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I WAS sceptical as any one else— nevertheless Wednesday found me on the sea-shore. "Suppose it should be true?" was again the keynote of my thoughts, and I wished to see what was to be seen if, after all, Dornton had not lied. Not a very logical view, perhaps; but one is seldom logical where uncertain thought prevails.
I came on to an esplanade high up on a cliff round which there ran a low stone rampart that followed the contour of the coast. I remember it all so well; the land jutting seaward to the left like a great redoubt, the beach below me telling very white, sprinkled here and there with rocks and people. I can still see the great stretch of wet sand, smooth and glistening under the clouded sky. The sea itself was far away, I could not see it very well in the dull haze, but what there was of it was dull and heavy and grey— there seemed a dull and dreary spell over everything.
Even the beach did not give life to the scene, though there were many people there— women and children for the most part. Some of them had their shoes and stockings off, paddling in the distant water or playing in the nearer rock-pools; some were grouped around the nigger minstrels, whose discordant music reached me where I stood so far above. But whatever their occupations, none of them seemed to trouble about the predicted doom, everything was essentially commonplace and ordinary— the same this day as on any other. Perhaps they had not even heard of that violet star, which, if Dornton spoke truth, was very near now, behind the lowering clouds.
I looked idly enough at the scene; it wanted yet some time to the prophesied hour; and presently, tired of walking, I sat down upon an iron bench hard by. There were not so many people up here, and such as there were congregated round a bleary-eyed old mariner who, with a large telescope set upon a tripod-stand, was calling out in a hoarse voice, ever and again—
"A penny a peep. Only a penny to see the end o' the world. Only one penny!"
And this was the only sign of belief that I saw!
The people laughed; the "up-to-dateness" of the old man amused them; he profited well by his acumen. I had my peep with the rest. I did not expect to see anything unusual, so I was not disappointed at my inability to distinguish aught of the abnormal. With the glass I could just make out one of the guardian cruisers on the look-out for would-be Chinese immigrants, but she, like everything else, looked to be asleep.
Presently the jarring voice of the telescope-man "got on my nerves," as the saying is, and I moved on for a hundred yards or so. In doing this I encountered Dornton. He was sitting upon a bench seemingly half-asleep, a straw hat tilted over his eyes; and beside him, of all people in the world, was Miss Landry Baker.
She was gazing listlessly over the water, and did not at first see me; not, indeed, till Dornton had risen and addressed me.
"Hail, salvator mundi," he cried. " So you have come to witness how vain was your heroism."
I began to explain that my presence here on this particular day was entirely accidental, but he aggressively cut me short, as Landry turned sharply round.
"You two ought to know each other," he said, "both of you being celebrities. Mr. Lester, destroyer of mysterious machines, let me introduce you to Miss Landry Selina Baker of Chicago — I think it is Chicago?— the lady whom we have to thank for the death of the execrable Mirzarbeau."
Landry bit her lip savagely; then bowed to me with a gracious smile and some commonplace remark that I awkwardly returned.
"Don't credit any self-depreciation that Miss Baker may indulge in," he went on. " Alone and unaided, she penetrated to the Beast's lair, and boldly took the protecting disc from his forehead, substituting a useless one for it. The result was his exit from this life, when, on a subsequent date, he innocently trusted to the disc he wore. Now, she would modestly have you believe that the changing was a thoughtless freak of the moment."
"It was," she burst out angrily. Then she turned her back upon him and began to talk to me casually as though our acquaintance dated only from this day. So well as I was able I answered in kind, thinking the while of that falling out between us in Mirzarbeau's laboratory. I remembered all that she had said to me then, and how I had scoffed. It was I that had been the fool. I meant to admit as much to her, if Dornton would only move away and give me the chance.
"I've run down to see the great disaster," she laughed. "You, too, I guess, are equally curious?"
"Yes," I answered, though I did not return her laugh. "But, unlike you, I'm not able to laugh about it. I'm on the border-land of belief."
"Oh lor! But you're jesting, of course. A machine to smash up folk is one thing, a comet to do for the whole caboodle is quite another notion. You ain't serious about believing?"
"You will all believe in a few moments now," said Dornton, suddenly sitting up. "Hark!"
A low hollow moaning came from the far distance— a wail like an Æolian harp.
Its effect was instantaneous. In a moment shrieks and cries arose all round us, blending into one great scream of agony. "The earthquake! The earthquake! It is true!"
I joined in the cry and so did the sceptical Landry as she sprang to her feet vainly seeking a refuge. Her face was ashy white, her lips trembling, all the bloom and beauty gone.
"Courage," I whispered, holding her to me. "Courage." But it took all my strength to hold her, as mad with terror she shrieked again and again, in that awful chorus— "The earthquake! The earthquake!"
"Ah" said Dornton quietly, "now they believe." He tilted his hat a little more forward over his eyes so as to shield them from the declining sun that just now broke through the heavy clouds; he sat expectant— waiting. How I hated him for the horrible satisfaction with which he spoke! I believed now.
Again there came that terrible moaning, again the people shrieked and cried. The place where we stood heaved and trembled, vibrating much as a piece of metal does when a heavy blow has been struck somewhere near it.
Then the whole of the smooth dark horizon suddenly jagged out into a series of hills, a splash of distant white foam in the van. In the nearer sea the waters ran back a little further.
I saw the people on the beach below. They were quiet now, very quiet, some standing still, some kneeling; but all silent, save for a single low cry that they raised in unison once and once only. I do not know what it was that they cried, but in my heart it echoed as a " Let us stay and get it over."
I felt like some patient the moment before the administration of an anaesthetic; an unnatural boldness mixed in with my fear. And ever that great jagged mountain of water came slowly on.
Landry was clinging to me now, grasping me tightly with her arms round my neck in the extremity of her terror; I could feel the beating of her heart against me, it seemed to echo the pulse of the on-coming wave. But for this she might have been dead, her eyes were closed, her teeth clenched. And in that solemn ghastly moment, the one thought uppermost in my mind was that she had no beauty save her complexion, and losing that lost all.
The wave towered up and up, then broke with a roar that drowned all other sound. I can see it all still— the blue-green water, the white up-flying spray, the red-brown rocks spotting the mass here and there.
"It is the moment before death," said I, then I bent down over the girl who clung to me, and kissed her upon the lips. I shuddered as I did so, those lips were cold and clammy as the grave.
The wave broke, the foam leaped high up into the air, but nothing else happened. A few people were washed away; I saw one, a woman dressed in black, a woman who had been praying upon the beach. Her arms were folded, and she bobbed in the foam like a cork. No one made any effort to help her, but many laughed; the sudden cessation of the strain made them merry. A little further on two girls boldly paddled into the brine; one with arms akimbo watching the other, who ventured a step further out, and, holding her dress with the one hand, waved the other over her head, laughing loudly. They had let down their long dark hair, and it streamed out behind them as they danced in the foam. Good-looking girls they were, but I thought of the witches in the Brocken scene in Faust, and turned away. When I looked again they were gone; drowned, perhaps.
The tide ran back, out as far as the eye could reach, and I saw wrecks lying at the bottom of the sea. And among them ran the people, screaming now with hysterical laughter, for some one had cried that there was gold in the wrecks.
"We had better be going," said Dornton, "this is but the beginning of the end. There is a train due to leave shortly. Since it is the last that will leave, we may as well avail ourselves of it."
Then we three made our way to the station. The evening sun shone brightly now, and the road along which we went was heavy with the scent of hawthorn. The world seemed too fair to be left willingly yet awhile.
I looked up at the patch of blue sky overhead thankful for its peaceful beauty. But as I looked my thanks all died, as faintly visible in the dreamy blueness I saw a smudge of violet mist.
As our train passed out of the station we caught a momentary glimpse of the beach, thick with struggling people all around where the wrecks lay.
"Those poor fools will soon be dead," said Dornton with a laugh. "They forget that tides return."
And Landry, indolently reclining on the luxurious cushions, looked up through her half-closed eyelids and echoed the laugh.
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