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They had passed members of the Citizens' Patrol on every block, and they found one pacing the plank walk on Russian Hill. He told them that the edict had gone forth that not so much as a candle should be lit in a house that night and that all cooking must be done out-of-doors. The spectacled Jap was boiling soup on one of the oil stoves, which he had carried into the garden and half surrounded by a screen. Beside him was what looked like an open newly-dug grave, and the girls, startled, demanded what it meant.
Sugihara, apparently, never smiled, but his eyes flickered. "Before Cusha and Kuranaga went I made them dig a hole for the silver," he said. "It is too heavy for the launch. If we are driven away, I will cut your ancestors from their frames and take them with us."
"Well, you are a treasure," said Isabel, with a sigh. "You shall do nothing but read when you get to the ranch."
Lady Victoria was pacing slowly up and down the porch, her eyes seldom wandering from the fire. When dinner was ready, she merely shook her head impatiently, and Isabel and her guest sat down in the little tower-room, which was brilliantly illuminated from below. Sugihara had made a very good soup of canned corn and tomatoes and had fried bits of meat and potato. There was little conversation. The dynamiting was now something more than sporadic. The detonations were so terrific that it was not difficult for the San Franciscans to imagine themselves—supposing they had a grain of imagination left—in a besieged city. Isabel suggested, and Anne agreed with her, that they might have been far worse off than they were; nature at her extremest is never so pitiless as the human brute when the lust to kill is on him.
Isabel prepared the remains of the feast for Mr. Clatt, and asked Sugihara if he would object to relieving the watch, that the wharfinger might snatch a few hours' sleep. There was no longer any danger of fire except from the conflagration itself, and now that the dynamiting had begun in earnest it was possible that the flames would be isolated before midnight.
The Jap went off with the dish in one hand and a book in the other, hoping that he would be allowed to light a candle on the launch. He returned in a few moments, and for the first time he was smiling.
"Mr. Clatt will not give up his watch," he said. "He says he might miss the chance to put a hole in some—dago (his language was very bad, Miss). He says there's not a wink of sleep in him."
"No doubt but that he will hold on to it, unless the military step in," said Anne. "Then, I fancy, he would surrender very meekly. They have impressed a good many launches for prisoners and dynamite. But I hope not, for whether the fire comes up the hills or not, there is going to be terrible privation. Heaven knows how many days it will be before we have enough water even to drink, and I heard a little while ago that as soon as food comes in the authorities will establish relief stations, where everybody, from the millionaire to John Chinaman, will have to stand in line and wait for his loaf of bread. Wouldn't it be better for you to go at once?"
"I fancy I can endure as much as any one, and if I am driven from here I will go down to you. I shall go down anyhow when I have seen Mr. Gwynne. I do not propose to lie in a hammock while several hundred thousand people are sleeping on the ground. What do you take me for?"
"Somehow I don't see you as a nurse, or amusing children, or doling out bread and raiment. You would be much more in the picture encouraging Mr. Gwynne. However—I am going to impress your linen and a clothes-basket to carry it in. No doubt the philosophical Sugihara will help me carry it to the fort."
"Take what you like." Isabel directed her to the linen-closet, and went down to the veranda. She paused abruptly in the doorway. Victoria's face could be seen only in profile, but its expression, as she gazed down upon that tossing twisting furious flame ocean, needed no analytical faculty to interpret. It was voluptuous, ecstatic.
Isabel crossed the porch in a stride.
"What are you thinking of?" she demanded, imperiously.
Victoria did not turn with a start. She did not turn at all. "I am thinking," she replied, automatically, as if in obedience to the stronger will—"I am thinking that at last I understand what it is we are so blindly striving for from the hour when we can think at all; what it is—that unsatisfied desire that urges us on and on to so many fatal experiments in the pursuit of happiness. The great goal, the real meaning of our miserable balked mortal existence is not that dancing will-o'-the-wisp we call happiness, for want of a better name. It is Death."
"Well?" Isabel's voice rose, but she kept the anxiety out of it.
"I cannot imagine anything more delicious," went on Victoria, in the same low rich tones, "than to walk straight down those hills and into that sea of flame. I have always admired Empedocles, who cast himself into Etna. Once I saw a friend cremated, and the brief vision of that white incandescence, before the coffin shot down, seemed to me the apotheosis, the voluptuous poetry of death. I could walk down into that colossal furnace without flinching, and I believe that my last moment, as the world disappeared behind me, and those superb flames took me into their embrace, would be one of sublimest ecstasy."
Isabel caught her by the shoulders and whirled her about. "Well, you will do nothing of the sort," she cried, roughly. "In the first place you couldn't get through the lines, and in the second you are wanted at Fort Mason. Anne is going down with a basket of linen for the poor women who will be confined to-night. You are an uncommonly strong woman, and you can make use of every bit of your strength. Anne and the Leader are frail creatures, and no one else that I know of is going. They need you, and you will soon have your hands so full that your head will be purged of this nonsense. It is the fire lust—the same lust that incited a boy to-day to attempt to set fire to a house in this district that he might watch the whole city burn. I hope your egoism exploded in that climax. Here comes Anne. You must go."
"Very well," said Victoria, suddenly dazed, and with a will relaxed after the long tension of the day. "I will go."
"Where are your jewels?"
"Down in the bank."
"Well, gather up any other small things you treasure, and either conceal them about you or give them to me."
"I shall not take anything. My laces are in the chiffonnière. I do not care to enter the house again."
Isabel fetched her hat and jacket, for in spite of the fire it would be cold near the water; and a few moments later she stood on the edge of Green and Jones streets, on the other side of the hill, and watched Victoria and Anne, carrying a large clothes-basket between them, carefully making their way down to the level. They had a walk of some thirteen blocks before them, but the streets were full of people and of ruddy light.
She returned to the house and sat down on the porch, her eyes diverted from the fire for a moment by the picture of Sugihara, a pair of eye-glasses in front of his spectacles, comfortably established on a chair in the garden and reading by the lamp of the burning city. It was apparent that he had forgotten the 18th of April.
Isabel was alone but a moment. Stone burst in upon her. He had approached from behind, and came running down the hill.
"Isabel," he cried. "Get a bottle of champagne."
"Yes. It may be six months before I see another—but that is a mere detail. I want to drink to the old city."
Isabel, who liked him best in his dramatic moments, found a bottle of champagne. He knocked the head off, and filling the glass, went down to the first landing of the long narrow flight of steps. He held the glass high, pointing it first towards the middle of what had been Market Street, and was now a river of fire, then slowly shifting it along towards Kearney and Montgomery, as he named the restaurants that had given San Francisco no mean part of her fame.
"Here's to Zinkand's, Tait's, The Palace Grill! The Poodle Dog! Marchand's! The Pup! Delmonico's! Coppa's! The Fashion! The Hotel de France! And here's to the Cocktail Route, the Tenderloin, and the Bohemian Club! And here's—" By this time his voice was dissolving, and the glass was describing eccentric curves. "Here's to the old city, whose like will never be seen this side of hell again. Pretty good imitation of heaven in spots, and everything you chose to look for, anyway. And the prettiest women, the best fellows, the greatest all-night life, the finest cooking, the wickedest climate. Here's to San Francisco—and damn the bounder that calls her 'Frisco!"
Then he drank what was left of the contents of his glass and hastily refilled it. After he had finished the bottle luxuriously, he held out his hand to Isabel. "Come along?" he asked. Then, as she shook her head: "I must go back to Paula and the kids. The mattresses are out in the Park already. You are in no danger, what with the neighbors above and the patrol. Good luck to you," and he vanished.
Isabel was alone at last, a state she had unconsciously wished for all day—it seemed a month since the morning. She sat down and leaned her elbows on the railing. Now that the sun was gone, the heavens, or the smoke obscuring them, were as red as that sea beneath which seemed to devour a house a minute as it rolled out towards the Mission and worked with all its might among the great business blocks between Market Street and Telegraph Hill. Some one had estimated that the columns of fire were seven miles high, and they certainly looked as if they had melted the very stars. Here and there was a play of blue flames, doubtless from some explosive substance, and when the dynamite shot the entrails from a house there was a gorgeous display of fireworks—the golden showers of sparks symbolizing the treasure that blackened and crumbled in dropping back to earth.
Before sitting down she had swept the distant hills with her field-glass and seen thousands of people lying not ten feet apart, like an exhausted army after battle. In that intense glare she could even study the eccentric positions of the fallen headstones and monuments in the old deserted cemeteries—Lone Mountain and Calvary. The cross on the lofty point of the bare hill behind the Catholic cemetery was red against the blackness of the west; and hundreds of weary mortals were huddled about its base. She tried to pity all those terrified uncomfortable creatures out there, but again the part they played in the greatest natural drama of modern times occurred to her, and she thought that should console them.
She wondered at her lack of sentimental regret at the destruction of her beloved city. But sentiment seemed a mere drop of insult to be cast into that ocean of calamity. Moreover, she was pricked by a sense that it was a living sentient thing, that city, and was getting its just dues for the hearts it had devoured, the lives it had ruined, the merciless clutch it had kept upon so many that were made for better things. To its vice she gave little thought; she fancied it was not worse than other cities, if the truth were known; it was the picturesqueness of its methods that had held it in the limelight. But that it was one of the world's juggernauts, and the more cruel for its ever laughing beguiling face—of that there was no manner of doubt.
She wondered also that she was not in a fever of anxiety about Gwynne. She had interrogated the sentry and been informed that the automobiles carrying dynamite dashed straight down to the fire line, often within; that a number of the soldiers, whose duty it was to lay the explosive, had been wounded and carried to the hospitals; that there was always the risk of a laden machine being suddenly surrounded by fire, for many houses were ignited by the sparks, and, in that wooden district down there, burned like tinder. Perhaps, like Victoria, she was too sure of his destiny; perhaps the picture of the future with him that she had conceived refused to alter its lines; or it may be that there was no place in the impersonal arrangement of her faculties the double catastrophe had effected, for fear; or for anything beyond the impressions of the moment. Her mind worked on mechanically. She was determined to remain as long as there was a possibility of Gwynne's returning for food or care. But the soul beneath was possessed by an absolute calm. She had the sense of having been taken into partnership with nature that morning; so sudden and personal had been that assault, from which she yet had issued unscathed. She felt that everything that would follow in life, excepting only her love for Gwynne, would be too petty to regard more seriously than the daily meals. Not that she had more than a bare mental appreciation of the phases of love at the moment; but it possessed her and it was infinite.
She sat motionless until nearly two o'clock and then went up to her room and lay down. It was not possible to sleep for more than a few moments at a time, for the detonations were almost incessant, but she forced herself to rest, not knowing what work the morrow might have in store. When she finally rose and looked out of her window she saw that the fire was coming up the hills.
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