W. E. B. Du Bois
He stood a moment on the steps of the bank, watching the human river thatswirled down Broadway. Few noticed him. Few ever noticed him save in a way thatstung. He was outside the world"nothing!" as he said bitterly.Bits of the words of the walkers came to him.
Everybody was talking of it. Even the president, as he entered, smiledpatronizingly at him, and asked: "Well, Jim, are you scared?"
"No," said the messenger shortly.
"I thought wed journeyed through the comets tail once,"broke in the junior clerk affably.
"Oh, that was Haleys," said the president. "This is a newcomet, quite a stranger, they saywonderful, wonderful! I saw it lastnight. Oh, by the way, Jim," turning again to the messenger, "I wantyou to go down into the lower vaults today."
The messenger followed the president silently. Of course, they wanted him to godown to the lower vaults. It was too dangerous for more valuable men. He smiledgrimly and listened.
"Everything of value has been moved out since the water began to seepin," said the president, "but we miss two volumes of old records.Suppose you nose around down thereit isnt very pleasant, Isuppose."
"Not very," said the messenger, as he walked out.
"Well, Jim, the tail of the new comet hits us at noon this time," saidthe vault clerk, as he passed over the keys; but the messenger passed silentlydown the stairs. Down he went beneath Broadway, where the dim light filteredthrough the feet of hurrying men; down to the dark basement beneath; down intothe blackness and silence beneath that lowest cavern. Here with his dark lanternhe groped in the bowels of the earth, under the world.
He drew a long breath as he threw back the last great iron door and stepped intothe fetid slime within. Here at last was peace, and he groped moodily forward. Agreat rat leaped past him and cobwebs crept across his face. He felt carefullyaround the room, shelf by shelf, on the muddied floor, and in crevice andcorner. Nothing. Then he went back to the far end, where somehow the wall feltdifferent. He pounded and pushed and pried. Nothing. He started away. Thensomething brought him back. He was pounding and working again when suddenly thewhole black wall swung as on mighty hinges, and blackness yawned beyond. Hepeered in; it was evidently a secret vaultsome hiding place of the oldbank unknown in newer times. He entered hesitatingly. It was a long, narrow roomwith shelves, and at the far end, an old iron chest. On a high shelf lay twovolumes of records, and others. He put them carefully aside and stepped to thechest. It was old, strong, and rusty. He looked at the vast and old-
fashioned lock and flashed his light on the hinges. They were deeply incrustedwith rust. Looking about, he found a bit of iron and began to pry. The rust hadeaten a hundred years, and it had gone deep. Slowly, wearily, the old lidlifted, and with a last, low groan lay bare its
treasureand he saw the dull sheen of gold!
A low, grinding, reverberating crash struck upon his ear. He started up andlooked about. All was black and still. He groped for his light and swung itabout him. Then he knew! The great stone door had swung to. He forgot the goldand looked death squarely in the face. Then with a sigh he went methodically towork. The cold sweat stood on his forehead; but he searched, pounded, pushed,and worked until after what seemed endless hours his hand struck a cold bit ofmetal and the great door swung again harshly on its hinges, and then, strikingagainst something soft and heavy, stopped. He had just room to squeeze through.There lay the body of the vault clerk, cold and stiff. He stared at it, and thenfelt sick and nauseated. The air seemed unaccountably foul, with a strong,peculiar odor. He stepped forward, clutched at the air, and fell fainting acrossthe corpse.
* * *
He awoke with a sense of horror, leaped from the body, and groped up the stairs,calling to the guard. The watchman sat as if asleep, with the gate swingingfree. With one glance at him the messenger hurried up to the sub-vault. In vainhe called to the guards. His voice echoed and re-echoed weirdly. Up into thegreat basement he rushed. Here another guard lay prostrate on his face, cold andstill. A fear arose in the messengers heart. He dashed up to the cellarfloor, up into the bank. The stillness of death lay everywhere and everywherebowed, bent, and stretched the silent forms of men. The messenger paused andglanced about. He was not a man easily moved; but the sight was appalling!"Robbery and murder," he whispered slowly to himself as he saw thetwisted, oozing mouth of the president where he lay half-buried on his desk.Then a new thought seized him: If they found him here alonewith all thismoney and all these dead menwhat would his life be worth? He glancedabout, tiptoed cautiously to a side door, and again looked behind. Quietly heturned the latch and stepped out into Wall Street.
How silent the street was! Not a soul was stirring, and yet it was highnoonWall Street? Broadway? He glanced almost wildly up and down, thenacross the street, and as he looked, a sickening horror froze in his limbs. Witha choking cry of utter fright he lunged, leaned giddily against the coldbuilding, and stared helplessly at the sight.
In the great stone doorway a hundred men and women and children lay crushed andtwisted and jammed, forced into that great, gaping doorway like refuse in acanas if in one wild, frantic rush to safety, they had crushed and groundthemselves to death. Slowly the messenger crept along the walls, trying tocomprehend, stilling the tremor in his limbs and the rising terror in his heart.He met a business man, silk-hatted and frock-coated, who had crept, too, alongthat smooth wall and stood now stone dead with wonder written on his lips.
The messenger turned his eyes hastily away and sought the curb. A woman leanedwearily against the signpost, her head bowed motionless on her lace and silkenbosom. Before her stood a streetcar, silent, and withinbut the messengerbut glanced and hurried on. A grimy newsboy sat in the gutter with the"last edition" in his uplifted hand: "Danger!" screamed itsblack headlines. "Warnings wired around the world. The Comets tailsweeps past us at noon. Deadly gases expected. Close doors and windows. Seek thecellar." The messenger read and staggered on. Far out from a window above,a girl lay with gasping face and sleevelets on her arms. On a store step sat alittle, sweet-faced girl looking upward toward the skies, and in the carriage byher laybut the messenger looked no longer. The cords gave waytheterror burst in his veins, and with one great, gasping cry he sprang desperatelyforward and ranran as only the frightened run, shrieking and fighting theair until with one last wail of pain he sank on the grass of Madison Square andlay prone and still.
When he arose, he gave no glance at the still and silent forms on thebenches, but, going to a fountain, bathed his face; then hiding himself in acorner away from the drama of death, he quietly gripped himself and thought thething through: The comet had swept the earth and this was the end. Was everybodydead? He must search and see.
He knew that he must steady himself and keep calm, or he would go insane. Firsthe must go to a restaurant. He walked up Fifth Avenue to a famous hostelry andentered its gorgeous, ghost-haunted halls. He beat back the nausea, and, seizinga tray from dead hands, hurried into the street and ate ravenously, hiding tokeep out the sights.
"Yesterday, they would not have served me," he whispered, as he forcedthe food down.
Then he started up the streetlooking, peering, telephoning, ringingalarms; silent, silent all. Was nobodynobodyhe dared not think thethought and hurried on.
Suddenly he stopped still. He had forgotten. My God! How could he haveforgotten? He must rush to the subwaythen he almost laughed. Noacar; if he could find a Ford. He saw one. Gently he lifted off its burden, andtook his place on the seat. He tested the throttle. There was gas. He glidedoff, shivering, and drove up the street. Everywhere stood, leaned, lounged, andlay the dead, in grim and awful silence. On he ran past an automobile, wreckedand overturned; past another, filled with a gay party whose smiles yet lingeredon their death-struck lips; on, past crowds and groups of cars, pausing by deadpolicemen; at 42nd Street he had to detour to Park Avenue to avoid the deadcongestion. He came back on Fifth Avenue at 57th and flew past the Plaza and bythe park with its hushed babies and silent throng, until as he was rushing past72nd Street he heard a sharp cry, and saw a living form leaning wildly out anupper window. He gasped. The human voice sounded in his ears like the voice ofGod.
"Hellohellohelp, in Gods name!" wailed the woman."Theres a dead girl in here and a man andand see yonder deadmen lying in the street and dead horsesfor the love of God go and bringthe officers" the words trailed off into hysterical tears.
He wheeled the car in a sudden circle, running over the still body of a childand leaping on the curb. Then he rushed up the steps and tried the door and rangviolently. There was a long pause, but at last the heavy door swung back. Theystared a moment in silence. She had not noticed before that he was a Negro. Hehad not thought of her as white. She was a woman of perhapstwenty-fiverarely beautiful and richly gowned, with darkly-golden hair,and jewels. Yesterday, he thought with bitterness, she would scarcely havelooked at him twice. He would have been dirt beneath her silken feet. She staredat him. Of all the sorts of men she had pictured as coming to her rescue she hadnot dreamed of one like him. Not that he was not human, but he dwelt in a worldso far from hers, so infinitely far, that he seldom even entered her thought.Yet as she looked at him curiously he seemed quite commonplace and usual. He wasa tall, dark workingman of the better class, with a sensitive face trained tostolidity and a poor mans clothes and hands. His face was soft and slowand his manner at once cold and nervous, like fires long banked, but not out. Soa moment each paused and gauged the other; then the thought of the dead worldwithout rushed in and they started toward each other.
"What has happened?" she cried. "Tell me! Nothing stirs. All issilence! I see the dead strewn before my window as winnowed by the breath ofGodand see"
She dragged him through great, silken hangings to where, beneath the sheen ofmahogany and silver, a little French maid lay stretched in quiet, everlastingsleep, and near her a butler lay prone in his livery.
The tears streamed down the womans cheeks, and she clung to his arm untilthe perfume of her breath swept his face and he felt the tremors racing throughher body.
"I had been shut up in my dark room developing pictures of the comet whichI took last night; when I came outI saw the dead!
"What has happened?" she cried again.
He answered slowly:
"Somethingcomet or devilswept across the earth this morningandmany are dead!"
"Many? Very many?"
"I have searched and I have seen no other living soul but you."
She gasped and they stared at each other.
"Myfather!" she whispered.
"Where is he?"
"He started for the office."
"Where is it?"
"In the Metropolitan Tower."
"Leave a note for him here and come." Then he stopped. "No,"he said firmly, "first, we must goto Harlem."
"Harlem!" she cried. Then she understood. She tapped her foot at firstimpatiently. She looked back and shuddered. Then she came resolutely down thesteps.
"Theres a swifter car in the garage in the court," she said.
"I dont know how to drive it," he said.
"I do," she answered.
In ten minutes they were flying to Harlem on the wind. The Stutz rose and racedlike an airplane. They took the turn at 110th Street on two wheels and slippedwith a shriek into 135th. He was gone but a moment. Then he returned, and hisface was gray. She did not look, but said:
"You have lostsomebody?"
"I have losteverybody," he said simply, "unless"
He ran back and was gone several minuteshours they seemed to her.
"Everybody," he said, and he walked slowly back with somethingfilm-like in his hand, which he stuffed into his pocket.
"Im afraid I was selfish," he said. But already the car wasmoving toward the park among the dark and lined dead of Harlemthe brown,still faces, the knotted hands, the homely garments, and the silencethewild and haunting silence. Out of the park, and down Fifth Avenue they whirled.In and out among the dead they slipped and quivered, needing no sound of bell orhorn, until the great, square Metropolitan Tower hovered in sight.
Gently he laid the dead elevator boy aside; the car shot upward. The door of theoffice stood open. On the threshold lay the stenographer, and, staring at her,sat the dead clerk. The inner office was empty, but a note lay on the desk,folded and addressed but unsent:
Ive gone for a hundred-mile spin in Freds new Mercedes. Shall not beback before dinner. Ill bring Fred with me.
J. B. H.
"Come," she cried nervously. "We must search the city."
Up and down, over and across, back againon went that ghostly search.Everywhere was silence and deathdeath and silence! They hunted fromMadison Square to Spuyten Duyvel; they rushed across the Williamsburg Bridge;they swept over Brooklyn; from the Battery and Morningside Heights they scannedthe river. Silence, silence everywhere, and no human sign. Haggard andbedraggled they puffed a third time slowly down Broadway, under the broilingsun, and at last stopped. He sniffed the air. An odora smelland withthe shifting breeze a sickening stench filled their nostrils and brought itsawful warning. The girl settled back helplessly in her seat.
"What can we do?" she cried.
It was his turn now to take the lead, and he did it quickly.
"The long distance telephonethe telegraph and the cablenightrockets and then flight!"
She looked at him now with strength and confidence. He did not look like men, asshe had always pictured men; but he acted like one and she was content. Infifteen minutes they were at the central telephone exchange. As they came to thedoor he stepped quickly before her and pressed her gently back as he closed it.She heard him moving to and fro, and knew his burdensthe poor, littleburdens he bore. When she entered, he was alone in the room. The grimswitchboard flashed its metallic face in cryptic, sphinx-like immobility. Sheseated herself on a stool and donned the bright earpiece. She looked at themouthpiece. She had never looked at one so closely before. It was wide andblack, pimpled with usage; inert; dead; almost sarcastic in its unfeelingcurves. It lookedshe beat back the thoughtbut it lookeditpersisted in looking likeshe turned her head and found herself alone. Onemoment she was terrified; then she thanked him silently for his delicacy andturned resolutely, with a quick intaking of breath.
"Hello!" she called in low tones. She was calling to the world. Theworld must answer. Would the world answer? Was the world Silence!
She had spoken too low.
"Hello!" she cried, full-voiced.
She listened. Silence! Her heart beat quickly. She cried in clear, distinct,loud tones: "Hellohellohello!"
What was that whirring? Surelynowas it the click of a receiver?
She bent close, moved the pegs in the holes, and called and called, until hervoice rose almost to a shriek, and her heart hammered. It was as if she hadheard the last flicker of creation, and the evil was silence. Her voice droppedto a sob. She sat stupidly staring into the black and sarcastic mouthpiece, andthe thought came again. Hope lay dead within her. Yes, the cable and the rocketsremained; but the worldshe could not frame the thought or say the word. Itwas too mightytoo terrible! She turned toward the door with a new fear inher heart. For the first time she seemed to realize that she was alone in theworld with a stranger, with something more than a strangerwith a man alienin blood and cultureunknown, perhaps unknowable. It was awful! She mustescapeshe must fly; he must not see her again. Who knew what awfulthoughts he had?
She gathered her silken skirts deftly about her young, smoothlimbslistened, and glided into a sidehall. A moment she shrank back: thehall lay filled with dead women; then she leaped to the door and tore at it,with bleeding fingers, until it swung wide. She looked out. He was standing atthe top of the alleysilhouetted, tall and black, motionless. Was helooking at her or away? She did not knowshe did not care. She simplyleaped and ranran until she found herself alone amid the dead and the tallramparts of towering buildings.
She stopped. She was alone. Alone! Alone on the streetsalone in thecityperhaps alone in the world! There crept in upon her the sense ofdeceptionof creeping hands behind her backof silent, moving thingsshe could not seeof voices hushed in fearsome conspiracy. She lookedbehind and sideways, started at strange sounds and heard still stranger, untilevery nerve within her stood sharp and quivering, stretched to scream at thebarest touch. She whirled and flew back, whimpering like a child, until shefound that narrow alley again and the dark, silent figure silhouetted at thetop. She stopped and rested; then she walked silently toward him, looked at himtimidly; but he said nothing as he handed her into the car. Her voice caught asshe whispered:
And he answered slowly: "Nonot that!"
They climbed into the car. She bent forward on the wheel and sobbed, with great,dry, quivering sobs, as they flew toward the cable office on the east side,leaving the world of wealth and prosperity for the world of poverty and work. Inthe world behind them were death and silence, grave and grim, almost cynical,but always decent; here it was hideous. It clothed itself in every ghastly formof terror, struggle, hate, and suffering. It lay wreathed in crime and squalor,greed and lust. Only in its dread and awful silence was it like to deatheverywhere.
Yet as the two, flying and alone, looked upon the horror of the world, slowly,gradually, the sense of all-enveloping death deserted them. They seemed to movein a world silent and asleepnot dead. They moved in quiet reverence, lestsomehow they wake these sleeping forms who had, at last, found peace. They movedin some solemn, world-wide Friedho above which some mighty arm had waved itsmagic wand. All nature slept untiluntil, and quick with the same startlingthought, they looked into each others eyeshe, ashen, and she,crimson, with unspoken thought. To both, the vision of a mighty beautyofvast, unspoken things, swelled in their souls; but they put it away.
Copyright © 2000 Sheree R. Thomas. All rights reserved.