Chapter XLII. A Homeless City
 

The efforts of Clancy and Mara combined with the vigorous and sensible ministrations of Aun' Sheba at last brought consciousness to Mrs. Hunter. Tearing up a linen sheet they stanched and bound up her wounds, and then Clancy said, "We must get her to one of the squares and under a physician's care as soon as possible."

"My folks is gwine to Mar'on Squar, an' dar I promise ter come," said Aun' Sheba. "It's 'bout as nigh as any ob dem."

Mrs. Hunter looked at Clancy, and shrank from him visibly. He said quickly, "Surely, Mrs. Hunter, all enmities should be forgotten at this time, or at least put aside. We should leave this narrow side-street at once."

"Aunty," said Mara, gently, "Mr. Clancy has saved us both from destruction. For my sake and Aun' Sheba's as well as your own, you must let him do all in his power."

The earthly, yet unearthly, rumble of another shock put an end to further hesitation. It would be long before the terror inspired by this phenomenon would cease to be overwhelming.

Aun' Sheba lifted her arms imploringly to heaven, while the vivid consciousness of the direst peril known brought Mara and Clancy together again in an embrace that was the natural expression of the feeling that, if die they must, they would die together. With such black ruin about them, caused by one shock, the fear could not be combated that the next might end everything.

When the convulsion passed, Clancy and Aun' Sheba immediately formed a chair with their hands, and Mara helped Mrs. Hunter, now ready enough to escape by any means, to avail herself of it. They made their way with difficulty over the debris to King Street. Here they were obliged to pause and rest. No rest, however, did Clancy obtain, for a momentary glance revealed one of the awful phases of the disaster. Three or four doors above them, houses were burning from overturned and exploded lamps. Some of the shop-keepers were frantically endeavoring to save a few of their goods, often, in their excitement, carrying out the strangest and most valueless articles. Clancy's brief glance gave no heed to such efforts, but before he could turn away, a woman with a child in her arms came rushing from one of the burning houses. Her dress had touched the fire, and was beginning to burn. Clancy caught one of the blankets from Mara, and with it extinguished the flames, while Mara took the infant. The instant the babe was out of her arms the mother tried to break away and rush back, shrieking, "There's another! there's another child!"

"Where?" cried Clancy, restraining her.

"In the front room there."

"Stay here, then," and he darted through the doorway, out of which the smoke was pouring as from a chimney.

Mara and the mother looked after him in breathless and agonized suspense. The flames had burst suddenly into the apartment, and through the windows they could see him enter, snatch up the child, and disappear. But he did not come out of the street door as soon as they expected. They could endure waiting no longer. Both dashed into the smoke-clouded passage-way, and stumbled against Clancy Where he had sunk down within a few steps of safety.

The mother seized her child, while Mara, with a strength given by her heart, dragged the strangling man to the open air. By this time Aun' Sheba was at her side, and between them they carried him to the spot where Mrs. Hunter lay. Now that he could breathe he soon recovered; Mara's tender and imploring words being potent indeed in rallying him. His exposure to heat and the smoke had been terrible, but fortunately very brief. He was soon on his feet, exclaiming, "We must go on to Meeting Street, for there we shall have a better chance."

Thither they made their way with other fugitives, Clancy and Aun' Sheba carrying Mrs. Hunter as before, Mara following with the infant, and close beside her the grateful mother with the other child.

Having reached a somewhat open space in the wider thoroughfare, the young man became satisfied that another mode of transportation must be found. Mrs. Hunter was too heavy for the primitive method adopted in the emergency. Aun' Sheba took the injured woman's head upon her lap while he rested and looked about for something like an army stretcher. Among the ruins he found one of the long wooden shutters which a jeweller had placed against his window hours before. Watches and gems gleamed in the light of kindling fires, and were within easy reach, but the most unscrupulous of thieves were honest that night. Clancy carried the shutter to Mrs. Hunter's side, and then watched for some man whom he could persuade into his service.

The great thoroughfare was full of fugitives, and soon among them the mother recognized a man of her acquaintance, who took charge of her and the children. The majority, like Clancy, had been delayed by efforts in behalf of the sick or injured, and already had their hands full. Others were so dazed and horror-stricken that they moved about aimlessly, or sat upon the pavement, moaning and lamenting in despairing accents. It would appear as if the emergency developed the strength and the weakness of every mind. Some were evidently crazed. As Mara stood beside Mrs. Hunter to prevent the crowd from trampling upon her, she saw a half-dressed man, breaking his way through the throng. The maniac stopped before her, and for a moment fixed upon her wild, blood-shot eyes, then placed an infant in her arms, and with a yell bounded away. Mara, horror-stricken, saw that the child was dead, and that its neck was evidently broken. Clancy came up immediately, and taking the infant laid it down out of the central path, for all kept to the middle of the street.

As he did so, he heard his name called by a voice he knew too well. The feeling it inspired compelled him again to recognize how false he had been to himself and also to Miss Ainsley. Her summons now brought the feeling that he too, like Mara, was bound, and he went instantly to her side.

"Ah, you deserted me!" she said bitterly.

He silently pointed to Mrs. Hunter, who presented so sad a spectacle that even the exacting girl had no further words of reproach, but she glanced keenly at Mara.

"We feared a tidal wave," Mr. Willoughby explained, "and so decided to seek the upper portion of the city."

"Mrs. Willoughby, if you are able to walk," said Clancy, "your husband must aid me and Aun' Sheba in carrying Mrs. Hunter, who is very badly injured."

"Oh, now that the first terrible shock to my nerves is over, I am as well able to take care of myself as any of you," replied the spirited little woman.

"That's like you!" exclaimed Clancy heartily. Then turning, he said with emphasis, "Miss Ainsley, you see that a man's first duty to-night is to the injured and utterly helpless."

"Forgive me," she replied in tones meant for his ear only, "I did not know you owed so much to Mrs. Hunter and her niece."

"I shall owe my services to every injured man and woman until all are rescued," was his quiet reply. Then he helped Mr. Willoughby place Mrs. Hunter on the improvised support, and between them they bore her onward, the others following.

Their progress was necessarily slow, for the street was encumbered not only with fugitives like themselves, but also with tangled telegraph-wires and all sorts of other impediments. Once they had to cower tremblingly under a tall building while a fire-engine thundered by, threatening to bring down upon them the shattered walls. As they resumed their slow and painful march Bodine met them, his glad, outspoken greeting to Mara filling her heart with new grief and dismay, while it allayed the jealousy and bitterness of Miss Ainsley's wounded pride.

The Northern girl had heard the report that Mara and the veteran were engaged, and here was confirmation. Mara inquired eagerly after Mrs. Bodine and Ella, then took her place at the captain's side, while Clancy moved on with set teeth and a desperate rallying of his physical powers, which he knew to be failing.

Now that Ella was in the square, young Houghton was not so impetuous as to ignore the claims of nature or to be regardless of his outward appearance. He again returned to his home, and saw Sam kneeling and praying aloud near the barn, with the two horses standing beside him.

"Sam, go to the square," he shouted.

"Can't lebe dese hosses. Dey's bofe lookin' ter me, an' I'se prayin' fer dem an us all."

"No matter about the horses. The house is too near." Then he ventured into the butler's pantry, cleansed his face and the cuts and bruises about his head, snatched some food, and hastened away. He believed he had a hard night's work before him, and that he must maintain his strength. He had not gone very far down Meeting Street before he met the group accompanying Mrs. Hunter. With a glad cry he welcomed Mrs. Willoughby, and was about to take her hand when Clancy said, "Houghton, for God's sake, quick!"

George caught the end of the litter while Clancy reeled backward and would have fallen had not Mara, with a cry she could not repress, caught him in her arms and sunk with him to the pavement. He gasped a moment or two, then his eyes closed; he became still and looked as if dead.

Again the supremely dreaded subterranean rumble was heard. Mr. Willoughby shouted wildly, "Forward, quick! We can't stay here under these buildings." He and Houghton went on with a rush, the rest following with loud cries, Miss Ainsley's piercing scream ringing out above all. She did not even look back at her prostrate suitor.

Mara paid no heed to the passing shock, but with eyes full of anguish looked upon the white face in her lap.

"Mara," said the deep voice of Bodine after the awful sound had passed. She started violently and began to tremble.

"Mara, go with the others. I will stay with Mr. Clancy."

She shook her head, but was speechless.

He stood beside her, his face full of deep and perplexed trouble.

At last she said hoarsely, "You go and bring aid. He saved aunty and me, and I cannot leave him."

At this moment Aun' Sheba came running back, exclaiming: "Good Lawd forgib me dat I should leab my honey lam'! My narbes all shook out ob jint like de houses, an' my legs run away wid me, dog gone 'em! Dey's brung me back howsomeber. Now, Missy Mara, gib him ter me;" and taking him under the arms she dragged him by the adjacent tall buildings. "Missy," she added, sinking down with her burden, "go on ter de squar wid Marse Bodine, an' tell dat ar young Houghton ter come quick, 'fore my legs run away wid me agin." "Both of you go to the square," commanded Bodine in the tone he would have used on the battlefield. "I will stay. There shall be no useless risk of life."

Mara lifted her dark eyes to his face. Even at that moment he knew he should never forget their expression. "My friend," she said in low, agonized tones, "he may be dying, he may be dead. I cannot, will not leave him."

"No, he ain't dead," said Aun' Sheba, with her hand over Clancy's heart, "but seems purty nigh it. Him jes gone beyon his strengt. Ole missus po'ful heby ef she ain't fat like me. Tank de Lawd, I hasn't ter be toted ter-night. No one but Kern ud tote me. Po' Kern! him heart jes break wen he know."

Bodine stood guard silent and grim while Mara mechanically chafed one of Clancy's hands. She was now far beyond tears, far beyond anything except the anguish depicted in her face. In a confused way she felt that the terrible events of the night and her own heart had overpowered her; and, with a half-despairing recklessness, she merely lived from moment to moment.

The earthquake had ceased to have personal terrors for Bodine. He had faced death too often. Nevertheless a great fear oppressed him as he looked down upon the girl he loved.

The square was not far away; Houghton and Mr. Willoughby came hastening back, and Clancy was soon added to the group of sufferers under Dr. Devoe's care.

To Miss Ainsley's general disgust at a city in which she had been treated to such a rude and miserable experience, was added a little self-disgust that she had rushed away and left Clancy to his fate. She tried to satisfy herself by thinking that he had acted in much the same way toward her, but it would not answer. Mrs. Hunter's blood-stained face, rendered tenfold more ghastly by the light of the flames, was too strong refutation, and the fact that Mara had remained with Clancy had its sting. She saw Ella and many others ministering to the injured and feeble, and felt that she must redeem her character. When the unconscious man was brought in, therefore, she hastened forward to receive and in a measure claim him.

Although mentally comparing her conduct with that of Mara, Houghton and Mr. Willoughby thought it was all right, put Clancy in her charge, and began to follow Dr. Devoe's directions. Mara gave the girl a look which brought a blush to her face, and then devoted herself to her aunt.

Captain Bodine's first act was to speak gently and encouragingly to his daughter and cousin, congratulating the latter on her recovery.

"Yes, Hugh," said the old lady, "I'm safe, safer than I've been at other times in my life. This is but one more storm, and it is only driving me nearer the harbor. You look dreadfully; you're worn out."

"More by anxiety than exertion. It is awful to be so helpless at such a time."

"Sit down here on the grass beside me. I want to talk. I may not have much more chance in this world, but feel sure that I shall do my share in the next. Oh, Hugh, Hugh, we've all been shaken like naughty children, and some of us may be the better and the wiser for it. If Ella and that gallant knight of hers survive, how happy they will be! It makes me happy even to think of it, though for aught we know the earth may open and swallow us all within the next five minutes."

"Yes, the dear child! Thank God for her sake!"

"For your own too. There is Mara safe also. Poor Mrs. Hunter! she looks death-like to me. You look awfully too. I never saw you so pale and haggard."

"Cap'n Bodine, Marse Houghton send you dis," said Jube at his elbow, proffering a glass of wine.

The captain turned his startled eyes upon his old employer, who lay just out of earshot of their low tones.

"Take it, Hugh," said his cousin earnestly. "Drink to the death of hate. He and I have made up."

The veteran hesitated, and a spasm, as if from a wrench of pain, passed over his face. Then he took the glass, and said coldly, "I drink to your recovery, sir."

"I thank you," was Mr. Houghton's response.

"A very fair beginning, Hugh, for a man," his cousin resumed. "You might as well give up at once, though. Everything is going to be shaken down that shouldn't stand."

Ominous words to the veteran, for he felt that his dream of happiness was falling in ruins.

By the natural force of circumstances the several characters of our story had been brought comparatively near together, yet were separated into little groups. Dr. Devoe passed from one to the other as his services were needed, nor were they confined to those known to us. He simply made a little open space beside Mr. Houghton his headquarters, where he left his remedies under the charge of the invalid, Jube, and old Tobe. Other physicians had joined him and were indefatigable in the work of relief. Some of the city clergy were also in the square, speaking words of Christian faith and hope, which never before had seemed so precious.

To Clancy Dr. Devoe gave a good deal of attention. Not only was his hair singed, but his neck and hands were badly burned, and his swoon was so obstinate as to indicate great exhaustion. This could scarcely be otherwise, for he possessed no such physique as young Houghton had developed. Moreover, he had passed through a mental strain and excitement which no one could comprehend except Mara, and she but partially. Houghton had put his coat under the head of the unconscious man, and was doing his best for him. So also was Miss Ainsley now. She had purposely turned her back on Mara, and her face was toward the adjacent conflagration, which distinctly lighted up her face and form, transforming her into a vision of marvellous beauty. Her long hair had fallen in a golden veil over her bare shoulders and neck; her dark eyes were lustrous with excitement and full of solicitude. When at last Clancy opened his eyes his first impression was that an angel was ministering to him in a light too brilliant to be earthly. He recognized Miss Ainsley's voice, however, and when he had taken some of the wine which the doctor pressed to his lips, all that had happened came back to him. George now returned in solicitude to his father, also designing to take a little much-needed rest, while the doctor gave his attention to other patients. With returning consciousness Clancy was overpowered by a deep sense of gratitude to this beautiful creature, and also by a strong feeling of compunction that he had sought the regard which she now seemed to bestow unstintedly. "Like Mara," he thought, "there is nothing left for me but to fulfil obligations from which I cannot honorably withdraw."

"You are indeed kind and devoted," he said feebly. "I fear I have made a good deal of trouble."

"No, Mr. Clancy, you have gone beyond your strength. In fact, we are all distracted and half beside ourselves. Won't you let me take your head into my lap? If I am caring for you I can better endure these awful scenes." And she made the change.

"I hope you will forgive me for leaving you so abruptly on the Battery. Mrs. Hunter and Miss Wallingford really had no one to look to."

"Captain Bodine evidently thinks Miss Wallingford should look to him."

"In such an emergency he would be even more helpless than she."

"Oh, well, I hope the worst is now over for us all, and that we can soon get away from this awful town."

He gave no answer. Miss Ainsley knew that her father was not far distant, and that he would come for her by the first train which could reach the city. Accustomed all her life to look at everything from the central point of self, she now, in the greater sense of safety, began to give some thought to the future. Her first conscious decision was to try to be as brave as possible, and so leave a good impression. The second was to get away from the city at once, and she hoped she might never see it again. If Clancy would go with her, if he would even eventually join her at the North, she believed that she could marry him, so favorable was the impression that he had made, but she felt that she was making a great concession, which he must duly appreciate. At present the one consuming wish was to escape, to get away from scenes which to her were horrible in the last degree.

In truth only a brave spirit could witness what was taking place on every side, or maintain fortitude under the overwhelming impression of personal danger--an impression which soon banished the partial sense of security felt after reaching the square. The extent of the terror inspired by the earthquake can best be measured by the fact that although columns of smoke and fire, consuming homes and threatening to lay the city in ashes, were rising at several points, they were scarcely heeded. The roar of adjacent flames could even be heard by the vast concourse, but ears were strained to detect that more terrible roar that seemed to come from unknown depths beneath the ocean and the land, and to threaten a fate as awful and mysterious as itself. Even many of the white population could not help sharing in some degree the general belief among the negroes that the end of all things was at hand. The nervous shock sustained by all prepared the way for the wildest fears and conjectures. As in the instance of a bloody battle, those were the best off who were the most occupied.

Thousands, however, sat and waited in sickening apprehension, fearing some new horror with every passing moment. There was a sound of weeping throughout the square, while above this monotone rose groans, cries, hysterical screams, loud petitions for mercy, and snatches of hymns. The emotional negroes left no moments of silence. The majority of the white people had become comparatively calm. They talked in low tones, encouraging and soothing one another; the lips of even those who seldom looked heavenward now often moved in silent prayer; fathers, on whose brows rested a heavy load of care, tried to cheer their trembling families; and mothers clasped their sobbing children in their arms, with the feeling that even death should not part them.

Over all this array of pallid, haggard faces, shone the flames of the still unquenched conflagration.