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They set out hand in hand. The small dog ran with them.
Even the beginning of the descent was far from easy, for the high walls that had protected the villa-gardens of Buenos Ayres lay in heaps, cumbering the roadway, and in places obliterating it.
About a hundred and fifty yards down the road, by what had been the walled entrance to the Hakes' garden, they sighted two forlorn small figures--the six and five year old Hake children, Sophie and Miriam, who recognised Ruth and, running, clung to her skirts.
"Mamma! Where is mamma?"
"Dears, where did you leave her last?"
"She pushed us out through the gateway, here, and told us to stand in the middle of the road while she ran back to call daddy. She said no stones could fall on us here. But she has been gone ever so long, and we can't hear her calling at all."
While Ruth gathered them to her and attempted to console them, Mr. Langton stepped within the ruined gateway. In a minute or so he came back, and his face was grave.
She noted it. "What can we do with them?" she asked, and added with a haggard little smile, "I had actually begun to tell them to run up to our house and wait, forgetting--"
"They had best wait here, as their mother advised."
"It is terrible!"
He lifted his shoulders slightly. "If once we begin--"
"No, you are right," she said, with a shuddering glance down the road; and bade the little ones rest still as their mother had commanded. She was but going down to the city (she said) to see if the danger was as terrible down there. The two little ones cried and clung to her; but she put them aside firmly, promising to look for their mamma when she returned. Langton did not dare to glance at her face.
The dark cloud dust met them, a gunshot below, rolling up the hillside from the city. They passed within the fringe of it, and at once the noonday sun was darkened for them. In the unnatural light they picked their way with difficulty.
"She was lying close within the entrance," said Langton. "The gateway arch must have fallen on her as she turned. . . . One side of her skull was broken. I pulled down some branches and covered her."
"Your own face is bleeding."
"Is it?" He put up a hand. "Yes--I remember, a brick struck me, on my way from the stables--no, a beam grazed me as I ran for the back-stairs, meaning to get you out that way. The stairs were choked. . . . I made sure you were in the house. The horses . . . have you ever heard a horse scream?"
She shivered. At a turn of the road they came full in view of the black pall stretching over the city. Flames shot up through it, here and there. Lisbon was on fire in half a dozen places at least; and now for the first time she became aware that the wind had sprung up again and was blowing violently. She could not remember when it first started: the morning had been still, the Tagus--she recalled it--unruffled.
At the very foot of the hill they came on the first of three fires-- two houses blazing furiously, and a whole side-street doomed, if the wind should hold. Among the ruins of a house, right in the face of the fire, squatted a dozen persons, men and women, all dazed by terror. The women had opened their parasols--possibly to screen their faces from the heat--albeit they might have escaped this quite easily by shifting their positions a few paces. None of these folk betrayed the smallest interest in Ruth or in Langton. Indeed, they scarcely lifted their eyes.
The suburbs were deserted, for the earthquake had surprised all Lisbon in a pack, crowded within its churches, or in its central streets and squares. Yet the emptiness of what should have been the thoroughfares astonished them scarcely less than did the piles of masonry, breast-high in places, over which they picked their way in the uncanny twilight. They had scarcely passed beyond the glare of the burning houses when Langton stumbled over a corpse--the first they encountered. He drew Ruth aside from it, entreating her in a low voice to walk warily. But she had seen.
"We shall see many before we reach the Cathedral," she said quietly.
They stumbled on, meeting with few living creatures; and these few asked them no questions, but went by, stumbling, with hands groping, as though they moved in a dream. A voice wailed "Jesus! Jesus!" and the cry, issuing Heaven knew whence, shook Ruth's nerve for a moment.
Once Langton plucked her by the arm and pointed to some men with torches moving among the ruins. She supposed that they were seeking for the dead; but they were, in fact, incendiaries, already at work and in search of loot.
She passed three or four of these blazing houses, some kindled no doubt by incendiaries, but others by natural consequences of the earthquake; for the kitchens, heated for the great feast, had communicated their fires to the falling timberwork on which the houses were framed; and by this time the city was on fire in at least thirty different places. The scorched smell mingled everywhere with an odour of sulphur.
There were rents in the streets, too--chasms, half-filled with rubble, reaching right across the roadway. After being snatched back by Langton from the brink of one of these chasms, Ruth steeled her heart to be thankful when a burning house shed light for her footsteps. At the houses themselves, after an upward glance or two, she dared not look again. They leaned this way and that, the fronts of some thrust outward at an angle to forbid any but the foolhardiest from passing underneath.
But, indeed, they had little time to look aloft as they penetrated to streets littered, where the procession had passed, with wrecked chaises, dead mules, human bodies half-buried and half-burnt, charred limbs protruding awkwardly from heaps of stones. Here, by ones and twos, pedestrians tottered past, crying that the world was at an end; here, on a heap where, belike, his shop had stood, a man knelt praying aloud; here a couple of enemies met by chance, seeking their dead, and embraced, beseeching forgiveness for injuries past. These sights went by Ruth as in a dream; and as in a dream she heard the topple and crack of masonry to right and left. Langton guided her; and haggard, perspiring, they bent their heads to the strange wind now howling down the street as through a funnel, and foot by foot battled their way.
The wind swept over their bent heads, carrying flakes of fire to start new conflagrations. The stream of these flakes became so steady that Ruth began to count on it to guide her. She began to think that amid all this dissolution to right and left, some charm must be protecting them both, when, as he stretched a hand to help her across a mound of rubble she saw him turn, cast a look up and fall back beneath a rush of masonry. A flying brick struck her on the shoulder, cutting the flesh. For the rest, she stood unscathed; but her companion lay at her feet, with legs buried deep, body buried to the ribs.
"Your hand!" she gasped.
He stretched it out feebly, but withdrew it in an agony; for the stones crushed his bowels.
"You are hurt?"
"Killed." He contrived a smile. "Not so wide as a church door," he quoted, looking up at her strangely through the wan light; "but 'twill serve."
"My friend! and I cannot help you!" She plucked vainly at the mass of stones burying his legs.
He gasped on his anguish, and controlled it.
"Let be these silly bricks. . . . They belong to some grocer's kitchen-chimney, belike--but they have killed me, and may as well serve for my tomb. Reach me your hand."
He took it and thrust it gently within the breast of his waistcoat. There, guided by him, her fingers closed on the handle of a tiny stiletto.
"The sheath too . . . it is sewn by a few stitches only." He looked up into her eyes. "You are too beautiful to be wandering these streets alone."
"I understand," she said gravely.
"Now go." He pressed the back of her hand to his lips, and released it.
"Can I do nothing?" she asked, with a hard sob.
"Yes . . . 'tis unlucky, they say, to accept a knife without paying for it. One kiss. . . . You may tell Noll. Is it too high a price?"
She knelt and kissed him on the brow.
"Ah! . . ." He drew a long sigh. "I have held you to-day, and to-day you have kissed me. Go now."
She went. The dog ran with her a little way, then turned and crept back to its master.
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