Barriers Burned Away

Cover of E. P. Roe, Barriers Burned Away, 1872

Roe (1838-1888), who had served as a chaplain during the Civil War, was a Presbyterian minister in Highland Falls, New York, when the news reports of the fire spurred him to travel to Chicago. His visit inspired Barriers Burned Away, which was turned down by two publishers before it became a best-seller for the new firm of Dodd, Mead. Roe subsequently penned several other romances and retired from the ministry.

Protagonist Dennis Fleet espouses the values of Christian democracy so important to Roe. Through the course of the book, he yearns not only for the hand of Christine Ludolph, but also for her soul, since she is a non-believer. The beautiful and wealthy Christine looks down on Dennis and toys with his feelings, for in her eyes he has nothing to compare to her refined European background. But the fire eventually fixes everything, revealing to Christine Dennis's higher nobility and the value of his religious faith. The chapter titled "Christine, Awake! For Your Life!" comes late in the novel, as Chicagoans flee for safety. Dennis, who has just witnessed the death of Christine's father when Baron Ludolph foolishly tried to save valuable papers from his downtown art gallery, makes his way to the North Division in order to find Christine. This chapter reveals Roe's abiding earnestness and his talent for melodrama, as well as the class and ethnic prejudices that coexisted with his egalitarian principles.  For more on the LaSalle Street Tunnel, the site of some of the action, see the "Landmarks" section.

Dennis was too much stunned and bewildered to do more than instinctively work his way to the windward as the only point of safety, but the fire was now becoming so broad in its sweep that to do this was difficult. The awful event he had witnessed seemed partially to paralyze him; for he knew that the oath, hot as the scorching flames, was scarcely uttered before Mr. Ludolph's lips were closed forever. He and his ambitious dream perished in a moment, and he was summoned to the other world to learn what his proud reason scoffed at in this.

For a block or more Dennis was passively borne along by the rushing mob. Suddenly a voice seemed to shout almost in his ear, "The north side is burning!" and he started as from a dream. The thought of Christine flashed upon him, perishing perhaps in the flames. He remembered that now she had no protector, and that he for the moment had forgotten her; though in truth he had never imagined that she could be imperilled by the burning of the north side.

In an agony of fear and anxiety he put forth every effort of which he was capable, and tore through the crowd as if mad. There was no way of getting across the river now save by the La Salle Street tunnel. Into this dark passage he plunged with multitudes of others. It was indeed as near Pandemonium as any earthly condition could be. Driven forward by the swiftly pursuing flames, hemmed in on every side, a shrieking, frenzied, terror-stricken throng rushed into the black cavern. Every moral grade was represented there. Those who led abandoned lives were plainly recognizable, their guilty consciences finding expression in their livid faces. These jostled the refined and delicate lady, who, in the awful democracy of the hour, brushed against thief and harlot. Little children wailed for their lost parents, and many were trampled underfoot. Parents cried for their children, women shrieked for their husbands, some praying, many cursing with oaths as hot as the flames that crackled near. Multitudes were in no other costumes than those in which they had sprung from their beds. Altogether it was a strange, incongruous, writhing mass of humanity, such as the world had never looked upon, pouring into what might seem, in its horrors, the mouth of hell.

As Dennis entered the utter darkness, a confused roar smote his ear that might have appalled the stoutest heart, but he was now oblivious to everything save Christine's danger. With set teeth he put his shoulder against the living mass and pushed with the strongest till he emerged into the glare of the north side. Here, escaping somewhat from the throng, he made his way rapidly to the Ludolph mansion, which to his joy he found was still considerably to the windward of the fire. But he saw that from the southwest another line of flame was bearing down upon it.

The front door was locked, and the house utterly dark. He rang the bell furiously, but there was no response. He walked around under the window and shouted, but the place remained as dark and silent as a tomb. He pounded on the door, but its massive thickness scarcely admitted of a reverberation.

"They must have escaped," he said; "but, merciful heaven! there must be no uncertainty in this case. What shall I do?"

The windows of the lower story were all strongly guarded and hopeless, but one opening on the balcony of Christine's studio seemed practicable if it could be reached. A half-grown elm swayed its graceful branches over the balcony, and Dennis knew the tough and fibrous nature of this tree. In the New-England woods of his early home he had learned to climb for nuts like a squirrel, and so with no great difficulty he mounted the trunk and dropped from an over-hanging branch to the point he sought. The window was down at the top, but the lower sash was fastened. He could see the catch by the light of the fire. He broke the pane of glass nearest it, hoping that the crash might awaken Christine, if she were still there. But after the clatter died away there was no sound. He then noisily raised the sash and stepped in.

What a rush of memories came over him as he looked around the familiar place ! There was the spot on which he had stood and asked for the love that he had valued more than life. There stood the easel on which, through Christine's gifted touch, his painted face had pleaded with scarcely less eloquence, till he blotted it out with his own hand. In memory of it all his heart again failed him, and he sighed, "She will never love me."

But there was no time for sentiment. He called loudly: "Miss Ludolph, awake! awake! for your life! "

There was no answer. "She must be gone," he said. The front room, facing toward the west, he knew to be her sleeping-apartment. Going through the passage, he knocked loudly, and called again; but in the silence that followed he heard his own watch tick, and his heart beat. He pushed the door open with the feeling of one profaning a shrine, and looked timidly in. Even in that thrilling hour of peril and anxiety, his eye was enraptured by the beauty of the room. Not only was it furnished with the utmost luxuriance, but everything spoke of a quaint and cultured taste, from the curious marble clock and bronze on the mantel, even to the pattern of the Turkey carpet on which the glare of the fire, as it glinted through the shutters, played faintly. One of the most marked features, however, was an exquisite life-size statue of Diana at the foot of the bed, grasping her bow with one hand, and in the act of seizing an arrow with the other, as if aroused to self-defence. When Dennis first saw it, he was so startled by its lifelike attitude that he stepped back into the passage. But, with all the beauty of the room, it was utterly pagan; not a single thing suggested Christian faith or a knowledge of the true God. With the exception of its modern air, it might just as well have been the resting place of a Greek or Roman maiden of rank.

Reassured, he timidly advanced again, and then for the first time, between the two marble statuettes holding back the curtains of the bed, saw Christine, but looking more white and deathlike than the marble itself.

She lay with her face toward him. Her hair of gold, unconfined, streamed over the pillow; one fair round arm, from which her night-robe had slipped back, was clasped around her head, and a flickering ray of light, finding access at the window, played upon her face and neck with the strangest and most weird effect.

So deep was her slumber that she seemed dead, and Dennis, in his overwrought state, thought that she was. For a moment his heart stood still, and his tongue was paralyzed. A distant explosion aroused him. Approaching softly he said, in an awed whisper (he seemed powerless to speak louder), "Miss Ludolph! -- Christine!"

But the light of the coming fire played and flickered over the still, white face, that never before had seemed so strangely beautiful.

"Miss Ludolph! -- O Christine, awake!" cried Dennis, louder.

To his wonder and unbounded perplexity, he saw the hitherto motionless lips wreathe themselves into a lovely smile, but otherwise there was no response, and the ghostly light played and flickered on, dancing on temple, brow, and snowy throat, and clasping the white arm in wavy circlets of gold. It was all so weird and strange that he was growing superstitious, and losing faith in his own senses. He could not know that she was under the influence of an opiate, and that his voice of all others could, like a faint echo, find access to her mind so deeply sunk in lethargy.

But a louder and nearer explosion, like a warning voice, made him wholly desperate; and he roughly seized her hand, determining to dispel the illusion, and learn the truth at once.

Christine's blue eyes opened wide with a bewildered stare; a look of the wildest terror came into them, and she started up and shrieked, "Father! father!"

Then turning toward the as yet unknown invader, she cried, piteously: "Oh, spare my life! Take everything; I will give you anything you ask, only spare my life."

She evidently thought herself addressing a ruthless robber.

Dennis retreated toward the door the moment she awakened; and this somewhat reassured her.

In the firm, quiet tone that always calms excitement he replied, "I only ask you to give me your confidence, Miss Ludolph, and to join with me, Dennis Fleet, in my effort to save your life."

"Dennis Fleet! Dennis Fleet! save my life! O ye gods, what does it all mean?" and she passed her hand in bewilderment across her brow, as if to brush away the wild fancies of a dream.

"Miss Ludolph, as you love your life, arouse yourself and escape! The city is burning!"

"I don't believe it!" she cried, in an agony of terror and anger. Leave the room! How dare you! You are not Dennis Fleet; he is a white man, and you are black! You are an impostor! Leave quick, or my father will come and take your life! Father! father!"

Dennis without a word stepped to the window, tore aside the curtain, threw open the shutters, and the fire filled the room with the glare of noonday. At that moment an explosion occurred which shook the very earth. Everything rattled, and a beautiful porcelain vase fell crashing to the floor.

Christine shrieked and covered her face with her hands.

Dennis approached the bedside, and said in a gentle, firm tone that she knew to be his: "Miss Ludolph, I am Mr. Fleet. My face is blackened through smoke and dust, as is every one's out in the streets to-night. You know something of me, and I think you know nothing dishonorable. Can you not trust me? Indeed you must; your life depends upon it!"

"Oh, pardon me, Mr. Fleet!" she cried, eagerly. "I am not worthy of this, but now that I know you, I do trust you from the depth of my soul!"

"Prove it then by doing just as I bid you," he replied, in a voice so firm and prompt that it seemed almost stern. Retreating to the door, he continued: "I give you just five minutes in which to make your toilet and gather a light bundle of your choicest valuables. Dress in woolen throughout, and dress warmly. I will see that the servants are aroused. Your father is on the south side, and cannot reach you. You must trust in God and what I can do for you."

"I must trust to you alone," she said. "Please send my maid to me."

Mr. Ludolph had sipped his wine during the evening, and his servants had sipped, in no dainty way, something stronger, and therefore had not awakened readily. But the uproar in the streets had aroused them, and Dennis found them scuttling down the upper stairs in a half-clad state, each bearing a large bundle, which had been made up without regard tomeum and tuum.

"Och, murther! is the world burning up?" cried the cook.

"Be still, ye howlin' fool," said the cool and travelled maid. "It's only von big fire!"

"Go to your mistress and help her, quick!" cried Dennis.

"Go to my meestress! I go to de street and save my life."

"O Janette!" cried Christine. "Come and help me!"

"I am meeserable zat I cannot. I must bid mademoiselle quick adieu," said the heartless creature, still keeping up the veneer of French politeness.

Dennis looked through the upper rooms and was satisfied that they were empty. Suddenly a piercing shriek from Christine sent him flying to her room. As he ran he heard her cry, "O Mr. Fleet! come! help!"

To go back a little (for on that awful night events marched as rapidly as the flames, and the experience of years was crowded into hours, and that of hours into moments), Christine had sought as best she could to obey Dennis's directions, but she was sadly helpless, having been trained to a foolish dependence on her maid. She had accomplished but little when she heard a heavy step in the room. Looking up, she saw a strange man regarding her with an evil eye.

"What do you want?" she faltered.

"You, for one thing, and all you have got, for another," was the brutal reply.

"Leave this room!" she cried, in a voice she vainly tried to render firm.

"Not just yet," he answered, with a satanic grin. She sought to escape by him with the loud cry that Dennis heard, but the ruffian planted his big grimy hand in the delicate frill of her night-robe where it clasped her throat, and with a coarse laugh said: "Not so fast, my dainty!"

Trembling and half fainting (for she had no physical courage), she cried for Dennis, and never did knightly heart respond with more brave and loving throb to the cry of helpless woman than his. He came with almost the impetus of a thunderbolt, and the man, startled, looked around, and catching a glimpse of Dennis's blazing eyes, dropped his hold on Christine, and shrunk and cowered from the blow he could not avert. Before his hand could instinctively reach the pistol it sought, there was a thud, and he fell like a log to the floor. Then, springing upon him, Dennis took away his weapons, and, seizing him by the collar of his coat, dragged him backward downstairs and thrust him into the street. Pointing his own pistol at him, he said, "If you trouble us again, I will shoot you like a dog!"

The villain slunk off, and finding some kindred spirits sacking a liquor-store not far off, he joined the orgy, seeking to drown his rage in rum, and he succeeded so effectually that he lay in the gutter soon after. The escaping multitude trampled over him, and soon the fire blotted out his miserable existence, as it did that of so many who rendered themselves powerless by drink.

When Dennis returned he found Christine panting helplessly on a chair.

"Oh, dress! dress!" he cried. "We have not a moment to spare."

The sparks and cinders were falling about the house, a perfect storm of fire. The roof was already blazing, and smoke was pouring down the stairs.

At his suggestion she had at first laid out a heavy woolen dress and Scotch plaid shawl. She nervously sought to put on the dress, but her trembling fingers could not fasten it over her wildly throbbing bosom. Dennis saw that in the terrible emergency he must act the part of a brother or husband, and springing forward he assisted her with the dexterity he had learned in childhood.

Just then a blazing piece of roof, borne on the wings of the gale, crashed through the window, and in a moment the apartment, that had seemed like a beautiful casket for a still more exquisite jewel, was in flames.

Hastily wrapping Christine in the blanket shawl, he snatched her, crying and wringing her hands, into the street.

Holding his hand she ran two or three blocks with all the speed her wild terror prompted; then her strength began to fail, and she pantingly cried that she could no longer. But this rapid rush carried them out of immediate peril, and brought them into the flying throng pressing their way northward and westward. Wedged into the multitude they could only move on with it in the desperate struggle forward. But fire was falling about them like a meteoric shower.

Suddenly Christine uttered a sharp cry of pain. She had stepped on a burning cinder, and then realized for the first time, in her excitement, that her feet were bare.

"Oh, what shall I do?" she cried piteously, limping and leaning heavily on Dennis's arm.

"Indeed, Miss Ludolph, from my heart I pity you."

"Can you save me? Oh, do you think you can save me?" she moaned, in an agony of fear.

"Yes, I feel sure I can. At any rate I shall not leave you;" and taking her a little out of the jostling crowd he knelt and bound up the burned foot with his handkerchief. A little farther on they came to a shoe-store with doors open and owners gone. Almost carrying Christine into it, for her other foot was cut and bleeding, he snatched down a pair of boy's stout gaiters, and wiping with another handkerchief the blood and dust from her tender little feet, he made the handkerchiefs answer for stockings, and drew the shoes on over them.

In the brief moment so occupied, Christine said, with tears in her eyes: "Mr. Fleet, how kind you are! How little I deserve all this!"

He looked up with a happy smile, and she little knew that her few words amply repaid him.

There was a crash in the direction of the fire. With a cry of fear, Christine put out her hands and clung to him.

"Oh, we shall perish! Are you not afraid?"

"I tremble for you, Miss Ludolph."

"Not for yourself?"

"No! why should I? I am safe. Heaven and mother are just beyond this tempest."

"I would give worlds for your belief."

"Come quick!" cried he, and they joined the fugitives, and for a half-hour pressed forward as fast as was possible through the choked streets, Dennis merely saying an encouraging word now and then. Suddenly she felt herself carried to one side, and falling to the ground with him. In a moment he lifted her up, and she saw with sickening terror an infuriated dray-horse plunging through the crowd, striking down men, women, and children.

"Are you hurt?" he asked, gently, passing his arm around her and helping her forward, that they might not lose a single step.

"Awful! Awful!" she said, in a low, shuddering tone.

The dreadful scenes and the danger were beginning to overpower her.

A little farther on they reached an avenue to the north-west through which Dennis hoped to escape. But they could make but little headway through the dense masses of drays, carriages, and human beings, and at last everything came to a dead lock. Their only hope was to stand in their place till the living mass moved on again.

Strange, grotesque, and sad beyond measure were the scenes by which they were surrounded. By the side of the aristocratic Christine, now Baroness Ludolph, stood a stout Irishwoman, hugging a grunting, squealing pig to her breast. A little in advance a hook-nosed spinster carried in a cage a hook-nosed parrot that kept discordantly crying, "Polly want a cracker." At Dennis's left a delicate lady of the highest social standing clasped to her bare bosom a babe that slept as peacefully as in the luxurious nursery at home. At her side was a little girl carrying as tenderly a large wax doll. A diamond necklace sparkled like a circlet of fire around the lady's neck. Her husband had gone to the south side, and she had had but time to snatch this and her children. A crowd of obscene and profane rowdies stood, just behind them, and with brutal jest and coarse laughter they passed around a whiskey-bottle. One of these roughs caught a glimpse of the diamond necklace, and was putting forth his blackened hand to grasp it, when Dennis pointed the captured pistol at him and said, "This is law now!"

The fellow slunk back.

Just before them was a dray with a corpse half covered with a blanket. The family sat around crying and wringing their hands, and the driver stood in his seat, cursing and gesticulating for those in advance to move on. Some moments passed, but there was no progress. Dennis became very anxious, for the fire was rapidly approaching, and the sparks were falling like hail. Every few moments some woman's dress was ablaze, or some one was struck by the flying, brands, and shrieks for help were heard on every side. Christine, being clad in woolen, escaped this peril in part. She stood at Dennis's side trembling like a leaf, with her hands over her face to shut out the terrible sights.

At last the driver, fearing for his life, jumped off his dray and left all to their fate. But a figure took his place that thrilled Dennis's heart with horror.

There on the high seat stood Susie Winthrop, -- rather Mrs. Leonard. The light of insanity glowed in her eyes; her long hair swept away to the north, and turning toward the fiery tempest she bent forward as if looking for some one. But after a moment she sadly shook her head, as if she had sought in vain. Suddenly she reached out her white arms toward the fire, and sung, clear and sweet above the horrid din: --

     "O burning flakes of fiery snow,
          Bury me too, bury me deep;
     My lover sleeps thy banks below;
          Fall on me, that I may sleep!"

At this moment a blazing brand fell upon the horses' heads; they started forward, and the crazed lady fell over on the corpse below. The animals being thoroughly terrified turned sharp around on the sidewalk, and tore their way right toward the fire, trampling down those in their track, and so vanished with their strangely assorted load.

Dennis, fearing to stay any longer where he was, determined to follow in their wake and find a street leading to the north less choked, even though it might be nearer the fire, and so with his trembling companion he pressed forward again.

Two blocks below he found one comparatively clear, but in terrible proximity to the conflagration. Indeed, the houses were burning on each side, but the street seemed clear of flame. He thought that by swiftly running they could get through. But Christine's strength was fast failing her, and just as they reached the middle of the block a tall brick building fell across the street before them! Thus their only path of escape was blocked by a blazing mass of ruins that it would have been death to cross.

They seemed hemmed in on every side, and Dennis groaned in agony.

Christine looked for a moment at the impassable fiery barrier, then at Dennis, in whose face and manner she read unutterable sympathy for herself, and the truth flashed upon her.

With a piercing shriek she fainted dead away in his arms.