There came a flash of blinding, intolerable brightness—a roar as of the roar of a cannon, stunning, deafening, devastating,—the smaller sound of wood splintering and falling,—and then a dumb and awful silence more fearful than Death.
* * * * *
The first to arrive on that scene of darkness and destruction was the old moonstone-seller. He seemed to be gifted with eyes of extraordinary keenness, for he made his way unerringly, with the agility of a monkey among the splintered debris. One corner of the mess-house had completely gone, leaving a gaping hole into the ante-room. Dimly the lamps within shone upon the wreckage. The crowd from the ball-room, horror-stricken, fearful, were gathered about the doorway. The atmosphere was thick with dust and smoke.
Light as an acrobat the moonstone-seller stepped among the ruins, then paused to listen.
“Is there anyone here?” he asked aloud. “Noel, are you here?”
There was no answer. The awful, tragic silence closed in upon his words.
But it did not daunt him. Cautiously he crept a little further forward. And now there came a voice from the room behind him, Colonel Bradlaw’s voice, harsh with suspense.
“Is the boy dead?”
“Don’t know yet, sir,” came back the answer. “Will you send a lantern? Ah! Hullo!”
Something had moved against his foot. Something writhed and groaned.
The searcher stooped. “Hullo!” he said again. “Noel, is it you, lad? I’m here. I’ll help you.”
A voice answered him—a smothered inarticulate voice. A groping hand came up, clutching for deliverance. There came the slip and crackle of broken wood beneath which some living object struggled and fought for freedom.
The one wiry arm of the moonstone-seller went down to the rescue. It did good service that night—such service as astonished even its owner when he had time to think.
The man under the debris was making titanic efforts, thrusting his way upwards with desperate, frantic strength. Once as he strove he uttered a sharp, agonized cry, and the man above him swore in fierce, instinctive sympathy.
“Where are you hurt, old chap? Keep your head, for Heaven’s sake! Where is it worst?”
The gasping voice made answer with spasmodic effort: “My head—my face—my eyes! Oh, God,—my eyes!”
There followed a cough as if something choked all utterance, and then again that mute, gigantic struggle for freedom.
It was over at last. Out of the wreckage there staggered the dreadful likeness of a man. The lantern had been brought and shone full upon the ghastly sight. He was torn, battered, half-naked, and the whole of his face was blackened and streaming with blood.
“Noel! Is it Noel?” asked Colonel Bradlaw.
And the man himself made answer, spitting forth the blood that impeded his utterance.