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The Altar Steps

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Frightened by some alarm of sleep that was forgotten in the moment of waking, a little boy threw back the bedclothes and with quick heart and breath sat listening to the torrents of darkness that went rolling by. He dared not open his mouth to scream lest he should be suffocated; he dared not put out his arm to search for the bell-rope lest he should be seized; he dared not hide beneath the blankets lest he should be kept there; he could do nothing except sit up trembling in a vain effort to orientate himself. Had the room really turned upside down? On an impulse of terror he jumped back from the engorging night and bumped his forehead on one of the brass knobs of the bedstead. With horror he apprehended that what he had so often feared had finally come to pass. An earthquake had swallowed up London in spite of everybody's assurance that London could not be swallowed up by earthquakes. He was going down down to smoke and fire . . . or was it the end of the world? The quick and the dead . . . skeletons . . . thousands and thousands of skeletons. . . .

"Guardian Angel!" he shrieked.

Now surely that Guardian Angel so often conjured must appear. A shaft of golden candlelight flickered through the half open door. The little boy prepared an attitude to greet his Angel that was a compound of the suspicion and courtesy with which he would have welcomed a new governess and the admiring fellowship with which he would have thrown a piece of bread to a swan.

"Are you awake, Mark?" he heard his mother whisper outside.

He answered with a cry of exultation and relief.

"Oh, Mother," he sighed, clinging to the soft sleeves of her dressing-gown. "I thought it was being the end of the world."

"What made you think that, my precious?"

"I don't know. I just woke up, and the room was upside down. And first I thought it was an earthquake, and then I thought it was the Day of Judgment." He suddenly began to chuckle to himself. "How silly of me, Mother. Of course it couldn't be the Day of Judgment, because it's night, isn't it? It couldn't ever be the Day of Judgment in the night, could it?" he continued hopefully.

Mrs. Lidderdale did not hesitate to reassure her small son on this point. She had no wish to add another to that long list of nightly fears and fantasies which began with mad dogs and culminated in the Prince of Darkness himself.

"The room looks quite safe now, doesn't it?" Mark theorized.

"It is quite safe, darling."

"Do you think I could have the gas lighted when you really must go?"

"Just a little bit for once."

"Only a little bit?" he echoed doubtfully. A very small illumination was in its eerie effect almost worse than absolute darkness.

"It isn't healthy to sleep with a great deal of light," said his mother.

"Well, how much could I have? Just for once not a crocus, but a tulip. And of course not a violet."

Mark always thought of the gas-jets as flowers. The dimmest of all was the violet; followed by the crocus, the tulip, and the water-lily; the last a brilliant affair with wavy edges, and sparkling motes dancing about in the blue water on which it swam....