Story type: Literature
As the cities are all only two days from famine, so
is man’s life constantly but a step from dissolution.
Once on a day, I spoke at the Athenaeum, New Orleans, for the Young Men’s Hebrew Association.
When they had asked my fee I answered, “One Hundred Fifty Dollars.” The reply was, “We will pay you Two Hundred–it is to be a special occasion.”
A carriage was sent to my hotel for me. The Jews may be close traders, but when it comes to social functions, they know what to do. The Jew is the most generous man in the world, even if he can be at times cent per cent.
As I approached the Athenaeum I thought, “What a beautiful building!” It was stone and brick–solid, subdued, complete and substantial. The lower rooms were used for the Hebrew Club. Upstairs stretched the splendid hall, as I could tell from the brilliantly lighted windows.
Inside, I noticed that the stairways were carpeted with Brussels. Glancing through the wide doorways, I beheld an audience of more than two thousand people. The great chandeliers sent out a dazzling glory from their crystal and gold. At the sides, rich tapestries and hangings of velvet covered the windows.
“A beautiful building,” I said to my old-time friend, Maurice J. Pass, the Secretary of the Club.
He smiled in satisfaction and replied, “Well, we seldom let things go by default–you have tonight as fine an audience as ever assembled in New Orleans.”
We passed down a side hallway and under the stage, preparatory to going on the platform. In this room below the stage a single electric light shone. The place was dark and dingy, in singular contrast to the beauty, light, cleanliness and order just beyond. In the corner were tables piled high–evidently used for banquets–broken furniture and discarded boxes.
Several smart young men in full dress sat on the tables smoking cigarettes. One young man said in explanation, “We were crowded out–had to give up our seats to ladies–so we are going to sit on the stage.”
The soft blue smoke from the cigarettes seemed to hug close about the lonely electric light.
I saw the smoke and thought that beside the odor of tobacco I detected the smell of smoldering pine.
“Isn’t it a trifle smoky here?” I said to the young man nearest me.
He laughed at this remark and handed me a cigarette.
The Secretary of the Club and I went up the narrow stairs to the stage. As we stood there behind the curtain I looked at the pleasant-faced man. “You didn’t detect the odor of burning wood down there, did you?” I asked.
“No; but you see the windows are open, and there are bonfires outside, I suppose.”
“I am a fool,” I thought; “and James Whitcomb Riley was right when he said that the speaker who is about to make his bow to an audience is always so keyed up that at the moment he is incapable of sane thinking.”
I excused myself and walked over to an open window at the back of the stage and looked down.
It must have been forty feet to the stony street beneath.
Then I went to a side window and threw up the sash. This window looked out on a roof ten or twelve feet below. I got a broken broom that stood in the corner and propped the window open.
The thought of fire was upon me and I was inwardly planning what I would do in case of a stampede. I am always thinking about what I would do should this or that happen. Nothing can surprise me–not even death. If any of my best helpers should leave me, I have it all planned exactly whom I will put in their places. I have it arranged who will take my own place–my will is made and my body is to be cremated.
“Cremated? Not tonight!” I said to myself, as I placed the broom under the sash. “If a panic occurs, the people will go out of the doors and I will stick to the stage until my coat-tails singe. I’ll say that the fire is in an adjoining building; then I’ll smilingly bow myself off the stage and gently drop out of that window.”
“All ready when you are,” said Mr. Fass.
I passed out on the stage before that vast sea of faces.
It was a glorious sight. There was a row of military men from the French warship in the harbor, down in front; priests, and ladies with sparkling diamonds; a bishop wearing a purple vestment under his black gown sat to one side; a stout lady in decollete waved a feather fan in rhythmic, mystic motion, far back to the left.
The audience applauded encouragingly, I wished I was back in that dear East Aurora. But I began.
In a few minutes my heart ceased to thump and I knew we were off.
I spoke for two hours, and I spoke well.
I did not push the lecture in front of me, nor did I drag it behind. I got the chancery twist on it and carried it off big, as I do about one time in ten. I finished in a whirlwind of applause, with the bishop crying “Bravo!” and the fat lady with the fifty-dollar feather fan beaming approbation.
Fass stood in the wings to congratulate me.
I shook hands with a hundred. The house slowly emptied. I bade the genial Fass good-by. He took my hand in both of his. “You will come back! You must come back!” he said.
He walked with me, bareheaded, to my carriage.
He again pressed my hand.
I rode to my hotel and went to bed, and to sleep.
I was awakened by a bright glare of light that filled my room.
I got up and looked at my watch. It was just midnight.
Off to the East I saw red tongues of angry flame streaking the sky from horizon to zenith.
“It is the Jewish Club, all right,” I said.
I pulled down the blind and went back to bed.
When I went down to breakfast at seven o’clock in the morning, I heard the newsboys in the streets crying, “All about the fire!” I bought a paper and read the headline, “Hubbard’s Lecture Hot Stuff!”
I walked out Saint Charles Avenue and viewed the smoldering ruins where only a few hours before I had spoken to more than two thousand people–where the bishop in purple vestment had cried “Bravo!” and the stout lady with feathered fan had beamed approval.
“Was anybody hurt?” I asked one of the policemen on guard.
“Only one man killed–Fass, the Secretary; I believe he lies somewhere over there to the left, beneath that toppled wall.”