Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes by Patricia Highsmith

Book: Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes by Patricia Highsmith Read Free Book Online
Authors: Patricia Highsmith
stuck elevator and dropping a match on to it, with an idea of cremating the bodies, which was the Nabutians’ religious custom. A servant said a couple of the men’s wives were responsible for this.
    “ Gas masks! ” Bomo yelled. “Get them fast—on pain of death!” Servants scurried, soldier guards dashed about as if on fire themselves. Everyone had to get out, and everyone tried, though one Committee man collapsed on the floor and had to be dragged across the lobby. The elevator shaft leaked smoke at every invisible seam, like something about to explode, while the smell of the smoke suggested hellfire. Figures dashed or reeled out of the doors of Government House on to its steps, into a grey atmosphere in which objects were more visible but breathing hardly less dangerous.
    “The gas masks, Your Excellency!” cried a lieutenant.
    Soldiers rushed up with armloads of gas masks, which were opened and rapidly jammed on to the heads of the Committee members and their aides.
    “Yo’ moufs on d’ pipe !” shouted Bomo, recalling suddenly some instructions he had heard long ago. He was pleased with his soldiers for having got the masks out so quickly. Along with his soldiers, a couple of whom already wore masks, Bomo helped buckle the masks securely around the necks of the dazed Committee men, and to lead them leftward toward the Small Palace, where the air appeared clearer, at least for the moment. Bomo gallantly declined a mask, and gripped Lulu-Fey protectively by the hand. Across her face she held a white napkin dampened with champagne.
    The Committee staggered and struggled as if trying to get the masks off. Two men fell.
    “Pick ’em up!” Bomo yelled to his soldiers.
    Smoke swirled. A soldier with a mask dropped and lay writhing feebly.
    In the Small Palace, servants got to work fanning. The Committee men were laid out on the floor, face up. Some didn’t move. It was amazing to Bomo.
    “More fans!” cried Bomo. “And wet towels at once!” The towels were for the people without masks, like himself, for instance.
    After a couple of minutes, things seemed to be better. The wind had shifted in their favor, fresher air blew through the house. But of the gentlemen of the Committee and their aides only two or three stirred and were still again, moaning.
    Kuo, who had left his tour of duty to attend the banquet, waved smoke from before his face, rubbed his eyes, and said, “We might take their masks off now, father. Y’think?” He was stooped on his heels like Bomo, not to see the men on the floor better, but because the smoke tended to rise in the room.
    Bomo agreed. He and Kuo and a couple of servants began unbuckling the masks. One servant cried out in alarm, shrilly, though it was a man servant.
    “ Ants! ” he yelled in his native tongue, shaking both hands.
    “Holy spirits! You are right!” Kuo jumped up, slapping his hands together, rubbing their backs. “Them big grey ants!”
    Everyone knew this particular grey ant, which hibernated or aestivated in the oddest places, and emerged in droves, blood-thirsty and furious, if disturbed. They had got into the filter fronts of the masks, a circular flat portion that was porous but rather felt-like. Now all hands in the house fell to dragging the Committee men by the shoulders or feet out of the house, because it would be hell indeed if several of these ants escaped and stayed in the house. The idea was to remove the masks and burn them outdoors. Kuo, with white gloves on now, got the first mask off and found the man’s face bleeding from ant bites besides being blue. Servants hopped, masks were cut off, and Bomo ordered a fire started on the Small Palace lawn.
    Shrieks came again, from servants male and female. Napkins, towels, anything to wipe the infuriated ants from forearms, hands and bare feet! Every man whose mask was removed was blue-faced, dead from asphyxiation, because the ants’ bodies had blocked the air flow through the filters from the

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