CHAPTER XI. SANTIAGO AND VALPARAISO.
Gems of the changing autumn, how beautiful you are,
Shining from your glassy stems, like many a golden star.
Thursday, October 26th. - Our kind hostess at Lota had given us a letter of introduction to her manager at Santiago, who called this morning to inquire what arrangements he could make which would be most agreeable to us during our stay. She had also given orders that her carriages and horses should be placed at our disposal, and at about ten o'clock we all started in an open break, drawn by a pair of good-looking half-bred brown horses, bigger than any we had seen before in this country.
We went first to the Compania, a large open square, planted with flowers, the site of the old Jesuit Church, which was burnt down on December 8th, 1863. Well known as the story is, I may here recall the tragic details, standing on the very spot where they took place. It was the Feast of the Virgin, and the church was densely crowded with a congregation composed almost entirely of women, principally young, many of whom were servant-girls. Some of the draperies used in the decoration of the building caught fire, the flames spread rapidly, destroying in their course the cords by which the numerous paraffin and oil lamps were suspended across the nave and aisles, and precipitating their burning contents upon the people beneath. The great doors opened inwards; the crowd, trying to press out, closed them, and kept them hermetically sealed. The priests, anxious to save the church properties and sacred relics, shut the large iron gates across the chancel and kept them fastened, notwithstanding the agonising shrieks of the unhappy victims, many of whom might otherwise have escaped. Their conduct on this terrible occasion created at the time a feeling of bitter and universal indignation, and caused a shock to the popularity and authority of the priesthood in this country, from which it will take them a long time to recover.
Mr. Long told us that, between seven and eight o'clock on the evening of the catastrophe, he was walking with some friends on the Alameda, when he saw smoke rising in dense volumes from the quarter of the city where the house in which he resided was situated. He and his friends ran quickly in the direction of the fire, giving the alarm as they went, and on reaching the church they found the doors closely shut, while fearful screams were issuing from the interior, and smoke and flames pouring from the windows. They got a party of men together accustomed to the use of the lasso - no difficult task here - and with them climbed from the neighbouring houses to the top of the church. Making a hole in the roof, they then dropped their lassoes over some of the women beneath, and so dragged them out of the building; but the number thus saved was necessarily very small, and it happened too often that many of the poor creatures below, in their eagerness to escape, hung on to the legs or body of the one they saw lassoed, and by their weight literally dragged her to pieces. Sometimes even a lasso broke, and those clinging to it, when almost within reach of safety, were again precipitated into the burning mass below. Any one who has seen a raw hide lasso, capable of withstanding the sudden rush of the fiercest bull ever captured, will be able to realise the immense strain which would be required to cause one to give way. The next morning at daybreak, the interior of the church presented a terrible spectacle. Mr. Long described it as being full of women, standing up, tightly wedged together, their hands stretched out as if in an attitude of supplication, their faces and the upper part of their bodies charred beyond recognition, the lower part, from the waist downwards, completely untouched.
Their remains were buried in one large grave, in the cemetery of the Recoleta, and the spot is now marked by a square piece of ground, full of bright flowers, enclosed by iron railings, almost hidden by the creepers that entwine them, and shaded by willows, orange-trees, cypresses, and pomegranates. In the centre is a large cross, and on either side of the iron railings there is a marble tablet with the simple but touching inscription, in Spanish -
'Incendio de la Iglesia
de la Compania, 8 de Diciembre, 1863. Restos de las Victimas;
2000, mas o menos.'
(Burning of the Church of the Compania, December 8th, 1863 Remains of the victims. 2,000, more or less.)
Almost every household in Santiago had lost one of its members. One lovely girl of seventeen was pulled out through the roof and taken to Madame Cousino's residence, where she lay for nearly a fortnight. She suffered the greatest agonies, but was sensible to the last, and gave a graphic account of the whole harrowing scene. The site of the church, hallowed by such sad memories, has never been built upon, but is preserved as an open space, surrounded by a strip of garden, and having in its centre a finely carved monument.
The Houses of Congress were the next thing we went to see, after which we drove through a great part of the city and over a handsome bridge with statues and small niches on either side. Beneath it, however, there is little more than a dry torrent bed; and it is said that an American, when visiting this spot with a Santiago friend, who was showing him round, remarked, 'I guess you ought either to buy a river or sell this here bridge.' We also went to the Church of La Recoleta. From the church we went to the cemetery of the same name, which is prettily laid out, and well stocked with flowers and trees.