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The Catastrophe

From: The Crack Of Doom

The Esmeralda was putting out to sea when I thought of a last
expedient to draw the attention of her captain. Filling my revolver with
cartridges which I had loose in my pockets, I fired all the chambers as
fast as I could snap the trigger.

My signals were heard, and Anderson proved true to his bargain. He
immediately reversed his engines, and, when he had backed in as close as
he thought safe, sent a boat ashore for us. We got into it without any
obstruction from the cowering natives, who only shrank from us in
horror, now that their prayers had failed to move us. The moment our
boat was made fast to the steamer's davit ropes and we were pulled out
of the water, "full speed ahead" was rung from the bridge. We were
raised to the deck while the vessel was getting up speed.

I crawled up the ladder to the bridge feebly, for I was becoming stiff
from the bruises of the fall from my horse. Anderson received me coldly,
and listened indifferently to my thanks. An agreement such as ours
hardly prepared me for his loyalty.

"Oh, as to that," he interrupted, "when I make a bargain my word is my
bond. On this occasion I am inclined to think the indenture will be a
final one."

His bargain was a hard one, but, having made it, he abided faithfully by
its conditions. He was honest, therefore, in his own way.

"How far can you get out in fifteen minutes?" I asked.

"We may make six or seven knots. But what is the good of that? There
will be an earthquake on that island on a liberal scale--on such a scale
that this ship would have very little chance in the wave that will
follow us if we were fifty miles at sea."

"You have taken every precaution, of course--"

Anderson here looked at me contemptuously, and, with an air of sarcastic
admiration, he said:

"You have guessed it at the first try. That is precisely what I have

"Pshaw! don't take offence at trifles at a time like this," I said
testily. "If you knew as much about that earthquake as I do, you would
be in no humour for bandying phrases."

"Might I ask how much you do know about it? You could not have foreseen
the trouble more clearly if you had made it yourself."

"I did not make it myself, but I know the means which the man who did
employed, and but for me that earthquake would have wrecked this earth."

Anderson made no direct answer to this, but he said earnestly:

"You will now go below, sir. You are done up. Roberts will take you to
the doctor."

"I am not done up, and I mean to see it out," I retorted doggedly. My
nervous system was completely unhinged, and a fit of stupid obstinacy
came on me which rendered any interference with my actions intolerable.

"Then you cannot see it out upon my bridge," Anderson said. The
determined tone in which he spoke only added to my impotent wrath.

"Very well, I will return to the deck, and if any of your men should
attempt to interfere with me he will do so at his peril." With that, I
slung my revolver round so as to have it ready to my hand. I was beside
myself. My conduct was already bad enough, but I made it worse before I
left the bridge.

"And if you, Anderson, disobey my orders--my orders, do you hear?--an
explosion such as took place in the middle of the English channel shall
take place in the middle of this ship."

"For God's sake leave the bridge. I want my wits about me, and I have no
intention of earning another exhibition of your devilries."

"Then be careful not to trouble me again." Thus after having passed
through much danger with a spirit not unbecoming--as I hope--an English
gentleman, I acted, when the worst was passed, like a peevish schoolboy.
I am ashamed of my conduct in this small matter, and trust it will pass
without much notice in the narrative of events of greater moment.

On deck, Natalie Brande, Edith Metford, and Percival were standing
together, their eyes fixed on the island. Edith's face was deathly
white, even in the ruddy glow which was now over land and sea. When I
saw her pallor, my evil temper passed away.

"It would be impossible for you to be quite well," I said to her
anxiously; "but has anything happened since I left you? You are very

"Oh no," she answered, "I'm all right; a little faint after that ride. I
shall be better soon."

Natalie turned her weird eyes on me and said in the hollow voice we had
heard once before--when she spoke to us on the island--"That is her way
of telling you that your horse broke her right arm when she caught him
for you. She held him, you remember, with her left hand. The doctor has
set the limb. She will not suffer long."

"Heaven help us, this awful night," Edith cried. "How do you know that,

"I know much now, but I shall know more soon." After this she would not
speak again.

With every pound of steam on that the Esmeralda's boilers would bear
without bursting, we were now plunging through the great rollers of the
Arafura Sea. Everything had indeed been done to put the vessel in trim.
She was cleared for action, so to speak. And a gallant fight she made
when the issue was knit. When the hour of midnight must be near at
hand, I looked at my watch. It was one minute to twelve o'clock.

Thirty seconds more!

The stupendous corona of flame which hung over the island was pierced by
long lines of smoke that stretched far above the glare and clutched with
sooty fingers at the stars, now fitfully coming back to view at our
distance. The rumbling of internal thunder waxed louder.

Fifteen seconds now!

Fearful peals rent the atmosphere. Vast tongues of flame protruded
heavenward. The elements must be melting in that fervent heat. The
blazing bowels of the earth were pouring forth.

Twelve, midnight!

A reverberation thundered out which shook the solid earth, and a roaring
hell-breath of flame and smoke belched up so awful in its dread
magnificence that every man who saw it and lived to tell his story might
justly have claimed to have seen perdition. In that hurricane of
incandescent matter the island was blotted out for ever from the map of

this world.

Notwithstanding the speed of the Esmeralda she was a sloth when
compared with the speed of the wave from such an earthquake. From the
glare of the illumination to perfect darkness the contrast was sudden
and extreme. But the blackness of the ocean was soon whitened by the
snowy plumes of the avalanche of water which was now racing us, far
astern as yet, but gaining fast. I, who had no business about the ship
requiring my presence in any special part, decided to wait on deck and
lash myself to the forward, which would be practically the lee-side of a
deckhouse. Edith Metford we prevailed on to go below, that she might not
run the risk of further injury to her fractured arm. As she left us she
whispered to me, "So Natalie will be with you at the end, and I--" a sob
stopped her. And it came into my mind at that moment that this girl had
acted very nobly, and that I had hardly appreciated her and all that she
had done for me.

Natalie refused to leave the deck. I lashed her securely beside me.
Together we awaited the end. When the roar of the following wave came
close, so close that the voices of the officers of the ship could be no
longer heard, Natalie spoke. The hollow sound was no longer in her
voice. Her own soft sweet tones had come back.

"Arthur," she asked, "is this the end?"

"I fear it is," I answered, speaking close to her ear so that she might

"Then we have little time, and I have something which I must say, which
you must promise me to remember when--when--I am no longer with you."

"You will be always with me while we live. I think I deserve that at

"Yes, you deserve that and more. I will be with you while I live, but
that will not be for long."

I was about to interrupt her when she put her soft little hand upon my
lips and said:

"Listen, there is very little time. It is all a mistake. I mean Herbert
was wrong. He might as well have let me have my earthly span of
happiness or folly--call it what you will."

"You see that now--thank God!"

"Yes, but I see it too late, I did not know it until--until I was dead.
Hush!" Again I tried to interrupt her, for I thought her mind was
wandering. "I died psychically with Herbert. That was when we first saw
the light on the island. Since then I have lived mechanically, but it
has only been life in so low a form that I do not now know what has
happened between that time and this. And I could not now speak as I am
speaking save by a will power which is costing me very dear. But it is
the only voice you could hear. I do not therefore count the cost. My
brother's brain so far overmatched my own that it first absorbed and
finally destroyed my mental vitality. This influence removed, I am a
rudderless ship at sea--bound to perish."

"May his torments endure for ever. May the nethermost pit of hell
receive him!" I said with a groan of agony.

But Natalie said: "Hush! I might have lingered on a little longer, but I
chose to concentrate the vital force which would have lasted me a few
more senile years into the minutes necessary for this message from me to
you--a message I could not have given you if he were not dead. And I am
dying so that you may hear it. Dying! My God! I am already dead."

She seemed to struggle against some force that battled with her, and the
roar of many waters was louder around us before she was able to speak

"Bend lower, Arthur; my strength is failing, and I have not yet said
that for which I am here. Lower still.

"I said it is all a mistake--a hideous mistake. Existence as we know it
is ephemeral. Suffering is ephemeral. There is nothing everlasting but
love. There is nothing eternal but mind. Your mind is mine. Your love is
mine. Your human life may belong to whomsoever you will it. It ought to
belong to that brave girl below. I do not grudge it to her, for I have
you. We two shall be together through the ages--for ever and for ever.
Heart of my heart, you have striven manfully and well, and if you did
not altogether succeed in saving my flesh from premature corruption, be
satisfied in that you have my soul. Ah!"

She pressed her hands to her head as if in dreadful pain. When she spoke
again her voice came in short gasps.

"My brain is reeling. I do not know what I am saying," she cried,
distraught. "I do not know whether I am saying what is true or only what
I imagine to be true. I know nothing but this. I was mesmerised. I have
been so for two years. But for that I would have been happy in your
love--for I was a woman before this hideous influence benumbed me. They
told me it was only a fool's paradise that I missed. But I only know
that I have missed it. Missed it--and the darkness of death is upon me."

She ceased to speak. A shudder convulsed her, and then her head sank
gently on my shoulder.

At that moment the great wave broke over the vessel, whirling her
helpless like a cork on the ripples of a mill pond; lashing her with
mighty strokes; sweeping in giant cataracts from stern to stem;
smashing, tearing everything; deluging her with hissing torrents;
crushing her with avalanches of raging foam. Then the ocean tornado
passed on and left the Esmeralda behind, with half the crew disabled
and many lost, her decks a mass of wreckage, her masts gone. The
crippled ship barely floated. When the last torrent of spray passed, and
I was able to look to Natalie, her head had drooped down on her breast.
I raised her face gently and looked into her wide open eyes.

She was dead.

Next: Conclusion

Previous: The Flight

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