Here to return to
BEFORE THE FIRE.
SATURDAY evening, Nov. 9, 1872, has passed into the history of Boston, and will long darken its pages, even as Sept. 2, 1666, startles the reader of the annals of London, and as Oct. 7, 1871, chills the chronicler of Chicago’s trials. The contrast between the calm and almost solemn peace which characterized the hour of sunset on the evening of the fire in Boston, and the tumult and din which followed close upon the alarm, was as great as could be imagined. Boston was ever quiet on Saturday evenings; for though the animus of the old Puritanic rules was gone, yet the conservative, steady people had not outgrown the habit of “keeping Saturday night.” The stores closed earlier, the dinner-tables were spread sooner, than on other days; and that evening in the streets impressed the stranger with the thought that it was still observed as a part of the sacred sabbath.
An hour before the fire, the writer traversed several of the principal thoroughfares, and felt that loneliness which pervades the silent, half-abandoned streets of a great city. At the railway stations, and on the corners of those streets by which the several lines of horse-cars passed, there were collected little groups of men and women, waiting for the conveyances which should take them to their homes in the suburbs; but the great arteries of the city’s business-life were unusually deserted, and the sound of a passing vehicle started strange echoes among the columns and doorways of the silent piles of masonry. But no street nor byway of all the thoroughfares of Boston was more deserted and lonely than was Summer Street, — that great depository of wealth, on the corner of which the fire was first discovered; only one or two lighted doorways from Washington Street to Broad Street; while, with but rarely an exception, the windows were dark, with curtains and shutters carefully and securely closed. Occasionally there were footsteps to be heard, as some late clerk hastened down the sidewalk toward the Boston, Hartford, and Erie Railway station; and at the corner of Summer and Arch Streets, as late as seven o’clock, there could have been seen a little company of men discussing the presidential election with grotesque gesticulations.
Boston was happy. There were instances where men closed their shutters that night with the thought that perhaps they should never open them; and one case is related of a proprietor residing at the South End, who was so strongly impressed “that something was going to happen,” that he returned to his closed store after having gone a part of his way home, and took from the safe bonds, notes, and several valuable books, which would otherwise have been totally destroyed. But the great masses that go to make up that staid old city were as happy and confident as men well could be. It is true that “most sacrilegious murder” had astounded the people of Cambridge but a few days before, and was still the principal theme of discussion in the Boston press. It is also to be remembered that the horse-disease, which had for several weeks deprived the people of conveyance, and business of its usual life, had discouraged and alarmed some, and furnished food for fun with many others. For many days before the fire, the horse-cars had ceased to run; and it was only on the previous day that the corporations felt safe to run them with any degree of regularity. Hand-carts, drays, express-wagons, and even hacks, had been drawn by men; and, in some cases, squads of employés, dragging heavily-loaded wagons through the streets, were preceded by brass bands playing “Oh, dear! what can the matter be?” For a while, the heavy drayage was done exclusively with oxen.
London had its plague as a forerunner of its greatest conflagration; and so had Boston. London’s visitation sent disease among the people: Boston’s malady fell upon the horses. Londoners fled in dismay from shop, quay, and home; while Bostonians remained, worked and joked, and made the best of it.
One correspondent went so far as to say that the coming calamity might have been predicted by the ominous signs which preceded it, and suggested the ludicrous theory, that while no phantom ships or armies were seen in the heavens, and no ghosts squeaked and gibbered in the open streets, yet “the fatal accidents in Lowell, Hartford, and Providence, the death of Americans by the cholera, the spread of the small-pox, and the general gloom,” should have foretold disaster. The same writer quoted the sadness which he said prevailed at the annual post-election dinner of the Boston press, held that evening at the Revere House, as a proof of his superstitious ideas. The fact was, that the frequent references made to beloved members of the editorial fraternity who had died within the year naturally threw a shade of sadness over the whole assembly; but that occasion was, on the whole, a very pleasant and interesting one.
There was a suicide in Appleton Street, a robbery in Commercial Street, and affrays in Elm and North Streets; there was news of the lost by the burning steamer in West-India waters; there were falls in stocks; there were unabated taxes; it was a hard time to obtain money; and there were trial, trouble, sickness, and death, as there had been almost every day for a century, and as there will be, perhaps, for a million centuries more. If there were deaths, there were also recoveries and births. If there were new sorrows and new disasters, so there were new joys and much unexpected prosperity.
Boston was happy; and, in all her throngs of cheerful faces, none were more gleeful than they who had just closed their shutters, covered their counters, in buildings so soon to crumble and fall. Even the working-girls from the fifth stories of gigantic warehouses skipped along towards their homes that evening as gayly and gladly as though there was much of joy in hard work, and the world was not so bad a world after all.
“Heaven from all creatures bides the book of fate,
All but the page prescribed, — the present state.”
Faces smiled as sweetly, and diamonds flashed as beautifully, in the parlors and halls of the millionnaire’s mansions, the music was as stirring, and the voices chimed as melodiously in the suburban homes, that evening, as they ever had done before.
Even after the repeated alarms and the glowing of the cloudless sky, which naturally told of the dreadful destruction, merchants gathered their dressing-gowns closer, merely placed their slippered feet nearer the registers, and carelessly remarked, “There’s a fire somewhere.” Of course, it could not be in or near their buildings! The same stolid faith for which Boston was ridiculed in 1762 had lost but little of its strength that night; and, while that religious faith which had ever characterized her people appeared to lose none of its tenacity, their confidence in themselves, their trade, their buildings, and their institutions, increased with every prosperous year. So when the bells clangored of fire at “No. 52,” and they heard the rumble of the fire-engine as it hastened by their doors, they thought that but one building could burn. In some instances, men slept sweetly all night whose wealth was being destroyed in Franklin Street, although the lurid glare of the volcano played about their pillows, and made ghastly shadows on the window laces and shutters: and, if they waked at all, it was to murmur, “The fire is at Box 52; and that is a long way from my store.”
The weather was clear and calm, and all nature was taking a season of unusual repose. The moon, which came up so bright and beautiful, saw but few clouds; and its light rested upon the bay, the islands, the hills, and the city, as softly and serenely as when Grecian poets first sang in its praise.
The State House, which crowned the city, rested as silently and grandly on Beacon Hill as ever, with the eyes of political mariners still turned toward it from every stormy, diplomatic ocean, as men looked toward that spot in the ancient years, when beacon-fires lighted the sailors through the dangerous straits into the peaceful harbor.
Peaceful Boston, the birthplace of intellectual and physical freedom in its best form, can it be that you must pass through fire? Strange, indeed, are the ways of the Almighty!