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WE took the train none too soon. The tidal wave came back again, returning with tenfold force and volume, and every living thing upon the sea-shore perished. So, too, did many inland, for the wave was far-sweeping, and when we reached London, which we did after many delays, the tide in the river was very high, and many parts of the East End were already under water.
Panic had begun in London, scepticism had swung round, and though, perhaps, people hardly yet believed that the world was ending, the ever-rising flood was a source of terrible alarm. It was hopeless to attempt getting westward in the confusion that prevailed.
"It is really a matter of small importance where you die," said Dornton. "If you will accept my advice, Miss Baker, you will secure rooms in one of the big hotels hereabouts."
This thing we did, going to a very large hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment. Huge as it was, it was, however, nearly full, since every hour brought train-loads of panic-stricken seaside inhabitants flying before the flood. Landry secured apartments high up, at a most exorbitant price; Dornton and I had to make shift in the kitchens.
La belle Americaine had got some of her courage back, and no longer seemed to dread the finality of the flood.
"In this Tower of Babel," she smiled, as we saw her into the lift, "'tis as well to be located near the angels. But when you get drowned, I'll have you decently buried."
And so I left her.
Dornton and I went to the kitchens and sat among the trembling crowds. I remember that there were a great many forms provided, and on these we sat in rows gazing vacantly at each other, hour after hour, as we listened to the noises in the street outside, whence came shoutings and roarings and the occasional report of fire-arms. Trouble of some sort was going on, but no one tried to ascertain what it was about, each was thinking of his own self, and cared nothing as to what might befall the rest of the world. In all those weary hours, not one thought of even Landry crossed my mind.
Dornton began to talk later in the evening. He told of the coming doom, of death to fall this way and that. "It is no new thing," he said; "this world has been nearly annihilated by flood or fire many a time in the past. Go where you will, every old race has had traditions of such catastrophes. It is a law of nature, and there is nothing to do but grin and bear it."
Some jeered, others trembled, many argued with him for the sake of breaking the silence that had been, and thus the talk went on far into the night.
It must have been close upon midnight that, as we still sat talking, the door was flung violently open, and Landry Baker rushed into the place, her eyes wild with terror, and a great carving-knife in her hands.
"Prophet," she cried; "where is the prophet?"
Dornton turned himself as she came, throwing one leg over the form, sitting astride upon it as though he rode a horse.
"Here I am," he said. "What do you want?" She ran up to him then, the knife flourishing and glistening.
Some of the people rose to their feet, a woman here and there smiling, but the most still sat stolidly paying little heed.
"It is true!" she cried, "true! It is you that prophesied it. You and not Mirzarbeau who have done it. Kill me; I can't wait for the other death. Kill me now."
"You do me too great honour," he returned. "I am only a planet molecule like the rest of you— a trifle more sensitive to note, may-be, but absolutely inactive otherwise— far too indolent to do anything of my own volition."
He sat still looking at her and smiling, while she, flinging the knife from her, stood swaying to and fro, and began to sob and pray for death.
"She's mad," came in a chorus from the onlookers. "She's mad. . . He's mad. . . Both mad!"
And this they yelled repeatedly, laughing foolishly the while, but with no more intelligence than had they been the chorus of a Greek play.
"Ay," said Dornton, turning on them. " Laugh while you may— the time is short!"
There came a louder roaring from the streets and the shriek of terrified people. There was a sound of splashing water, a muddy stream ran along the floor. The flood was invading the hotel!
I have an indistinct recollection of rushing up countless steps, of dragging Landry after me, or else of Landry dragging me; of a struggling crowd fighting its way into a room, and Dornton flinging himself against the door to shut them out.
There was a great table in the middle of the room, and I presently found myself sitting at it. Landry was beside me, her head buried in her arms; Dornton sat at the foot of the table, and some ten others, men and women, sat around with us. The electric lamps would not burn, the only light was a solitary candle that stood alone in the middle of the bare table. Outside was still the endless roaring, and all the room vibrated with the noise.
"The higher up one is, the longer the time before the end," said Dornton presently. "Yet I doubt if the gain be more than apparent, since there is the annihilation to follow soon. And annihilation may be sufficiently instantaneous to interfere with heaven."
"Heaven!" whispered a girl at the other end of the table. "It is the only thing to hope for now— if there is a heaven at all."
"It can't make any great odds to you," said Dornton sharply. "Heaven exists subjectively for every one who chooses to believe in it. Death annihilates time for mankind, and in the moment of death those who die looking for a heaven, live an infinite eternity of bliss. No thought follows to destroy it, they die and pass to nothingness. There is no real heaven, of course, but this subjective one is more real to the dying than any dim objective one could be, and more beautiful, for each seems to go to that which he most desires. It is worth living and suffering for that one last thought. But annihilation by the violet flame must be swifter than thought, and may kill heaven."
"Then God give us some other death," said the girl chokingly.
"Precisely. Asphyxiation would be pleasanter. Let us make heaven by that means. It has also the advantage that those who deserve it will not be cheated out of their hell, as they regret pleasures of this world not made the most of."
No one answered him. He rose and began to tear up pieces of paper, which he fitted into the crevices of the doors and windows. I need not repeat the rest that he said. It was, perhaps, a logical sequence to his other remarks; but there are paths that even logic should not tread.
In the middle of his self-imposed task our solitary candle went out, and we were left in pitchy darkness. There is no describing the hours that we passed in that darkness.
When the morning came, a faint glimmering of day, I looked around the haggard group. I counted them, six women and six men, including Landry and myself. When the light went out we had been thirteen. Dornton had left us in the night.
I said nothing, but watched the flood from the window— a great brown sea stretching as far as the eye could reach. Here and there a tall tower or chimney still rose above the waters, but the most of London was far below that dreadful ocean. It rose higher and higher yet, and ever and again some chimney would subside with a crash and a cataract of foam. Right below, midway between where Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges must have been, lay a small gunboat. How and when it got there I know not, but I suppose she must have come up the river in the night. I could see a figure here and there on her deck moving. I watched her plunge and strain at her anchors till a sheet of rain hid her from my sight.
"A good many millions drowned," said some one, distracting my attention. . . . " Better so," he went on, "the sooner a man dies the better. We shall all die soon of asphyxiation, and a good job too."
Some echoed his words, but the most said nothing.
Then we sat in silence, in a choking, gloomy atmosphere, waiting to die— a gasping, horrible state it was as the air grew less and less. I think some did die then, but no one moved or attempted to reach the air. And outside, the flood still rose till it lashed against the balcony.
I could stand the choking no more. I rushed to the window and tore it open. " 'Tis better to drown than to choke," I cried.
The burst of fresh air nearly knocked me over; it was blessed, invigorating, beautiful.
And there I stood, waiting to drown. I was minded to spring off the balcony into the water, but I always put it off for one more minute— one more— and yet another. Thus I stood, heedless of everything, till Landry joined me. She came pale and feebly, a tottering wreck; but a moment later the colour flew to her cheeks; she became instinct with life and vitality.
"Look!" she cried, "look! The flood goes back!"
She clung to my arm, and I followed her gaze.
It was true! Here and there, upon the roofs of the higher houses, was mud all golden, with little silver rivulets trickling through it, a positive proof that the waters were receding, that we had a respite. I seized her in my arms and kissed her, mad with joy.
She did not resist. She returned my kisses with lips hot and burning.
We had passed through the flood, and we still lived. But in those hours of long-drawn agony many things had died; ideas born in the long past ages when civilization was but dawning, hopes, ideals, restraints, all the things that marked men from the animals, all these had gone with the flood. There was no longer any past or any future; there was the present, and that alone. All else the flood had killed; we were male and female— nothing more.
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