Then Christs Fought Hard
UP to about four o’clock in the afternoon the people of the three towns — which clustered close together on the shores of the bay — enjoyed the fire hugely. It was Sunday, so of course everybody, young and old, came to view the novel and wondrous sight.
One of the seven immense storage tanks of the oil farm was on fire. It was a grand and at the same time an awe-inspiring spectacle. Monster black billow after billow, in quick succession, rose majestically high into the air, thrown with a tremendous yet silent force out of the gaping mouth of the giant tank. And every once in a while, between the billows, terrific tongues of flame would leap into the smoke, which glowed strangely in spite of the bright sunshine of a perfect day.
The cause of the fire was unique too. We live in the part of the world where ‘it never thunders.’ Still, the oil in the tank was ignited by lightning! There were people who said they had not seen lightning or heard thunder for the past ten years or more. However that may be, the fact is that at ten in the morning clouds gathered over our towns; there was a thunder storm for a few minutes, then a crash — and the tank was on fire. A few drops of rain fell. By noon the sky was as clear as ever. To the people this freak of nature was very intriguing. It was a novelty, and everybody was excited and eager: thousands came out to see the freak another freak had created.
Besides, the oil farm had a very advantageous position; there was ample room for the thousands to view the fire from every angle. The farm was situated between the old and the new towns. It was very large, and fenced in with a high fence painted green, the tanks themselves being painted in the same color. Right across its lower end was the Presidio, with its vast, bare, gently sloping hill, a veritable amphitheatre for the eager spectators; across its other end, and to its left, the new town began. Bordering the fence was the road which connected the two towns; where it ended by the upper Presidio gate the very broad street of the new town began. To the right of the farm was the government depot — a long wooden structure, filled with baled hay, grain, and so forth. From the road the farm sloped gently toward the bay. Just at the edge of it ran the railroad track. Below it stood the fine, solid, long pier of the oil company, to which, every so often, great tankers came, to take away the crude oil to its destination. To the left of the pier, and at no great distance, the row of canneries extended as far as our own town, which is practically one with the new town.
Between the main street of the new town and the canneries, and to the left of the farm, was the workmen’s quarter— long, narrow, un paved streets, bordered with sorry wooden shacks and cottages, crowded together. This quarter was separated from the farm by a street and a few vacant lots — there was only one cannery which stood in close proximity to the farm. The houses nearest to the farm were those which stood beside the Presidio gate.
Still, to one viewing the monstrous column of black smoke, easily a mile high, everything might have seemed dangerously near. However, up to lour in the afternoon I doubt if anybody even thought about it. The holiday crowd was out for great and carefree enjoyment.
And it enjoyed itself. Neighbor talked to neighbor excitedly, remembering his or her experiences in different fires. There was not a suspicion of a panic. Even the people of the two or three nearest houses were not apprehensive. But they certainly were very busy talking to the crowds below their porches. On the large porch of one of them — the second from the Presidio gate, standing almost opposite the burning tank — the master, in shirt sleeves, his Sunday paper still scattered about him, sat in a comfortable chair, explaining things to the intensely interested hundreds below him. The good mistress, still in a white morningapron, her fat arms still white from the flour of the Sunday pie, told to every newcomer the hundred-times-repeated (she certainly had a bit of practice!) story of how it all happened. How she’d seen a huge ball of flame descend upon the roof of the tank and break right over it—‘like a egg, my dear; and that’s how started yonder fire.’
So people forgot their lunches and watched.
The fire departments of the three towns and the Presidio were very busy indeed. All the fire hose available was used. The road, the street, the space between the tanks, were completely covered with the long, snakelike hose.
Firemen and soldiers clustered on the other tanks, wielding the heavy nozzles. They looked like small insects trying to do a thing that they did not understand in the least. There was much running and shouting everywhere. Children in numerous flocks jumped over the hose and climbed the fence, yelling in their great glee and exultation — everybody was excited and glad to be there.
But there was no wind. Most unusual for this part of the country — almost another freak of nature! Had there been even the slightest breeze I am sure the conflagration would have appeared in a different light to the gaping thousands. But there was not even a puff! After the electric storm the sky was absolutely clear, the air absolutely calm. The column of smoke rose very high in the air, then swerved gently toward the hay, crossed its many miles, and spread over the mountains on the opposite shore. It looked there as if half of the world were in blackness.
Yet about four in the afternoon the first breath of uneasiness swept over the multitude. By then the steel sides of the tank had caved in, reducing its height to half. The heat became intense; the crowd gave way a little. Mothers and fathers began to gather their children about them. There were no longer firemen or soldiers on the roofs of the near-by tanks, but they still crowded around, directing the water against the sides of the other tanks nearest to the fire to keep them cool.
Then the explosion. Suddenly, and utterly unexpectedly to everybody, the burning, boiling oil rose out of the tank and in dreadful, flaming waves splashed in all directions. It splashed over the road and the street. In a second, it seemed, the two nearest houses were in flames. The oil ran into the bay and burned there, spreading over the water.
The pier was in flames; so was the government depot. Another tank blew off its roof and belched forth the black monster billows.
Then the panic. Instantly the thousands realized what the calamity really meant. The multitudes swayed and ran. Hundreds lost their reason for the moment. Here and there women fainted. Here and there women ran frantically through the surging crowds, shrieking and calling their children. Horrible rumors spread like lightning. Fifty men were burned alive between the tanks; then sixty; then eighty. Some stammered in almost inhuman fright that the three towns were surely doomed.
By evening there was not a sold who did not think about wind. Wind was the danger. Men, women, and children were on their knees, praying most fervently for the blessed calm to endure.
Everywhere in the new town a most feverish activity reigned: people were making all haste to save their belongings. Every imaginable kind of vehicle was used. The working-quarter was a bedlam, a many-tongued bedlam — foreigners lived there.
At ten at night the second tank silently boiled over. One could not believe it, but it was true that the thick column of flame rose up more than a mile. The towns were immersed in an appallingly red light like that of day. It looked as if the flame simply had to fall down and swallow the many thousands of houses.
At eleven the gasoline drums began to explode. Real explosions these, dull and powerful, each one with its bright, intense, blinding lightning. The drums, some hundreds of them, were stored in a shed on the farm. The corrugatediron shed had gone by eleven.
Still more deadly rumor spread among the black figures that roamed the streets in that red glare. It was said that there was on the farm a fifty-thousand-gallon tank of gasoline. If that exploded! True, it was surrounded by a high, thick, concrete wall; true, between the wall and the steel of the tank were five feet of water. But what of that? The fire would come from above!
A beastly panic was at hand.
It was then that the Christs began their singular struggle.
Their champions were two women.
Of one I know nothing; of the other I know a great deal. In fact, she and her husband were my best friends. Were, I said; for, though the great fire took place rather recently, both of them have died since.
Mr. and Mrs. Meriweather lived in a most charming little house perched atop of a hill in the town next to the new one. It stood amid hollyhocks, nasturtiums, and geraniums, with a very trim hedge around it. There was a cosy little porch in front, half screened with ivy, and commanding a magnificent view of the bay. In a corner of the garden stood a quaint dovecote on a high pole, with several pairs of snow-white pigeons fluttering about. The place was peaceful, idyllic.
Mr. Meriweather had been a government employee for a great many years. After he had retired from the service, he chose this spot to build himself a home to live in, with his good wife, the remainder of his years. He was a very handy man, and it was with great love that he built that little home. Everything about it, or in it, had to be just so. He was immensely proud of it. How many times had he pointed out to me its marvelous and unique appointments, features, and comforts! Once or twice he even opened the closets, and made me pass my hand over the shelves to notice how smooth the board was! It was a modem home — electricity ruled there. Everything was done to save labor as much as possible, for the little housewife simply had to be spared. Yes, Mr. Meriweather loved his little home, but not more than his good wife loved it.
Mrs. Meriweather was a tiny little woman of seventy. Her hair was white and surprisingly abundant, and she dressed it in a most becoming way. Her small face was ivory-colored and covered with wrinkles. Yet it was a singularly beautiful face, with its largo black eyes — sparkling, kindly, intelligent, almost mischievous eyes — indeed as youthful as a girl ‘s. She was always dressed in white, from her fancy little lace cap to her shoes. She was a gay little body, all day long. Hers was a superhuman courage, hers was an indomitable character, for she had been an invalid for over thirty years; her heart was weak, very weak indeed.
Mr. Meriweather, on the other hand, was a tall, thin, gaunt, stooping six-footer. He was a little older than his wife; still his fine, silky hair was just turning gray. His face was long and bony, with a long nose and large, thick-lipped mouth, high cheek-bones, and long, deep wrinkles. It might have appeared a stem face but for the very merry twinkle in the gray eyes. He was kindness itself; and his love for Mrs. Meriweather was quite the most ideal thing I have ever seen. He was an excellent cook and knew all the intricacies of household duties quite well. He was an irreproachable nurse, which was very fortunate, for Mrs. Meriweather was forced at times to spend several weeks in bed.
They were ideally happy. Still there was a great sadness in their happiness — they never had any children.
Then, some years back, I came into their lives. They accepted me as their friend and child. This is not the place to say how much this meant to me. Suffice it only to mention that the eight or ten weeks which I spent with them every year were by far the happiest days of my life — a lonely life otherwise, since I was left an orphan very early in my boyhood.
I was, and still am, a student of biology. In this little town there was, and still is, a marine station with modern laboratories for extensive research work in science. When I came to the station for the first time, some friends recommended me to the Meriweather home for board and lodging. That is how I became acquainted with these wonderful people. And when I was away from the little town we kept in close touch with each other through letters. I want to state here that by far the finest letters I have ever read, in print or otherwise, were those written by Mrs. Meriweather. They were indeed literary gems.
That famous (for these three towns, at least) Sunday, we three were still in bed when the electric storm came. By mutual agreement the previous evening, since we had played ‘500’ quite late, we had decided to take life in a most leisurely manner the next day.
I must confess that I was wakened only by the thunderclap which had ignited the oil tank. At the same time I heard Mr. Meriweather’s deep basso floating from his room across the hall: —
‘Bingo! It never thunders in this land! Sure, now, here’s the exception to the rule. Only I would rather have the rule than the exception.’
This needed a commentary, and I supplied it; mine deserved another, and Mr. Meriweather promptly gave it out. So we kept it up merrily, till I happened to look through the window. It was my turn to proclaim a sensation, and I did right heartily.
‘The world’s on fire!’ was my tremendous revelation.
We all dressed hastily and went out on the porch. We too were quite eager; we too, I am afraid, enjoyed the novel spectacle. After a hasty breakfast I sallied forth to view the fire from a nearer point of vantage.
At dinner time (two in the afternoon on Sundays) I came back and reported to the Meriweathers what was happening. After dinner Mr. Meriweather and I went to the fire. When the first tank exploded we were on the Presidio hill, near enough to be caught in the clutches of the panic.
At supper we spoke very little about it. For we did not want to excite or frighten Mrs. Meriweather too much — though I must say that at that time she felt better than at any other period since I had known her.
However, after supper, when the darkness came, Mrs. Meriweather became uneasy. We were sitting on the porch. The sky — all of it — was now covered with the smoke, which looked a horrible phantasmagoria of billowy shapes and figures, lighted by the fitful red glare, which at times attained the intensity of lightning. The air, too, was close, still, unreal. And those awful rumors reached even our peaceful abode. Several machines and trucks of the fugitives passed our little street.
Suddenly, shortly after nine o’clock, Mrs. Meriweather got up and declared calmly: —
‘I want to go down; I want to be closer; I want to see.’
Needless to say, I was greatly alarmed, but Mr. Meriweather asked gently in his deep voice: —
‘Do you think you can make it, Mary?’
‘Why, of course I can, Abe! Like this,’ she said, taking my right arm and Mr. Meriweather’s left.
We went. The distance from our house to the oil farm was a little over two miles. The old family doctor had practically forbidden walking to Mrs. Meriweather, and I, knowing this, was worrying. I feared that she could not stand the exertion — a fear that later proved only too correct. But I said nothing. There was something in her manner that forbade me to speak. Mr. Meriweather understood his wife perfectly. With tender care he led her on and on, talking calmly the while about the great disaster.
Mrs. Meriweather went on slowly, steadily; she was silent, serious; she was listening and watching. Everywhere we passed groups of people, standing on the sidewalk or in the middle of the street, talking in hushed voices. One felt that a mysterious, potent, and evil fear was gripping at their souls.
The explosion of the second tank found us toward the middle of the main street in the new town. Its unspeakable dreadfulness rooted us to the spot. I confess I was frightened; nothing in my many war experiences (and I have witnessed the explosion of a huge, stone-built powder magazine at a time when thousands happened to be around) could have been compared with the silent soaring of the flames upward. This burning oil-tank explosion on a dark night was too ghastly, too horribly weird for mere human senses. Its peer, I am sure, will not spring into existence during our generation; even for our dangerously complicated modern times that would be too much.
I felt that Mrs. Meriweather trembled. But she emitted no sound. She watched, for a great many long seconds, the fiery-red tongue of flame mount higher and higher, shooting straight through the clouds of dense smoke. We stood there staring, aghast, blinded. Two minutes passed — and the monstrous mass of fire did not fall on the three towns. It was lost in the boundless spaces! Two more tanks were on fire. That was all.
But, there was no wind. Not even the slightest puff!
I thought that we were to return now. But no—Mrs. Meriweather moved slowly forward when our eyes got accustomed once more to the glare. Even the cries and shrieks of the small and large black phantoms that moved and ran about us did not daunt her.
Still I said nothing. But I did all I could to assist and support her, which, truth to tell, was superficial: she was quite vigorous, and I am sure she could have walked without any assistance whatever.
Soon we turned to the left, and two blocks farther down we turned to the right, entering one of those unpaved, dusty, dirty streets of the workmen’s quarter which ran parallel with the main street.
I tell you, the horrors of fear and fright and sheer panic that we saw and heard there were simply inhuman. One felt, more than ever, that man’s greatest enemy is fire, his best friend. This is true in life: that our best friends hurt us the most at times.
Finally we came to a point beyond which we could not go any farther — there was a cordon of soldiers barring the way. The spot was the crossroads of two streets, quite spacious, for on only two corners were there houses; the other two were lots, pastures for the poor people’s goats. It was about six blocks away from the oil farm. The heat was oppressive and rather stifling, but not intense. It was very light there — at times one could have seen a small button in the dust.
A crowd had gathered, composed of men, women, and children of the quarter. Strange faces, in that utterly unnatural light — mostly Italian and Portuguese; here and there, Japanese and Chinese. It was a curiously quiet crowd, behaving in a most peculiar manner. Some of its members were crossing themselves; some were kneeling; and some were craning their necks to see better what was going on in front. For something was happening there — just behind the soldiers, who stood mute and motionless. A highpitched, loud, angry voice was heard coming in gusts from behind them. Fear, that gripping, growing fear of the unknown and unexplainable, was in the air and in the hearts of the crowd.
We felt it, we three, as soon as we came near. What was happening there in front? Mrs. Meriweather wanted to see, so we pushed on. The people were kneeling. A tall, large woman stood before them. She had her face turned toward the horrid conflagration, and she held aloft, with both hands, a silver crucifix, which shone like fresh blood in the sun. And we heard her awful voice: —
‘Repent, ye sinners. Repent while there is time. For the end is nigh. The last judgment is come. Ye sinners, Christ has sent the fire to destroy this wicked world! Christ is come with the flame! On your knees, ye sinners, and pray, and repent! Oh, repent, sinners, ere the time is up! For time runneth short.’
One felt the unyielding force of her powerful personality; one was conquered by her sincerity, so eloquently expressed in her voice — the voice of a true fanatic. No wonder that the poor souls behind her writhed in fear, murmuring fervent prayers to the awful deity of vengeance.
Suddenly the woman turned toward the trembling crowd and, waving her shining cross, exclaimed dramatically:
‘Aye, for time runneth short! The storm and wind will strike the earth now to scatter yonder flames. I hear the wind in the air; it bloweth shrilly. Verily it is the trumpets of the last judgment. I hear them! The wind cometh! Repent, oh, repent!’
The crowd swayed, horror-stricken. Several women wailed loudly. Yes, the motley crowd understood her — how well! The wind! That was the crux — that was all.
In front of them four huge tanks belched forth living flames; and above them the clouds of smoke, all red and monstrous, mocked at them with their unearthly fantasies of whirling and dancing.
Yes, here was a beastly panic and agony.
Mrs. Meriweather, the while, was silent, gazing at the woman. She held my arm firmly; and once or twice I felt her shake violently.
‘Oh, poor lambs! This is inhuman !’ I heard her whisper, after the last outcry of the woman.
Then, without a warning as to what she was about to do, she let go of my arm and, stepping carefully around the kneeling figures, went to the woman and stood beside her, looking intently into her face. Then she smiled. I saw the smile; it will remain in my memory till my dying moment. It was a smile of boundless sympathy and pity — as a loving mother would smile forgiveness to a wayward daughter. Then she faced the crowd, and in her sweet, high voice said: —
‘Christ is our best friend, people. He would rather be crucified again than see His friends suffer. Why, my dears, He cries when the little finger of a little child is hurt! He loves every one of you, and He will protect you. He will, never fear. And I tell you now that the wind will not come. He will not permit it. I know, my good people.’
‘The wind will not come!' she said, and the crowd understood. It surged toward her. It was almost jubilant! Hope was born then and there. Mrs. Meriweather gave it birth.
And the woman with the crucifix? She stood her ground like the very fanatics of old. She was surprised when Mrs. Meriweather came to her side and spoke comfort to the people, but in an instant she accepted the challenge. With exultant eagerness, too. The cross waved more fiercely than before, and the woman exclaimed, as soon as Mrs. Meriweather stopped speaking: —
‘ Do not be deceived, ye sinners. You know you are filled with sin. You know what the Bible — God’s own words — says about the last judgment. Beware, I say unto you! This fire is the sign of God. He Himself sent the thunder that started yonder fire. Who dares deny that?’
‘ I. ‘ Immediately Mrs. Meriweather lifted her voice. ‘God is goodness and mercy. He has nothing to do with directing thunder. Thunder and lightning are Nature’s, my children. Lightning strikes where it is most convenient for it to strike. And man can protect himself from it quite easily. God does not object to that. On the contrary, He wants him to; He gave him brains for it. This fire was started by man’s stupidity and carelessness. That is all. Do not fear, people. Do not fear wind. It will not come. Christ will not permit it. I know.’
‘Do not be deceived! I warn ye, people! ‘ thundered the woman. ‘ Christ will send the wind and storm. The words of the Bible will be fulfilled to-night.’
‘But it’s calm; where’s the wind?’ Mrs. Meriweather asked, just the least bit mockingly.
‘I heard it! It’s coming! I hear it!’ the woman exulted.
‘I don’t. Do you, people? Of course not — not the slightest breeze even!’ was the prompt thrust.
And so the battle began.
It raged for hours, this fierce battle of the two Christs.
Mrs. Meriweather, so tiny, so frail, appeared to us during those hours like a spiritual giant; the people in the crowd felt that she was one with the spirits of goodness of the boundless spaces. Hope, without which no being could live a moment, was simply pouring out of her little person, in such torrents that even the iciest heart was warmed by it. For her courage, her faith, her hope, were perfect, infinite.
She stood erect, her hands at her sides; she never moved. But the voice! That sweet, wonder-working voice was her weapon. Even the soldiers, themselves badly frightened by the fanatic woman, began to warm up and move about, and finally they clustered around Mrs. Meriweather.
When my first daze — and I most certainly was dazed by her unexpected action — was spent, I anxiously touched Mr. Meriweather’s arm.
‘This will kill her,’ I whispered.
He did not hear me. With his hands folded before him, the tall man stood like a statue, gazing intently at his wife. I looked closer, and saw large tears slowly sliding down his bony cheeks. I too had to swallow something that stuck in my throat many a time and in quick succession before I was able to repeat my words.
He then turned toward me, stooped a little, and smiled.
Kill her? No. She loves a good fight! was the shrewd statement of this wise old Yankee.
Still, a minute or two later I heard him whisper to himself, ‘No; not now.’
‘But we’d better help her,’ he added hastily, and we moved cautiously to her side.
She looked first at her husband — so proudly! Then she lifted her wondrous eyes to me, took my hand, and whispered: —
‘My good boy! Now we must win!’
And wanning she was. But victory came slowly. For so many things — the real, tangible, horrible, and dreadful things of that gruesome night — were against her. The fight had to be fought till dawn. For the other woman was a tower of strength. Her sincerity was amazing; one felt that she believed absolutely every word that she uttered. And the horrors of the night — all of them — were in her favor. And she never missed one of them — she used them most skillfully and convincingly.
First came the explosions of the gasoline drums; then, at two in the morning, with an interval of only ten minutes, the third and the fourth tanks exploded. These were the most staggering blows to Mrs. Meriweather’s Christ — the other Christ almost carried the field. Then, a little later, at the change of the tide, the burning oil spread over the bay, moving slowly toward the canneries. Then, shortly after three, there was a suspicion of wind! What agonizing moments we lived through during that fateful hour before the dawn! At that time all of the seven tanks were afire. Only, one could see that the first three were just smoking, the first one quite languidly; and the suspicion of wind died down.
So the fight went on. And the souls in the crowd swayed to and fro, now toward despair, now toward hope.
And Mrs. Meriweather stood it all. More than that: during all those hours she never showed even the faintest sign of exhaustion. At moments she was positively exultant.
‘I could sing, son!’ she would whisper to me now and then.
Yet the victory came with such appalling case! Aside from the fact that the wind did not come, the monstrous billows of smoke never even swerved. They mounted straight, like so many gigantic columns, big enough to support the whole of the universe! Mrs. Meriweather triumphed easily at the end because the woman made a fatal mistake. Just before dawn she declared that the day would never come. (Poor woman; even I could have believed it. That night—a summer night, too —was the longest in my whole existence.)
But the day did come! Oh, it was a ghastly enough morning, but it was morning just the same. And Mrs. Meriweather, like the marvelous captain she was, made the most of it — in fact, used the woman’s declaration for the decisive blow. When the sun, a weird, huge red ball, shone through the smoke, she lifted her sweet voice for the last time.
‘There’s the good old sun, my good people. It is going to be such a beautiful day! And you see for yourselves there is no wind. Don’t fear or worry any more. For the wind won’t come even to-day. Now go home and rest. But remember, your best friend is and always will be your good Christ! Go home, my dears.’
And the crowd began to disperse quietly. Many, many, however, came to kiss that tiny white hand, reverently, so reverently! And the little woman let them do it.
And the other woman? I don’t know what happened to her. Just after the victory two or three ugly shouts were heard, but they were speedily hushed up. I did not notice when she moved away from the crowd.
When all was over, Mrs. Meriweather suddenly sagged on our hands.
The little house on the hill was peaceful that morning. Outside, birds sang merrily and the pigeons cooed sweetly. Inside, in Mrs. Meriweather’s room, a soft twilight still lingered. She was in her bed. She was still, her eyes closed. The little face was as pale as that of a dead person, yet there was a faint smile on it. Mr. Meriweather sat at the foot of the bed, watching, hardly breathing. I stood by the window, thinking — but those thoughts could not be expressed by mere words on a piece of paper.
At length she opened her eyes and looked at us, smiling as no mother ever smiled on her beloved ones. Then she turned her head toward the window and watched the hollyhocks. But they were absolutely still in their colored glory. After a while she said, with boundless sweetness: —
‘Did n’t He fight nobly! And He’s still fighting!’
She never got up from that bed.
The damage of the conflagration ran into millions. But what of that? It is forgotten now, completely. The little woman, I am positive, will live for many a day to come in the hearts of those to whom she gave hope at the moment when hope was dead. Yes, she will live there — and her Christ will live there, too.