And even at that moment Joe heard the dire clanging of ambulances, and an awful horror dizzied his brain. No, no, not that! He clutched the stoop-post, leaned, cried weirdly:
She gazed up at him. Then she recognized him and gave a terrible sob.
“Mr. Joe! Oh, how did you get out?”
“I wasn’t there,” he breathed. “Fannie! what’s happened?... None of the girls ...”
“You didn’t know?” she gasped.
He felt the life leaving his body; it seemed impossible.
“No ...” he heard himself saying. “Tell me....”
She looked at him with dreadful eyes and spoke in a low, deadly, monotonous voice:
“The fire-escape was no good; it broke under some of the girls;... they fell;... we jammed the hall;... some of the girls jumped down the elevator shaft;... they couldn’t get out ... and Miss Marks, the forelady, was trying to keep us in order.... She stayed there ... and I ran down the stairs, and dropped in the smoke, and crawled ... but when I got to the street ... I looked back ... Mr. Joe ... the girls were jumping from the windows....”
Joe seized the stoop-post. His body seemed torn in two; he began to reel.
“From the ninth floor,” he muttered, “and couldn’t get out.... And I wasn’t there! Oh, God, why wasn’t I killed there!”
THE GOOD PEOPLE
Joe broke through the fire line. He stepped like a calcium-lit figure over the wet, gleaming pavement, over the snaky hose, and among the rubber-sheathed, glistening firemen, gave one look at the ghastly heap on the sidewalk, and then became, like the host of raving relatives and friends and lovers, a man insane. It was as if the common surfaces of life—the busy days, the labor, the tools, the houses—had been drawn aside like a curtain and revealed the terrific powers that engulf humanity.
In his ears sounded the hoarse cries of the firemen, the shout of the sprayed water, the crash of axes, the shatter of glass. It was too magnificent a spectacle, nature, like a Nero, using humanity to make a sublime torch in the night. And through his head pulsed and pulsed the defiant throb of the engines. Cinders fell, sticks, papers, and Joe saw fitfully the wide ring of hypnotized faces. It was as if the world had fallen into a pit, and human beings looked on each other aghast.
“Get back there!” cried a burly policeman.
Joe resisted his shouldering.
“I’m Mr. Blaine;... it’s my loft burning. I’m looking for my men....”
“Go to the morgue then,” snapped the policeman. “A fire line’s a fire line.”
Joe was pushed back, and as the crowd closed about him, a soft pressure of clothing, men and women, he became aware of the fact that he had lost his head. He pulled himself together; he told himself that he, a human being, was greater than anything that could happen; that he must set his jaw and fight and brave his way through the facts. He must get to work.