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ABOUT mid-day the waters had so far fallen that I ventured out. I wanted to see what was left of the city, and how we were to fare till relief in some shape or other should come.
The lower parts of the building were entirely wrecked by the flood, windows washed bodily out, rooms denuded of all furniture, floors coated with mud and slime. But I did not stay to look at these evidences, I wanted to see the outside world with my own eyes, so I hastened out towards the Thames.
The flood had gone with unexampled rapidity. Mud was everywhere, thick and deep, though there was far less of it along the Embankment than I should have expected : I suppose that the wash of the outgoing tide must have carried it away. Ruin and destruction were omnipresent, but I heeded them little, some all-dominant instinct led me to the gun-boat that I had seen, and which now lay upon its side in the river mud close against the Embankment wall; Cleopatra's obelisk had fallen across it, breaking it amidships. And making for the gun-boat I paid no heed to the dead bodies around me.
The ship was deserted. Not a single sailor was visible upon her decks; either the flood had carried them away or else they had gone off of their own accord. Yet I still lingered, searching aimlessly in the debris upon the vessel's deck.
There was a boat alongside, or rather the remains of one, a small barge that had battered itself almost to fragments against the fallen obelisk. I looked inside. There was only one thing in it— a little pebble it looked like.
I reached down and casually picked it up. Then I saw what— and who— I held;— Dornton, killed by the very thing that he had foretold should kill us!
But I had no time to wonder how he had died, my attention was distracted by people upon the Embankment, a crowd hurrying and yelling. Hampstead and all the higher parts of the town had escaped the deluge, and thence this mob seemed to have come.
There was about it no discipline and order, every one did as he listed; they were looting the ruins and robbing the bodies of the dead. The world, as I said before, had gone back bodily to prehistoric times, and man was an animal as in the days of old. Might alone made right, all the chains that men had forged for their mutual convenience were cast aside. If any law and order, government, or civilization remained, it was effete and powerless, a name only. And in this, the folk that I saw were happy— law to them had been ever a cruel repression, and anarchy came as a gospel.
A ragged lot they were, and I soon learnt to dread them, for seeing in me one better dressed than themselves they began to jeer, and presently to throw stones.
It was useless to argue : they meant to kill me for the sake of any gold that I might have about me : civilization had left that curse as a legacy— men would still dare much for gold.
I hurried below. Fire-arms were sure to be somewhere in a man-of-war, and I soon chanced upon a rifle and a cutlass, though I could find no ammunition. Still with these weapons I could defend myself, and, seeing me resolute, the mob would, I expected, pass on elsewhere.
I came up again none too soon. Already three of them were walking over the obelisk, three half-dressed ruffians who, I was glad to note, were unarmed. They slunk back so soon as I pointed my rifle at them and threatened to shoot, but those on the bank hurled so many stones that I had to get under cover, and under this hail a crowd of a dozen tried to rush me.
"Hold on!" cried a voice from somewhere. "Hold on till we come to you." I looked round and saw Bentham and a few sailors coming up in a steam-launch.
Encouraged, I made play with the cutlass to protect myself, and a moment later the lieutenant was by my side. I saw a revolver in his hand, heard the " crack, crack, crack!" as he discharged it without warning at my assailants. They fell this way and that, the survivors calling for mercy, one or two grovelling upon the deck. It seemed a cruel thing, but he killed these deliberately; then actually ran across the obelisk at the crowd upon the Embankment. They fled at his approach, running like dogs. One or two he caught up; these he killed all unresisting as they were. Then he came back.
"Squeamish?" he asked, seeing the horror that I could not keep out of my face. "We can't afford to be squeamish now, it's not men that we have to fight, but animals— and fear is the only thing to manage them with. Law and order have to be restored, and only the armed hand can do it."
"I suppose so," said I unwillingly.
"I'm certain," said he, "and those are the orders. Martial law is omnipotent just now, or will be in a few hours. You'd better keep with me. . . . Hello, what's this?"
He was looking at the body of Dornton. Contrary to my expectations he said nothing; there were more important things to see to now than this vendetta of his that had failed. And so strangely had the flood affected us, that neither he nor I even speculated as to how Dornton came by this mysterious end.
I followed him into the steam-launch, and we were soon steaming swiftly down the river. The desolation on either side was appalling, but I doubt if either of us troubled much. Only the strongest instincts remained, pity for one's fellows lived no longer. Bentham had only the instinct of discipline; I, of self-preservation.
There were ships in the Pool, some still floating, many lying in the mud. On some we saw bodies of looters, and we stopped every now and again to fire at these. It was rather like rat-hunting.
"Three of my crew are Bisley men,— crack shots," explained Bentham calmly, as he watched a sailor in the bow picking off the rioters one after the other. "Strange, is it not, the pleasure one soon gets in killing one's fellows?"
It was true. Gradually I felt no more repulsion; but a longing to kill also.
And so we steamed on, passing a deserted training-ship on the way, not stopping till we reached Sheerness. We saw no living thing in these lower reaches; the flood had killed everything, the dockyard was a ruin, and most of the shipping aground. The guardship still floated,
however, a huge ironclad, looking none the worse for the recent events; and as we approached nearer I could see the crew drilling aboard her just as though nothing had happened.
Bentham went on board the ironclad, presumably for orders, and while he was thus gone I saw a fleet of war-ships coming in round the point They came very swiftly, moving all together like clockwork. They anchored, and I saw boats coming from them as they did so, and soon these, in tow of the smaller vessels, went out again and up the Thames. Bentham rejoined me, and our pinnace having taken in coal and water we were soon steaming back to London also.
"I reckon," said he, "that the Cockneys will settle down quietly by midnight; or there'll be none left to settle."
He spoke the truth. There was much shooting during the early evening, but by midnight gangs of Londoners were at work, burying the dead in the Parks, the street lights were burning in places, the semblance of order had been restored. There were provisions in the city enough to last for a few days, and I suppose arrangements to replenish the supply were made.
Civilization had made its final effort, and for the time at any rate had conquered. At least a million Londoners had survived, and taking from these the women, children, the well-to-do folk, and others who had some interest in the restoration of order, there remained, perhaps, a hundred thousand men who had set law at defiance. To control these there were less than three thousand sailors and marines landed from the fleet. It puzzled me at first; but as I looked at the resolute faces of the sailors, as I thought of that leaderless multitude, as I saw posted here and there all over the town— " Any civilian found with arms or looting will be shot on sight," I felt that anarchy had no chance.
Bentham had given me an "exemption card," so that I was free to wander without being impressed into the grave-digging parties that tramped the streets. I wandered round till the dawn,— till six o'clock or more, maybe.
About that time there came a strange crackling noise from the sky overhead, a tremendous roaring, and then, suddenly, a silence even more terrible, since one felt that this silence came only in that the noise was of a tone too deep for human ears to tell. The clouds were flung apart as a man might fling hay; and beyond, above, and through them, infinite in form, infinite in size, darted strange shapes of violet flame, some driving swiftly downwards to the Earth, others soaring up to meet them. And when they met, there came a light so dazzling that I flung myself face downward in the mud, as did all the other people, crying vaguely that the sun himself was blackness before a light like this, which tore and ripped through protecting hands, and seared one's eyeballs through the flesh. This was Light— a thing unseen, unknown before; what wonder, if those who fell beneath it cried that Judgment Day was come!
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