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- Barriers Burned Away - 70/81 -
Indeed, she often introduced them.
Chafing her hands, he said in accents of the deepest sympathy, "How I pity you, Miss Ludolph! It must indeed be terrible to possess your thoughtful mind, to realize these scenes so keenly, and yet have no faith in a Divine Friend. I cannot explain to you the mystery of evil--why it came, or why it exists. Who can? I am but one of God's little children, and only know with certainty that my Heavenly Father loves and will take care of me."
"How do you know it?" she asked, eagerly.
"In several ways. Mainly because I feel it."
"It all seems so vague and unreal," she sighed, dreamily. "There is nothing certain, assured. There is no test by which I can at once know the truth."
"That does not prevent the truth from existing. That some are blind is no proof that color does not exist."
"But how can you be sure there is a God? You never saw Him."
"I do not see the heat that scorches us, but I feel it, and know it exists."
"But I feel the heat the same as yourself, and I have no consciousness of a Divine Being."
"That does not take away my consciousness that He is my Saviour and Friend. As yet you are spiritually dead. If you were physically dead, you would not feel the heat of this fire."
"Oh, it is all mystery--darkness," she cried, piteously.
The sun had now risen quite above the waters of the lake, but seen through the lurid smoke which swept over its face, it seemed like one of the great red cinders that were continually sailing over their heads. In the frightful glare, the transition from night to day had scarcely been noted. The long, narrow beach was occupied by thousands of fugitives, who were hemmed in on every side. On the south was the river, skirted with fire, while opposite, on the west, the heat was almost intolerable; on the east were the cold waves of the lake, and on the north a burning pier that they could not cross. Their only hope was to cling to that narrow line where fire and water mingled, and with one element to fight the other. Here again was seen the mingling of all classes which the streets and every place of refuge witnessed. Judges, physicians, statesmen, clergymen, bankers, were jostled by roughs and thieves. The laborer sat on the sand with his family, side by side with the millionaire and his household. The poor debauched woman of the town moaned and shivered in her scant clothing, at a slight remove from the most refined Christian lady. In the unparalleled disaster, all social distinctions were lost, levelled like the beach on which the fugitives cowered. From some groups was heard the voice of prayer; from others, bitter wailings and passionate cries for lost members of the family; others had saved quantities of vile whiskey, if nothing else, and made the scene more ghastly by orgies that seemed not of earth. Added to the liquor were the mad excitement and recklessness which often seize the depraved classes on such occasions. They committed excesses that cannot be mentioned-these drunken, howling, fighting wretches. Obscene epithets and words fell around like blows. And yet all were so occupied with their own misfortunes, sufferings, and danger, as scarcely to heed their neighbors, unless these became very violent.
Upon this heterogeneous mass of humanity the fire rained down almost as we imagine it to have fallen upon the doomed cities of the plain, and the hot breath of the flames scorched the exposed cheek and crisped even eyebrows and hair. Sparks, flakes, cinders, pieces of roof, and fiery pebbles seemed to fill the air, and often cries and shrieks announced that furniture and bedding which had been dragged thither, and even the clothing of women and children, were burning. Added to all the other terrors of the scene was the presence of large numbers of horses and cattle, snorting and plunging in their fright and pain.
But the sound that smote Dennis's heart with the deepest commiseration was the continuous wail of helpless little children, many of them utterly separated from parents and friends, and in the very agony of fear.
He greatly dreaded the effect of these upon Christine, knowing how, in the luxurious past, she had been shielded from every rough experience. But she at length rallied into something like composure. Her constitution was elastic and full of vitality, and after escaping from immediate danger she again began to hope. Moreover, to a degree that even she could not understand, his presence was a source of strength and courage, and her heart clung to him with desperate earnestness, believing him the sole barrier against immediate death, and (what she dreaded scarcely less) a lonely, wretched existence, should her life be spared.
Though he never lost sight of her for a moment, and kept continually wetting her hair and person, he found time to render assistance to others, and, by carrying his hat full of water here and there, extinguished many a dangerous spark. He also, again and again, snatched up little children from under the trampling hoofs of frightened horses.
As she watched him, so self-forgetful and fearless, she realized more and more vividly that he was sustained and animated by some mighty principle that she knew nothing of, and could not understand. The impression grew upon her that he was right and she wrong. Though it all remained in mystery and doubt, she could not resist the logic of true Christian action.
But as the day advanced the flames grew hotter, and their breath more withering. About noon Dennis noticed that some shanties on the sand near them were in danger of catching fire and perilling all in that vicinity. Therefore he said, "Miss Ludolph, stay here where I leave you for a little time, so that I may know just where to find you."
"Oh, do not leave me!" she pleaded: "I have no one in the wide world to help me except you."
"I shall not be beyond call. You see those shanties there; if possible we must keep them from burning, or the fire will come too near for safety." Then, starting forward, he cried, "Who will volunteer to keep the fire back? All must see that if those buildings burn we shall be in danger."
Several men stepped forward, and with hats and anything that would hold water they began to wet the old rookeries. But the fiery storm swooped steadily down on them, and their efforts were as futile as if they had tried to beat back the wind. Suddenly a mass of flame leaped upon the buildings, and in a moment they were all ablaze.
"Into the lake, quick!" cried Dennis, and all rushed for the cool waters.
Lifting Christine from the sand, and passing his arm around her trembling, shivering form, he plunged through the breakers, and the crowd pressed after him. Indeed they pushed him so far out in the cold waves that he nearly lost his footing, and for a few moments Christine lost hers altogether, and added her cries to those of the terror-stricken multitude. But pushing in a little nearer the shore, he held her firmly and said with the confidence that again inspired hope: "Courage, Miss Ludolph. With God's help I will save you yet."
Even as she clung to him in the water, she looked into his face. He was regarding her so kindly, so pitifully, that a great and generous impulse, the richest, ripest fruit of her human love, throbbed at her heart, and faltered from her lips--"Mr. Fleet, I am not worthy of this risk on your part. If you will leave me you can save your own life, and your life is worth so much more than mine!"
True and deep must have been the affection that could lead Christine Ludolph to say such words to any human being. There was a time when, in her creed, all the world existed but to minister to her. But she was not sorry to see the look of pained surprise which came into Dennis's face and to hear him say, very sadly: "Miss Ludolph, I did not imagine that you could think me capable of that. I had the good fortune to rescue Miss Brown last night, at greater peril than this, and do you think I would leave you?"
"You are a true knight, Mr. Fleet," she said, humbly, "and the need or danger of every defenceless woman is alike a sacred claim upon you."
Dennis was about to intimate that, though this was true in knightly creed, still among all the women in the world there might be a preference, when a score of horses, driven before the fire, and goaded by the burning cinders, rushed down the beach, into the water, right among the human fugitives.
Again went up the cry of agony and terror. Some were no doubt stricken down not to rise again. In the melee Dennis pushed out into deeper water, where the frantic animals could not plunge upon him. A child floated near, and he snatched it up. As soon as the poor brutes became quiet, clasping Christine with his right arm and holding up the child with the other, he waded into shallow water.
The peril was now perhaps at its height, and all were obliged to wet their heads, to keep even their hair from singeing. Those on the beach threw water on each other without cessation. Many a choice bit of property--it might be a piano, or an express-wagon loaded with the richest furs and driven to the beach as a place of fancied security--now caught fire, and added to the heat and consternation.
When this hour of extreme danger had passed, standing with the cold billows of the lake breaking round him, and the billows of fire still rolling overhead, Dennis began to sing in his loud, clear voice:
"Jesus, lover of my soul, Let me to thy bosom fly, While the billows near me roll, While the tempest still is high."
Voice after voice joined in, some loud and strong, but others weak and trembling--the pitiful cry of poor terror-stricken women to the only One who it seemed could help them in their bitter extremity. Never before were those beautiful words sung in such accents of clinging, touching faith. Its sweet cadence was heard above the roar of the flames and the breakers.
Christine could only cling weeping to Dennis.
When the hymn ceased, in harshest discord the voice of a half-drunken man grated on their ears.
"An' what in bloody blazes does yer Jasus burn us all up for, I'd like to know. Sure an' he's no right to send us to hell before our time."
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