I cannot give the substance of this address, or any portion of it, verbatim as on former occasions, for I have not the manuscript. I doubt if Brande wrote out his last speech. Methodical as were his habits it is probable that his final words were not premeditated. They burst from him in a delirium that could hardly have been studied. His fine frenzy could not well have originated from considered sentences, although his language, regarded as mere oratory, was magnificent. It was appalling in the light through which I read it.
He stood alone upon the rock which overtopped the dell. We arranged ourselves in such groups as suited our inclinations, upon some rising ground below. The great trees waved overhead, low murmuring. The waterfall splashed drearily. Below, not a whisper was exchanged. Above, the man poured out his triumphant death-song in sonorous periods. Below, great fear was upon all. Above, the madman exulted wildly.
At first his voice was weak. As he went on it gained strength and depth. He alluded to his first address, in which he had hinted that the material Universe was not quite a success; to his second, in which he had boldly declared it was an absolute failure. This, his third declaration, was to tell us that the remedy as far as he, a mortal man, could apply it, was ready. The end was at hand. That night should see the consummation of his life-work. To-morrow's sun would rise--if it rose at all--on the earth restored to space.
A shiver passed perceptibly over the people, prepared as they were for this long foreseen announcement. Edith Metford, who stood by me on my left, slipped her hand into mine and pressed my fingers hard. Natalie Brande, on my right, did not move. Her eyes were dilated and fixed on the speaker. The old clairvoyante look was on her face. Her dark pupils were blinded save to their inward light. She was either unconscious or only partly conscious. Now that the hour had come, they who had believed their courage secure felt it wither. They, the people with us, begged for a little longer time to brace themselves for the great crisis--the plunge into an eternity from which there would be no resurrection, neither of matter nor of mind.
Brande heeded them not.
"This night," said he, with culminating enthusiasm, "the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, shall dissolve. To this great globe itself--this paltry speck of less account in space than a dew-drop in an ocean--and all its sorrow and pain, its trials and temptations, all the pathos and bathos of our tragic human farce, the end is near. The way has been hard, and the journey overlong, and the burden often beyond man's strength. But that long-drawn sorrow now shall cease. The tears will be wiped away. The burden will fall from weary shoulders. For the fulness of time has come. This earth shall die! And death is peace.
"I stand," he cried out in a strident voice, raising his arm aloft, "I may say, with one foot on sea and one on land, for I hold the elemental secret of them both. And I swear by the living god--Science incarnate--that the suffering of the centuries is over, that for this earth and all that it contains, from this night and for ever, Time will be no more!"
A great cry rose from the people. "Give us another day--only another day!"
But Brande made answer: "It is now too late."
"Too late!" the people wailed.
"Yes, too late. I warned you long ago. Are you not yet ready? In two hours the disintegrating agent will enter on its work. No human power could stop it now. Not if every particle of the material I have compounded were separated and scattered to the winds. Before I set my foot upon this rock I applied the key which will release its inherent energy. I myself am powerless."
"Powerless," sobbed the auditors.
"Powerless! And if I had ten thousand times the power which I have called forth from the universal element, I would use it towards the issue I have forecast."
Thereupon he turned away. Doom sounded in his words. The hand of Death laid clammy fingers on us. Edith Metford's strength failed at last. It had been sorely tested. She sank into my arms.
"Courage, true heart, our time has come," I whispered. "We start for the steamer at once. The horses are ready." My arrangements had been already made. My plan had been as carefully matured as any ever made by Brande himself.
"How many horses?"
"Three. One for you; another for Natalie; the third for myself. The rest must accept the fate they have selected."
The girl shuddered as she said, "But your interference with the formula? You are sure it will destroy the effect?"
"I am certain that the particular result on which Brande calculates will not take place. But short of that, he has still enough explosive matter stored to cause an earthquake. We are not safe within a radius of fifty miles. It will be a race against time."
"Natalie will not come."
"Not voluntarily. You must think of some plan. Your brain is quick. We have not a moment to lose. Ah, there she is! Speak to her."
Natalie was crossing the open ground which led from the glen to Brande's laboratory. She did not observe us till Edith called to her. Then she approached hastily and embraced her friend with visible emotion. Even to me she offered her cheek without reserve.
"Natalie," I said quickly, "there are three horses saddled and waiting in the palm grove. The Esmeralda is still lying in the harbour where we landed. You will come with us. Indeed, you have no choice. You must come if I have to carry you to your horse and tie you to the saddle. You will not force me to put that indignity upon you. To the horses, then! Come!"
For answer she called her brother loudly by his name. Brande immediately appeared at the door of his laboratory, and when he perceived from whom the call had come he joined us.
"Herbert," said Natalie, "our friend is deserting us. He must still cling to the thought that your purpose may fail, and he expects to escape on horseback from the fate of the earth. Reason with him yet a little further."
"There is no time to reason," I interrupted. "The horses are ready. This girl (pointing as I spoke to Edith Metford) takes one, I another, and you the third--whether your brother agrees or not."
"Surely you have not lost your reason? Have you forgotten the drop of water in the English Channel?" Brande said quietly.
"Brande," I answered, "the sooner you induce your sister to come with me the better; and the sooner you induce these maniac friends of yours to clear out the better, for your enterprise will fail."
"It is as certain as the law of gravitation. With my own hand I mixed the ingredients according to the formula."
"And," said I, "with my own hand I altered your formula."
Had Brande's heart stopped beating, his face could not have become more distorted and livid. He moved close to me, and, glaring into my eyes, hissed out: "You altered my formula?"
"I did," I answered recklessly. "I multiplied your figures by ten where they struck me as insufficient."
I strode closer still to him and looked him straight in the eyes while I spoke.
"That night in the Red Sea, when Edith Metford, by accident, mixed morphia in your medicine. The night I injected a subtle poison, which I picked up in India once, into your blood while you slept, thereby baffling some of the functions of your extraordinary brain. The night when in your sleep you stirred once, and had you stirred twice, I would have killed you, then and there, as ruthlessly as you would kill mankind now. The night I did kill your lieutenant, Rockingham, and throw his body overboard to the sharks."
Brande did not speak for a moment. Then he said in a gentle, uncomplaining voice: "So it now devolves on Grey. The end will be the same. The Labrador expedition will succeed where I have failed." To Natalie: "You had better go. There will only be an explosion. The island will probably disappear. That will be all."
"Do you remain?" she asked.
"Yes. I perish with my failure."
"Then I perish with you. And you, Marcel, save yourself--you coward!"
I started as if struck in the face. Then I said to Edith: "Be careful to keep to the track. Take the bay horse. I saddled him for myself, but you can ride him safely. Lose no time, and ride hard for the coast."
"Arthur Marcel," she answered, so softly that the others did not hear, "your work in the world is not yet over. There is the Labrador expedition. Just now, when my strength failed, you whispered 'courage.' Be true to yourself! Half an hour is gone."
At length some glimmer of human feeling awoke in Brande. He said in a low, abstracted voice: "My life fittingly ends now. To keep you, Natalie, would only be a vulgar murder." The old will power seemed to come back to him. He looked into the girl's eyes, and said slowly and sternly: "Go! I command it."
Without another word he turned away from us. When he had disappeared into the laboratory, Natalie sighed, and said dreamily: "I am ready. Let us go."
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 passing 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 held it.
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 the sea.
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 girl."
"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 them all.
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 to stop.
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: "The girl?"
"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 could.
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!