The suburbs were deserted, for the earthquake had surprised all Lisbon in a pack, crowded within its churches, or in its central streets and squares. Yet the emptiness of what should have been the thoroughfares astonished them scarcely less than did the piles of masonry, breast-high in places, over which they picked their way in the uncanny twilight. They had scarcely passed beyond the glare of the burning houses when Langton stumbled over a corpse—the first they encountered. He drew Ruth aside from it, entreating her in a low voice to walk warily. But she had seen.
“We shall see many before we reach the Cathedral,” she said quietly.
They stumbled on, meeting with few living creatures; and these few asked them no questions, but went by, stumbling, with hands groping, as though they moved in a dream. A voice wailed “Jesus! Jesus!” and the cry, issuing Heaven knew whence, shook Ruth’s nerve for a moment.
Once Langton plucked her by the arm and pointed to some men with torches moving among the ruins. She supposed that they were seeking for the dead; but they were, in fact, incendiaries, already at work and in search of loot.
She passed three or four of these blazing houses, some kindled no doubt by incendiaries, but others by natural consequences of the earthquake; for the kitchens, heated for the great feast, had communicated their fires to the falling timberwork on which the houses were framed; and by this time the city was on fire in at least thirty different places. The scorched smell mingled everywhere with an odour of sulphur.
There were rents in the streets, too—chasms, half-filled with rubble, reaching right across the roadway. After being snatched back by Langton from the brink of one of these chasms, Ruth steeled her heart to be thankful when a burning house shed light for her footsteps. At the houses themselves, after an upward glance or two, she dared not look again. They leaned this way and that, the fronts of some thrust outward at an angle to forbid any but the foolhardiest from passing underneath.
But, indeed, they had little time to look aloft as they penetrated to streets littered, where the procession had passed, with wrecked chaises, dead mules, human bodies half-buried and half-burnt, charred limbs protruding awkwardly from heaps of stones. Here, by ones and twos, pedestrians tottered past, crying that the world was at an end; here, on a heap where, belike, his shop had stood, a man knelt praying aloud; here a couple of enemies met by chance, seeking their dead, and embraced, beseeching forgiveness for injuries past. These sights went by Ruth as in a dream; and as in a dream she heard the topple and crack of masonry to right and left. Langton guided her; and haggard, perspiring, they bent their heads to the strange wind now howling down the street as through a funnel, and foot by foot battled their way.