Chapter XLI. Scenes Never to be Forgotten
 

When George Houghton reached his father's room he heard Jube fairly howling in the darkness, and the old man groaning heavily.

"Father," cried the young man, "you are not hurt?"

"Oh, George, thank God, you have again escaped! This is an earthquake, isn't it?"

"It must be, and I must take you out to some open space at once. Jube, shut up, and keep your senses. If you don't help me I'll break your bones."

Groping about he found a match and lighted a candle.

"Oh, George, you are hurt. Your face is covered with blood!" cried Mr. Houghton.

"Slight cuts only. Come, father, there may be another shock, and it will not be safe to dress you here. Let me wrap you in blankets, and then Jube and I will carry you to Marion Square. I will come back for your clothes."

This they proceeded to do, Mr. Houghton meanwhile protesting, "No, George, you shall not come back." Then he asked a moment or two later, "Why do you take me out at the side door?"

"It will be safer," George replied, not wishing to explain that the pillared and massive portico was in ruins.

As they passed the front of the house, however, Jube groaned, "Oh, Lawd! de porch dun smashed!"

"This is awful, my boy!" ejaculated Mr. Houghton. "Oh, this dreadful city! this dreadful city!"

"The worst is over, I think. Brace up, Jube. If you are so anxious to save your life, step lively."

"Jes hear de people holler," cried Jube, trembling so he could scarcely keep his hold, and he gave a loud, sympathetic yell himself.

"Stop that," said George sternly. "Oh, Dr. Devoe, I am so glad to see you," he added, as the physician came running up. "You are a godsend."

"I was passing near," explained the physician, "and, being a bachelor, can think of my patients first. Jube, if you yell again I'll cuff you. Be a man now and we'll all soon be safe."

They joined the throngs which were gathering on the square, and Mr. Houghton was tenderly placed upon the grass. "Doctor, you and Jube will stay with him while I get articles for his comfort;" and before his father could again interpose George was off at full speed.

"He will come out all right," said Dr. Devoe soothingly. "Never fear for George."

But when the second roll of subterranean thunder was heard, and the cries and lamentations of the people were redoubled, the old man wrung his hands and groaned, "Oh, why did you let him go?" After the quiver passed he sat up and strained his eyes in the direction from which he hoped again to see his son. The house was not far away, and George soon appeared staggering under a mattress, with bedding, clothing, and other articles essential to the comfort and safety of his father. Jube, under the doctor's assurances, was beginning to rally from his terror, and between them they speedily made the old man comfortable.

As George was arranging the pillows his father said, "God forgive me for being so obdurate, my boy. I know where your thoughts are. Go and help her if you can."

With heartfelt murmured thanks the young man kissed his father, and bounded away.

Ella Bodine and her father were truly in sore trouble. A few minutes before ten, Mrs. Bodine's delicate and enfeebled organization succumbed to the heat and closeness of the air, and she suddenly swooned. Ella in alarm summoned her father and old Hannah, and all were engaged in applying restoratives when they too were appalled by the hideous sound which gave such brief and terrible warning of the disaster. The veteran, who sat by the bedside, chafing his cousin's wrists with spirits, barely had time to get on his crutches when he was thrown violently to the floor, while Ella, with a wild cry, fell across the bed. Then, in expectation of instant death, they listened with an awe too great for expression to the infernal uproar, the crash of falling objects, the groaning and grinding of the swaying house, and above all to the voice of the deep, subterranean power which appeared to be rending the earth.

Most fortunately the gas was not extinguished, and when it was still again, Ella rushed to her father, and exclaimed as she helped him up, "Oh, papa, what is this?"

"De Jedgmen Day," said a quivering voice.

Bodine's face was very white, but his iron nerves did not give way. "Ella," he said firmly, "you must keep calm and do as I say. It is an earthquake. Since the house stands we may hope to revive Cousin Sophy before taking her to the street. Come, Hannah, get up and do your best."

From her sitting posture on the floor, the old woman only answered in a low terrified monotone, "De Jedgmen Day."

"Oh, papa, she's just crazed, and we must do everything ourselves;" and, Ella, with trembling hands and stifled sobs, began to aid her father. "Oh, hear those awful cries in the street," she said after a moment. "Don't you think we should try to take cousin out?"

"If I were not so helpless!" Bodine groaned. "Hannah, wake up and help."

"De Jedgmen Day," was the only response.

"There is no use to look to her, papa. I'm strong. See, I can lift cousin, she is so light."

"No, Ella, it might injure you for life. If we could only partially revive her, and she could help you a little--There may not be another shock."

They worked on, growing more assured as the house remained quiet. Hannah was evidently crazed for the time being, for, deaf to all expostulations, she would not move, and kept repeating the terrible refrain.

"O God!" said Bodine in tones of the deepest distress, "to think that I cannot go to Mara!"

"Well, papa, you can't help it. Your duty is here. May God pity and save us all!"

At last the ominous rumble began again in the distance. Ella gave her father a startled look, and saw confirmation of her fear in his face. Old Hannah started up exclaiming, "De Lawd is comin' now shuah. I'se gwine ter meet Him," and she rushed away.

With another wild cry Ella lifted the form of her cousin in her arms, and, with a strength created by the emergency, staggered down the stairs to the door. Then a man saw and relieved her of her burden. Bodine with difficulty tried to follow, but could not during the brief shock. When all was still again he threw the bedding over his shoulder, went down and speedily checked Ella's wild cries that he should not delay.

The street was comparatively wide; the houses were not high, and they found themselves in the midst of a group of refugees like themselves--mothers sobbing over their babes, men caring for sick and fainting wives, and children standing by feeble and aged parents. Family servants crouched on the pavement beside their employers, and continually gave utterance to ejaculatory prayers which found sympathetic echoes in the stoutest hearts. Many were coming and going. The place seemed a partial refuge, yet the proximity of houses led one group after another to seek the open squares. In many instances rare fortitude and calmness were displayed. Here, as elsewhere throughout the city, frail women, more often than strong men, were patient and resigned in their Christian faith.

Ella supported Mrs. Bodine's head upon her lap, and others now aided in the effort to bring back consciousness. Fortunately, however, for the poor lady, she knew not what was passing.

Suddenly the group parted to make way for a hatless, coatless man, whose face was terribly disfigured with blood and dust. Nevertheless Ella recognized him with the glad cry, "Mr. Houghton!"

"Thank Heaven you are safe!" he gasped, panting heavily; and he gave his hand to Mr. Bodine.

"But you are injured," said the captain, in deep solicitude.

"No, nothing worth mentioning; merely cut and bruised. I came as soon as I had fixed my father safe in the square. I thought you might need help."

"Mr. Houghton, you are overwhelming us--"

"Please don't think and talk that way. God knows, a man should give help where it is most needed at such a time. This is Mrs. Bodine?"

"Yes, she fainted before the first shock. We have been unable to revive her. At the last shock my daughter carried her down."

"Miss Bodine!" exclaimed George in surprise and admiration.

She gave him a swift glance through her tears, and then, dropping her eyes, resumed her efforts to revive her cousin.

"You may well exclaim," said her father. "How she did it I do not know. Excitement gave strength, I suppose."

"Everything these kind friends and I can do for her seems useless," Ella faltered.

"Let me get my wind a little," said George, eagerly, "and I will carry her to the square, where my father is. A good physician is with him."

At this instant came a third and severer shock than the last, and with it the new terror which sickened the bravest. "O God," cried Ella, "will there be no respite?" Then observing for the first time the pillars of light and smoke rising at different points, she cried in still deeper fear, "Oh, papa, can those be volcanic fires?"

"No, no, my child."

"I saw a fire kindling in a deserted house as I came," George added excitedly. "Truly, Captain Bodine, this is no place for your family; or," turning to the groups near, "for you either, friends. Ah, see! there is a house almost opposite beginning to burn. Come;" and without further hesitation he lifted Mrs. Bodine and strode away.

Not only Ella and her father followed, but also the others, those who were the strongest supporting the feeble and injured.

They had gone but little way before Bodine said, "Ella, I must go and see if Mara has escaped. I cannot seek safety myself unless assured that she is safe."

"Oh, papa, it will be almost suicide for you to go through these streets alone."

"Ella, there are some things so much worse than death. If you and cousin were alone I would not leave you, but with a strong helper and a physician in prospect I must go. How could I look Mara in the face again if I made no effort in her behalf? Explain to Mr. Houghton."

He dropped behind, then turned up a side street and carefully yet quickly halted over and around the impediments strewn in the way.

Aware of the danger of delay, George went forward with a rapid stride. "Can you keep up?" he asked.

"Yes," Ella replied.

"We must get by and beyond these higher buildings. I have the horrible dread that they may fall on you any moment."

"You never seem to think of yourself, Mr. Houghton."

"I must now," he said after a moment or two. "Here is a corner at which we can rest, for there are no high buildings near;" and he sank on the ground with Mrs. Bodine still in his arms.

"Oh, you are killing yourself!" she cried in deep distress.

"Not at all, only resting. Where is your father?"

Ella explained and revealed her fears.

"I will go to his aid and Miss Wallingford's as soon as you and Mrs. Bodine are safe."

"Mr. Houghton, how can I--"

"By giving me the privilege of serving you, and by not making me miserable from seeing you burdened with a sense of obligation," he said quickly. "That is the one thing I have feared--that you would be unhappy because it has been my good-fortune--oh, well, you understand."

She did, better than he, for his swift coming to her aid had banished all doubt of him.

"Please understand, then, that I gratefully and gladly accept your chivalrous help. Have I not seen it given to the old and feeble before? Oh, these heart-rending cries! It seems to me that they will haunt me forever."

"Please support Mrs. Bodine a moment. That is a woman's scream just beyond us. She is evidently injured, and probably held fast in the ruins."

He ran to the spot, and found that a woman had been prostrated and partially buried by the bricks of a falling chimney. She had been unconscious for a time, but now, reviving, her agonized shrieks rose above the other cries. George spoke soothingly to her as he threw the bricks to right and left. She was evidently suffering the extremity of pain, for she again screamed and moaned in the most heart-rending way, although George lifted her as carefully as possible. Laying her down beside Mrs. Bodine he began in distressed perplexity, "What shall we do now? We cannot leave her here."

At this moment a group of negroes approached. One was carrying a little girl whom Ella immediately recognized as Vilet. Then she saw Sissy, the mother, carrying her youngest, and weeping hysterically, while the other children clung to her skirts. Uncle Sheba brought up the rear, fairly howling in his terror. The man carrying the child was Mr. Birdsall, who had called with old Tobe just before the first shock. The gray-woolled negro was walking beside his minister, uttering petitions and self-accusations. Old Tobe was comparatively alone in the world, without kith or kin. Mr. Birdsall, feeling that he owed almost an equal duty to his flock, had only stipulated that he should stop at his home for his wife and children. Happily they were unharmed, and were able to follow unaided; and so, like a good shepherd, he still carried the weakest of his lambs.

Ella called to them, and they paused. George, ever prompt in action, saw that old Tobe and Uncle Sheba were able to do more than use their lungs, and he sprang forward to press them into his service. Tobe readily yielded, but Uncle Sheba would do nothing but howl. In his impatience George struck him a sharp blow across the mouth, exclaiming, "Stop your infernal noise. If you are strong enough to yell that way you can do something better. Stop, I say, or I'll be worse than two earthquakes;" and he shook Uncle Sheba's howl into staccato and tremolo notes.

"Dere am no use foolin' wid dat niggah," said old Tobe.

"Howl, then, if you will, but help you shall;" and taking him by his shoulder, George pushed him beside Tobe, made the two form a chair with their hands, and put the woman into it, with her arms about the neck of each.

Taking up Mrs. Bodine he again went forward. The miserable little procession followed, Uncle Sheba mechanically doing his part, at the same time continuing to make night hideous by the full use of a pair of lungs in which was no rheumatic weakness. Motion caused the wretched woman renewed agony, and her shrieks mingled with his stentorian cries.

"Oh, this is horrible!" Ella said at George's side.

"It is indeed, Miss Bodine; yet how glad I am that you Have not been injured!"

"Oh, oh, I fear so greatly that my cousin will not live through this dreadful night; and my father, too, is facing unknown dangers!"

"This is an awful ill wind, Miss Bodine, but the fact that I can help you and yours gives me a deeper satisfaction than you can imagine."

She could not trust herself to answer, therefore was silent, and his thought was, "I must go slower on that tack, and not so close to the wind." The forlorn company eventually reached the square, and made their way to the place where George had left his father. As the old man saw his son, and comprehended his mission of mercy as well as love, he murmured, "God forgive me that it should require an earthquake to teach how much better is his spirit than mine," and his heart grew as tender as a mother's toward his boy.

Dr. Devoe, who was attending another patient not far away, came up hastily and eased the poor creature out of the negroes' hands to the ground.

He gave her some of the wine George had brought for his father, saying as he did so, "Try to be calm, now, madam. I am a physician, and will do all I can for you."

Mr. Houghton promptly sent Jube to the doctor with one of his pillows and part of his bedding, so the woman was made as comfortable as her condition permitted.

George laid Mrs. Bodine on the grass, and then with the scanty bedding Ella had carried, aided in making a resting-place not far from his father. He next lifted Mrs. Bodine's head into the girl's lap, and was about to turn his attention to Uncle Sheba, but was anticipated. Two men had taken him by the shoulders, one of them saying, "If you don't keep still we'll tie you under the nearest building and leave you there," and they began to march him off. At this dire threat Uncle Sheba collapsed and fell to the ground, where he was left.

Dr. Devoe divided his attention between the fatally injured woman and Mrs. Bodine, who under his remedies and the efforts of George and Ella soon revived. Mr. Houghton looked with wonder, pity, and some embarrassment at the small, frail form, and the white, thin face of one whom had characterized as "that terrible old woman." She seemed scarcely a shadow of what she had been on that former night, more terrible even that this one to the then stricken father. Now the son whom he had thought dead had carried her to his side, and was bending over her.

"Well, well," he muttered, "the ways of God are above and beyond me. I give up, I give up."

Then his eyes rested on Ella. He saw a face which even the dust of the streets could not so begrime as to hide its sweetness or its tenderness, as, with deep solicitude, she bent over her cousin. A conflagration raging near now began to flame so high that its lights flickered on the girl's face, etherealizing its beauty, and turning her fluffy hair to gold. She became like a vision to the old man, angelic, yet human in her natural sympathy. The thought would come, "I have fought like a demon to keep that face from bending over me in my feebleness and age. Truly God's ways are best."

Ella had only glanced at his pale, rugged face with awe and dread, and then had given all her thoughts to her cousin.

As the latter began to regain consciousness, she motioned George away, and with Dr. Devoe, sought to complete the work of restoration. To dazed looks and confused questions she replied merely with soothing words until the doctor said kindly, but firmly, "Mrs. Bodine, you are now safe, and as comfortable as we can make you. Do not try to comprehend what has happened. There are so many worse off who need attention--"

"There, there, doctor," Mrs. Bodine interrupted, with a flash of her old spirit, "no matter what's happened, I thank you for your attention. Please give it now to others."

"Doctor," said George, "I fear the little colored girl who came in with us is dying." They went to the spot where Sissy was pillowing Vilet's head against her breast. The physician made a brief examination, and heard how a brick had fallen on the child as they were getting her out, then said, "I'm sorry I can do nothing but alleviate her pain a little."

Turning away promptly he began, "See here, Houghton, I must go to the nearest drug-store and help myself if no one's there. Will you come with me? I shall need a lot of things, more than I can carry."

"I can't," George replied, "but here is the man that will, I think;" and he roused old Tobe who sat quietly near with his head buried in his hands.

"Sartin. I do wot I kin while de can'el hole out to burn," Tobe assented rising.

"That's right, my man, and you'll help other candles to hold out."

"Doctor, understand me," explained George, "I must go and search for Captain Bodine, who is wandering on crutches about the city," and he hastened to say a word to his father.

Ella saw him kneel by the old man, and then rise after a moment or two with such gladness in his face that even the blood and dust stains could not disguise it. Little wonder, for Mr. Houghton had said, "I'm conquered, George. I give all up--all my ambitious dreams about you. What dreams they now seem! This awful earthquake has shaken away everything except life, and the love which makes life worth anything. I've seen the girl, and I don't blame you. Go ahead."

"Oh, thanks, thanks. You'll never be sorry; but, father, please don't say anything to her about--about--Well, she don't know, and I must woo before I can hope to win."

"You needn't worry about me. I'm old enough to be wary," and the old man could not repress a grim smile. Then he added, "George, for mercy's sake, try to get the blood and dust off your face and find a coat. You look as if you had been through a prize-fight."

George explained the quest he was about to enter upon, and promised caution. Then he approached Ella. "Miss Bodine," he said, "I will now search for your father till I find him."

Again the girl could not trust herself to speak, but tears came into her eyes as she gave him her hand. He pressed it so hard as to leave a delicious ache, and hastened away.

"Good Lor! who was that awful-looking man?" Mrs. Bodine asked Ella.

"George Houghton. He carried you from home here."

"Lor! Lor! Saved my life as well as yours and Cousin Hugh's?"

"Yes, and now he's going to help papa and Mara."

"Well, well, we'll have to forgive him for being born North. Is that old--"

Ella stopped her mouth with a kiss, and whispered: "That is his father. Don't let us look at him. In fact, I'm afraid to--at least while he is so ill."

"Well," ejaculated Mrs. Bodine, "if this earthquake does not cure him of his cussedness, I hope the Lord will take him to heaven."

"He did not prevent George from coming to me, nor his going to papa's aid. He was kind, too, to that poor woman yonder. Oh, I'm sorry for her, and I wish I could do something."

"Perhaps you can. Go and see."

"I've nothing to put under your head, cousin."

"I'll put patience under it. That, I reckon, is all I have left now. Go, Ella, dear, I can't bear to hear her moan. I'm in no pain, and that wine has quite heartened me."

Ella did as she was bidden. That Mr. Houghton was observant was quickly proved, for he said to Jube, "Take this pillow to that lady yonder. If she declines, say you have your orders, and leave it."

Mrs. Bodine raised herself on her elbow and protested.

"Madam," said Mr. Houghton, "do not deny a helpless man the privilege of doing a little for the comfort of others at a time like this."

"But you have none left for yourself, sir," Mrs. Bodine replied.

"Madam, you can understand what a satisfaction that will be to me under the circumstances."

Mrs. Bodine yielded and admitted to herself that she was much more comfortable. "I reckon the earthquake is doing him good," she thought, "and that the Lord better keep him here a while longer."

"Can't you lift me up a little?" gasped the injured woman to Ella. "Oh, how I suffer, suffer!"

Ella sat down beside her, and gently shifted the pillow so that it came under the wounded back, while the weary head rested against her bosom.

"Ah!" said the poor creature, "that's easier. I reckon I won't have to suffer much longer."

Ella spoke soothingly and gently. Mr. Houghton, who could only hear the sweet tenderness of her tones, wiped tears from his eyes as he again murmured, "God forgive me, blind, obstinate old fool that I've been!"

The adjacent flames now lighted up the entire scene, throwing their baleful light on such an assemblage as had never before gathered in this New World.

The convulsion which threatened to raze every home in the city had certainly brought the people down to the same level. Both white and colored citizens were mingled together on the square in a swiftly created democracy. Character, the noble qualities of the soul, without regard to color or previous condition, now only gave distinction.