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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Landslide and the Train Wreck
By Mór Jókai (1825–1904)
From ‘There is No Devil’: Translation of F. Steinitz

WE are on the Rossberg. A devastated tract of the globe it seems. Our eyes rest on barren soil, devoid of vegetation. Beneath a large field of huge bowlders, imbedded in snow and ice, the Alpine vegetation thrives. The whole valley is one immense grave-yard, and the great rocks are giant tombstones, encircled by wreaths of white flowers meet for adorning graves. At the beginning of the present century one of the ridges of the Rossberg gave way, and in the landslide four villages were buried. This happened at night, when the villagers were all asleep, and not a single man, woman, or child escaped. This valley is their resting-place. Was I not right to call it a grave-yard?  1
  Above this valley of destruction the train glides on. Upon the side of the mountain is a little watch-house, built into the rock; a narrow flight of steps hewn in the stone leads up to it like a ladder. The moon, which had lately seemed fixed to the crest of the mountain, now plays hide-and-seek among the peaks. A high barricade on the side of the Rossberg serves to protect the railroad track against another landslide.  2
  On the high ridges of the mountain, goats were pasturing; and not far from them a shepherd’s fire was blazing, and the shepherd himself sat beside it. I remember all of these accessories as well as if they were still before my eyes. I can see the white goats climbing up and pulling at the broom plants. I can see the shepherd’s black form encircled by the light of the fire, and the white watch-house with its black leaden roof, the high signal-pole in front of it, above which all at once a great flaming star arises.  3
  I was gazing at that shining red light, when all at once I felt a concussion, as if the train had met with some impediment. I heard the jolting of the foremost cars, and had time to prepare for the shock which was sure to follow; but when it did come it was so great that it threw me to the opposite wall of the corridor.  4
  Yet the train moved on as before, so that it could not have been disabled, as I at first thought. I heard the guards run from carriage to carriage, opening the doors, and I could see great clouds of steam arise from the puffing and blowing engines. The friction of the wheels made a grating noise, and I leaned out of the window to ascertain the nature of the danger. Was another train approaching and a collision inevitable? I could see nothing, but suddenly I beheld the figure of the shepherd and saw him raise his staff aloft. I followed the motion of his hand, and with a thrill of horror I saw a great ledge of rock sliding downward with threatening speed, while at the same time a shower of small stones crashed on the roof of the cars.  5
  I did not wait for the guards to open my door. I had it open in an instant. From the other carriages passengers were jumping out at the risk of life and limb, for the train was running at full speed.  6
  I hastily ran into the coupé to awaken my traveling companions, but found them up. “Madam,” I said, “I am afraid that we are in danger of a serious accident. Pray come out quickly!”  7
  “Save the child!” she answered; and I caught the little boy, took him in my arms, and ran out.  8
  The train was gliding perpetually on; and I bethought myself of the recommendation to one who is jumping from a running vehicle, to leap forward, because in jumping sideways or backward he invariably falls under the wheels. So I followed the recommendation and leaped. Fortunately I reached the ground, although my knees doubled up under me and I struck the knuckles of my right hand a hard blow. The child had fainted in my arms, but only from fright; otherwise he had received no harm. I laid him on the ground in a safe place, and ran with all my might after the train to help the lady out. She was standing on the steps, already prepared for the jump. I extended my hand to her, impatiently crying “Quick!” But instead of taking my proffered hand, she exclaimed, “Oh! I have forgotten my bonnet and veil;” and back she ran into the coupé, never again to come forth.  9
  At that moment I felt a tremendous shock, as if the earth had quaked and opened beneath me; and this was followed by a deafening uproar,—the clashing of stones, the cracking of wood and glass, the grating and crushing of iron, and the pitiful cries of men, women, and children. The great mass of rock broke through the protecting barricade and rushed right upon the engine. The huge steam-vomiting leviathan was crushed in an instant, and the copper and steel fragments scattered everywhere. Three of the wheels were shattered; and with that the iron colossus came to a dead stop, the suddenness of which threw the carriages crashing on top of each other.  10
  This fearful havoc was not all. Through the breach which the great rock had made in the barricade, an incessant avalanche of stones, from the size of a cannon-ball to that of a wheelbarrow, descended upon the train, crushing everything beneath into fragments, pushing the unhappy train down into the chasm below, into the valley of death and destruction. Like a huge serpent it slid down, the great glowing furnace with its feeding coals undermost; and then the whole wrecked mass of carriages tumbled after, atop of each other, while cries of despair were heard on every side. Then I saw the rear car, that in which I had been sitting, stand up erect on top of the others, while on its roof fell with thunderous violence the awful shower of stones. Mutely I gazed on until a large stone struck the barricade just where I stood; and then I realized that the danger was not over, and ran for shelter.  11
  The stones were falling fast to left and to right, and I hastened to gain the steps which led to the little watch-house. Then I bethought me of the boy. I found him still insensible, but otherwise unharmed; and I took him up, covering him with my furred coat. I ran up the steps with him so fast that not a thought of my asthma and heart-disease slackened my speed.  12
  There was nobody in the house but a woman milking a goat. In one corner of the room stood a bed, in the middle was a table, and on one of the walls hung a burning coal-oil lamp.  13
  As I opened the door, the woman looked up and said in a dull piteous moaning:—  14
  “It is none of Jörge’s fault. Jörge had shown the red light in good season, and yesterday he specially warned the gentlemen and told them that a ridge of the Gnippe was crumbling, and would soon break down; but they did not listen to him, and now that the accident has come they will surely visit their own carelessness upon him. It is always the poor dependent that is made to suffer for the fault of his superiors. But I will not stand it; and if Jörge is discharged and loses his bread, then—”  15
  “All right, madam!” I said: “I saw the red light in time, and I shall testify for Jörge in case of need. Only keep quiet now and come here. You must try to restore this child. He has fainted. Give him water or something,—you will know best what to do.”  16
  In recalling these words to my memory and writing them down, I am not quite certain that I really spoke them; I am not certain of a single word or action of mine on that fearful night. But I think I said the words I am relating, although I was so confused that it is possible I did not utter a word. I had come out of the house again, and saw a man running up and down on the narrow rocky plateau like one crazy. It was Jörge the watchman; he was looking for the signal-post and could not find it.  17
  “Here it is, look!” I said, turning his face toward the high pole right in front of him. He gazed up wistfully, and then all at once he blubbered out:—  18
  “See! See the red light! I gave the warning, they cannot blame me, they dare not punish me for it; it is not my fault!”  19
  Of course he thought of nothing but himself, and the misfortune of the others touched him only so far as he was concerned.  20
  “Don’t blubber now!” I said. “There will be time enough to think of ourselves. Now let us learn what has happened to the others. The whole train has been swept down into the abyss below,—what has become of the people in it?”  21
  “God Almighty have mercy on their souls!”  22
  “Yet perhaps we could save some of them. Come along!”  23
  “I can’t go. I dare not leave my post, else they will turn against me.”  24
  “Well then, I shall go alone,” said I, and hastened down the steps….  25
  What had meanwhile become of those who had stayed in the falling carriages?  26
  There came a terrible answer to that question, and out of the old horror arose a new and still more terrible spectre. A demon with a cloudy head, rising from the darkness below, and with a swift and fearful growth mounting up to the sky. A demon with a thousand glistening, sparkling eyes and tongues,—a smoke-fiend!  27
  The great boiler of the locomotive had gone down first. There it fell, not on the ground, but on a large fragment of rock which pierced it completely, so that the air had free access to the fire. Upon the top of both boiler and tender the coal van had been turned upside down; and these had pulled all the carriages one on top of the other, in the same way, so that the whole train stood upright like some huge steeple. This dreadful structure had become a great funeral pile, the altar of a black pagan idol, whose fiery tongues were greedily thrusting upward to devour their prey.  28
  Then, as the smoke became blacker and blacker, a heart-rending, almost maddening sound of shrieking and crying rang out from that devilish wreck, so loud and piercing that it drowned the clatter of stones, the crackling of the fast-kindling coals, and the crushing noise of the metals. At the cry for aid of the doomed victims, all who had escaped and hidden behind the bulwark came forth, creeping or running, shrieking and gesticulating, forgetful of their own danger and pitiful condition, thinking only of those dear lost ones there in that abode of hell, and maddened at the impossibility of rescuing them. It was a wild hurly-burly of voices and of tongues; of despairing yells, hysterical sobs, heart-rending prayers; and as I stumbled over the twisted and broken rails that stood upright like bent wires, and stooped over the bulwark, I beheld a spectacle so terrible that every nerve of my body, every heart-string, revolted at it. Even now they quiver at the ghastly recollection.  29
  As the fire lighted up the horrible pile, I could see that the first carriage atop of the coals was a shattered mass, the second crushed flat, while the third stood with wheels uppermost, and so forth to the top; and out of all of them human heads, limbs, faces, bodies, were thrust forward. Two small gloved female hands, locked as in prayer, were stretched out of a window; and above them two strong muscular masculine arms tried with superhuman force to lift the iron weight above, to break a way at the top, until the blood flowed from the nails, and even these strong arms dropped down exhausted. Half-seen forms, mutilated, bleeding, were tearing with teeth and nails at their dreadful prison.  30
  Then for a while the smoky cloud involved everything in darkness. A moment after, the red fiery tongues came lapping upward, and a red glowing halo encircled the fatal wreck. The first and second carriages were already burned. How long would it take the flames to reach the top? How many of the sufferers were yet alive? What power in heaven or earth could save them, and how?  31
  The hollow into which the train had fallen was so deep that in spite of the erect position of the ill-fated pile, the topmost car—that containing the poor, foolish American governess who had lost her life in running back for her bonnet—was ten metres below us, and we had not even a single rope or cord with which to hazard the experiment of descending. A young man, one of those few who had come forth unharmed, ran up and down the embankment shouting madly for a rope, offering a fortune for belts, shawls, and cords. His newly married bride was in one of these carriages, and hers were the tiny gloved hands that were stretched out of the window. “A rope,” cried he, “give me anything to make a rope!” But who heeded him?  32
  A young mother sat on the tracks, fondly hugging a plaid shawl in her arms. Her babe was there in that burning pyre, but horror had overpowered her reason. There she sat, caressing the woolen bundle, and in a low voice singing her “Eia Popeia” to the child of her fantasy.  33
  An aged Polish Jew lay across the barricade wall. His two hands were stretched downward, and there he muttered the prayers and invocations of his liturgy, which no one understood but himself and Jehovah, his ancient God. The ritual prayer-bands were upon his thumbs and wrists, and encircling his forehead. His forked beard and greasy side-locks dangled as he chanted his hymns, while his eyes, staring almost out of their sockets, were fixed upon one of the carriages. What did that car contain? His wife? his children? or his worldly goods, the fortune hoarded up through a lifetime of cunning and privation? Who knows? Forth he chants his prayers, loudly yelling, or muttering low, as the ghastly scene before him vanishes in smoke and darkness, or glows out again in fearful distinctness.  34
  Every one shrieks, cries, prays, swears, raves—  35
  No; not every one! There, on the barricade, his legs doubled up Turk-fashion, sits a young painter, with Mephisto beard and gray eyes. His sketch-book is open, and he is making a vivid sketch of the sensational scene. The illustrated newspapers are grateful customers, and will rejoice at receiving the sketch.  36
  But this young draughtsman is not the only sensible person in the place. There is another, a long-legged Englishman, standing with watch in hand, reckoning up the time lost by the accident, and eying the scene complacently.  37
  Some noisy dispute attracts my attention; and turning, I behold a man trying with all his might to overcome a woman who attacks him with teeth and nails, biting his hands and tearing at his flesh as he drags her close to him. At last he succeeds in joining both of her hands behind her back—she foaming, writhing, and cursing. I asked indignantly, “What do you want with the woman? Let her alone!”  38
  “Oh, sir!” he said, showing me a sorrowful and tear-stained face. “For heaven’s sake, help me! I cannot bear with her any more. She wants to leap down and kill herself. Pray help me to tie her hands and carry her off from here!”  39
  By his speech I knew him for a Pole, and the woman’s exclamations were also uttered in the Polish language. She was his wife; her children were there in that infernal pile, and she wanted to die with them.  40
  “Quick! quick!” gasped the man. “Take my necktie and fasten her hands behind her.” I obeyed; and as I wound the silken strip tight around the unhappy woman’s wrists, her despairing gaze fixed itself in deadly hate upon my face, and her foaming lips cursed me for keeping her away from her children. As her husband carried her away, her curses pierced the air; and although I could not understand the words, I understood that she spoke of the Czrny Bog, or as the Russians say, Cserny Boh, the “Black God” of the Slavs—Death.  41
  By this time the horrible tower was burning brightly, and the night was all aglow with the glaring light, and still those terrible shrieks from human voices resounded to and fro.  42
  The young artist had a picturesque scene for his pencil, and kept making sketch after sketch. The burning wreck, the flying cinders, the red mist around the black pine-woods on the rocky wall of the mountain, and that small span of starlit heaven above; all those frightened, maddened, running, crouching, creeping men and women around, with the chanting Jew in his long silken caftan and dangling locks in the midst of them,—made a picture of terrible sublimity.  43
  But still the terrible god of destruction was unsatisfied, and his fiery maw opened for more victims. The unhappy young husband had succeeded in tearing up his clothes and knotting the strips together. A compassionate woman had given him a shawl, which he also tore up and joined on to the rest, so that he had a slender and frail but tolerably long line, which he fastened to the bushes. On this he descended into that mouth of hell. The perilous attempt succeeded so far that with one mad leap he landed on the top of the uppermost car with its pile of stones; and then with cat-like dexterity and desperate daring he scrambled downward to the third carriage. Quickly he reached the spot, and the poor little gloved hands of his darling were thrown in ecstasy around his neck. Some one had drawn up the cord on which he had let himself down, fastened a stout iron rod to it, and suspended it carefully. Happily it reached him, and with its aid he made a good-sized breach, widening the opening of the window. He worked with desperate strength and we gazed breathlessly on. Now we saw him drop the rod again. The tender arms of his bride were around his neck, a fair head was thrust out, the whole form was emerging, when—with a tremendous crash and a hissing, spluttering, crackling noise, the whole fabric shook and trembled, and husband and wife were united in death.  44
  The great boiler had burst, the explosion had changed the scene again, and the young painter might draw still another sketch.  45

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