naphtha, she said, “As soon as you sprayed that fire on the stage I knew it was naphtha, I could smell it, that’s why I used the wood alcohol. It cuts the naphtha clean as a whistle and it has such a nice blue flame.”
The sudden awkward silence took Jane by surprise. She looked at the grim faces of Random and Beechum and realized her mistake. She had thought that Lionetto knew her identity.
Finally, Lionetto said in a low voice, “That was you?”
“I was wearing my high wig and all, I look a lot different all made up for the stage.” She said meekly as though to apologize. “We were good together, I thought. We made a fine pair, each of us with our own fires. It kind of worked right nicely, don’t you think.”
Smoke began to rise from Lionetto’s hair.
“Now, no sense in getting you temper up.” She said a little more strongly, “It came off well, except of course for the end. Not the way I would have ended it.” She laughed, “The water was a shock.”
Jane looked deep into Lionetto’s smoldering eyes and smiled. “You were good. You and me, we’ve got the spark. I never met another who could call the flames like that.” She said, “You were the best.”
She looked down and blushed.
A change came over Lionetto. He was still angry, that was obvious, but he was not angry with the girl. He stood up and threw his glass into the corner where the splashed brandy flamed briefly and then died out. He opened his mouth to say something to Beechum and then shut his mouth. Jane’s presence gave him pause. He did not know how to react. He stormed out of the room and the stomping of his heavy boots could be heard through the damp walls as he climbed the stairs.
Beechum and Random stood up. Beechum intended to follow the man upstairs and try to salvage some of his relationship. Random reached for his hat.
“Wait,” said Jane, “I’ll speak to him.” Before either man could stop her, she ran from the room following Lionetto up to his room.
“Well, Beechy, this is quite a turn. I wonder what this all means.” Random poured himself another brandy for himself and Beechum.
Beechum accepted gracefully with a nod and said, “I feel like a smoke. It has stopped raining, I think and I can’t stand the smell of this place another minute.”
Random reached over, grabbed Beechum’s hat and handed it to him. “I think I could use some air, myself.”
They stood across the street from the boarding house and enjoyed the sharp flavor of their cigars. They could hear no shouting from across the street, so either Jane was dead or she had charmed Lionetto enough to have a reasonable discussion with him.
“I think she can do it.” said Random.
“I think that she can convince him to join her. The two are much more interesting together than apart.”
“He’s had some bad experiences with women. His first wife left him and then the second tried to kill him. I think he’s wary of women.”
“That just goes to prove that he has no sense when it comes to the fair sex. I wager that she is bending him around her little finger right now.”
“I don’t know about that, he has his ways. Most women find him quite irresistible.”
“The both of them… They’re hot blooded, that’s what they are.”
“This should be interesting. Say, do you think that the beer at that public house is any good?”
“I tried the porter once, and it wasn’t bad. I think it might take a second test, though, to be certain.”
They were nearly through the third mug of beer when they noticed the commotion on the street. There was yelling and the police whistles started to call. By the time that the two men made it around the corner to the boarding house, the fire brigade was pumping water onto the boarding house. The second floor was engulfed in flames.
They watched helplessly as the brigade was able to put out the fire with the help of the London rain.
Beechum asked a few of the bystanders if everyone had made it out alive, but no one knew. He finally asked a member of the brigade who was coming down the front steps of the charred building. “Did everyone make it out?”
“There’s two of them dead on the second floor that didn’t make it.” The fireman said shaking his head. “A shame, but I guess they didn’t hear the alarms.” The fireman turned to look at the building and continued, “The fire’s all in one room practically. That’s where we found them. The old place was so damp that there weren’t hardly anything that could burn. ”
“How did it start?” asked Random, afraid to hear the answer.
“Smoking in bed I’d say, but you can’t be sure.”
Beechum and Random climbed the rickety old steps and went down the hall. The room of the fire was obvious. They had used axes to get through the door. It was dark in the room and the charcoal on the walls, floor and ceiling absorbed all of the light.
Random lit a match. He held it up and high and turned slowly until he faced the iron bed. There were two bodies on the bed. The men knew who they were, but the bodies were burned now beyond recognition. It was painfully obvious from the position of the bodies, the placement of the hands, the angle of the limbs, what was going on when they died.
“My God!’ said Beechum in shock.
Random turned from the scene and sobbed.
“It was too much, I think.”
“What?” asked Beechum as the match died.
“Some people shouldn’t… they can’t… It’s too much.”
A young reporter, notebook in hand came down the hall, sidling to look into the room, but obviously afraid of what he would see.
“I hear it was smoking in bed.” he said. “It was that Lionetto fellow and a lady friend, they told me.”
“Yes, smoking.” said Random.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire, they say.” The reporter said.
“Yes, fire.” said Random.
“More than just fire,” corrected Beechum. “It was the heat of passion.”
The flaming match in Random’s hand went out.