THERE was a sudden splitting crack as if a thousand rifles had been discharge_n the ballroom. The floor rose on one side to a perilous angle, considerin_he slippery nature of its surface. Such a shower of white flakes fell fro_he ceiling that dark dresses and naval uniforms looked as if their wearer_ad been out in a snowstorm.
Cracks and fissures started in the walls with pantomimic effect, on all side_ould be heard the rattle and splinter of falling glass. A voice suddenl_prose in a piercing scream, a yell proclaimed that one of the great crysta_handeliers was falling. There was a rush and a rustle of skirts, and a quic_ision of white, beautiful faces, and with a crash the great pendant came t_he floor.
The whole world seemed to be oscillating under frightened feet, the palace wa_umming and thrumming like a harpstring. The panic was so great, the whol_ysterious tragedy so sudden, that the bravest there had to battle for thei_its. Save for a few solitary branches of candles, the big room was i_arkness.
There were fifteen hundred of England's bravest, and fairest, and best,
huddled together in what might be a hideous deathchamber for all they knew t_he contrary. Women were clinging in terror to the men, the fine lines o_lass distinction were broken down. All were poor humanity now in the presenc_f a common danger.
In a little time the earth ceased to sway and rock, the danger was passing. _ittle colour was creeping back to the white faces again. Men and women wer_onscious that they could hear the beating of their own hearts. Nobody brok_he silence yet, for speech seemed to be out of place.
"An earthquake," somebody said at length. "An earthquake, beyond doubt, and _retty bad one at that. That accounts for the failure of the electric light.
There will be some bad accidents if the gas mains are disturbed."
The earth grew steady underfoot again, the white flakes ceased to fall.
Amongst the men the spirit of adventure was rising; the idea of standin_uietly there and doing nothing was out of the question.
Anyway, there could be no further thought of pleasure that night. There wer_any mothers there, and their uppermost thought was for home. Never, perhaps,
in the history of royalty had there been so informal a breaking up of a grea_unction. The King and Queen had retired some little time before—a kindly an_houghtful act under the circumstances. The women were cloaking and shawlin_urriedly; they crowded out in search of their carriages with no more orde_han would have been obtained outside a theatre.
But there were remarkably few carriages in waiting. An idiotic footman who ha_ost his head in the sudden calamity sobbed out the information that Oxfor_treet and Bond Street were impassable, and that houses were down in al_irections. No vehicles could come that way; the road was destroyed. As to th_est, the man knew nothing; he was frightened out of his life.
There was nothing for it but to walk. It wanted two good hours yet befor_awn, but thousands of people seemed to be abroad. For a space of a mile o_ore there was not a light to be seen. Round Buckingham Palace the atmospher_eeked with a fine irritating dust, and was rendered foul and poisonous by th_umes of coal gas. There must have been a fearful leakage somewhere.
Nobody seemed to know what was the matter, and everybody was asking everybod_lse. And in the darkness it was very hard to locate the disaster. Generally,
it was admitted, that London had been visited by a dreadful earthquake. Neve_ere the daylight hours awaited more eagerly.
"The crack of doom," Sir George Egerton remarked to his companion, Lor_arcombe.
They were feeling their way across the park in the direction of the Mall.
"It's like a shuddering romance that I read a little time since. But I mus_now something about it before I go to bed. Let's try St. James's Street—i_here's any St. James Street left."
"All right," Lord Barcombe agreed, "I hope the clubs are safe. Is it wise t_trike a match with all this gas reeking in the air?"
"Anything's better than the gas," Sir George said tersely.
The vesta flared out in a narrow, purple circle. Beyond it was a glimpse of _eat with two or three people huddled on it. They were outcasts and companion_n the grip of misfortune, but they were all awake now.
"Can any of you say what's happened?" Lord Barcombe asked.
"The world's come to an end, sir, I believe," was the broken reply. "You ma_ay what you like, but it was a tremendous explosion. I saw a light like al_he world ablaze over to the north, and then all the lights went out, and I'v_een waiting for the last trump to sound ever since."
"Then you didn't investigate?" Lord Barcombe asked.
"Not me, sir. I seem to have struck a bit of solid earth where I am. And the_t rained stones and pieces of brick and vestiges of creation. There's th_alf of a boiler close to you that dropped out of the sky. You stay where yo_re, sir."
But the two young men pushed on. They reached what appeared to be St. James'_treet at length, but only by stumbling and climbing over heaps of debris.
The roadway was one mass of broken masonry. The fronts of some of the club_ad been stripped off as if a titanic knife had sliced them. It was lik_ooking into one of the upholsterers' smart shops, where they display room_ompletely furnished. There were gaps here and there where houses ha_ollapsed altogether. Seeing that the road had ceased to exist, it seeme_mpossible that an earthquake could have done this thing. A great ligh_lickered and roared a little way down the road. At an angle a gas main wa_ilted up like the spout of a teapot, upheaved and snapped from its twi_ipes. This had caught fire in some way, so that for a hundred yards or s_ach way the thoroughfare was illuminated by a huge flare lamp.
It was a thrilling sight focused in that blue glare. It looked as if Londo_ad been utterly destroyed by a siege—as if thousands of well- aimed shell_ad exploded. Houses looked like tattered banners of brick and mortar. Heav_rticles of furniture had been hurled into the street; on the other hand,
little gimcrack ornaments still stood on tiny brackets.
A scared-looking policeman came staggering along.
"My man," Lord Barcombe cried, "what has happened?"
The officer pulled himself together and touched his helmet.
"It's dreadful, sir," he sobbed. "There has been an accident in the tubes; an_hey have been blown all to pieces."