: The Crack Of Doom
I led the girls hurriedly to the horses. When they were mounted on the
ponies, I gave the bridle-reins of the bay horse--whose size and
strength were necessary for my extra weight--to Edith Metford, and asked
her to wait for me until I announced Brande's probable failure to the
people, and advised a sauve qui peut.
Hard upon my warning there followed a strange metamorphosis in the
crowd, who, after the pa
sing weakness at the lecture, had fallen back
into stoical indifference, or it may have been despair. The possibility
of escape galvanized them into the desire for life. Cries of distress,
and prayers for help, filled the air. Men and women rushed about like
frightened sheep without concert or any sensible effort to escape,
wasting in futile scrambles the short time remaining to them. For
another half hour had now passed, and in sixty minutes the earthquake
would take place.
"Follow us!" I shouted, as with my companions I rode slowly through the
camp. "Keep the track to the sea. I shall have the steamer's boats ready
for all who may reach the shore alive."
"The horses! Seize the horses!" rose in a loud shout, and the mob flung
themselves upon us, as though three animals could carry all.
When I saw the rush, I called out: "Sit firm, Natalie; I am going to
strike your horse." Saying which I struck the pony a sharp blow with my
riding-whip crossways on the flank. It bounded like a deer, and then
dashed forward down the rough pathway.
"Now you, Edith!" I struck her pony in the same way; but it only reared
and nearly threw her. It could not get away. Already hands were upon
both bridle-reins. There was no help for it. I pulled out my revolver
and fired once, twice, and thrice--for I missed the second shot--and
then the maddened animal sprang forward, released from the hands that
It was now time to look to myself. I was in the midst of a dozen maniacs
mad with fear. I kicked in my spurs desperately, and the bay lashed out
his hind feet. One hoof struck young Halley on the forehead. He fell
back dead, his skull in fragments. But the others refused to break the
circle. Then I emptied my weapon on them, and my horse plunged through
the opening, followed by despairing execrations. The moment I was clear,
I returned my revolver to its case, and settled myself in the saddle,
for, borne out of the proper path as I had been, there was a stiff bank
to leap before I could regain the track to the shore. Owing to the
darkness the horse refused to leap, and I nearly fell over his head.
With a little scrambling I managed to get back into my seat, and then
trotted along the bank for a hundred yards. At this point the bank
disappeared, and there was nothing between me now and the open track to
Once upon the path, I put the bay to a gallop, and very soon overtook a
man and a woman hurrying on. They were running hand in hand, the man a
little in front dragging his companion on by force. It was plain to me
that the woman could not hold out much longer. The man, Claude Lureau,
hailed me as I passed.
"Help us, Marcel. Don't ride away from us."
"I cannot save both," I answered, pulling up.
"Then save Mademoiselle Veret. I'll take my chance."
This blunt speech moved me, the more especially as the man was French. I
could not allow him to point the way of duty to me--an Englishman.
"Assist her up, then. Now, Mademoiselle, put your arms round me and hold
hard for your life. Lureau, you may hold my stirrup if you agree to
loose it when you tire."
"I will do so," he promised.
Hampered thus, I but slowly gained on Natalie and Edith, whose ponies
had galloped a mile before they could be stopped.
"Forward, forward!" I shouted when within hail. "Don't wait for me. Ride
on at top speed. Lash your ponies with the bridle-reins."
We were all moving on now at an easy canter, for I could not go fast so
long as Lureau held my stirrup, and the girls in front did not seem
anxious to leave me far behind. Besides, the tangled underwood and
overhanging creepers rendered hard riding both difficult and dangerous.
The ponies were hard held, but notwithstanding this my horse fell back
gradually in the race, and the hammering of the hoofs in front grew
fainter. The breath of the runner at my stirrup came in great sobs. He
was suffocating, but he struggled on a little longer. Then he threw up
his hand and gasped:
"I am done. Go on, Marcel. You deserve to escape. Don't desert the
"May God desert me if I do," I answered. "And do you keep on as long as
you can. You may reach the shore after all."
"Go on--save her!" he gasped, and then from sheer exhaustion fell
forward on his face.
"Sit still, Mademoiselle," I cried, pulling the French girl's arms round
me in time to prevent her from throwing herself purposely from the
horse. Then I drove in my spurs hard, and, being now released from
Lureau's grasp, I overtook the ponies.
For five minutes we all rode on abreast. And then the darkness began to
break, and a strange dawn glimmered over the tree-tops, although the
hour of midnight was still to come. A wild, red light, like that of a
fiery sunset in a hazy summer evening, spread over the night sky. The
quivering stars grew pale. Constellation after constellation, they were
blotted out until the whole arc of heaven was a dull red glare. The
horses were dismayed by this strange phenomenon, and dashed the froth
from their foaming muzzles as they galloped now without stress of spur
at their best speed. Birds that could not sing found voice, and
chattered and shrieked as they dashed from tree to tree in aimless
flight. Enormous bats hurtled in the air, blinded by the unusual light.
From the dense undergrowth strange denizens of the woods, disturbed in
their nightly prowl, leaped forth and scurried squealing between the
galloping hoofs, reckless of anything save their own fear. Everything
that was alive upon the island was in motion, and fear was the motor of
So far, we saw no natives. Their absence did not surprise me, for I had
no time for thought. It was explained later.
Edith Metford's pony soon became unmanageable in its fright. I unbuckled
one spur and gave it to her, directing her to hold it in her hand, for
of course she could not strap it to her boot, and drive it into the
animal when he swerved. She took the spur, and as her pony, in one of
his side leaps, nearly bounded off the path, she struck him hard on the
ribs. He bolted and flew on far ahead of us.
The light grew stronger.
But that the rays were red, it would now have been as bright as day. We
were chasing our shadows, so the light must be directly behind us.
Mademoiselle Veret first noticed this, and drew my attention to it. I
looked back, and my heart sank at the sight. In the terror it inspired,
I regretted having burthened myself with the girl I had sworn to save.
The island was on fire!
"It is the end of the world," Mademoiselle Veret said with a shudder.
She clung closer to me. I could feel her warm breath upon my cheek. The
unmanly regret, which for a moment had touched me, passed.
The ponies now seemed to find out that their safety lay in galloping
straight on, rather than in scared leaps from side to side. They
stretched themselves like race horses, and gave my bay, with his double
burthen, a strong lead. The pace became terrible considering the nature
of the ground we covered.
At last the harbour came in view. But my horse, I knew, could not last
another mile, and the shore was still distant two or three. I spurred
him hard and drew nearly level with the ponies, so that my voice could
be heard by both their riders.
"Ride on," I shouted, "and hail the steamer, so that there may be no
delay when I come up. This horse is blown, and will not stand the pace.
I am going to ease him. You will go on board at once, and send the boat
back for us." Then I eased the bay, but in spite of this I immediately
overtook Edith Metford, who had pulled up.
My reproaches she cut short by saying, "If that horse does the distance
at all it will be by getting a lead all the way. And I am going to give
it to him." So we started together.
Natalie was waiting for us a little further on. I spoke to her, but she
did not answer. From the moment that Brande had commanded her to
accompany us, her manner had remained absolutely passive. What I
ordered, she obeyed. That was all. Instead of being alarmed by the
horrors of the ride, she did not seem to be even interested. I had not
leisure, however, to reflect on this. For the first time in the whole
race she spoke to us.
"Would it not be better if Edith rode on?" she said. "I can take her
place. It seems useless to sacrifice her. It does not matter to me. I
cannot now be afraid."
"I am afraid; but I remain," Edith said resolutely.
The ground under us began to heave. Whole acres of it swayed disjointed.
We were galloping on oscillating fragments, which trembled beneath us
like floating logs under boys at play. To jump these cracks--sometimes
an upward bank, sometimes a deep drop, in addition to the width of the
seam, had to be taken--pumped out the failing horses, and the hope that
was left to us disappeared utterly.
The glare of the red light behind waxed fiercer still, and a low
rumbling as of distant thunder began to mutter round us. The air became
difficult to breathe. It was no longer air, but a mephitic stench that
choked us with disgusting fumes. Then a great shock shook the land, and
right in front of us a seam opened that must have been fully fifteen
feet in width. Natalie was the first to see it. She observed it too late
In the same mechanical way as she had acted before, she settled herself
in the saddle, struck the pony with her hand, and raced him at the
chasm. He cleared it with little to spare. Edith's took it next with
less. Then my turn came. Before I could shake up my tired horse,
Mademoiselle Veret said quickly:
"Monsieur has done enough. He will now permit me to alight. This time
the horse cannot jump over with both."
"He shall jump over with both, Mademoiselle, or he shall jump in," I
answered. "Don't look down when we are crossing."
The horse just got over, but he came to his knees, and we fell forward
over his shoulder. The girl's head struck full on a slab of rock, and a
faint moan was all that told me she was alive as I arose half stunned to
my feet. My first thought was for the horse, for on him all depended. He
was uninjured, apparently, but hardly able to stand from the shock and
the stress of fatigue.
Edith Metford had dismounted and caught him; she was holding the bridle
in her left hand, and winced as if in pain when I accidentally brushed
against her right shoulder. I tied the horse to a young palm, and
begged the girl to ride on. She obeyed me reluctantly. Natalie had to
assist her to remount, so she must have been injured. When I saw her
safely in her saddle, I ran back to Mademoiselle Veret.
The chasm was fast widening. From either side great fragments were
breaking off and falling in with a roar of loose rocks crashing
together, till far down the sound was dulled into a hollow boom. This
ended in low guttural, which growled up from an abysmal depth.
Mademoiselle Veret, or her dead body, lay now on the very edge of the
seam, and I had to harden my heart before I could bring myself to
venture close to it. But I had given my word, and there were no
conditions in the promise when I made it.
I was spared the ordeal. Just as I stepped forward, the slab of rock on
which the girl lay broke off in front of me, and, tipping up, overturned
itself into the chasm. Far below I could see the shimmer of the girl's
dress as her body went plunging down into that awful pit. And
remembering her generous courage and offer of self-sacrifice, I felt
tears rise in my eyes. But there was no time for tears.
I leaped on the bay, and got him into something approaching a gallop,
shouting at the others to keep on, for they were now returning. When I
came up with them, Edith Metford said with a shiver:
"Is at the bottom of the pit. Ride on."
We gained the shore at last; and our presence there produced the
explanation of the absence of the natives on the pathway to the sea.
They were there before us. Lying prostrate on the beach in hundreds,
they raised their bodies partly from the sands, like a resurrection of
the already dead, and there then rang out upon the night air a sound
such as my ears had never before heard in my life, such as, I pray God,
they may never listen to again. I do not know what that dreadful
death-wail meant in words, only that it touched the lowest depths of
human horror. All along the beach that fearful chorus of the damned
wailed forth, and echoed back from rock and cliff. The cry for mercy
could not be mistaken--the supplication blended with despair. They were
praying to us--their evil spirits, for this wrong had been wrought them
by our advent, if not by ourselves.
I cannot dwell upon the scene. I could not describe it. I would not if I
The steamer was still in her berth; her head was pointed seawards. Loud
orders rang over the water. The roar of the chain running out through
the hawse-hole and the heavy splash could not be mistaken. Anderson had
slipped his cable. Then the chime of the telegraph on the bridge was
followed almost instantly by the first smashing stroke of the propeller.
The Esmeralda was under weigh!