Chapter XVI--Cleansing Fires
 

It was the afternoon of the day before Christmas, and all the little people had gone home, leaving the room vacant for the decking of the Wonderful Tree. Edith, Helen, and others were perched on step- ladders, festooning garlands and wreaths from window to window and post to post. Mary and Rhoda were hanging burdens of joy among the green branches of the tree.

The room began to look more and more lovely as the evergreen stars were hung by scarlet ribbons in each of the twelve windows, and the picture-frames were crowned with holly branches. Then Mistress Mary was elevated to a great height on a pyramid of tables and chairs, and suspended the two Christmas angels by invisible wires from the ceiling. When the chorus of admiration had subsided, she took the white dove from Rhoda's upstretched hands (and what a charming Christmas picture they made--the eager, upturned rosy face of the one, the gracious fairness of the other!), and laying its soft breast against her cheek for a moment, perched it on the topmost branch of waving green with a thought of 'Mr. Man,' and a hope that the blessed day might bring him a tithe of the cheer he had given them. The effect of the dove and the angels was so electrical that all the fresh young voices burst into the chorus of the children's hymn:

'He was born upon this day
In David's town so far away,
He the good and loving One,
Mary's ever-blessed Son.

Let us all our voices lend,
For he was the children's Friend,
He so lovely, He so mild,
Jesus, blessed Christmas Child!'

As the last line of the chorus floated through the open windows, an alarm of fire sounded, followed by a jangle of bells and a rumble of patrol wagons. On going to the west window, Edith saw a blaze of red light against the sky, far in the distance, in the direction of Lone Mountain. Soon after, almost on the heels of the first, came another alarm with its attendant clangings, its cries of 'Fire!' its chatterings and conjectures, its rushing of small boys in all directions, its tread of hurrying policemen, its hasty flinging up of windows and grouping of heads therein.

The girls were too busy labelling the children's gifts to listen attentively to the confused clamour in the streets,--fires were common enough in a city built of wood; but when, half an hour after the first and second alarms, a third sounded, they concluded it must be a conflagration, and Rhoda, dropping her nuts and cornucopias, ran to the corner for news. She was back again almost immediately, excited and breathless.

'Oh, Mary!' she exclaimed, her hand on her panting side, 'unless they are mistaken, it is three separate fires: one, a livery-stable and carriage-house out towards Lone Mountain; another fearful one on Telegraph Hill--a whole block of houses, and they haven't had enough help there because of the Lone Mountain fire; now there's a third alarm, and they say it's at the corner of Sixth and Dutch streets. If it is, we have a tenement house next door; isn't that clothing- place on the corner? Yes, I know it is; make haste! Edith and Helen will watch the Christmas things.'

Mary did not need to be told to hasten. She had her hat in her hand and was on the sidewalk before Rhoda had fairly finished her sentence.

They hurried through the streets, guided by the cloud of smoke that gushed from the top of a building in the near distance. Almost everybody was running in the opposite direction, attracted by the Telegraph Hill fire that flamed vermilion and gold against the grey sky, looking from its elevation like a mammoth bonfire, or like a hundred sunsets massed in one lurid pile of colour.

'Is it the Golden Gate tenement house?' they asked of the neighbourhood locksmith, who was walking rapidly towards them.

'No, it's the coat factory next door,' he answered hurredly. ''Twouldn't be so much of a blaze if they could get the fire company here to put it out before it gets headway; but it's one o' those blind fires that's been sizzling away inside the walls for an hour. The folks didn't know they was afire till a girl ran in and told 'em- -your Lisa it was,--and they didn't believe her at first; but it warn't a minute before the flames burst right through the plastering in half a dozen places to once. I tell you they just dropped everything where it was and run for their lives. There warn't but one man on the premises, and he was such a blamed fool he wasted five minutes trying to turn the alarm into the letter-box on the lamp- post, 'stead of the right one alongside. I'm going home for some tools--Hullo! there's the flames coming through one corner o' the roof; that's the last o' the factory, I guess; but it ain't much loss, any way; it's a regular sweatin'-shop. They'll let it go now, and try to save the buildings each side of it--that's what they'll do.'

That is what they were doing when Mary and Rhoda broke away from the voluble locksmith in the middle of his discourse and neared the scene of excitement. The firemen had not yet come, though it was rumoured that a detachment was on the way. All the occupants of the tenement house were taking their goods and chattels out--running down the narrow stairways with feather-beds, dropping clocks and china ornaments from the windows, and endangering their lives by crawling down the fire-escapes with small articles of no value. Men were scarce at that hour in that locality, but there was a good contingent of small shopkeepers and gentlemen-of-steady-leisure, who were on the roof pouring-water over wet blankets and comforters and carpets. A crazy-looking woman in the fourth story kept dipping a child's handkerchief in and out of a bowl of water and wrapping it about a tomato-can with a rosebush planted in it. Another, very much intoxicated, leaned from her window, and, regarding the whole matter as an agreeable entertainment, called down humorous remarks and ribald jokes to the oblivious audience. There was an improvised hook-and-ladder company pouring water where it was least needed, and a zealous self-appointed commanding officer who did nothing but shout contradictory orders; but as nobody obeyed them, and every man did just as he was inclined, it did not make any substantial difference in the result.

Mary and Rhoda made their way through the mass of interested spectators, not so many here as on the cooler side of the street. Where was Lisa? That was the first, indeed the only question. How had she come there? Where had she gone? There was a Babel of confusion, but nothing like the uproar that would have been heard had not part of the district's population fled to the more interesting fire, and had not the whole thing been so quiet and so lightning- quick in its progress. The whole scene now burst upon their view. A few harassed policemen had stretched ropes across the street, and were trying to keep back the rebellious ones in the crowd who ever and anon would struggle under the line and have to be beaten back by force.

As Mary and Rhoda approached, a group on the outskirts cried out, 'Here she is! 'Tain't more 'n a minute sence they went to tell her! Here she is now!'

The expected fire-brigade could hardly be called 'she,' Mary thought, as she glanced over her shoulder. She could see no special reason for any interest in her own movements. She took advantage of the parting of the crowd, however, and as she made her way she heard, as in a waking dream, disjointed sentences that had no meaning at first, but being pieced together grew finally into an awful whole.

'Why didn't the factory girls bring 'em out? Didn't know they was there?'

'Say, one of 'em was saved, warn't it?'

'Which one of 'em did she get down before the roof caught?'

'No, 'tain't no such thing; the manager's across the bay; she gave the alarm herself.'

'She didn't know they was in there; I bet yer they'd run and hid, and she was hunting 'em when she seen the smoke.'

'Yes, she did; she dropped the girl twin out of the second-story window into Abe Isaac's arms, but she didn't know the boy was in the building till just now, and they can't hardly hold her.'

'She's foolish, anyhow, ain't she?'

Mary staggered beyond Rhoda to the front of the crowd.

'Let me under the rope!' she cried, with a mother's very wail in her tone--'let me under the rope, for God's sake! They're my children!'

At this moment she heard a stentorian voice call to some one, 'Wait a minute till the firemen get here, and they'll go for him! Come back, girl, d-n you! you shan't go!'

'Wait? No! Not wait!' cried Lisa, tearing herself dexterously from the policeman's clutches, and dashing like a whirlwind up the tottering stairway before any one else could gather presence of mind to seize and detain her.

Pacific was safe on the pavement, but she had only a moment before been flung from those flaming windows, and her terrified shrieks rent the air. The crowd gave a long-drawn groan, and mothers turned their eyes away and shivered. Nobody followed Marm Lisa up that flaming path of death and duty: it was no use flinging a good life after a worthless one.

'Fool! crazy fool!' people ejaculated, with tears of reverence in their eyes.

'Darling, splendid fool!' cried Mary. 'Fool worth all the wise ones among us!'

'He that loseth his life for My sake shall find it!' said a pious Methodist cobbler with a patched boot under his arm.

In the eternity of waiting that was numbered really but in seconds, a burly policeman beckoned four men and gave them a big old-fashioned counterpane that some one had offered, telling them to stand ready for whatever might happen.

'Come closer, boys,' said one of them, wetting his hat in a tub of water; 'if we take a little scorchin' doin' this now, we may git it cooler in the next world!'

'Amen! Trust the Lord!' said the cobbler; and just then Marm Lisa appeared at one of the top windows with a child in her arms. No one else could have recognised Atlantic in the smoke, but Rhoda and Mary knew the round cropped head and the familiar blue gingham apron.

Lisa stood in the empty window-frame, a trembling figure on a background of flame. Her post was not at the moment in absolute danger. There was hope yet, though to the onlookers there seemed none.

'Throw him!' 'Drop him!' 'Le' go of him!' shouted the crowd.

'Hold your jaws, and let me do the talking!' roared the policeman. 'Stop your noise, if you don't want two dead children on your consciences! Keep back, you brutes, keep back o' the rope, or I'll club you!'

It was not so much the officer's threats as simple, honest awe that caused a sudden hush to fall. There were whisperings, sighs, tears, murmurings, but all so subdued that it seemed like silence in the midst of the fierce crackling of the flames.

'Drop him! We'll ketch him in the quilt!' called the policeman, standing as near as he dared.

Lisa looked shudderingly at the desperate means of salvation so far below, and, turning her face away as much as she could, unclasped her arms despairingly, and Atlantic came swooping down from their shelter, down, down into the counterpane; stunned, stifled, choked by smoke, but uninjured, as Lisa knew by the cheers that greeted his safe descent.

A tongue of fire curled round the corner of the building and ran up to the roof towards another that was licking its way along the top of the window.

'Jump now yourself!' called the policeman, while two more men silently joined the four holding the corners of the quilt. Every eye was fixed on the motionless figure of Marm Lisa, who had drawn her shawl over her head, as if just conscious of nearer heat.

The wind changed, and blew the smoke away from her figure. The men on the roof stopped work, not caring for the moment whether they saved the tenement house or not, since a human life was hanging in the balance. The intoxicated woman threw a beer-bottle into the street, and her son ran up from the crowd and locked her safely in her kitchen at the back of the house.

'Jump this minute, or you're a dead girl!' shouted the officer, hoarse with emotion. 'God A'mighty, she ain't goin' to jump--she's terror-struck! She'll burn right there before our eyes, when we could climb up and drag her down if we had a long enough ladder!'

'They've found another ladder and are tying two together,' somebody said.

'The fire company's comin'! I hear 'em!' cried somebody else.

'They'll be too late,' moaned Rhoda, 'too late! Oh, Mary, make her jump!'

Lisa had felt no fear while she darted through smoke and over charred floors in pursuit of Atlantic--no fear, nothing but joy when she dragged him out from under bench and climbed to the window-sill with him,--but now that he was saved she seemed paralysed. So still she was, she might have been a carven statue save for the fluttering of the garments about her thin childish legs. The distance to the ground looked impassable, and she could not collect her thoughts for the hissing of the flame as it ate up the floor in the room behind her. Horrible as it was, she thought it would be easier to let it steal behind her and wrap her in its burning embrace than to drop from these dizzy heights down through that terrible distance, to hear her own bones snap as she touched the quilt, and to see her own blood staining the ground.

'She'll burn, sure,' said a man. 'Well, she's half-witted--that's one comfort!'

Mary started as if she were stung, and forced her way still nearer to the window; hoping to gain a position where she could be more plainly seen.

Everybody thought something was going to happen. Mary had dozens of friends and more acquaintances in that motley assemblage, and they somehow felt that there were dramatic possibilities in the situation. Unless she could think of something, Marm Lisa's last chance was gone: that was the sentiment of the crowd, and Mary agreed in it.

Her cape had long since dropped from her shoulders, her hat was trampled under foot, the fair coil of hair had loosened and was falling on her neck, and the steel fillet blazed in the firelight. She stepped to the quilt and made a despairing movement to attract Lisa's attention.

'Li-sa!' she called, in that sweet, carrying woman's voice that goes so much further than a man's.

The child started, and, pushing back the shawl, looked out from under its cover, her head raised, her eyes brightening.

Mary chanced all on that one electrical moment of recognition, and, with a mien half commanding and half appealing, she stretched out both her arms and called again, while the crowd held its breath:

'Come to me, darling! Jump, little sister! Now!'

Not one second did Marm Lisa hesitate. She would have sprung into the fire at that dear mandate, and, closing her eyes, she leaped into the air as the roof above her head fell in with a crash.

Just then the beating of hoofs and jangling of bells in the distance announced the coming of the belated firemen; not so long belated actually, for all the emotions, heart-beats, terrors, and despairs that go to make up tragedy can be lived through m a few brief moments.

In that sudden plunge from window to earth Marm Lisa seemed to die consciously. The grey world, the sad world, vanished, 'and the immortal light, all young and joyful, million-orbed, million- coloured,' beamed on her darkness. She kept on falling, falling, falling, till she reached the abysmal depths of space--then she knew no more: and Mary, though prone on the earth, kept falling, falling, falling with her into so deep a swoon that she woke only to find herself on a friendly bed, with Rhoda and Lisa herself, weeping over her.

At five o'clock, Mrs. Grubb, forcibly torn from a meeting and acquainted with the afternoon's proceedings, hurried into a lower room in the tenement house, where Mary, Rhoda, and the three children were gathered for a time. There were still a hundred people in the street, but they showed their respect by keeping four or five feet away from the windows.

The twins sat on a sofa, more quiet than anything save death itself. They had been rocked to the very centre of their being, and looked like nothing so much as a couple of faded photographs of themselves. Lisa lay on a cot, sleeping restlessly; Mary looked pale and wan, and there were dark circles under her eyes.

As Mrs. Grubb opened the door softly, Mary rose to meet her.

'Have you heard all?' she asked.

'Yes, everything!' faltered Mrs. Grubb with quivering lips and downcast eyelids.

Mary turned towards Lisa's bed. 'Mrs. Grubb,' she said, looking straight into that lady's clear, shallow eyes, 'I think Lisa has earned her freedom, and the right to ask a Christmas gift of you. Stand on the other side of the cot and put your hand in mine. I ask you for the last time, will you give this unfinished, imperfect life into my keeping, if I promise to be faithful to it unto the end, whatever it may be?'

I suppose that every human creature, be he ever so paltry, has his hour of effulgence, an hour when the mortal veil grows thin and the divine image stands revealed, endowing him, for a brief space at least with a kind of awful beauty and majesty.

It was Mistress Mary's hour. Her pure, unswerving spirit shone with a white and steady radiance that illuminated Mrs. Grubb's soul to its very depths, showing her in a flash the feeble flickerings and waverings of her own trivial purposes. At that moment her eye was fitted with a new lens, through which the road to the summit of the Tehachapi Mountains and Mahatmadom suddenly looked long, weary, and profitless, and by means of which the twins were transferred from the comfortable middle distance they had previously occupied to the immediate foreground of duty. The lens might slip, but while it was in place she saw as clearly as another woman.

'Will you?' repeated Mistress Mary, wondering at her silence.

Mrs. Grubb gave one last glance at the still reproach of Lisa's face, and one more at the twins, who seemed to loom more formidably each time she regarded them; then drawing a deep breath she said, 'Yes, I will; I will, no matter what happens; but it isn't enough to give up, and you needn't suppose I think it is.' And taking a passive twin by either hand, she passed out of the door into the crowded thoroughfare, and disappeared in the narrow streets that led to Eden Place.