MoboReader> Literature > The City of Fire

   Chapter 29 No.29

The City of Fire By Grace Livingston Hill Characters: 19630

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


In the middle of the night the fire bell rang out wildly. Three minutes later Mark and Billy were flying down the street, with Tom McMertrie and Jim Rafferty close after and a host of other tried and true, with the minister on the other side of the street. The Fire Company of Sabbath Valley held a proud record, and the minister was an active member of it.

The fire was up in the plush mill and had already spread to a row of shackley tenements that the owners of the mills had put up to house the foreign labor that they had put in. They called them "apartment" houses, but they were so much on the order of the city tenements of several years back that it made Lynn's heart ache when she went there to see a little sick child one day. Right in the midst of God's trees and mountains, a man for money had built a death trap, tall, and grim and dark, with small rooms and tiny windows, built it with timbers too small for safety, and windows too few for ventilation, and here an increasing number of families were herded, in spite of the complaints of the town.

"I ben thenkin' it would coom," said Tom as he took long strides. "It's the apartmints fer sure, Jimmy. We better beat it. There'll be only a meenit er so to get the childer oot, before the whole thing's smoke!"

They were all there, the doctor, the blacksmith, the postmaster, the men from the mills, and the banks, and the stores. Economy heard the bells for Marilyn had hurried to the church and added the fire chime to the call and came over with their little chemical engine. Monopoly heard and hurried their brand new hook and ladder up the valley road, but the fire had been eating long in the heart of the plush mill and laughed at their puny streams of water forced up from the creek below, laughed at the chemicals flung in its face like drops of rain on a sizzling red hot stove. It licked its lips over the edge of the cliff on which it was built, and cracked its jaws as it devoured the mill, window by window, section by section, leaping across with an angry red tongue to the first tall building by its side.

The fire had worked cunningly, for it had crept out of sight to the lower floors all along the row, and unseen, unknown, had bitten a hold on each of those doomed buildings till when the men arrived it went roaring ghoulishly up the high narrow stairs cutting off all escape from above, and making entrance below impossible. Up at the windows the doomed people stood, crying, praying, wringing their hands, and some losing their heads and trying to jump out.

The firemen were brave, and worked wonders. They flung up ladders in the face of the flames. They risked their lives every step they took, and brought out one after another, working steadily, grimly, rapidly. And none were braver among them all than Mark Carter and the minister, each working on the very top of a tall treacherous ladder, in the face of constant danger, bringing out one after another until the last.

The next house to the mill had caved in, and Mark had come down just in time with an old woman who was bedridden and had been forgotten. The workers had paused an instant as the horrible sound of falling timbers rent through the other noises of that horrible night, and then hurried to increase their vigilance. There were people in the top floor of the next house and it would go next. Then the word went forth that no more must go up the ladder. The roof was about to fall in, and a young mother shrieked, "My baby! My baby! She's up in the bed. I thought Bob had her, but he couldn't get up!" Mark Carter looked at her sharply. "Which window?" he asked, and was up the ladder before detaining hands could reach him, and Billy, sliding under the arm of the Fire Chief, swung up just behind.

The crowd watched breathless as they mounted round after round, Aunt Saxon standing with a shawl over her head and gasping aloud, "Oh Willie!" and then standing still in fear and pride, the tears streaming down a smiling countenance on which the red glare of the fire shone. The ladder was set crazily against the flaming window and swayed with their weight. Every step seemed as if it would topple the building, yet the ladder held, and Mark sprang through the blazing window out of sight. It seemed an eternity till he returned bringing a tiny bundle with him, and handing it out to Billy waiting below.

The boy received as it had been a holy honor, that little bundle of humanity handed through the fire, and came solemnly down amid the breathless gaze of the crowd, but when they looked to the top again Mark had disappeared!

A murmur of horror went round the throng, for the flames were licking and snapping, and the roof seemed to vibrate and quiver like a human thing. Then before any one could stop him or even saw what he was going to do, the minister sprang forward up the ladder like a cat, two rounds at a time,-three! He dashed through the fire and was gone!

For an instant it seemed that the people would go mad with the horror of it. Those two! Even the Fire Chief paused and seemed petrified. It was Billy who sensed the thing to do.

"Getcher canvas man? Are ya' asleep?"

And instantly a great piece of canvas was spread and lifted. But the building tottered, the flames ate on, and the window seemed entirely enveloped. The moment lasted too long for the hearts that waited. A groan rent the air. Then suddenly a breath seemed to part the flames and they saw the minister coming forward with Mark in his arms!

It was just at this instant that Lynn came flying down the street. She had kept the bells going till she knew all the help had come from a distance, and now she was coming to see if there was anything else for her to do. There before her she saw her father standing in that awful setting of fire, with Mark limp and lifeless in his arms! Then the flames licked up and covered the opening once more. Oh, God! Were they both gone?

Only for an instant more the suspense lasted, and then the cateclysm of fire came. The roof fell carrying with it the floors as it went, down, down, down, shuddering like a human thing as it went, the rain of fire pouring up and around in great blistering flakes and scorching the onlookers and lighting their livid faces as they stood transfixed with horror at the sight.

The canvas fluttered uselessly down and fire showered thick upon it. Timbers and beams crumbled like paper things and were no more. The whole flimsy structure had caved in!

Paralyzed with terror and sorrow the firemen stood gazing, and suddenly a boy's voice rang out: "Aw Gee! Git to work there! Whatterya doin'? Playin' dominoes? Turn that hose over there! That's where they fell. Say, you Jim, get that fire hook and lift that beam-! Aw Gee! Ya ain't gonta let 'em die, are ya,-? Them two!"

Billy had seized a heavy hose and was turning it on a central spot and Jim Rafferty caught the idea and turned his stream that way, and into the fire went the brave men, one and another, instantly, cheerfully, devotedly, the men who loved the two men in there. Dead or alive they should be got out if it killed them all. They would all die together. The Fire Chief stood close to Billy, and shouted his directions, and Billy worked with the tallest of them, black, hoarse and weary.

It seemed ages. It was hours. It was a miracle! But they got those two men out alive! Blackened and bruised and broken, burned almost beyond recognition, but they were alive. They found them lying close to the front wall, their faces together, Mark's body covered by the minister's.

Tender hands brought them forth and carried them gently on stretchers out from the circle of danger and noise and smoke. Eagerly they were ministered to, with oil and old linen and stimulants. There were doctors from Economy and one from Monopoly besides the Sabbath Valley doctor, who was like a brother to the minister and had known Mark since he was born. They worked as if their lives depended upon it, till all that loving skill could do was done.

Billy, his eyelashes and brows gone, half his hair singed off, one eye swollen shut and great blisters on his hands and arms, sat huddled and shivering on the ground between the two stretchers. The fire was still going on but he was "all in." The only thing left he could do was to bow his bruised face on his trembling knees and pray:

"Oh God, Ain't You gonta let 'em live-please!"

They carried Mark to the Saxon cottage and laid him on Billy's bed. There was no lack of nurses. Aunt Saxon and Christie McMertrie, the Duncannons and Mary Rafferty, Jim too, and Tom. It seemed that everybody claimed the honors. The minister was across the street in the Little House. They dared not move him farther. Of the two the case of the minister was the most hopeless. He had borne the burden of the fall. He had been struck by the falling timbers, his body had been a cover for the younger man. In every way the minister had not saved himself.

The days that followed were full of anxiety. There were a few others more or less injured in the fire, for there had been fearless work, and no one had spared himself. But the two who hung at the point of death for so long were laid on the hearts of the people, because they were dear to almost every one.

Little neighborhood prayer meetings sprang up quietly here and there, beginning at Duncannons. The neighbor on either side would come in and they would just drop down and pray for the minister, and for "that other dear brave brother." Then the Littles heard of it and called in a few friends. One night when both sufferers were at the crisis and there seemed little hope for the minister, Christie McMertrie called in the Raffertys and they were just on the point of kneeling down when Mrs. Harricutt ca

me to the door. She had been crying. She said she and her husband hadn't slept a wink the night before, they were so anxious for the minister. Christie looked at her severely, but remembering the commands about loving and forgiving, relented:

"Wull then, come on ben an' pray. Tom, you go call her husband! This is na time fer holdin' grudges. But mind, wumman, if ye coom heer to pray ye must pray with as mooch fervor for the healin' o' Mark Carter as ye do fer the meenister! He's beloved of the Lord too, an' the meenister nigh give his life for him."

And Mrs. Harricutt put up her apron to her eyes and entered the little haircloth parlor, while Tom, with a wry face went after the elder. The elder proved that underneath all his narrowness and prejudice he had a grain of the real truth, for he prayed with fervor that the Lord would cleanse their hearts from all prejudice and open their minds to see with heavenly vision that they might have power in prayer for the healing of the two men.

So, through the whole little village breaches were healed, and a more loving feeling prevailed because the bond of anxiety and love held them all together and drew them nearer to their God.

At last the day came when Mark, struggling up out of the fiery pit of pain, was able to remember.

Pain, fire, flame, choking gases, smoke, remorse, despair! It was all vague at first, but out of it came the memory slowly. There had been a fire. He had gone back up the ladder after Mrs. Blimm's baby. He remembered groping for the child in the smoke filled room, and bringing it blindly through the hall and back to the window where the ladder was, but that room had all been in flames. He had wished for a wet cloth across his face. He could feel again the licking of the fire as he passed the doorway. A great weight had been on his chest. His heart seemed bursting. His head had reeled, and he had come to the window just in time. Some one had taken the child-was it Billy?-or he would have fallen. He did fall. The memory pieced itself out bit by bit. He remembered thinking that he had entered the City of Fire literally at last, "the minarets" already he seemed to descry "gleaming vermilion as if they from the fire had issued." It was curious how those old words from Dante had clung in his memory. "Eternal fire that inward burns." He thought he was feeling now in his body what his soul had experienced for long months past. It was the natural ending, the thing he had known he was coming to all along, the road of remorse and despair. A fire that goes no more out! And this would last forever now! Then, someone, some strong arm had lifted him-God's air swept in-and for an instant there seemed hope. But only that little breath of respite and there came a cry like myriads of lost souls. They were falling, falling, down through fire, with fire above, below, around, everywhere. Down, down,-an abysmal eternity of fire, till his seared soul writhed from his tortured body, and stood aside looking on at himself.

There, there he lay, the Mark Carter that had started with life so fair, friends, prospects, so proud that he was a man, that he could conquer and be brave-so blest with opening life, and heaven's high call! And then-in one day-he had sinned and lost it all, and there he lay, a white upturned face. That was himself, lying there with face illumined by the fire, and men would call him dead! But he would not be dead! He would be living on with that inward fire, gnawing at his vitals, telling him continually what he might have been, and showing him what high heaven was that he had had, and lost. He saw it now. He had deliberately thrown away that heaven that had been his. He saw that hell was hell because he made it so, it was not God that put him there, but he had chosen there to go. And still the fire burned on and scorched his poor soul back into the body to be tortured more. The long weeks upon that bed seemed like an infinite space of burning rosy, oily flames poured upward from a lake of fire, down through which he had been falling in constant and increasing agony.

And now at last he seemed to be flung upon this peaceful shore where things were cool and soothing for a brief respite, that he might look off at where he had been floating on that molten lake of fire, and understand it all before he was flung back. And it was all so very real. With his eyes still closed he could hear the rushing of the flames that still seemed ascending in columns out a little way from shore, he could see through his eyelids the rosy hue of livid waters-of course it was all a hallucination, and he was coming to himself, but he had a feeling that when he was fully awake it would be even more terrible than now. Two grim figures, Remorse and Despair, seemed waiting at either hand above his bed to companion him again when he could get more strength to recognize them. And so he lay thus between life and death, and faced what he had done. Hours and hours he faced it, when they knew not if he was conscious yet, going over and over again those sins which he knew had been the beginning of all his walk away from Hope. On through the night and into the next morning he lay thus, sometimes drowsing, but most of the time alert and silent.

It was a bright and sparkling morning. There was a tang of winter in the air. The leaves were gone from the apple trees at the window and the bare branches tapped against the water spout like children playing with a rattle. A dog barked joyously, and a boy on the street shouted out to another-Oh, to be a boy once more! And suddenly Mark knew Billy was sitting there. He opened his eyes and smiled: There were bandages around his face, but he smiled stiffly, and Billy knew he was smiling.

"Kid," he said hoarsely from out the bandages, "This is God's world." It seemed to be a great thought that he had been all this time grasping, and had to utter.

"Sure!" said Billy in a low happy growl.

A long time after this, it might have been the next day, he wasn't sure, or perhaps only a few minutes, he came at another truth:

"Kid, you can't get away from God-even when you try."

"I'll say not," said Billy.

"But-when you've sinned-!" speculatively.

"You gotta get it off yer chest."

"You mean-confess?"

"Sure thing. Miss Lynn tells us in Sunday School about a fella in the Bible got downta eatin' with the pigs in a far country, an' when he come to himself he thought about his father's servants, an' he said 'I'll get up and beat it home an' say I'm sorry!'"

"I know," said Mark, and was still the rest of the day. But the next morning he asked the doctor how soon he might get up. This was the first real indication that Mark was on the mend, and the doctor smiled with satisfaction. He meant to take off some of the bandages that morning.

That afternoon with his head unswathed, Mark began to ask questions. Before that he had seemed to take everything for granted:

"Billy, where's the minister?" For Billy have never left his idol's side except when Aunt Saxon needed him to help.

"Oh, he's up to tha parsonage," responded Billy carelessly.

"But why hasn't he been to see me, Kid?"

"Why-he-hasn't been feelin' very good." Billy's voice was brisk as if it wasn't a matter of much moment.

Mark turned his thoughtful gray eyes steadily on Billy:

"Now, look here, Kid, I'm well, and there's no further need to camouflage. Billy, is the minister dead?"

"Not on yer tin type, he ain't dead!"

"Well, is he hurt?"

"Well, some," Billy admitted cheerfully.

"Kid, look me in the eye."

Billy raised a saucy eye as well masked as Mark's own could be on occasion.

"Kid, how much is he hurt! Tell me the truth! If you don't I'll get right up and go and see."

"I'll tell the world, you won't!" said Billy rising lazily and taking a gentle menacing step toward the bed.

"Kid!"

"Well-he's some hurt-but he's getting along fine now. He'll be aw'wright."

"How'd he get hurt?"

"Oh, the fire, same's you."

"How?" insisted Mark.

"Oh, he went up again after a fella when it was too late-"

"Billy, was it me?"

"Ugh huh!" nodded Billy.

Mark was so still that Billy was frightened. When he looked up worried he saw that a great tear had escaped out from under the lashes which were growing nicely now, and had rolled down Mark's cheek. Mark crying!

In consternation Billy knelt beside the bed:

"Aw Gee! Mark, now don't you feel like that. He's gettin' all right now they hope, an' Gee! He was great! You oughtta seen him!"

"Tell me about it," said Mark huskily.

"He just ran up that there ladder when it was shaking like a leaf, an' the wall beginning to buckle under it, an' he picked you up. Fer a minute there the flames kinda blew back, and we seen ya both, and then the roof caved, an' you all went down. But when we gotcha out he was layin' right atop of ya, 'ith his arms spread out, trying t'cover ya! Gee, it was great! Everybody was just as still, like he was preachin'!"

After a long time Mark said:

"Billy, did you ever hear the words, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend?'"

"Yep," said Billy, "That's in the Bible I think, if 'taint in Shakespeare. Miss Lynn said it over last Sunday. She says a lot of things from Shakespeare sometimes, and I kinda get'em mixed."

But Mark did not talk any more that day. He had a great deal to think about.

But so did Billy, for looking out the window in the direction of the parsonage he had sighted the big Shafton car stopping before the door that morning. "Aw Gee!" he said. "That sissy-guy again? Now, how'm I gonta get rid of him this time? Gee! Just when Mark's gettin' well too! If life ain't just one thing after another!"

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