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PANIC was omnipotent; everywhere people knelt and grovelled in the mud, praying that the last agony might be short. A motley group they were, many of them folk who had never prayed before, and who even now mingled curses and blasphemy with their prayers.
The clouds rolled back again, and, as the overhead vision faded and seemed to contract in the gathering mists, as nothing happened, many got back their courage, and the old scenes were repeated once again. At one street corner, a trembling clergyman would be urging his hearers to repent while yet there was time; at another, hard by, some pseudo-scientist would scoff at the whole matter, saying that the worst was over; that no more evil could fall; that now, or never, was the hour to lay the foundation-stone of the social millennium. They were legion these millenniums, legion in their variety, but the root idea was common to all— "Take what you want" was the general keynote. And from one and all of these gatherings there rose an hysterical murmur of hate for the three thousand sailors who alone stood between them and their desires. Ever and again some half-dozen of these sailors would come down the street; there would be a short order to disperse, speedily followed up by a charge, unless there was immediate compliance. And amid all this cruel strife the World was ending, moment by moment.
At last I came back to the hotel. In the vestibule stood Landry, dark rings under her eyes, wild terror in her face. She was no longer beautiful, yet now for the first time I loved her. All the artificiality had passed away, she was a woman now and a woman only, sad at my desertion of her— sad and nothing more.
My heart was full of reproaches as I went up and took her hand in mine. There were people about, but she flung herself unheeding into my arms sobbing, "You have come again— come again. It was cruel to leave me— cruel!"
No one took any notice of us; nothing attracted attention now. Yet enough of the old instincts remained for us to wish to be alone together. Together we climbed those endless stairs— together we entered the room from which we had watched the flood— together we sat hand in hand, silent and waiting for death. We could not speak coherently— we were too frightened— we only stared stupidly at each other.
Landry fumbled in her pocket, and presently produced a green disc. Her frightened fingers beat a tattoo upon my forehead as she took away the disc that I wore, and affixed this other in its place.
"'Twas once Mirzarbeau's," she whispered. "Shall we— try if it's any use?"
The crackling in the sky began again, a noise like linen being torn. The walls of the room quivered like a jelly in hot weather, the ceiling jagged into long black cracks. The noise increased, the roaring came deeper and deeper till it faded once more into that awful stillness. Our very hearts seemed to stop beating, then to revolve in slow and sleepy circles. Could we have found words we would have asked each other— "Is this death?" But we could frame no words, and so were silent.
Suddenly with a shriek Landry started to her feet, beating the air and pointing.
"Look!" she screamed. "Oh my God! Look! Look!"
Following the direction of her pointing finger, I saw that the cracks in the ceiling were now filled with a livid greenish-yellow flame,— a flame that showed horribly against the whitewash. For the most part it ran slowly— dribbled as it were— swelling and contracting, blotted out one moment, then bursting into a cataract the next, like the lightning in a storm.
"Don't you see it? she cried again— for I had answered nothing. "Don't you see it, fool? Go up-stairs and see what you can do— the house is on fire— on fire, do you hear?"
I went then, slowly and unwillingly. I knew — she knew— that it was not fire. We knew then, both of us, that the end was coming and near at hand.
There came a fearful crash of thunder as I obeyed her— a crash that shook the house, and brought a shower of dust about me through which I struggled choking.
It was very dark up-stairs. There was neither fire nor flame in the room overhead, only an insufferable smell of burnt matches— phosphorus and sulphur— it seemed to scorch my lungs as I breathed it.
"Well?" I heard Landry cry.
Looking down, I saw her face at the foot of the stairs below me, very white and set. "Well— are you afraid to go in?"
"Afraid of what?" I retorted almost jauntily. "There is no fire here."
I rushed into the room as I spoke and stamped upon the floor, hard for a moment; then stopped with a sudden chill of dread, lest the floor should give way.
I groped my way down the stairs again. It was darker now, and the darkness was thick, a wall of it through which I forced my way panting and fighting for breath. A heavy weight was on my chest, my mouth was stuffed, a buzzing sounded in my ears, the eyes seemed starting out of my head. My throat, my inside seemed full of liquid fire; in my head the blood was boiling. It was death that was coming, but I fought it still, longing to live while I might, anxious, curious, ay, insufferably curious now to see the final end of things.
I reached the room; she was not there!
I rushed blindly into the street calling for her. Dark and heavy as was the gloom the electric lights still burning lit it, and they shone pure and soft and silvery. Smoke, sparks, flame, suffocating heat, choking dust were above and around; thunder pealed incessantly with deafening hellish roar; only the lights were calm, and still.
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