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- A Sappho of Green Springs - 20/32 -
The jarring and rattling ceased as suddenly, but the house seemed silent and empty. She moved to the door, which had now swung open a few inches, but to her astonishment it was fixed in that position, and she could not pass. As yet she had been free from any personal fear, and even now it was with a half smile at her imprisonment in the major's study, that she rang the bell and turned to the window. A man, whom she recognized as one of the ranch laborers, was standing a hundred feet away in the garden, looking curiously at the house. He saw her face as she tried to raise the sash, uttered an exclamation, and ran forward. But before she could understand what he said, the sash began to rattle in her hand, the jarring recommenced, the floor shook beneath her feet, a hideous sound of grinding seemed to come from the walls, a thin seam of dust-like smoke broke from the ceiling, and with the noise of falling plaster a dozen books followed each other from the shelves, in what in the frantic hurry of that moment seemed a grimly deliberate succession; a picture hanging against the wall, to her dazed wonder, swung forward, and appeared to stand at right angles from it; she felt herself reeling against the furniture; a deadly nausea overtook her; as she glanced despairingly towards the window, the outlying fields beyond the garden seemed to be undulating like a sea. For the first time she raised her voice, not in fear, but in a pathetic little cry of apology for her awkwardness in tumbling about and not being able to grapple this new experience, and then she found herself near the door, which had once more swung free. She grasped it eagerly, and darted out of the study into the deserted passage. Here some instinct made her follow the line of the wall, rather than the shaking balusters of the corridor and staircase, but before she reached the bottom she heard a shout, and the farm laborer she had seen coming towards her seized her by the arm, dragged her to the open doorway of the drawing-room, and halted beneath its arch in the wall. Another thrill, but lighter than before, passed through the building, then all was still again.
"It's over; I reckon that's all just now," said the man, coolly. "It's quite safe to cut and run for the garden now, through this window." He half led, half lifted her through the French window to the veranda and the ground, and locking her arm in his, ran quickly forward a hundred feet from the house, stopping at last beneath a large post oak where there was a rustic seat into which she sank. "You're safe now, I reckon," he said grimly.
She looked towards the house; the sun was shining brightly; a cool breeze seemed to have sprung up as they ran. She could see a quantity of rubbish lying on the roof from which a dozen yards of zinc gutter were perilously hanging; the broken shafts of the further cluster of chimneys, a pile of bricks scattered upon the ground and among the battered down beams of the end of the veranda-- but that was all. She lifted her now whitened face to the man, and with the apologetic smile still lingering on her lips, asked:--
"What does it all mean? What has happened?"
The man stared at her. "D'ye mean to say ye don't know?"
"How could I? They must have all left the house as soon as it began. I was talking to--to M. l'Hommadieu, and he suddenly left."
The man brought his face angrily down within an inch of her own. "D'ye mean to say that them d----d French half-breeds stampeded and left yer there alone?"
She was still too much stupefied by the reaction to fully comprehend his meaning, and repeated feebly with her smile still faintly lingering: "But you don't tell me WHAT it was?"
"An earthquake," said the man, roughly, "and if it had lasted ten seconds longer it would have shook the whole shanty down and left you under it. Yer kin tell that to them, if they don't know it, but from the way they made tracks to the fields, I reckon they did. They're coming now."
Without another word he turned away half surlily, half defiantly, passing scarce fifty yards away Mrs. Randolph and her daughter, who were hastening towards their guest.
"Oh, here you are!" said Mrs. Randolph, with the nearest approach to effusion that Rose had yet seen in her manner. "We were wondering where you had run to, and were getting quite concerned. Emile was looking for you everywhere."
The recollection of his blank and abject face, his vague outcry and blind fright, came back to Rose with a shock that sent a flash of sympathetic shame to her face. The ingenious Adele noticed it, and dutifully pinched her mother's arm.
"Emile?" echoed Rose faintly--"looking for ME?"
Mother and daughter exchanged glances.
"Yes," said Mrs. Randolph, cheerfully, "he says he started to run with you, but you got ahead and slipped out of the garden door--or something of the kind," she added, with the air of making light of Rose's girlish fears. "You know one scarcely knows what one does at such times, and it must have been frightfully strange to YOU-- and he's been quite distracted, lest you should have wandered away. Adele, run and tell him Miss Mallory has been here under the oak all the time."
Rose started--and then fell hopelessly back in her seat. Perhaps it WAS true! Perhaps he had not rushed off with that awful face and without a word. Perhaps she herself had been half-frightened out of her reason. In the simple, weak kindness of her nature it seemed less dreadful to believe that the fault was partly her own.
"And you went back into the house to look for us when all was over," said Mrs. Randolph, fixing her black, beady, magnetic eyes on Rose, "and that stupid yokel Zake brought you out again. He needn't have clutched your arm so closely, my dear,--I must speak to the major about his excessive familiarity--but I suppose I shall be told that that is American freedom. I call it 'a liberty.'"
It struck Rose that she had not even thanked the man--in the same flash that she remembered something dreadful that he had said. She covered her face with her hands and tried to recall herself.
Mrs. Randolph gently tapped her shoulder with a mixture of maternal philosophy and discipline, and continued: "Of course, it's an upset--and you're confused still. That's nothing. They say, dear, it's perfectly well known that no two people's recollections of these things ever are the same. It's really ridiculous the contradictory stories one hears. Isn't it, Emile?"
Rose felt that the young man had joined them and was looking at her. In the fear that she should still see some trace of the startled, selfish animal in his face, she did not dare to raise her eyes to his, but looked at his mother. Mrs. Randolph was standing then, collected but impatient.
"It's all over now," said Emile, in his usual voice, "and except the chimneys and some fallen plaster there's really no damage done. But I'm afraid they have caught it pretty badly at the mission, and at San Francisco in those tall, flashy, rattle-trap buildings they're putting up. I've just sent off one of the men for news."
Her father was in San Francisco by that time; and she had never thought of him! In her quick remorse she now forgot all else and rose to her feet.
"I must telegraph to my father at once," she said hurriedly; "he is there."
"You had better wait until the messenger returns and hear his news," said Emile. "If the shock was only a slight one in San Francisco, your father might not understand you, and would be alarmed."
She could see his face now--there was no record of the past expression upon it, but he was watching her eagerly. Mrs. Randolph and Adele had moved away to speak to the servants. Emile drew nearer.
"You surely will not desert us now?" he said in a low voice.
"Please don't," she said vaguely. "I'm so worried," and, pushing quickly past him, she hurriedly rejoined the two women.
They were superintending the erection of a long tent or marquee in the garden, hastily extemporized from the awnings of the veranda and other cloth. Mrs. Randolph explained that, although all danger was over, there was the possibility of the recurrence of lighter shocks during the day and night, and that they would all feel much more secure and comfortable to camp out for the next twenty-four hours in the open air.
"Only imagine you're picnicking, and you'll enjoy it as most people usually enjoy those horrid al fresco entertainments. I don't believe there's the slightest real necessity for it, but," she added in a lower voice, "the Irish and Chinese servants are so demoralized now, they wouldn't stay indoors with us. It's a common practice here, I believe, for a day or two after the shock, and it gives time to put things right again and clear up. The old, one- storied, Spanish houses with walls three feet thick, and built round a courtyard or patio, were much safer. It's only when the Americans try to improve upon the old order of things with their pinchbeck shams and stucco that Providence interferes like this to punish them."
It was the fact, however, that Rose was more impressed by what seemed to her the absolute indifference of Providence in the matter, and the cool resumption by Nature of her ordinary conditions. The sky above their heads was as rigidly blue as ever, and as smilingly monotonous; the distant prospect, with its clear, well-known silhouettes, had not changed; the crows swung on lazy, deliberate wings over the grain as before; and the trade-wind was again blowing in its quiet persistency. And yet she knew that something had happened that would never again make her enjoyment of the prospect the same--that nothing would ever be as it was yesterday. I think at first she referred only to the material and larger phenomena, and did not confound this revelation of the insecurity of the universe with her experience of man. Yet the fact also remained that to the conservative, correct, and, as she believed, secure condition to which she had been approximating, all her relations were rudely shaken and upset. It really seemed to this simple-minded young woman that the revolutionary disturbance of settled conditions might have as Providential an origin as the "Divine Right" of which she had heard so much.
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