The Earth Trembled by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XLV. A City Encamping
The earthquake which occurred at 8:25 Wednesday morning had a disastrous effect, although it was not so severe as to injure materially the buildings already so shattered. It nipped hope and growing confidence in the bud. Multitudes had left the square for their homes, a large proportion with the immediate purpose of obtaining more clothing. Many would have been comparatively naked were it not for enveloping blankets and the loan of articles of apparel from the more fortunate. With the confidence which the morning and the continued quiet of the earth inspired there had been a general movement from the square. Some hastily dressed themselves, snatched up bedding and food, and returned to the open spaces immediately; others breakfasted at home, and some had the heart to begin the task of putting their houses in order. The shock drove them forth again with all their fears renewed and increased, for the homes, which in many cases had been a refuge for generations, were now looked upon as deathtraps, threatening to mangle and torture as well as destroy. The love of gain, the instinct to preserve property, was also obliterated. Merchants deserted their shops and warehouses. Banks were unopened, except for the gaps rent by the earthquake. The city was full of food, yet people went hungry, not daring to enter the places where it was stored. After a second and general flight to the square, the question in all hearts, "What next?" paralyzed with its dread suggestion.
The fear among the educated had become definite and rational. Not that they could explain the earthquake or its causes, but the sad experiences of other regions were known to them. These experiences, however, had varied so greatly in their horrors as to leave a wide margin of terrible possibilities. A tidal wave might roll in, for the city was scarcely more than nine feet above the sea. The earth might open in great and ingulfing fissures. The tremendous forces beneath them might seek a volcanic outlet. These were all dire thoughts, and were brought home to the consciousness the more vividly because the awful phenomena continued in the serene light of day. The nightmare aspect of what had occurred in darkness passed away, and the coolest and most learned found themselves confronted by dangers which they could not gauge or explain. Nor could the end be foreseen. If such considerations weighed down the spirits of the most intelligent men, imagine the fears of frail, nervous women, of the children, the wild panic of the superstitious negroes to whom science explained nothing. To their excited minds the earthquake was due directly either to the action of a malignant, personal devil, or of an angry God. While many of the poor ignorant creatures inevitably indulged in what were justly termed "religious orgies," the great majority were well behaved and patient, finding in their simple faith unspeakable comfort and support.
One fact, however, was clear to all: that the place of immediate and greatest danger was near or beneath anything which might be prostrated by the recurring shocks.
Another feature in Wednesday's experience was very depressing. The city was completely isolated from the rest of the world. All telegraph-wires were down, all railroads leading into the city had been rendered impassable. For many hours those without who had friends and relatives in Charleston were kept in dreadful suspense. From adjacent cities reports of the catastrophe were flashed continuously, but in regard to Charleston there was an ominous lack of information, and the fear was very general that the city by the sea had sunk beneath the waves.
Mr. Ainsley shared in this horrible dread. He telegraphed repeatedly from an inland town, and took the first train despatched toward the city. His daughter was right in believing that he would reach her at the earliest possible moment.
She was greatly demoralized by the shock which dissipated her impression of comparative safety; and when she realized that the city was utterly cut off from the outside world, that it was impossible to know when her father could arrive, she gave way to selfish fear and the deepest dejection. With embarrassing pertinacity she insisted that Clancy should remain near her. Even to the others it was apparent that fear, rather than affection, led her to desire his presence so earnestly. He had once wondered what kind of a woman was masked by her culture and a reserve so perfect that it had seemed frankness. The veneer now was stripped off. After her own fashion, she was almost as abject in her terror as Uncle Sheba, who had run howling back to the square, leaving the wife who had fed him to her fate. In her lack of honest sympathy for others, and indisposition to exert herself in their behalf, Miss Ainsley quite equalled the selfish old negro. The conventional world in which she had shone to such advantage had passed away. Her very perfection in form and feature made defects in character more glaring, for she was seen to be a fair yet broken promise.
How sweetly the noble qualities of Ella and Mara were revealed by comparison! They had been taught in the school of adversity. From childhood they had learned to think of others first rather than of themselves. Miss Ainsley would have been resplendent and at ease in a royal drawing-room; these two girls maintained womanly fortitude and gave themselves up to unselfish devotion in the presence of a mysterious power which would level an emperor's palace as readily as a negro's cabin.
Clancy saw the difference--no one more clearly--and his very soul recoiled from the woman he had purposed to marry. He patiently bore with her as long as he could after the shock, and then joined Mr. Willoughby, George, Bodine, and Dr. Devoe, who were consulting at Mr. Houghton's bedside. In his shame and distress he did not venture even to glance at Mara.
As the stress of the emergency increased Mr. Houghton's mind had grown clear and decided; his old resolute, business habits asserted themselves, and from his low couch he practically became the leader in their council. "From what we know of other and like disturbances," he said, "it is impossible to foresee when these shocks will end, or how soon a refuge can be sought in regions exempt from our dangers. Now that I am established in this square near my home I intend to remain here for the present. I cordially ask you all to share my fortunes. My son will spare no expense or effort, that can be made in safety, for our general comfort." Then he added before them all, "Captain Bodine, I have done you much wrong and discourtesy. I apologize. You have invalid and injured ladies in your charge. Their claims are sacred and imperative. I will esteem it a favor if you will permit my son to do what he can for their comfort and protection."
Bodine at once came forward, and giving Mr. Houghton his hand, replied, "You and your son are teaching me that I have done you both much greater wrong. I think I shall have to surrender as I did once before, but I am glad that it is to kindness rather than to force in this instance."
"Here's the true remedy for our differences," cried Mr. Willoughby. "Let the North and South get acquainted, and all will be well. But come, we must act, and act promptly."
"Yes," replied George, "for the square is filling up again, and we should keep as much space here as possible. I have a small tent which I will put up at once for Mrs. Bodine and Mrs. Hunter. Then I'll rig an awning for my father, and help the rest of you in whatever you decide upon."
"George," said his father, anxiously, "let your visits to the house be as brief as possible."
Clancy offered to assist George in meeting the immediate need of shelter from the sun, and Dr. Devoe gave the morning to the care of his many patients. Mr. Willoughby said that he must first go to his home for clothing and to look after matters, but that he would soon return. Bodine was asked to mount guard and prevent, as far as possible, the fugitives from encroaching on the needed space. This proved no easy task. Old Tobe, after having received some breakfast, maintained his watch over the medical stores, while Aun' Sheba, who had followed her husband as fast as her limited powers of travelling permitted, cleared away the remnants of the breakfast for her family, George assuring her that he would soon make all comfortable provision for her and them.
With Clancy and the two colored men he repaired to his home, as the wrecked venture to a ship which may break up at any moment, in order to secure what was absolutely essential. A tent was soon pitched for the invalids; a shelter of quilts suspended over and around his father, and a large carpet jerked from the floor formed an awning for the ladies. Part of this awning was partitioned off so as to give them all the privacy possible under the circumstances, and the remainder was inclosed on three sides, but left open toward the east.
"I'm not going to be sent to the hospital," said Mrs. Bodine. "I'd rather sit up and direct Ella how to transform this outer habitation into a drawing-room."
Then George brought her and his father easy-chairs. Rugs were spread on the grass, and the rude shelter became positively inviting. Ella and Mrs. Willoughby made themselves so useful that at last Miss Ainsley so far recovered from her panic as to assist. She detested Mara, and Mrs. Hunter's ghastly face and white hair embodied to her mind the terror of which all were in dread. The bright sunshine and homely work were suggestive of rural pleasures rather than of dire necessity, and helped, for the time, to retire the spectre of danger to the background. The coming and going of many acquaintances and friends also helped to rally her spirits, and incite her to the semblance of courage. Mrs. Willoughby, Mrs. Bodine, and Mara had stanch friends who sought them out the moment comparative safety had been secured for their nearer dependants. The demands of our story require nothing more than the brief statement that there was a general disposition on the part of the people to think of and care for all who had claims upon them. Even in the dreadful hours immediately following the first shock, much unselfish heroism was displayed; and during the weary days and nights which followed, men and women vied with each other in their attentions to those who most needed care.
Mrs. Bodine, Mrs. Willoughby, and the captain had several whispered conferences with those who felt surprise at associations with Mr. Houghton, and there was a quick, generous response to the old man's kindness. Some who would not have looked at him the day before now went and spoke to him gratefully and sympathetically, while for George only cordiality and admiration were manifested. He was not a little uneasy over the profuse attentions and offers of help which Ella received from several young men. To his jealous eyes she appeared unnecessarily gracious, and more ready to talk with them than with him; but he could not discover that she had an especial favorite among them. Indeed, she managed in their case as in his that Mrs. Willoughby, Miss Ainsley, or some one else should share in the conversation.
At last Bodine said to George, "I will now go to Mrs. Hunter's rooms and to Mrs. Bodine's residence, and obtain what is most essential. Can you spare one of your servants to carry what I cannot?"
"Certainly, and I will go with you myself. Clancy and Sam can continue operations here."
"George," said his father, "as soon as the absolute necessity for entering buildings is over, I wish you to keep away from them."
Ella added, "Remember, Mr. Houghton, that is a promise. Please let the words 'absolute necessity' have their full meaning;" and her face was so full of solicitude that he said, "I promise you also."
With a smile and flush she turned to her father whispering the tenderest cautions and emphasizing the truth that but few things were essential, some of which she mentioned. Jube had become like a faithful spaniel, the spirit of his young master reassuring him so as to feel his only safety lay in obedience.
As George and Bodine went down the street they were saddened by the evidences of disaster on every side. Even Meeting Street was still so obstructed as to be almost impassable for vehicles, and in some places the ruins were still being searched for the dead. When they reached Mrs. Hunter's home Bodine groaned inwardly, "How the poor girl must have suffered!" He added aloud, "The mental distress caused by my helplessness during the last few hours, Mr. Houghton, has been much harder to bear than the wound which cost me my leg and the suffering which followed."
"My dear captain," replied George, "your courage and clear head make you far less helpless than hundreds who only use their legs to run with. Let me enter this shell of a house alone."
"That would be a sad commentary on your remark."
They speedily obtained what they deemed essential, and turned off the gas, which was still burning. It was evident that no one had entered the house since its occupants had left it. Mrs. Bodine's residence was comparatively uninjured, and when leaving it the captain was able to lock the outer door.
On their way back to the square George stammered:
"Captain Bodine, it may be very bad taste to speak of such a matter now, but we do not know what an hour will bring forth. I would like to have some understanding with you. Beyond that there may be no need of anything further being said until all these troubles are over. I--I--well, can I venture to make my former request? Your daughter has my happiness wholly in her hands. I do not intend to embarrass her by a word until she is again in her own home, but I wish to know that my hopes and efforts to win her regard have your sanction."
"How does your father feel about this?" Bodine asked gravely.
"He has given his full and cordial approval. Now that he has seen Miss Bodine she has won him completely."
"Mr. Houghton, I owe to you her life which I value more than my own. You know we are lacking in everything except pride and good name."
"My dear sir," interrupted George earnestly, "God has endowed your daughter as man could not. You know I love and honor her for herself and always shall."
"You are right," said the father proudly, "and you are so truly a man, as well as a gentleman, that you estimate my penniless daughter at her intrinsic worth. As far as my approval and good wishes are concerned you have them."
Ella thought that George's face was wonderfully radiant when he appeared. As soon as she could get a word alone with her father, she asked, "What have you been saying to Mr. Houghton?"
"I have only answered his second request that he might pay you his addresses."
"Oh, papa! what a tantalizing answer! What did he say, and what did you say, word for word? Surely you didn't tell--"
"I only gave my consent, not yours. You are at perfect liberty to reject him," was the smiling reply.
"That is well as far as it goes, but I wish to know every word."
Her father's heart was too heavy to permit continuance in a playful vein, and he told her substantially what had been said. "Well," she concluded, with a complacent little nod, "I think I'll let him pay his addresses a while longer. The absurd fellow to go and idealize me so! Time will cure such folly, however. Papa, there's something troubling you besides the earthquake."
"Yes, Ella, and you must help me--you and Cousin Sophy." Then he told her how he thought matters stood between Mara and Clancy, checked her first indignant words, explained and insisted until she promised that she and Mrs. Bodine would shield Mara, and act as if she were as free as she had ever been. "It will all come about yet, papa," Ella whispered, "for Mr. Clancy has evidently committed himself to Miss Ainsley, although now I reckon he regrets it."
"Well, Ella dear, redouble your kindness and gentleness to Mara, and let matters over which we have no control take their course."
Clancy had not been idle during the morning, finding in constant occupation, and even in the incurring of risks, a relief to his perturbed thoughts. He and Sam procured a small cooking-stove, and also set up the cross-sticks of a gypsy camp before the open side of the awning. Aun' Sheba was placed in charge of the provisions, a responsibility in which Uncle Sheba wished to share, but she said severely, "Mr. Buggone, you'se dun git yer lowance wid Sissy an' de chil'n."
Mr. Willoughby at last returned on an express-wagon, well loaded with articles which would add much comfort in the enforced picnic. His face was sad and troubled as he greeted his wife.
"Oh, Jennie," he said, "our pretty home is such a wreck!"
"No matter, Hal, since you are safe and sound," was her cheery reply. "Come, girls, we can now dress for dinner. I feel like a fool in this light silk."
They all eventually reappeared in costumes more suitable for camping.
Mrs. Bodine was also enabled to exchange her blanket wrapper for the one she was accustomed to wear at home. With almost the zest of a girl she appreciated the picturesque elements of their experiences; and her high spirits and courage were infectious. With the aid of Sam and Jube, Aunt Sheba entered vigorously on preparations for dinner; a breeze with passing clouds tempered the sun's hot rays; and hope again began to cheer as time passed without further disturbance.