Will Levington Comfort.

She buildeth her house online

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ship again. He was sick of the shore, disgusted with people who would
listen to M. Mondet and not to him. Miss Wyndam had refused him so
often, that he was half afraid Charter would not be successful, but he
was willing to wait two hours longer, for he liked the young woman
immensely, liked her breeding and her brain.... He joined Laird, his
first officer, on the bridge. The latter was scrutinizing through the
glass a blotch of smoke on the city-front.

"What do you make of it, sir?" Laird asked.

The lenses brought to the owner a nucleus of red in the black bank. The
rest of Saint Pierre was a gray, doll-settlement, set in the shelter of
little gray hills. He could see the riven and castellated crest of Pelée
weaving his black ribbon. It was all small, silent, and unearthly.

"That's a fire on the water-front," he said.

"That's what I made of it, sir," Laird responded.

Shortly afterward the trumpetings of the Monster began. The harbor grew
yellowish-black. The shore crawled deeper into the shroud, and was lost
altogether. The water took on a foul look, as if the bed of the sea were
churned with some beastly passion. The anchor-chain grew taught,
mysteriously strained, and banged a tattoo against its steel-bound eye.
Blue Peter drooping at the foremast, livened suddenly into a spasm of
writhing, like a hooked lizard. The black, quivering columns of smoke
from the funnels were fanned down upon the deck, adding soot to the
white smear from the volcano.

"Better get the natives below - squall coming!" Peter Stock said, in a
low tone to Laird, and noted upon the quiet, serious face of this
officer, as he obeyed, an expression quite new. It was the look of a man
who sees the end, and does not wince.

The women wailed, as the sailors hurried them below and sealed the ways
after them. A deep-sea language passed over the ship. There were running
feet, bells below, muffled cries from the native-women, quick oaths from
the sailors; and then, Peter Stock felt the iron-fingers of fear about
his heart - not for himself and his ship eight miles at sea, but for his
good young friend and for the woman who had refused to come.

A hot, fetid breath charged the air. The ship rose and settled like a
feather in a breeze; in a queer light way, as though its element were
heavily charged with air, the water danced, alive with the yeast of
worlds. The disordered sky intoned violence. Pelée had set the
foundations to trembling. A step upon the bridge-ladder caused the
American to turn with a start. Father Fontanel was coming up.

"Oh, this won't do at all," Peter Stock cried in French. "We're going to
catch hell up here, and you don't belong."

He dashed down the ladder, and led the old man swiftly back to the
cabin, where he rushed to the ports and screwed them tight with
lightning fingers, led the priest to a chair and locked it in its
socket. Father Fontanel spoke for the first time.

"It's very good of you," he said dully, "but what of my people?"

Stock did not answer, but rushed forth. Six feet from the cabin-door, he
met the fiery van of the cataclysm, and found strength to battle his way
back into the cabin.... From out the shoreward darkness thundered
vibrations which rendered soundless all that had passed before. Comets
flashed by the port-holes. The _Saragossa_ shuddered and fell to her
starboard side.

Eight bells had just sounded when the great thunder rocked over the
gray-black harbor, and the molten vitals of the Monster, wrapped in a
black cloud, filled the heavens, gathered and plunged down upon the city
and the sea. As for the ship, eight miles from the shore and twelve
miles from the craters, she seemed to have fallen from a habitable
planet into the firemist of an unfinished world. She heeled over like a
biscuit-tin, dipping her bridge and gunwales. She was deluged by blasts
of steam and molten stone. Her anchor-chain gave way, and, burning in a
dozen places, she was sucked inshore.

Laird was on the bridge. Plass, the second officer, on his way to the
bridge, to relieve or assist Laird as the bell struck, was felled at the
door of the chart-room. A sailor trying to drag the body of Plass to
shelter, was overpowered by the blizzard of steam, gas, and molten
stone, falling across the body of his officer. The ship was rolling like
a runaway-buoy.

Peter Stock had been hurled across the cabin, but clutched the chair in
which the priest was sitting, and clung to an arm of it, pinning the
other to his seat. Several moments may have passed before he regained
his feet. Though badly burned, he felt pain only in his throat and
lungs, from that awful, outer breath as he regained the cabin.
Firebrands still screamed into the sea outside, but the _Saragossa_ was
steadying a trifle, and vague day returned. Stock was first to reach the
deck, the woodwork of which was burning everywhere. He tried to shout,
but his throat was closed by the hot dust. The body of a man was hanging
over the railing of the bridge. It was Laird, with his face burned away.
There were others fallen.

The shock of his burns and the terrible outer heat was beginning to
overpower the commander when Pugh, the third officer, untouched by fire,
appeared from below. In a horrid, tongueless way, Stock fired the other
to act, and staggered back into the cabin. Pugh shrieked up the hands,
and set to the fires and the ship's course. Out of two officers and
three sailors on deck when Pelée struck, none had lived. Peter Stock
owed his life to the mute and momentary appearance of Father Fontanel.

The screaming of the native-women reached his ears from the hold. Father
Fontanel stared at him with the most pitiful eyes ever seen in child or
woman. Black clouds were rolling out to sea. Deep thunder of a righteous
source answered Pelée's lamentations. The sailors were fighting fire and
carrying the dead. The thin shaken voice of Pugh came from the bridge.
The engines were throbbing. Macready, Stock's personal servant, entered
with a blast of heat.

"Thank God, you're alive, sir!" he said, with the little roll of Ireland
on his tongue. "I was below, where better men were not.... Eight miles
at sea - the long-armed divil av a mountain - what must the infightin'
have been!"

Peter Stock beckoned him close and called huskily for lint and oils.
Macready was back in a moment from the store-room, removed the cracked
and twisted boots; cleansed the ashes from the face and ears of his
chief; administered stimulant and talked incessantly.

"It's rainin' evenchooalities out.... Ha, thim burns is not so bad,
though your shoes were pretty thin, an' the deck's smeared with red-hot
paste. It's no bit of a geyser in a dirt-pile, sure, can tell Misther
Stock whin to come and whin to go."

The cabin filled with the odor of burnt flesh as he stripped the coat
from Stock's shoulder, where an incandescent pebble had fallen and
burned through the cloth. Ointments and bandages were applied before the
owner said:

"We must be getting pretty close in the harbor?"

This corked Macready's effervescence. Pugh had been putting the
_Saragossa_ out to sea, since he assumed control. It hadn't occurred to
the little Irishman that Mr. Stock would put back into the harbor of an
island freshly-exploded.

"I dunno, sir. It's hard to see for the rain."

"Go to the door and find out".

The rain fell in sheets. Big seas were driving past, and the steady beat
of the engines was audible. There was no smoke, no familiar shadow of
hills, but a leaden tumult of sky, and the rollers of open sea beaten by
a cloudburst. The commander did not need to be told. It all came back to
him - Laird's body hanging over the railing of the bridge; Plass down;
Pugh, a new man, in command.

"Up to the bridge, Macready, and tell Pugh for me not to be in such a
damned hurry - running away from a stricken town. Tell him to put back in
the roadstead where we belong."

Macready was gone several moments, and reported, "Pugh says we're
short-handed; that the ship's badly-charred, but worth savin'; in short,
sir, that he's not takin' orders from no valet - meanin' me."

Nature was righting herself in the brain of the American, but the
problems of time and space still were mountains to him. Macready saw the
gray eye harden, and knew what the next words would be before they were

"Bring Pugh here!"

It was rather a sweet duty for Macready, whose colors had been lowered
by the untried officer. The latter was in a funk, if ever a seaman had
such a seizure. Pugh gave an order to the man at the wheel and followed
the Irishman below, where he encountered the gray eye, and felt Macready
behind him at the door.

"Turn back to harbor at once - full speed!"

Pugh hesitated, his small black eyes burning with terror.

"Turn back, I say! Get to hell out of here!"

"But a firefly couldn't live in there, sir - - "

"Call two sailors, Macready!" Stock commanded, and when they came,
added, "Put him in irons, you men!... Macready, help me to the bridge."

* * * * *

It was after eleven when the _Saragossa_ regained the harbor. The
terrific cloudburst had spent itself. Out from the land rolled an
unctuous smudge, which bore suggestions of the heinous impartiality of a
great conflagration. The harbor was cluttered with wreckage, a doom
picture for the eyes of the seaman. Dimly, fitfully, through the pall,
they began to see the ghosts of the shipping - black hulls without helm
or hope. The _Saragossa_ vented a deep-toned roar, but no answer was
returned, save a wailing echo - not a voice from the wreckage, not even
the scream of a gull. A sailor heaved the lead, and the scathed steamer
bore into the rising heat.

Ahead was emptiness. Peter Stock, reclining upon the bridge, and
suffering martyrdoms from his burns, gave up his last hope that the guns
of Pelée had been turned straight seaward, sparing the city or a portion
of it. Rough winds tunnelling through the smoke revealed a hint of hills
shorn of Saint Pierre. A cry was wrung from the American's breast, and
Macready hastened to his side with a glass of spirits.

"I want a boat made ready - food, medicines, bandages, two or three
hundred pounds of ice covered with blankets and a tarpaulin," Stock
said. "You are to take a couple of men and get in there. Get the steward
started fitting the boat, and see that the natives are kept a bit
quieter. Make 'em see the other side - if they hadn't come aboard."

"Mother av God," Macready muttered as he went about these affairs. "I
could bake a potatie here, sure, in the holla av my hand. What, thin,
must it be in that pit of destruction?" He feared Pelée less, however,
than the gray eye, and the fate of Pugh.

The launch had not returned from taking Charter ashore, so one of the
life-boats was put into commission. The German, Ernst, and another
sailor of Macready's choice, were shortly ready to set out.

"You know why I'm not with you, men," the commander told them at the
last moment. "It isn't that I couldn't stand it in the boat, but there's
a trip ashore for you to make, and there's no walking for me on these
puff-balls for weeks to come. Macready, you know Mr. Charter. He had
time to reach the _Palms_ before hell broke loose. I want you to go
there and bring him back alive - and a woman who'll be with him! Also
report to me regarding conditions in the city. That's all. Lower away."

A half-hour later, the little boat was forced to return to the ship. The
sailor was whimpering at the oars; the lips of Ernst were twisted in
agony; while Macready was silent, sign enough of his failing endurance.
Human vitality could not withstand the withering draughts of heat. At
noon, another amazing downpour of rain came to the aid of Peter Stock
who, granting that the little party had encountered conditions which
flesh could not conquer, had, nevertheless, been chafing furiously. At
two in the afternoon, a second start was made.

Deeper and deeper in toward the gray low beach the little boat was
pulled, its occupants the first to look upon the heaped and over-running
measure of Saint Pierre's destruction. The three took turns at the oars.
Fear and suffering brought out a strange feminine quality in the sailor,
not of cowardice; rather he seemed beset by visionary terrors. Rare
running-mates were Macready and Ernst, odd as two white men can be, but
matched to a hair in courage. The German bent to his work, a grim stolid
mechanism. Macready jerked at the oars, and found breath and energy
remaining to assail the world, the flesh and the devil, which was Pugh,
with his barbed and invariably glib tongue. How many times the blue eyes
of the German rolled back under the lids, and his grip relaxed upon the
oars; how many times the whipping tongue of Macready mumbled, forgetting
its object, while his senses reeled against the burning walls of his
brain; how many times the sailor hoarsely commanded them to look through
the fog for figures which alone he saw - only God and these knew. But the
little boat held its prow to the desolate shore.

They gained the Sugar Landing at last, or the place where it had been,
and strange sounds came from the lips of Ernst, as he pointed to the
hulk of the _Saragossa's_ launch, burned to the water-line. It had been
in his care steadily until its last trip. Gray-covered heaps were
sprawled upon the shore, some half-covered by the incoming tide, others
entirely awash. Pelée had brought down the city; and the fire-tiger had
rushed in at the kill. He was hissing and crunching still, under the
ruins. The sailor moaned and covered his face.

"There's nothing alive!" he repeated with dreadful stress.

"What else would you look for - here at the very fut av the mountain?"
Macready demanded. "Wait till we get over the hill, and you'll hear the
birds singin' an' the naygurs laughin' in the fields an' wonderin' why
the milkman don't come."

The market-place near the shore was filled with the stones from the
surrounding buildings, hurled there as dice from a box. Smoke and steam
oozed from every ruin. The silence was awful as the sight of death. The
streets of the city were effaced. Saint Pierre had been felled and
altered, as the Sioux women once altered the corpses of the slain
whites. There was no discernible way up the _Morne_. Breathing piles of
debris barred every passage. Under one of these, a clock suddenly struck
three - an irreverent survival carrying on its shocking business beneath
the collapsed walls of a burned and beaten city, frightening them
hideously. It would have been impossible to traverse _Rue Victor Hugo_
had the way been clear, since a hundred feet from the shore or less,
they encountered a zone of unendurable heat.

"I could die happy holdin' Pugh here," Macready gasped. "Do you think
hell is worse than this, Ernst, barrin' the effrontery of the question?
Ha - don't step there!"

He yanked the German away from a puddle of uncongealed stuff, hot as
running metal.... The sailor screamed. He had stepped upon what seemed
to be an ash-covered stone. It was soft, springy, and vented a wheezy
sigh. Rain and rock-dust had smeared all things alike in this gray
roasting shambles.

"Won't somebody say something?" the sailor cried in a momentary silence.

"It looks like rain, ma'm," Macready offered.

They had been forced back into the boat, and were skirting the shore
around by the _Morne_. Saint Pierre had rushed to the sea - at the last.
The volcano had found the women with the children, as all manner of
visitations find them - and the men a little apart. Pelée had not
faltered. There was nothing to do by the way, no lips to moisten, no
voice of pain to hush, no dying thing to ease. There was not an
insect-murmur in the air, nor a crawling thing upon the beach, not a
moving wing in the hot, gray sky - a necropolis, shore of death absolute.

They climbed the cliffs to the north of the _Palms_, glanced down
through the smoke at the city - sunken like a toothless mouth. Even the
_Morne_ was a husk divested of its fruit. Pelée had cut the cane-fields,
sucked the juices and left the blasted stalks in his paste. The old
plantation-house pushed forth no shadow of an outline. It might be
felled or lost in the smoky distance. The nearer landmarks were
gone - homes that had brightened the heights in their day, whose windows
had flashed the rays of the afternoon sun as it rode down
oversea - levelled like the fields of cane. Pelée had swept far and left
only his shroud, and the heaps upon the way, to show that the old
sea-road, so white, so beautiful, had been the haunt of man. The mangoes
had lost their vesture; the palms were gnarled and naked fingers
pointing to the pitiless sky.

Macready had known this highway in the mornings, when joy was not dead,
when the songs of the toilers and the laughter of children glorified the
fields; in the white moonlight, when the sea-winds met and mingled with
the spice from tropic hills, and the fragrance from the jasmine and
rose-gardens.... He stared ahead now, wetting his puffed and tortured
lips. They had passed the radius of terrific heat, but he was thinking
of the waiting gray eye, when he returned without the man and the woman.

"It'll be back to the bunkers for Dinny," he muttered.... "Ernst, ye
goat, you're intertainin', you're loquenchus."

They stepped forward swiftly now. There was not a hope that the mountain
had shown mercy at the journey's end.... They would find whom they
sought down like the others, and the great house about them. Still,
there was a vague God to whom Macready had prayed once or twice in his
life - a God who had the power to strike blasphemers dead, to still
tempests, light volcanic fuses and fell Babylons. To this God he
muttered a prayer now....

The ruins of the plantation house wavered forth from the fog. The sailor
plucked at Macready's sleeve, and Ernst mumbled thickly that they might
as well get back aboard.... But the Irishman stood forth from them; and
in that smoky gloom, desolate as the first day, before Light was turned
upon the Formless Void, bayed the names of Charter and the woman.

Then the answer:

"_In the cistern - in the old cistern!_"

Macready made a mental appointment with his God, and yelled presently:
"Didn't I tell you 'twould take more than the sphit of a mountain to
singe the hair of him?... Are you hurted, sir?"



Charter roused, after an unknown time, to the realization that the woman
was in his arms; later, that he was sitting upon a slimy stone in a
subterranean cell filled with steam. The slab of stone held him free
from the four or five inches of almost scalding water on the floor of
the cistern. The vault was square, and luckily much larger than its
circular orifice; so that back in the corner they were free from the
volcanic discharge which had showered down through the mouth of the
pit - the cause of the heated water and the released vapors. An
earthquake years before had loosened the stone-lining of the vault. With
every shudder of the earth now, under the wrath of Pelée, the walls,
still upstanding, trembled.

Charter was given much time to observe these matters; and to reckon with
mere surface disorders, such as a bleeding right hand, lacerated from
the rusty chain; a torn shoulder, and a variety of burns which he
promptly decided must be inconsequential, since they stung so in the hot
vapor. Then, someone with a powerful arm was knocking out three-cushion
caroms in his brain-pan. This spoiled good thinking results. It is true,
he did not grasp the points of the position, with the remotest trace of
the sequence in which they are put down. Indeed, his mind, emerging from
the depths into which the shock of eruption had felled it, held alone
with any persistence the all-enfolding miracle that the woman was in his

Presently, his brain began to sort the side-issues. Her head had lain,
upon his shoulder during that precipitous plunge, and her hair had
fallen when he first caught her up. He remembered it blowing and
covering his eyes in a manner of playful endearment quite impossible for
an outsider to conceive. Meanwhile, the blast from Pelée was upon the
city; traversing the six miles from the crater to the _Morne_, faster
than its own sound; six miles in little more than the time it had taken
him to cross the lawn from the veranda to the cistern. A second or two
had saved them.

The fire had touched her hair.... Her bare arm brushed his cheek, and
his whole nature suddenly crawled with the fear that she might not wake.
His head dropped to her breast, and he heard her heart, light and
steadily on its way. His eyes were straining through the darkness into
her face, but he could not be sure it was without burns. There was
cumulative harshness in the fear that her face, so fragile, of purest
line, should meet the coarse element, burning dirt. His hands were not
free, but he touched her eyes, and knew that they were whole.... She
sighed, stirred and winced a little - breath of consciousness returning.
Then he heard:

"What is this dripping darkness?"

The words were slowly uttered, and the tones soft and vague, as from one
dreaming, or very close to the Gates.... In a great dark room somewhere,
in a past life, perhaps, he had heard such a voice from someone lying in
the shadows.

"We are in the old cistern - you and I - - "

"I - knew - you - would - come - for - me."

It was murmured as from someone very weary, very happy - as a child
falling asleep after a dream, murmurs with a little contented nestle
under the mother-wing.

"But how could you know?" he whispered quickly. "My heart was too
full - to take a mere mountain seriously - until the last minute - - "

"_Skylarks - always - know!_"

* * * * *

Torrents of rain were descending. Pelée roared with the after-pangs.
Though cooled and replenished by floods of black rain, the rising water
in the cistern was still hot.

"It was always hard for me to call you Wyndam - - "

"Harder to hear, Quentin Charter...."

"But are you sure you are not badly burned?" he asked for the tenth

"I don't feel badly burned.... I was watching for you from the window in
my room. I didn't like the way my hair looked, and was changing it when
I saw you coming - and the Black behind you. I tried to fasten it with
one pin, as I ran downstairs.... It fell. It is very thick and kept the
fire from me - - "

"From us." He would have preferred his share of the red dust.

She shivered contentedly. "What little is burned will grow again. Red
mops invariably do."

" ... And to think I should have found the old cistern in the night!...
One night when I could not sleep, I walked out here and explored. The
idea came then - - "

"I watched you from the upper window.... The shutter wiggled as you went
away. It was the next day that the 'fraids got me. You rushed off to the

Often they verged like this beyond the borders of rational quotation.
One hears only the voices, not the words often, from Rapture's Roadway.

"Just as I begin to think of something Pelée erupts all over again in my
skull - - "

"I didn't know men understood headache matters.... Don't you
think - don't you really think - I might be allowed to stand a little

"Water's still too hot," he replied briefly.

The cavern was not so utterly dark. The circle of the orifice was
sharply lit with gray.... They lost track of the hours; for moments at a
time forgot physical distress, since they had known only mystic journeys
before.... They whispered the fate of Saint Pierre - a city's soul torn
from the shrieking flesh; shadows lifted from the mystery of the little
wine-shop; clearly they saw how the occultist, his magnetism crippled,
had used Jacques and Soronia; and Charter recalled now where he had seen
the face of Paula before - the photograph in the Bellingham-cabin on the
_Panther_.... A second cloudburst cooled and eased them, though they
stood in water.... It seemed that Peter Stock should have made an effort
to reach them by this time. Save that the gray was unchangeable in the
roof the world, Charter could not have believed that this was all one
day. The power which had devastated the city, and with unspent violence
swept the _Morne_, might have reached three leagues at sea!... Above all
these probabilities arose their happiness.

"It seems that I've become a little boy," he said, "on one of those
perfect Christmas mornings. Don't you remember, the greatest moment of

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Online LibraryWill Levington ComfortShe buildeth her house → online text (page 21 of 23)