Chapter XXXIX. The Earthquake

Owen Clancy was also leading a dual life, and when, at times, conscience compelled introspection, he was ill at ease, for he could not fail to recognize that his sinister side was gaining ascendency. With a feeling bordering on recklessness he banished compunctions, and yielded himself more completely to the inspiration of ambition and the fascinations of Miss Ainsley. It had become evident that Mara was either engaged to Bodine or soon would be, and the thought imbittered and hardened his nature. He gave the day to business, and in the evening was rarely absent from Miss Ainsley's side.

Mrs. Willoughby had invited a small whist party to meet at her house on the evening of the 3lst, and Clancy of course was among the number.

Before sitting down to their games there was some desultory conversation, of which young Houghton's exploit was the principal theme. Mrs. Willoughby was enthusiastic in his praise, and even the most prejudiced yielded assent to her words. Equally strong in their commendation were Miss Ainsley and Clancy, and the latter, who had called on Houghton, explained how admirably he had managed his boat in effecting the rescue, and related the incidents of his narrow escape. Although there had been no published record of the affair, the main particulars had become very generally known, and the tide of public favor was turning rapidly toward Houghton, for the act was one that would especially commend itself to a brave people. Of the secret and inner history, known only to herself, Mrs. Willoughby did not speak, and in all comment a sharp line of division was drawn between George and his father.

Then conversation turned upon the slight earthquake tremor which had been experienced in Charleston and Summerville on the previous Friday. This phenomenon, scarcely noticed at the time and awakening no especial alarm, had been brought into greater prominence by the very serious disturbances in Greece on the following day, August 29, and some theories as to the causes were briefly and languidly discussed.

Then Clancy remarked lightly, "We had our share of disaster in the last August's cyclone. Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place. The jar of Friday was only a little sympathetic symptom in old mother Earth, who, like other mothers and women in general, are said to be subject to nervous attacks. Suppose we settle down to our games."

"Nervous attacks in mother Earth and mother Eve's daughters are serious affairs, I'd have you understand, Mr. Clancy," laughed Mrs. Willoughby.

"And very mysterious," he added. "Who can account for either?"

"There is no reason why they should be accounted for in our case," Miss Ainsley remarked. "Woman should always remain a mystery."

"Yes, I suppose she must so remain in her deepest nature," he replied, sotto voce, "but is there any need for small secrecies?"

"That question would have to be explained before I could answer it. Will you deal?"

He was her partner. They played quietly for an hour, and then the wife of the gentleman opposed to them rose and said: "The heat is so great I shall have to be excused"; and, with her husband, she bade Mrs. Willoughby goodnight.

Clancy and Miss Ainsley repaired to the balcony, the latter taking her favorite seat, and leaning her head against the ivy-entwined pillar. She knew the advantages of this locality, for while she was hidden from the occupants of the parlor, the light shone through the open French windows in sufficient degree to reveal the graceful outlines of her person, which was draped as scantily on that hot night as fashion permitted.

"How stifling the air is!" she remarked. "I'm glad to escape from the lighted room, yet am surprised that we obtain so little relief out here."

"It is strange," Clancy replied. "I scarcely remember such a sultry evening. From what I've read I should be inclined to think it was an earthquake atmosphere, or else that it portended a storm."

"Now don't croak," she said. "The stars are shining, and there is no sign of a storm. You have already proved that an earthquake cannot occur. You know the old saying about worry over what never happens. The true way to enjoy life is to take the best you can get out of it each day as it comes. Don't you think so?"

"A very embarrasing question if I should answer it honestly," he replied, laughing.

"How so?" Never had the brilliant fire in her eyes been so soft and alluring. She had detected a slight tremor in his voice, and had seen an answering fire in his eyes. Although conscious of a rising and delicious excitement in her own veins, she believed from much experience that in her perfect self-control she could prevent him from saying too much. Even if he did overstep the liberal bounds which she was willing to accord, she thought, "I can rally him back into our old relations if I so wish."

What she did wish, she scarcely knew herself, and the thought passed through her mind, "I may accept him after all."

He shared her mood, with the exception that he had decided long since to obtain her hand if she was disposed to give it. To-night, more than ever, he felt the recklessness which had been growing upon him, and was inclined to follow her lead to the utmost, even warily to go beyond such encouragement as he might receive. He therefore replied vaguely, "One may wish the best in life, and not be able to obtain it"

"I see nothing embarrassing in that commonplace remark."

"There might be in its application."

"Possibly. Who knows to what one and one make two might lead?--a murder, like enough."

"Sometimes one and one make one."

"How odd! Still more so, that you should indulge in abstruse mathematics this hot night."

"That reminds me that a man is said to be merely a vulgar fraction till he is married, when he is redeemed into a whole number."

"If I were equal to it, I'd get a pencil, and preserve such great nuggets of abstract truth."

"When you are so concretely and distractingly enchanting, what other refuge is there for a man than the abstract?"

"Is the abstract a refuge?" she asked, looking dreamily out over the dark waters of the harbor. "Perhaps it is. It certainly suggests coolness which should be grateful tonight." Then turning, and with a mirthful and provoking gleam in her eyes, he remarked, "I should think this weather would be just to your taste."

"Why so?"

"Oh, you have become enough of a Yankee to guess."

"Would you say that even this furnace-like air cannot quicken my blood?"

"My friend, I do not believe that anything could quicken your pulse one beat."

"I'll demonstrate the contrary," he said, with a quick flash in his eyes. "Put your finger on my pulse."

She laughingly did so. By a slight, quick movement he clasped her hand, and it appeared to him that the passion which he knew to be in his face was reflected in hers. She did not withdraw her hand. For an instant there was a subtle, swift interchange of thought. She saw he was about to speak plainly, passionately; she felt herself yielding as never before in all her experience. It was as if a wave of emotion was lifting and sweeping her away. He held her eyes; a smile began to part her lips; the thought came to him that words were not essential, that she was giving herself to him through the agency of the brilliant eyes which at the first had awakened his wondering surmises. He gently drew her to her feet, and she did not resist. He bent toward her that he might look deeper into her rosy face, and felt her sweet breath coming quickly against his cheek. Then, as his lips parted to speak, a low, deep sound far to the southeast caught his attention. Still clasping hands they faced it. With awful rapidity it approached, increasing, deepening, pervading the air to the sky, bellowing as if from the centre of the earth, filling their ears with its unutterable and penetrating power, and appalling their hearts by its supernatural weirdness. They shrank before it down the balcony and through the window into the drawing-room, cowering, trembling, speechless.

They were scarcely within the apartment before the large, substantial mansion rocked as if it had been a cork, and the waters of the harbor had passed under it. The balcony on which they had stood an instant before went down, leaving gaping darkness in its place.

With an agonized shriek Miss Ainsley threw her arms about Clancy. As with uncertain footing he sought to place her on a sofa they were both thrown violently upon it. He saw the chandeler swaying to and fro, as if a thousand lights were dancing before his eyes; saw the other guests staggering and falling. Statuettes, bric-a-brac, and articles of furniture came crashing down; part of the ceiling fell with a thud, raising a stifling dust, which, choking the shrieking voices, rendered more distinct the grinding sound, as walls of solid masonry drew apart, gaped, and closed under the impulse of immeasurable power.

Above all rose the mysterious thunder, which was not thunder, because now it seemed to come from unknown depths. Time is but relative, and the occupants of the room felt as if they were passing through an eternity of agony.

The climax of horror was reached when the gas was extinguished, and all were left in pitchy darkness. It seemed as if reason itself would go, but as suddenly as the convulsion had begun, it ceased. There was a second or two of breathless waiting, and then Clancy shouted, "Come, quick. There may be another shock."

With his right hand he struck a match, and, supporting Miss Ainsley by his left arm, led the way.

"Oh, what is it?" she gasped.

"An earthquake. Come; courage. We must get away from all buildings." Half lifting her, he swiftly sought the street, and then the adjacent open ground of the Battery.

"All here?" he asked, panting, and looking around. The others soon appeared, Mr. Willoughby coming last, and carrying his half-fainting wife. The negro servants had preceded, and were already on their knees, groaning and praying. From every side other fugitives were pouring in.

"Miss Ainsley, you are with friends and as safe here as you can be anywhere," Clancy said hastily. "There are others in the heart of the city," and he dashed away, regardless of her appealing cry to return.

As Clancy rushed up Meeting Street he felt that any moment might be his last, and yet he was more appalled at himself than at the awful sights about him. The human mind in such crises is endowed with wonderful capacity. It seemed to him that his eyes took in all details as he passed, and that his brain comprehended them. People were rushing from their homes, or carrying out the feeble and injured. His way was impeded by fugitives, whose faces were seen by the street-lamps to be ghastly pale and horror-stricken. The awful impression of the final day of doom was heightened by the comparative nudity of many, both men and women; and among the multitudinous images passing through Clancy's mind was a picture of the Judgment Day by one of the old masters, with its naked, writhing human forms.

The air was resonant with every tone of anguish, hoarse shoutings, shrill screams, and the plaintive cries of children. Above all other sounds articulate and inarticulate was heard the word "God," as the stricken people appealed to Him, some on their knees, others as they stood dazed and almost paralyzed, and others still as they rushed toward open places for safety.

"Yes, God," muttered Clancy. "May He forgive me for having forgotten Him! There are but two thoughts left in this wreck, God and Mara. How unworthy were my recent motives and passion! How unlike the love which leads me inevitably to breathe the name of Mara in my appeal to God!"