Burning of the Brooklyn Theatre Part 4

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This was in 1871, and Conn was in his twenty-second year. As the steamer bearing him away left his native sh.o.r.es in the dim distance, he lifted up a prayer to the Most High to guide him aright in his new undertaking, and he inwardly resolved that he would some day return socially the equal of the girl he loved. He could then dare to ask her hand in marriage.

Five years pa.s.sed away, spent by our hero in a persistent, laborious struggle toward the goal he had marked in life. His efforts were rewarded, and he had not been long among the indolent Chilians before his superior strength of intellect lifted him above all compet.i.tors, and a stream of wealth steadily poured toward him. A great railroad was projected, and Conn--we still preserve the familiar t.i.tle--had the sole contract to build and equip it. The determination was to provide the travelling public with all manner of modern conveniences, and to encourage home industries, car and locomotive works, rolling mills, machine shops, etc., were established, and Conn started for home to engage skilled labor in all the different departments.

He arrived safely in Brooklyn, and at once proceeded towards his old home, his heart overflowing with joy as he fancied the surprise and rejoicing of his parents at his unexpected return. The old house looked doubly familiar as he approached it, but no welcome light shone from the windows. He knocked long and loudly at the door, but receiving no response he was about turning away, when a woman in an adjoining house raised the window and asked him what he desired.

"I was in search of Mr. and Mrs. Daly," said Conn. "Can you tell me if they still live here?"

"They still live here," replied the woman, "but they went to New York early this morning to visit some friends, and will not be back until tomorrow."

Thanking the woman for this information Conn turned away, and with aimless steps walked down the street. He pa.s.sed a theatre, resplendent with light, and joined the throng of gayly-dressed pleasure-seekers, filing into the building. He asked for a ticket at the box-office, but was told that all reserved seats had been taken, and that only gallery tickets were procurable.

"That will do," he said, and, taking the bit of pasteboard ent.i.tling him to a seat, pa.s.sed up the long, winding stairs to the gallery, and took a position in the front row of seats.

It was a remarkable coincidence that Miss Nettie Morgan had accepted an invitation to visit the same theatre that evening. Mr. George St.

Clair Fitzherbert, a young gentleman of elegant leisure, considerable wealth and few brains--nevertheless aristocratically connected, and therefore a welcome visitor at the Morgan mansion--had purchased two orchestra seats in the most eligible locality, and invited Miss Nettie to do him the honor of sharing one of them. Now Nettie failed to have a very high regard for George St. Clair Fitzherbert's aristocratic connections, leisurely habits, wealth, etc.; in fact she had been known to call him a "conceited b.o.o.by," but Miss Nettie was fond of the theatre; she very much desired to see the "Two Orphans," and therefore did the young scion of aristocracy "the honor."

The interval before the appearance of the orchestra was devoted by Conn to a careful survey of the theatre and the audience. Just as the overture began Miss Nettie and her aristocratic escort entered, and the former was immediately recognized by Conn. Instantly all interest in the play was lost. He had eyes and thoughts only for Nettie Morgan. If one had asked Conn the next day the simplest question about the play, it is doubtful if he could have answered it. Miss Nettie, unconscious of this idolatrous adorer's silent, soul-enraptured worship, gave all her sympathies to the troubles and heart-griefs of the "Two Orphans." More than once tears sprang to her eyes at the pathetic situations.

_The Cry of Fire._

The curtain was rung up on the last scene of the last act. It was the hut of the _Frochards_ on the bank of the river Seine. It discovered the blind girl _Louise_ on her pallet of straw, over whom was bending _Pierre Frochard_. Suddenly the actors heard whispers of "Fire, fire,"

and a shuffling to and fro behind the scenery. Mr. Murdoch, who was playing _Pierre_, also heard the alarm, and Miss Claxton (_Louise_) whispered to him:

"The stage is on fire!"

The play went on, _Louise_ and _Pierre_ continuing to recite their parts. When Mrs. Farren, as _Pierre's_ mother, rushed in and, as the action of the play demanded, seized _Louise_ by the hair and pulled her head violently backward, Miss Claxton's eyes were turned upward, and then she saw little tongues of flame playing over her head and licking up the flies at the top of the scenes. There were now four persons on the stage: Miss Claxton, Mrs. Farren, J. B. Studley and H. S. Murdoch.

As they went on with the play, they whispered to one another about the fire and exhorted one another to do everything possible to prevent a panic in the audience. They thought that the flames might yet be extinguished without consuming the stage, and Miss Claxton said to Mr.


"Go on, go on, or there'll be a panic. They'll put the fire out from behind."

In the latter part of the scene, where _Pierre_ approaches _Louise_, and she draws back, exclaiming, "I forbid you to touch me!" Mr.

Studley, as _Pierre_, turned his back to the audience upon approaching Miss Claxton, and whispered to her, while the burning beams above were almost ready to fall upon them, and they knew it:

"Be quiet! Stand perfectly still!" and extending his arms, Miss Claxton remained immovable.

The audience had not yet discovered the fire; but after the pa.s.sionate exclamation, "I forbid you to touch me!" Miss Claxton glanced upward at the roaring flames that were now leaping from scene to scene, and hesitated, uncertain what to do. At this moment those sitting in the body of the house caught sight of the red flames at the top of the stage. Instantly wild cries of "Fire!" "Fire!" were heard, and the people sprang to their feet terrified, and rushed, stumbling over the seats and crushing one another, toward the entrance.

Cinders were then falling upon the stage, and Miss Claxton, Mrs.

Farren, Mr. Murdoch, and Mr. Studley advanced together to the footlights with panic written on their faces. Mr. Studley, in his stentorian tones, shouted to the affrighted people that they were safe if they kept quiet.

"There will, of course," he said, "be no further performance, but you've all time to get out if you go quietly."

Several persons in the orchestra were recalled to their senses by these words, and they sat down again. The men appeared to be more excited than the women. The aristocratic Fitzherbert, at the first alarm, was seized with a most uncontrollable fear--his blase face was the color of chalk, and his thin legs knocked together like reeds shaken by the winter wind. Forgetting all else but his own person in a selfish scramble for safety, he started to his feet and was rushing away. Miss Nettie, although terrified beyond measure, had presence of mind enough left to see that haste would only increase the danger. She caught her frightened escort by the hand, and pulled him into the seat beside her.

"Don't run," she cried; "we will get out better if we go slowly."

The musicians in the orchestra were urging the people to retire quietly, and so were the actors. Fitzherbert instinctively turned his eyes toward them, and saw a ma.s.s of flame back of the actors, with bits of burning wood dropping down, and the sight seemed to craze him.

He started to his feet, tore violently away from Miss Nettie, and dashed into the crowd struggling to escape. The instinct of self-preservation had overcome reason, and the struggle for life became fierce and uncontrollable.

As her escort thus basely deserted her, Nettie's self-possession fled, and with a low moan of anguish she sank back upon the seat and covered her face with her hands.

_The Rescue--Facing Death._

Intent on watching Nettie, Conn saw little of the play. When the first cry of "Fire" was raised, he started to his feet and leaned eagerly forward. He saw the sparks falling upon the stage among the actors--heard Miss Claxton cry:

"Will the people keep their seats? We are between you and the flames, and will be burned first. Will the people in the front seats sit down?"

Then he saw the people in the orchestra seats pause for a moment, saw the frightened look on the face of Fitzherbert as Nettie pulled him down beside her, and then, as the coward basely deserted her, he sprang upon the gallery railing, lowered himself to the family circle, from thence down into the body of the house, and in a moment was by the side of the girl he so pa.s.sionately loved.

She started when he placed his hand upon her shoulder, and then, as her eyes encountered the hungry flames reaching out their long arms, and consuming with lightning rapidity the canvas scenes, hid her face again and shuddered convulsively.

Conn, with his hand still upon her shoulder, looked in the same direction. The beams, supporting the roof of the boat-house, were falling in all directions, and the actors, conscious of their imminent peril, were in the act of rushing from the stage through a perfect rain of fire. As they disappeared a bright tongue of flame shot out over their heads toward the audience. It was like a transformation scene in a spectacle. The musicians were disappearing under the stage.

Liberty seemed to lie in that direction.

"Come, Miss Nettie," cried Conn. "We must not perish. I will save you."

She started up with a look of surprise, but uttered no word, and throwing his strong arm around her slender waist, Conn dragged rather than led her toward the little door that gave exit to the musicians.

In a moment they were under the stage groping around blindly in the dark, while the angry flame hissed and crackled overhead with a sullen, ominous roar. Supporting the beautiful girl, Conn darted toward a door through which he saw some of the actors disappear. He found himself in a little entry, dimly lighted by a single gas burner.

It was a subterranean pa.s.sage under the floor to the box office in front of the house. Pushing the beautiful girl before him, Conn sprang into this seeming haven of safety, and as the door closed behind him, the angry flames, fanned by the draught, almost licked the clothes from his back. Rapidly fleeing along the pa.s.sage way, the pair reached a flight of steps, at the head of which was a door. He strove to open it, but his efforts were resisted.

"Great G.o.d!" he cried; "it is locked."

Nettie answered with a moan of anguish, and the sight of her face, ethereally beautiful in its paleness, nerved him to desperation. He stepped back a few paces, and threw his entire weight upon the door.

It shivered, swayed, and gave way, admitting them into the box office.

There was yet another door to pa.s.s through, leading into the lobby, through which the maddened mult.i.tude was struggling. Resting a moment, Conn again dashed forward and burst the door open against the struggling throng. In an instant the two were in the midst of the frenzied mob, who fought and struggled for life with the desperation of mad men. Men and women were being trampled upon by those behind them, and the former were as terror-stricken as the latter. The glare in the street, and the smoke in the corridor, enhanced the terror of those seeking an exit.

"Cling closely to me," Conn whispered in the ear of the beautiful creature in his arms. Raising aloft his strong right arm, he tightened his hold upon Nettie's waist, and swaying from right to left, fighting down all opposition, was in a minute in the thickest of the throng.

The two were lifted off their feet instantly, and carried out into the street with the surging ma.s.s.

A carriage was standing near, and into it Conn hurried his half-fainting charge. Directing the coachman to drive with all speed to the address he gave him, Conn leaned again into the carriage, and this time dared to s.n.a.t.c.h a kiss from her pale lips.

"G.o.d bless you, Miss Nettie, my darling!" he cried; and bursting into tears, the beautiful girl could only cry,

"You have saved my life; I shall never forget you."

Again he ventured to touch his lips to her cheek, and then, closing the door of the carriage, he bade the coachman drive with all haste, and hurried back toward the burning theatre.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Burning of the Brooklyn Theatre during the performance of the "Two Orphans."

Brand des Brooklyner Theaters wahrend der Vorstellung der Zwei Waisen.]

A mad and frightened crowd was still pouring from the building, and without one thought of the great danger he placed himself in, Conn dashed in among the struggling men and women, to save more lives, if possible. He struggled manfully with the surging ma.s.s, and was soon in the body of the theatre.

But one man and two women were in the auditorium, and bidding them fly for their lives, Conn seized one of the pillars supporting the family circle gallery, and by a few vigorous muscular efforts raised himself to the top of the railing. Jumping quickly over he rushed toward one of the exits, through which a maddened crowd was struggling in tumult and disorder. In vain he endeavored to quell their frenzy. Forcing his way toward the head of the stairs, his strong arm was exerted to hurl back frightened men and allow the shrieking, shouting ma.s.s below to escape. Suddenly a cry came from below that aided him to drive back the uppermost.

"For G.o.d's sake, turn back; we cannot get out," was called from the bottom of the blocked and creaking stairway, and immediately there was a momentary relaxation of the downward pressure of the crowd. At this moment Conn extricated himself from the crowd, and hurried back into the dress-circle. The parquet below was empty, and people were dropping from the gallery into it, and lowering themselves from tier to tier. The stage was a ma.s.s of flames, and the smoke was filling the auditorium and rushing into the corridors. He hurried to the front main entrance of the dress-circle, and there found a ma.s.s of men and women shrieking, shouting and crowding madly down upon the living ma.s.s below. For a while the pa.s.sage seemed blocked by a human barrier which could neither move of itself nor give way to pressure from above.

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Burning of the Brooklyn Theatre Part 4 summary

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