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THE Strand was full of a maddened throng, bolting now this way and now that. It was swerving westward as I came into it, and before I could regain my feet I was swept right along into Trafalgar Square and up against the Nelson Column, which still reared itself in solitary grandeur.
On the steps of the Column a number of women were crouched, many of them but half dressed, all dishevelled and awry. They were huddled together like sheep, as though there were protection in companionship.
"Women!" yelled a man in the crowd. "Women!"
Others took up the cry, and there was another forward rush.
Some of the women ran towards them, laughing hysterically; others, with their eyes wildly fixed and glaring, stood back against the stone on the topmost step, frozen stiff with fright. It was very horrible; but what did it matter, so near the end?
I got in a side-eddy of the crowd, behind one of the Lions, and seizing the lull in the pressure managed to climb up on to the Lion. I could get a good view here, and I was interested in watching. Nothing seemed real any longer; it was all a sort of dream : I wanted to go on dreaming without interference.
There was a sailor posted on the steps of the Column, a sentry to protect the women. Some of them were crowded behind him, and he was guarding them against the mob. He seemed to have fired away all his ammunition, for he was fighting with his clubbed rifle, swinging it round his head and bringing it down ever and again with a thud that it turned one's stomach to listen to. And between the blows he would glance round at the women, and smile and say, "It's all right, my dears. It's the best spree I've had for many a day."
I thought vaguely what a fool he was for his pains. Presently he turned to smile once too often; some one caught him by the leg, jerking him off the steps. The mob literally tore him in pieces,— I could distinctly hear the cracking of his bones.
At the same moment a cheer sounded out from the other side of the Column, and the front ranks of those who had begun to rush the steps halted irresolute. The people behind still pressed forward, presently driving the others ahead of them; but in the momentary pause a body of men had got through and ranged themselves silently round the Column— a force of bluejackets with an officer, Bentham, at the head of them. I thought of what he had once said to me about discipline, surely here was proof of its efficiency? Even at this supreme moment of the world's destiny there were men left who sought to do their duty. The end might come at any moment, but these were constant to the last.
I could see their faces clearly as they lined around the Column. No fear, no terror, nor any enthusiasm, only a callous determination. I thought again what fools they were to trouble so — what could anything matter now?
Then I saw something else. One of the women moved her head, and as she turned I saw that it was Landry. My indifference fled then. I let go my hold of the Lion, and sprang right down on the heads of the mob below me, fighting madly to reach her.
The crowd around me resisted furiously at first, but feeling my frantic forward movement, they, too, pushed onward with a yell.
"Give us the women," they howled.
I heard the voice of Bentham cold and sharp above the din, one word short and quick "Charge!"
At the same instant the Nelson Column swayed and tottered, a cataract of hot stones came singing down about us, a rain of meteorites tore lanes through the crowded hordes. But the sailors still came on, not cheering or shouting, but with a silence that made their coming worse.
They seemed to come very slowly. For the moment Time was dead, the great falling Column lay sideways across the violet sky, poised over the people's heads like a bar of black, its fall checked in mid air.
I saw a sailor right before me. His arms were raised; in them a rifle and bayonet pointed at me. I could see a merciless glitter in his eyes, cold, blue, and unrelenting. I read death in those eyes. I could see every minute detail of the weapon. I began to cry for mercy; then checked the cry, for he seemed frozen into stillness— all things seemed still and motionless. And the violet light grew brighter.
I felt a dull chill pain in my chest; then something warm suffused me. I was dimly aware that the man had moved— I struck at him feebly and blindly. Then all things faded in a blaze of awful light.
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