It was not her eloquence but her healing of the sick which raised Sharon to such eminence that she promised to become the most renowned evangelist in America. People were tired of eloquence; and the whole evangelist business was limited, since even the most ardent were not likely to be saved more than three or four times. But they could be healed constantly, and of the same disease.
Healing was later to become the chief feature of many evangelists, but in 1910 it was advertised chiefly by Christian Scientists and the New Thoughters. Sharon came to it by accident. She had regularly offered prayers for the sick, but only absent-mindedly. When Elmer and she had been together for a year, during her meetings in Schenectady a man led up his deaf wife and begged Sharon to heal her. It amused Sharon to send out for some oil (it happened to be shotgun oil, but she properly consecrated it) to anoint the woman’s ears, and to pray lustily for healing.
The woman screamed, “Glory to God, I’ve got my hearing back!”
There was a sensation in the tabernacle, and everybody itched with desire to be relieved of whatever ailed him. Elmer led the healed deaf woman aside and asked her name for the newspapers. It is true that she could not hear him, but he wrote out his questions, she wrote the answers, and he got an excellent story for the papers and an idea for their holy work.
Why, he put it to Sharon, shouldn’t she make healing a regular feature?
“I don’t know that I have any gift for it,” considered Sharon.
“Sure you have! Aren’t you psychic? You bet. Go to it. We might pull off some healing services. I bet the collections would bust all records, and we’ll have a distinct understanding with the local committees that we get all over a certain amount, besides the collection the last day.”
“Well, we might try one. Of course, the Lord may have blessed me with special gifts that way, and to him be all the credit, oh, let’s stop in here and have an ice cream soda, I LOVE banana splits, I hope nobody sees me, I feel like dancing tonight, anyway we’ll talk over the possibility of healing, I’m going to take a hot bath the minute we get home with losh bath salts — losh and losh and losh.”
The success was immense.
She alienated many evangelical pastors by divine healing, but she won all the readers of books about will-power, and her daily miracles were reported in the newspapers. And, or so it was reported, some of the patients remained cured.
She murmured to Elmer, “You know, maybe there really is something to this healing, and I get an enormous thrill out of it — telling the lame to chuck their crutches. That man last night, that cripple — he did feel lots better.”
They decorated the altar now with crutches and walking-sticks, all given by grateful patients — except such as Elmer had been compelled to buy to make the exhibit inspiring from the start.
Money gamboled in. One grateful patient gave Sharon five thousand dollars. And Elmer and Sharon had their only quarrel, except for occasional spats of temperament. With the increase in profits, he demanded a rise of salary, and she insisted that her charities took all she had.
“Yuh, I’ve heard a lot about ’em,” said he: “the Old Ladies’ Home and the Orphanage and the hoosegow for retired preachers. I suppose you carry ’em along with you on the road!”
“Do you mean to insinuate, my good friend, that I—”
They talked in a thoroughly spirited and domestic manner, and afterward she raised his salary to five thousand and kissed him.
With the money so easily come by, Sharon burst out in hectic plans. She was going to buy a ten-thousand-acre farm for a Christian Socialist colony and a university, and she went so far as to get a three months’ option on two hundred acres. She was going to have a great national paper, with crime news, scandal, and athletics omitted, and a daily Bible lesson on the front page. She was going to organize a new crusade — an army of ten million which would march through heathen countries and convert the entire world to Christianity in this generation.
She did, at last, actually carry out one plan, and create a headquarters for her summer meetings.
At Clontar, a resort on the New Jersey coast, she bought the pier on which Benno Hackenschmidt used to give grand opera. Though the investment was so large that even for the initial payment it took almost every penny she had saved, she calculated that she would make money because she would be the absolute owner and not have to share contributions with local churches. And, remaining in one spot, she would build up more prestige than by moving from place to place and having to advertise her virtues anew in every town.
In a gay frenzy she planned that if she was successful, she would keep the Clontar pier for summer and build an all-winter tabernacle in New York or Chicago. She saw herself another Mary Baker Eddy, an Annie Besant, a Katherine Tingley. . . . Elmer Gantry was shocked when she hinted that, who knows? the next Messiah might be a woman, and that woman might now be on earth, just realizing her divinity.
The pier was an immense structure, built of cheap knotty pine, painted a hectic red with gold stripes. It was pleasant, however, on hot evenings. Round it ran a promenade out over the water, where once lovers had strolled between acts of the opera, and giving on the promenade were many barnlike doors.
Sharon christened it “The Waters of Jordan Tabernacle,” added more and redder paint, more golden gold, and erected an enormous revolving cross, lighted at night with yellow and ruby electric bulbs.
The whole gospel crew went to Clontar early in June to make ready for the great opening on the evening of the first of July.
They had to enlist volunteer ushers and personal workers, and Sharon and Adelbert Shoop had notions about a huge robed choir, with three or four paid soloists.
Elmer had less zeal than usual in helping her, because an unfortunate thing had gone and happened to Elmer. He saw that he really ought to be more friendly with Lily Anderson, the pianist. While he remained true to Sharon, he had cumulatively been feeling that it was sheer carelessness to let the pretty and anemic and virginal Lily be wasted. He had been driven to notice her through indignation at Art Nichols, the cornetist, for having the same idea.
Elmer was fascinated by her unawakenedness. While he continued to be devoted to Sharon, over her shoulder he was always looking at Lily’s pale sweetness, and his lips were moist.
They sat on the beach by moonlight, Sharon and Elmer, the night before the opening service.
All of Clontar, with its mile of comfortable summer villas and gingerbread hotels, was excited over the tabernacle, and the Chamber of Commerce had announced, “We commend to the whole Jersey coast this high-class spiritual feature, the latest addition to the manifold attractions and points of interest at the snappiest of all summer colonies.”
A choir of two hundred had been coaxed in, and some of them had been persuaded to buy their own robes and mortar boards.
Near the sand dune against which Sharon and Elmer lolled was the tabernacle, over which the electric cross turned solemnly, throwing its glare now on the rushing surf, now across the bleak sand.
“And it’s mine!” Sharon trembled. “I’ve made it! Four thousand seats, and I guess it’s the only Christian tabernacle built out over the water! Elmer, it almost scares me! So much responsibility! Thousands of poor troubled souls turning to me for help, and if I fail them, if I’m weak or tired or greedy, I’ll be murdering their very souls. I almost wish I were back safe in Virginia!”
Her enchanted voice wove itself with the menace of the breakers, feeble against the crash of broken waters, passionate in the lull, while the great cross turned its unceasing light.
“And I’m ambitious. Elmer. I know it. I want the world. But I realize what an awful danger that is. But I never had anybody to train me. I’m just nobody. I haven’t any family, any education. I’ve had to do everything for myself, except what Cecil and you and another man or two have done, and maybe you-all came too late. When I was a kid, there was no one to tell me what a sense of honor was. But — Oh. I’ve done things! Little Katie Jonas of Railroad Avenue — little Katie with her red flannel skirt and torn stockings, fighting the whole Killarney Street gang and giving Pup Monahan one in the nose, by Jiminy! And not five cents a year, even for candy. And now it’s mine, that tabernacle there — look at it! — that cross, that choir you hear practising! Why, I’m the Sharon Falconer you read about! And tomorrow I become — oh, people reaching for me — me healing ’em — No! It frightens me! It can’t last. MAKE IT LAST FOR ME, ELMER! Don’t let them take it away from me!”
She was sobbing, her head on his lap, while he comforted her clumsily. He was slightly bored. She was heavy, and though he did like her, he wished she wouldn’t go on telling that Katie–Jonas-Utica story.
She rose to her knees, her arms out to him, her voice hysteric against the background of the surf:
“I can’t do it! But you — I’m a woman. I’m weak. I wonder if I oughtn’t to stop thinking I’m such a marvel, if I oughtn’t to let you run things and just stand back and help you? Ought I?”
He was overwhelmed by her good sense, but he cleared his throat and spoke judiciously:
“Well, now I’ll tell you. Personally I’d never’ve brought it up, but since you speak of it yourself — I don’t admit for a minute that I’ve got any more executive ability or oratory than you have — probably not half as much. And after all, you did start the show; I came in late. But same time, while a woman can put things over just as good as a man, or better, for a WHILE, she’s a woman, and she isn’t built to carry on things like a man would, see how I mean?”
“Would it be better for the Kingdom if I forgot my ambition and followed you?”
“Well, I don’t say it’d be better. You’ve certainly done fine, honey. I haven’t got any criticisms. But same time, I do think we ought to think it over.”
She had remained still, a kneeling silver statue. Now she dropped her head against his knees, crying:
“I can’t give it up! I can’t! Must I?”
He was conscious that people were strolling near. He growled, “Say, for goodness’ sake, Shara, don’t HOLLER and carry on like that! Somebody might HEAR!”
She sprang up. “Oh, you fool! You fool!”
She fled from him, along the sands, through the rays of the revolving cross, into the shadow. He angrily rubbed his back against the sand dune and grumbled:
“Damn these women! All alike, even Shary; always getting temperamental on you about nothing at all! Still, I did kind of go off half cocked, considering she was just beginning to get the idea of letting me boss the show. Oh, hell, I’ll jolly her out of it!”
He took off his shoes, shook the sand out of them, and rubbed the sole of one stocking foot slowly, agreeably, for he was conceiving a thought.
If Sharon was going to pull stuff like that on him, he ought to teach her a lesson.
Choir practise was over. Why not go back to the house and see what Lily Anderson was doing?
THERE was a nice kid, and she admired him — she’d never dare bawl him out.
He tiptoed to Lily’s virgin door and tapped lightly.
He dared not speak — Sharon’s door, in the bulky old house they had taken in Clontar, was almost opposite. He tapped again, and when Lily came to the door, in a kimono, he whispered, “Shhh! Everybody asleep. May I come in just a second? Something important to ask you.”
Lily was wondering, but obviously she felt a pallid excitement as he followed her into her room, with its violet-broidered doilies.
“Lily, I’ve been worrying. Do you think Adelbert ought to have the choir start with ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ tomorrow, or something a little snappier — get the crowd and then shoot in something impressive.”
“Honest, Mr. Gantry, I don’t believe they could change the program now.”
“Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. Sit down and tell me how the choir practise went tonight. Bet it went swell, with you pounding the box!”
“Oh, now,” as she perched lightly on the edge of the bed, “You’re just teasing me, Mr. Gantry!”
He sat beside her, chuckling bravely, “And I can’t even get you to call me Elmer!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dare, Mr. Gantry! Miss Falconer would call me down.”
“You just let me know if ANYBODY ever dares try to call YOU down, Lily! Why — I don’t know whether Sharon appreciates it or not, but the way you spiel the music gives as much power to our meetings as her sermons or anything else.”
“Oh, no, you’re just flattering me, Mr Gantry! Oh, say, I have a trade-last for you.”
“Well, I— oh, let’s see — oh, I remember, that Episcopalopian preacher — the big handsome one — he said you ought to be on the stage, you had so much talent.”
“Oh, go on, you’re kidding me, Mr. Gantry!”
“No, honest he did. Now, what’s mine? Though I’d rather have YOU say something nice about me!”
“Oh, now you’re fishing!”
“Sure I am — with such a lovely fish as you!”
“Oh, it’s terrible the way you talk.” Laughter — silvery peals — several peals. “But I mean, this grant opera soloist that’s down for our opening says you look so strong that she’s scared of you.”
“Oh, she is, is she! Are you? . . . Huh? . . . Are you? . . . Tell me!” Somehow her hand was inside his, and he squeezed it, while she looked away and blushed and at last breathed, “Yes, kind of.”
He almost embraced her, but — oh, it was a mistake to rush things, and he went on in his professional tone:
“But to go back to Sharon and our labors: it’s all right to be modest, but you ought to realize how enormously your playing adds to the spirituality of the meetings.”
“I’m so glad you think so, but, honest, to compare me to Miss Falconer for bringing souls to Christ — why she’s just the most wonderful person in the world.”
“That’s right. You bet she is.”
“Only I wish she felt like you do. I don’t really think she cares so much for my playing.”
“Well, she ought to! I’m not criticizing, you understand; she certainly is one of the greatest evangelists living; but just between you and I, she has one fault — she doesn’t appreciate any of us — she thinks it’s her that does the whole darn thing! As I say, I admire her, but, by golly, it does make me sore sometimes to never have her appreciate your music — I mean the way it ought to be appreciated — see how I mean?”
“Oh, that is so nice of you, but I don’t deserve —”
“But I’VE always appreciated it, don’t you think, Lily?”
“Oh, yes, indeed you have, and it’s been such an encouragement —”
“Oh, well, say, I’m just tickled to death to have you say that, Lily.” A firmer pressure on her frail hand. “Do you LIKE to have me like your music?”
“But do you like to have me like YOU?”
“Oh, yes. Of course, we’re all working together — oh, like sister and brother —”
“Lily! Don’t you think we might ever be, uh, don’t you think we could be just a little closer than sister and brother?”
“Oh, you’re just being mean! How could you ever like poor little me when you belong to Sharon?”
“What do you mean? Me belong to Sharon? Say! I admire her tremendously, but I’m absolutely free, you can bet your life on that, and just because I’ve always been kinda shy of you — you have such a kinda flower-like beauty, you might say, that no man, no, not the coarsest, would ever dare to ruffle it — and because I’ve stood back, sorta feeling like I was protecting you, maybe you think I haven’t appreciated all your qualities!”
“Oh, Lily, all I ask for is the chance now and then, whenever you’re down in the mouth — and all of us must feel like that, unless we think we’re the whole cheese and absolutely OWN the gospel game! — whenever you feel that way, lemme have the privilege of telling you how greatly ONE fellow appreciates the loveliness that you scatter along the road!”
“Do you really feel that way? Maybe I can play the piano, but personally I’m nothing . . . nothing.”
“It isn’t true, it isn’t TRUE, dearest! Lily! It’s so like your modesty to not appreciate what sunshine you bring into the hearts of all of us, dear, and how we cherish —”
The door shot open. In the doorway stood Sharon Falconer in a black-and-gold dressing-gown.
“Both of you,” said Sharon, “are discharged. Fired. Now! Don’t ever let me see your faces again. You can stay tonight, but see to it that you’re out of the house before breakfast.”
“Oh, Miss Falconer —” Lily wailed, thrusting away Elmer’s hand. But Sharon was gone, with a bang of the door. They rushed into the hall, they heard the key in her lock, and she ignored their rapping.
Lily glared at Elmer. He heard her key also, and he stood alone in the hall.
Not till one in the morning, sitting in flabby dejection, did he have his story shaped and water-tight.
It was an heroic spectacle, that of the Reverend Elmer Gantry climbing from the second-story balcony through Sharon’s window, tiptoeing across the room, plumping on his knees by her bed, and giving her a large plashy kiss.
“I am not asleep,” she observed, in tones level as a steel rail, while she drew the comforter about her neck. “In fact I’m awake for the first time in two years, my young friend. You can get out of here. I won’t tell you all I’ve been thinking, but among other things you’re an ungrateful dog that bit the hand that took you out of the slimy gutter, you’re a liar, an ignoramus, a four-flusher, and a rotten preacher.”
“By God, I’ll show —”
But she giggled, and his plan of action came back to him.
He sat firmly on the edge of the bed, and calmly he remarked:
“Sharon, you’re a good deal of a damn fool. You think I’m going to deny flirting with Lily. I won’t take the trouble to deny it! If you don’t appreciate yourself, if you don’t see that a man that’s ever associated with you simply couldn’t be interested in any other woman, then there’s nothing I can say. Why, my God, Shara, you know what you are! I could no more be untrue to you than I could to my religion! As a matter of fact — Want to know what I was saying to Lily, to Miss Anderson?”
“I do not!”
“Well, you’re going to! As I came up the hall, her door was open, and she asked me to come in-she had something to ask me. Well, seems the poor young woman was wondering if her music was really up to your greatness — that’s what she herself called it — especially now that the Jordan Tabernacle will give you so much more power. She spoke of you as the greatest spiritual force in the world, and she was wondering whether she was worthy —”
“Um. She did, eh? Well, she isn’t! And she can stay fired. And you, my fine young liar, if you ever so much as look at another wench again, I’ll fire you for keeps. . . . Oh, Elmer, how could you, beloved? When I’ve given you everything! Oh, lie, lie, go on lying! Tell me a good strong lie that I’ll believe! And then kiss me!”
Banners, banners, banners lifting along the rafters, banners on the walls of the tabernacle, banners moving to the air that was sifted in from the restless sea. Night of the opening of Waters of Jordan Tabernacle, night of the opening of Sharon’s crusade to conquer the world.
The town of Clontar and all the resorts near by felt here was something they did not quite understand, something marvelous and by all means to be witnessed; and from up and down the Jersey coast, by motor, by trolley, the religious had come. By the time the meeting began all of the four thousand seats were filled, five hundred people were standing, and outside waited a throng hoping for miraculous entrance.
The interior of the pier was barnlike; the thin wooden walls were shamelessly patched against the ravages of winter storms, but they were hectic with the flags of many nations, with immense posters, blood-red on white, proclaiming that in the mysterious blood of the Messiah was redemption from all sorrow, that in his love was refuge and safety. Sharon’s pretentious white-and-gold pyramidal altar had been discarded. She was using the stage, draped with black velvet, against which hung a huge crystal cross, and the seats for the choir of two hundred, behind a golden pulpit, were draped with white.
A white wooden cross stood by the pulpit.
It was a hot night, but through the doors along the pier the cool breeze filtered in, and the sound of waters, the sound of wings, as the gulls were startled from their roosts. Every one felt an exaltation in the place, a coming of marvels.
Before the meeting the gospel crew, back-stage, were excited as a theatrical company on a first night. They rushed with great rapidity nowhere in particular, and tripped over each other, and muttered, “Say — gee — gee —” To the last, Adelbert Shoop was giving needless instructions to the new pianist, who had been summoned by telegraph from Philadelphia, vice Lily Anderson. She professed immense piety, but Elmer noted that she was a pretty fluffy thing with a warm eye.
The choir was arriving along with the first of the audience. They filtered down the aisle, chattering, feeling important. Naturally, as the end of the pier gave on open water, there was no stage entrance at the back. There was only one door, through which members of opera casts had been wont to go out to the small rear platform for fresh air between acts. The platform was not connected with the promenade.
It was to this door that Sharon led Elmer. Their dressing-rooms were next to each other. She knocked — he had been sitting with a Bible and an evening paper in his lap, reading one of them. He opened, to find her flaming with exultation, a joyous girl with a dressing gown over her chemise. Seemingly she had forgotten her anger of the night.
She cried, “Come! See the stars!” Defying the astonishment of the choir, who were filing into the chorus dressing-room to assume their white robes, she led him to the door, out on the railed platform.
The black waves glittered with lights. There was spaciousness and a windy peace upon the waters.
“Look! It’s so big! Not like the cities where we’ve been shut up!” she exulted. “Stars, and the waves that come clear from Europe! Europe! Castles on a green shore! I’ve never been. And I’m going! And there’ll be great crowds at the ship to meet me, asking for my power! Look!” A shooting star had left a scrawl of flame in the sky. “Elmer! It’s an omen for the glory that begins tonight! Oh, dearest, my dearest, don’t ever hurt me again!”
His kiss promised it, his heart almost promised it.
She was all human while they stood fronting the sea, but half an hour later, when she came out in a robe of white satin and silver lace, with a crimson cross on her breast, she was prophetess only, and her white forehead was high, her eyes were strange with dreaming.
Already the choir were chanting. They were starting with the Doxology, and it gave Elmer a feeling of doubt. Surely the Doxology was the end of things, not the beginning? But he looked impassive, the brooding priest, in frock coat and white bow tie, portly and funereal, as he moved magnificently through the choir and held up his arms to command silence for his prayer.
He told them of Sister Falconer and her message, of their plans and desires at Clontar, and asked for a minute of silent prayer for the power of the Holy Ghost to descend upon the tabernacle. He stood back — his chair was up-stage, beside the choir — as Sharon floated forward, not human, a goddess, tears thick in lovely eyes as she perceived the throng that had come to her.
“My dear ones, it is not I who bring you anything, but you who in your faith bring me strength!” she said shakily. Then her voice was strong again; she rose on the wave of drama.
“Just now, looking across the sea to the end of the world, I saw an omen for all of us — a fiery line written by the hand of God — a glorious shooting star. Thus he apprized us of his coming, and bade us be ready. Oh, are you ready, are you ready, will you be ready when the great day comes —”
The congregation was stirred by her lyric earnestness.
But outside there were less devout souls. Two workmen had finished polishing the varnished wooden pillars as the audience began to come. They slipped outside, on the promenade along the pier, and sat on the rail, enjoying the coolness, slightly diverted by hearing a sermon.
“Not a bad spieler, that woman. Puts it all over this guy Reverend Golding up-town,” said one of the workmen, lighting a cigarette, keeping it concealed in his palm as he smoked.
The other tiptoed across the promenade to peer through the door, and returned mumbling. “Yuh, and a swell looker. Same time though, tell you how I feel about it: woman’s all right in her place, but takes a real he-male to figure out this religion business.”
“She’s pretty good though, at that,” yawned the first workman, snapping away his cigarette. “Say, let’s beat it. How ‘bout lil glass beer? We can go along this platform and get out at the front, I guess.”
“All right. You buying?”
The workmen moved away, dark figures between the sea and the doors that gave on the bright auditorium.
The discarded cigarette nestled against the oily rags which the workmen had dropped on the promenade, beside the flimsy walls of the tabernacle. A rag glowed round the edges, wormlike, then lit in circling flame.
Sharon was chanting: “What could be more beautiful than a tabernacle like this, set on the bosom of the rolling deep? Oh, think what the mighty tides have meant in Holy Writ! The face of the waters on which moved the spirit of Almighty God, when the earth was but a whirling and chaotic darkness! Jesus baptized in the sweet waters of Jordan! Jesus walking the waves — so could we today if we had but his faith! O dear God, strengthen thou our unbelief, give us faith like unto thine own!”
Elmer sitting back listening, was moved as in his first adoration for her. He had become so tired of her poetizing that he almost admitted to himself that he was tired. But tonight he felt her strangeness again, and in it he was humble. He saw her straight back, shimmering in white satin, he saw her superb arms as she stretched them out to these thousands, and in hot secret pride he gloated that this beauty, beheld and worshiped of so many, belonged to him alone.
Then he noted something else.
A third of the way back, coming through one of the doors opening on the promenade, was a curl of smoke. He startled; he almost rose; he feared to rouse a panic; and sat with his brain a welter of terrified jelly till he heard the scream “Fire — fire!” and saw the whole audience and the choir leaping up, screaming — screaming — screaming — while the flimsy door-jamb was alight and the flame rose fan-like toward the rafters.
Only Sharon was in his mind — Sharon standing like an ivory column against the terror. He rushed toward her. He could hear her wailing, “Don’t be afraid! Go out slowly!” She turned toward the choir, as with wild white robes they charged down from their bank of seats. She clamored, “Don’t be afraid! We’re in the temple of the Lord! He won’t harm you! I believe! Have faith! I’ll lead you safely through the flames!”
But they ignored her, streamed past her, thrusting her aside.
He seized her arm. “Come here, Shara! The door at the back! We’ll jump over and swim ashore!”
She seemed not to hear him. She thrust his hand away and went on demanding, her voice furious with mad sincerity, “Who will trust the Lord God of Hosts? Now we’ll try our faith! Who will follow me?”
Since two-thirds of the auditorium was to the shoreward side of the fire, and since the wide doors to the promenade were many, most of the audience were getting safely out, save for a child crushed, a woman fainting and trampled. But toward the stage the flames, driven by the sea-wind, were beating up through the rafters. Most of the choir and the audience down front had escaped, but all who were now at the back were cut off.
He grasped Sharon’s arm again. In a voice abject with fear he shouted, “For God’s sake, beat it! We can’t wait!”
She had an insane strength; she thrust him away so sharply that he fell against a chair, bruising his knee. Furious with pain, senseless with fear, he raged, “You can go to hell!” and galloped off, pushing aside the last of the hysterical choir. He looked back and saw her, quite alone, holding up the white wooden cross which had stood by the pulpit, marching steadily forward, a tall figure pale against the screen of flames.
All of the choir who had not got away remembered or guessed the small door at the back; so did Adelbert and Art Nichols; and all of them were jamming toward it.
That door opened inward — only it did not open, with the score of victims thrust against it. In howling panic, Elmer sprang among them, knocked them aside, struck down a girl who stood in his way, yanked open the door, and got through it . . . the last, the only one, to get through it.
He never remembered leaping, but he found himself in the surf, desperately swimming toward shore, horribly cold, horribly bound by heavy clothes. He humped out of his coat.
In the inside pocket was Lily Anderson’s address, as she had given it to him before going that morning.
The sea, by night, though it was glaring now with flames from above, seemed infinite in its black sightlessness. The waves thrust him among the piles; their mossy slime was like the feel of serpents to his frantic hands, and the barnacles cut his palms. But he struggled out from beneath the pier, struggled toward shore, and as he swam and panted, more and more was the sea blood-red about him. In blood he swam, blood that was icy-cold and tumultuous and roaring in his ears.
His knees struck sand, and he crawled ashore, among a shrieking, torn, sea-soaked crowd. Many had leaped from the rail of the promenade and were still fighting the surf, wailing, beaten. Their wet and corpselike heads were seen clearly in the glare; the pier was only a skeleton, a cage round a boiling of flame, with dots of figures still dropping from the promenade.
Elmer ran out a little into the surf and dragged in a woman who had already safely touched bottom.
He had rescued at least thirty people who had already rescued themselves before the reporters got to him and he had to stop and explain the cause of the fire, the cost of the tabernacle, the amount of insurance, the size of the audience, the number of souls revived by Miss Falconer during all her campaigns, and the fact that he had been saving both Miss Falconer and Adelbert Shoop when they had been crushed by a falling rafter.
A hundred and eleven people died that night, including all of the gospel-crew save Elmer.
It was Elmer himself who at dawn found Sharon’s body lying on a floor-beam. There were rags of white satin clinging to it, and in her charred hand was still the charred cross.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52