It is imperative that now at oncewhile these stupendous events are stillclear in my mindI should set them down with that exactness of detail whichtime may blur. But even as I do soI am overwhelmed by the wonder of the factthat it should be our little group of the "Lost World"--ProfessorChallengerProfessor SummerleeLord John Roxtonand myself--who have passedthrough this amazing experience.
Whensome years agoI chronicled in the Daily Gazette our epoch-makingjourney in South AmericaI little thought that it should ever fall to my lot totell an even stranger personal experienceone which is unique in all humanannals and must stand out in the records of history as a great peak among thehumble foothills which surround it. The event itself will always be marvellousbut the circumstances that we four were together at the time of thisextraordinary episode came about in a most natural andindeedinevitablefashion. I will explain the events which led up to it as shortly and as clearlyas I canthough I am well aware that the fuller the detail upon such a subjectthe more welcome it will be to the readerfor the public curiosity has been andstill is insatiable.
It was upon Fridaythe twenty-seventh of August--a date forever memorable inthe history of the world--that I went down to the office of my paper and askedfor three days' leave of absence from Mr. McArdlewho still presided over ournews department. The good old Scotchman shook his headscratched his dwindlingfringe of ruddy fluffand finally put his reluctance into words.
"I was thinkingMr. Malonethat we could employ you to advantage thesedays. I was thinking there was a story that you are the only man that couldhandle as it should be handled."
"I am sorry for that" said Itrying to hide my disappointment."Of course if I am neededthere is an end of the matter. But theengagement was important and intimate. If I could be spared----"
"WellI don't see that you can."
It was bitterbut I had to put the best face I could upon it. After allitwas my own faultfor I should have known by this time that a journalist has noright to make plans of his own.
"Then I'll think no more of it" said I with as much cheerfulnessas I could assume at so short a notice. "What was it that you wanted me todo?"
"Wellit was just to interview that deevil of a man down at Rotherfield."
"You don't mean Professor Challenger?" I cried.
"Ayeit's just him that I do mean. He ran young Alec Simpson of theCourier a mile down the high road last week by the collar of his coat and theslack of his breeches. You'll have read of itlikelyin the police report. Ourboys would as soon interview a loose alligator in the zoo. But you could do itI'm thinking--an old friend like you."
"Why" said Igreatly relieved"this makes it all easy. Itso happens that it was to visit Professor Challenger at Rotherfield that I wasasking for leave of absence. The fact isthat it is the anniversary of our mainadventure on the plateau three years agoand he has asked our whole party downto his house to see him and celebrate the occasion."
"Capital!" cried McArdlerubbing his hands and beaming through hisglasses. "Then you will be able to get his opeenions out of him. In anyother man I would say it was all moonshinebut the fellow has made good onceand who knows but he may again!"
"Get what out of him?" I asked. "What has he been doing?"
"Haven't you seen his letter on `Scientific Possibeelities' in to-day'sTimes?"
McArdle dived down and picked a copy from the floor.
"Read it aloud" said heindicating a column with his finger."I'd be glad to hear it againfor I am not sure now that I have the man'smeaning clear in my head."
This was the letter which I read to the news editor of the Gazette:--
"Sir--I have read with amusementnot wholly unmixed with some lesscomplimentary emotionthe complacent and wholly fatuous letter of James WilsonMacPhail which has lately appeared in your columns upon the subject of theblurring of Fraunhofer's lines in the spectra both of the planets and of thefixed stars. He dismisses the matter as of no significance. To a widerintelligence it may well seem of very great possible importance--so great as toinvolve the ultimate welfare of every manwomanand child upon this planet. Ican hardly hopeby the use of scientific languageto convey any sense of mymeaning to those ineffectual people who gather their ideas from the columns of adaily newspaper. I will endeavourthereforeto condescend to their limitationand to indicate the situation by the use of a homely analogy which will bewithin the limits of the intelligence of your readers."
"Manhe's a wonder--a living wonder!" said McArdleshaking hishead reflectively. "He'd put up the feathers of a sucking-dove and set up ariot in a Quakers' meeting. No wonder he has made London too hot for him. It's apeetyMr. Malonefor it's a grand brain! We'll let's have the analogy."
"We will suppose" I read"that a small bundle of connectedcorks was launched in a sluggish current upon a voyage across the Atlantic. Thecorks drift slowly on from day to day with the same conditions all round them.If the corks were sentient we could imagine that they would consider theseconditions to be permanent and assured. But wewith our superior knowledgeknow that many things might happen to surprise the corks. They might possiblyfloat up against a shipor a sleeping whaleor become entangled in seaweed. Inany casetheir voyage would probably end by their being thrown up on the rockycoast of Labrador. But what could they know of all this while they drifted sogently day by day in what they thought was a limitless and homogeneous ocean?
Your readers will possibly comprehend that the Atlanticin this parablestands for the mighty ocean of ether through which we drift and that the bunchof corks represents the little and obscure planetary system to which we belong.A third-rate sunwith its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satelliteswefloat under the same daily conditions towards some unknown endsome squalidcatastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of spacewhere weare swept over an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. Isee no room here for the shallow and ignorant optimism of your correspondentMr. James Wilson MacPhailbut many reasons why we should watch with a veryclose and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmicsurroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend."
"Manhe'd have made a grand meenister" said McArdle. "Itjust booms like an organ. Let's get doun to what it is that's troubling him."
The general blurring and shifting of Fraunhofer's lines of the spectrum pointin my opinionto a widespread cosmic change of a subtle and singular character.Light from a planet is the reflected light of the sun. Light from a star is aself-produced light. But the spectra both from planets and stars havein thisinstanceall undergone the same change. Is itthena change in those planetsand stars? To me such an idea is inconceivable. What common change couldsimultaneously come upon them all? Is it a change in our own atmosphere? It ispossiblebut in the highest degree improbablesince we see no signs of itaround usand chemical analysis has failed to reveal it. Whatthenis thethird possibility? That it may be a change in the conducting mediumin thatinfinitely fine ether which extends from star to star and pervades the wholeuniverse. Deep in that ocean we are floating upon a slow current. Might thatcurrent not drift us into belts of ether which are novel and have properties ofwhich we have never conceived? There is a change somewhere. This cosmicdisturbance of the spectrum proves it. It may be a good change. It may be anevil one. It may be a neutral one. We do not know. Shallow observers may treatthe matter as one which can be disregardedbut one who like myself is possessedof the deeper intelligence of the true philosopher will understand that thepossibilities of the universe are incalculable and that the wisest man is he whoholds himself ready for the unexpected. To take an obvious examplewho wouldundertake to say that the mysterious and universal outbreak of illnessrecordedin your columns this very morning as having broken out among the indigenousraces of Sumatrahas no connection with some cosmic change to which they mayrespond more quickly than the more complex peoples of Europe? I throw out theidea for what it is worth. To assert it isin the present stageasunprofitable as to deny itbut it is an unimaginative numskull who is too denseto perceive that it is well within the bounds of scientific possibility.
"Yours faithfully"GEORGE EDWARD CHALLENGER.
"It's a finesteemulating letter" said McArdle thoughtfullyfitting a cigarette into the long glass tube which he used as a holder. "What'syour opeenion of itMr. Malone?"
I had to confess my total and humiliating ignorance of the subject at issue.Whatfor examplewere Fraunhofer's lines? McArdle had just been studying thematter with the aid of our tame scientist at the officeand he picked from hisdesk two of those many-coloured spectral bands which bear a general resemblanceto the hat-ribbons of some young and ambitious cricket club. He pointed out tome that there were certain black lines which formed crossbars upon the series ofbrilliant colours extending from the red at one end through gradations of orangeyellowgreenblueand indigo to the violet at the other.
"Those dark bands are Fraunhofer's lines" said he. "Thecolours are just light itself. Every lightif you can split it up with a prismgives the same colours. They tell us nothing. It is the lines that countbecause they vary according to what it may be that produces the light. It isthese lines that have been blurred instead of clear this last weekand all theastronomers have been quarreling over the reason. Here's a photograph of theblurred lines for our issue to-morrow. The public have taken no interest in thematter up to nowbut this letter of Challenger's in the Times will make themwake upI'm thinking."
"And this about Sumatra?"
"Wellit's a long cry from a blurred line in a spectrum to a sicknigger in Sumatra. And yet the chiel has shown us once before that he knows whathe's talking about. There is some queer illness down yonderthat's beyond alldoubtand to-day there's a cable just come in from Singapore that thelighthouses are out of action in the Straits of Sundanand two ships on thebeach in consequence. Anyhowit's good enough for you to interview Challengerupon. If you get anything definitelet us have a column by Monday."
I was coming out from the news editor's roomturning over my new mission inmy mindwhen I heard my name called from the waiting-room below. It was atelegraph-boy with a wire which had been forwarded from my lodgings at Streatham.The message was from the very man we had been discussingand ran thus:--
Malone17Hill StreetStreatham.--Bring oxygen.--Challenger.
"Bring oxygen!" The Professoras I remembered himhad anelephantine sense of humour capable of the most clumsy and unwieldly gambollings.Was this one of those jokes which used to reduce him to uproarious laughterwhen his eyes would disappear and he was all gaping mouth and wagging beardsupremely indifferent to the gravity of all around him? I turned the words overbut could make nothing even remotely jocose out of them. Then surely it was aconcise order--though a very strange one. He was the last man in the world whosedeliberate command I should care to disobey. Possibly some chemical experimentwas afoot; possibly----Wellit was no business of mine to speculate upon why hewanted it. I must get it. There was nearly an hour before I should catch thetrain at Victoria. I took a taxiand having ascertained the address from thetelephone bookI made for the Oxygen Tube Supply Company in Oxford Street.
As I alighted on the pavement at my destinationtwo youths emerged from thedoor of the establishment carrying an iron cylinderwhichwith some troublethey hoisted into a waiting motor-car. An elderly man was at their heelsscolding and directing in a creakysardonic voice. He turned towards me. Therewas no mistaking those austere features and that goatee beard. It was my oldcross-grained companionProfessor Summerlee.
"What!" he cried. "Don't tell me that YOU have had one ofthese preposterous telegrams for oxygen?"
I exhibited it.
"Wellwell! I have had one tooandas you seevery much against thegrainI have acted upon it. Our good friend is as impossible as ever. The needfor oxygen could not have been so urgent that he must desert the usual means ofsupply and encroach upon the time of those who are really busier than himself.Why could he not order it direct?"
I could only suggest that he probably wanted it at once.
"Or thought he didwhich is quite another matter. But it is superfluousnow for you to purchase anysince I have this considerable supply."
"Stillfor some reason he seems to wish that I should bring oxygen too.It will be safer to do exactly what he tells me."
Accordinglyin spite of many grumbles and remonstrances from SummerleeIordered an additional tubewhich was placed with the other in his motor-carfor he had offered me a lift to Victoria.
I turned away to pay off my taxithe driver of which was very cantankerousand abusive over his fare. As I came back to Professor Summerleehe was havinga furious altercation with the men who had carried down the oxygenhis littlewhite goat's beard jerking with indignation. One of the fellows called himIremember"a silly old bleached cockatoo" which so enraged hischauffeur that he bounded out of his seat to take the part of his insultedmasterand it was all we could do to prevent a riot in the street.
These little things may seem trivial to relateand passed as mere incidentsat the time. It is only nowas I look backthat I see their relation to thewhole story which I have to unfold.
The chauffeur mustas it seemed to mehave been a novice or else have losthis nerve in this disturbancefor he drove vilely on the way to the station.Twice we nearly had collisions with other equally erratic vehiclesand Iremember remarking to Summerlee that the standard of driving in London had verymuch declined. Once we brushed the very edge of a great crowd which was watchinga fight at the corner of the Mall. The peoplewho were much excitedraisedcries of anger at the clumsy drivingand one fellow sprang upon the step andwaved a stick above our heads. I pushed him offbut we were glad when we hadgot clear of them and safe out of the park. These little eventscoming oneafter the otherleft me very jangled in my nervesand I could see from mycompanion's petulant manner that his own patience had got to a low ebb.
But our good humour was restored when we saw Lord John Roxton waiting for usupon the platformhis tallthin figure clad in a yellow tweed shooting-suit.His keen facewith those unforgettable eyesso fierce and yet so humorousflushed with pleasure at the sight of us. His ruddy hair was shot with greyandthe furrows upon his brow had been cut a little deeper by Time's chiselbut inall else he was the Lord John who had been our good comrade in the past.
"HulloHerr Professor! Hulloyoung fella!" he shouted as he cametoward us.
He roared with amusement when he saw the oxygen cylinders upon the porter'strolly behind us. "So you've got them too!" he cried. "Mine is inthe van. Whatever can the old dear be after?"
"Have you seen his letter in the Times?" I asked.
"What was it?"
"Stuff and nonsense!" said Summerlee Harshly.
"Wellit's at the bottom of this oxygen businessor I am mistaken"said I.
"Stuff and nonsense!" cried Summerlee again with quite unnecessaryviolence. We had all got into a first-class smokerand he had already lit theshort and charred old briar pipe which seemed to singe the end of his longaggressive nose.
"Friend Challenger is a clever man" said he with great vehemence."No one can deny it. It's a fool that denies it. Look at his hat. There's asixty-ounce brain inside it--a big enginerunning smoothand turning out cleanwork. Show me the engine-house and I'll tell you the size of the engine. But heis a born charlatan--you've heard me tell him so to his face--a born charlatanwith a kind of dramatic trick of jumping into the limelight. Things are quietso friend Challenger sees a chance to set the public talking about him. Youdon't imagine that he seriously believes all this nonsense about a change in theether and a danger to the human race? Was ever such a cock-and-bull story inthis life?"
He sat like an old white ravencroaking and shaking with sardonic laughter.
A wave of anger passed through me as I listened to Summerlee. It wasdisgraceful that he should speak thus of the leader who had been the source ofall our fame and given us such an experience as no men have ever enjoyed. I hadopened my mouth to utter some hot retortwhen Lord John got before me.
"You had a scrap once before with old man Challenger" said hesternly"and you were down and out inside ten seconds. It seems to meProfessor Summerleehe's beyond your classand the best you can do with him isto walk wide and leave him alone."
"Besides" said I"he has been a good friend to every one ofus. Whatever his faults may behe is as straight as a lineand I don't believehe ever speaks evil of his comrades behind their backs."
"Well saidyoung fellah-my-lad" said Lord John Roxton. Thenwitha kindly smilehe slapped Professor Summerlee upon his shoulder. "ComeHerr Professorwe're not going to quarrel at this time of day. We've seen toomuch together. But keep off the grass when you get near Challengerfor thisyoung fellah and I have a bit of a weakness for the old dear."
But Summerlee was in no humour for compromise. His face was screwed up inrigid disapprovaland thick curls of angry smoke rolled up from his pipe.
"As to youLord John Roxton" he creaked"your opinion upona matter of science is of as much value in my eyes as my views upon a new typeof shot-gun would be in yours. I have my own judgmentsirand I use it in myown way. Because it has misled me onceis that any reason why I should acceptwithout criticism anythinghowever far-fetchedwhich this man may care to putforward? Are we to have a Pope of sciencewith infallible decrees laid down EXCATHEDRAand accepted without question by the poor humble public? I tell yousirthat I have a brain of my own and that I should feel myself to be a snoband a slave if I did not use it. If it pleases you to believe this rigmaroleabout ether and Fraunhofer's lines upon the spectrumdo so by all meansbut donot ask one who is older and wiser than yourself to share in your folly. Is itnot evident that if the ether were affected to the degree which he maintainsand if it were obnoxious to human healththe result of it would already beapparent upon ourselves?" Here he laughed with uproarious triumph over hisown argument. "Yessirwe should already be very far from our normalselvesand instead of sitting quietly discussing scientific problems in arailway train we should be showing actual symptoms of the poison which wasworking within us. Where do we see any signs of this poisonous cosmicdisturbance? Answer me thatsir! Answer me that! Comecomeno evasion! I pinyou to an answer!"
I felt more and more angry. There was something very irritating andaggressive in Summerlee's demeanour.
"I think that if you knew more about the facts you might be lesspositive in your opinion" said I.
Summerlee took his pipe from his mouth and fixed me with a stony stare.
"Pray what do you meansirby that somewhat impertinent observation?"
"I mean that when I was leaving the office the news editor told me thata telegram had come in confirming the general illness of the Sumatra nativesand adding that the lights had not been lit in the Straits of Sunda."
"Reallythere should be some limits to human folly!" criedSummerlee in a positive fury. "Is it possible that you do not realize thatetherif for a moment we adopt Challenger's preposterous suppositionis auniversal substance which is the same here as at the other side of the world? Doyou for an instant suppose that there is an English ether and a Sumatran ether?Perhaps you imagine that the ether of Kent is in some way superior to the etherof Surreythrough which this train is now bearing us. There really are nobounds to the credulity and ignorance of the average layman. Is it conceivablethat the ether in Sumatra should be so deadly as to cause total insensibility atthe very time when the ether here has had no appreciable effect upon us whatever?PersonallyI can truly say that I never felt stronger in body or betterbalanced in mind in my life."
"That may be. I don't profess to be a scientific man" said I"though I have heard somewhere that the science of one generation isusually the fallacy of the next. But it does not take much common sense to seethatas we seem to know so little about etherit might be affected by somelocal conditions in various parts of the world and might show an effect overthere which would only develop later with us."
"With `might' and `may' you can prove anything" cried Summerleefuriously. "Pigs may fly. Yessirpigs MAY fly--but they don't. It is notworth arguing with you. Challenger has filled you with his nonsense and you areboth incapable of reason. I had as soon lay arguments before those railwaycushions."
"I must sayProfessor Summerleethat your manners do not seem to haveimproved since I last had the pleasure of meeting you" said Lord Johnseverely.
"You lordlings are not accustomed to hear the truth" Summerleeanswered with a bitter smile. "It comes as a bit of a shockdoes it notwhen someone makes you realize that your title leaves you none the less a veryignorant man?"
"Upon my wordsir" said Lord Johnvery stern and rigid"ifyou were a younger man you would not dare to speak to me in so offensive afashion."
Summerlee thrust out his chinwith its little wagging tuft of goatee beard.
"I would have you knowsirthatyoung or oldthere has never been atime in my life when I was afraid to speak my mind to an ignorant coxcomb--yessiran ignorant coxcombif you had as many titles as slaves could invent andfools could adopt."
For a moment Lord John's eyes blazedand thenwith a tremendous efforthemastered his anger and leaned back in his seat with arms folded and a bittersmile upon his face. To me all this was dreadful and deplorable. Like a wavethe memory of the past swept over methe good comradeshipthe happyadventurous days--all that we had suffered and worked for and won. That itshould have come to this--to insults and abuse! Suddenly I was sobbing--sobbingin loudgulpinguncontrollable sobs which refused to be concealed. Mycompanions looked at me in surprise. I covered my face with my hands.
"It's all right" said I. "Only--only it IS such a pity!"
"You're illyoung fellahthat's what's amiss with you" said LordJohn. "I thought you were queer from the first."
"Your habitssirhave not mended in these three years" saidSummerleeshaking his head. "I also did not fail to observe your strangemanner the moment we met. You need not waste your sympathyLord John. Thesetears are purely alcoholic. The man has been drinking. By the wayLord JohnIcalled you a coxcomb just nowwhich was perhaps unduly severe. But the wordreminds me of a small accomplishmenttrivial but amusingwhich I used topossess. You know me as the austere man of science. Can you believe that I oncehad a well-deserved reputation in several nurseries as a farmyard imitator?Perhaps I can help you to pass the time in a pleasant way. Would it amuse you tohear me crow like a cock?"
"Nosir" said Lord Johnwho was still greatly offended"itwould NOT amuse me."
"My imitation of the clucking hen who had just laid an egg was alsoconsidered rather above the average. Might I venture?"
But in spite of this earnest prohibitionProfessor Summerlee laid down hispipe and for the rest of our journey he entertained--or failed to entertain--usby a succession of bird and animal cries which seemed so absurd that my tearswere suddenly changed into boisterous laughterwhich must have become quitehysterical as I sat opposite this grave Professor and saw him--or rather heardhim--in the character of the uproarious rooster or the puppy whose tail had beentrodden upon. Once Lord John passed across his newspaperupon the margin ofwhich he had written in pencil"Poor devil! Mad as a hatter." Nodoubt it was very eccentricand yet the performance struck me asextraordinarily clever and amusing.
Whilst this was going onLord John leaned forward and told me someinterminable story about a buffalo and an Indian rajah which seemed to me tohave neither beginning nor end. Professor Summerlee had just begun to chirruplike a canaryand Lord John to get to the climax of his storywhen the traindrew up at Jarvis Brookwhich had been given us as the station for Rotherfield.
And there was Challenger to meet us. His appearance was glorious. Not all theturkey-cocks in creation could match the slowhigh-stepping dignity with whichhe paraded his own railway station and the benignant smile of condescendingencouragement with which he regarded everybody around him. If he had changed inanything since the days of oldit was that his points had become accentuated.The huge head and broad sweep of foreheadwith its plastered lock of black hairseemed even greater than before. His black beard poured forward in a moreimpressive cascadeand his clear grey eyeswith their insolent and sardoniceyelidswere even more masterful than of yore.
He gave me the amused hand-shake and encouraging smile which the head masterbestows upon the small boyandhaving greeted the others and helped to collecttheir bags and their cylinders of oxygenhe stowed us and them away in a largemotor-car which was driven by the same impassive Austinthe man of few wordswhom I had seen in the character of butler upon the occasion of my firsteventful visit to the Professor. Our journey led us up a winding hill throughbeautiful country. I sat in front with the chauffeurbut behind me my threecomrades seemed to me to be all talking together. Lord John was still strugglingwith his buffalo storyso far as I could make outwhile once again I heardasof oldthe deep rumble of Challenger and the insistent accents of Summerlee astheir brains locked in high and fierce scientific debate. Suddenly Austinslanted his mahogany face toward me without taking his eyes from hissteering-wheel.
"I'm under notice" said he.
"Dear me!" said I.
Everything seemed strange to-day. Everyone said queerunexpected things. Itwas like a dream.
"It's forty-seven times" said Austin reflectively.
"When do you go?" I askedfor want of some better observation."I don't go" said Austin.
The conversation seemed to have ended therebut presently he came back toit.
"If I was to gowho would look after 'im?" He jerked his headtoward his master. "Who would 'e get to serve 'im?"
"Someone else" I suggested lamely.
"Not 'e. No one would stay a week. If I was to gothat 'ouse would rundown like a watch with the mainspring out. I'm telling you because you're 'isfriendand you ought to know. If I was to take 'im at 'is word--but thereIwouldn't have the 'eart. 'E and the missus would be like two babes left out in abundle. I'm just everything. And then 'e goes and gives me notice."
"Why would no one stay?" I asked.
"Wellthey wouldn't make allowancessame as I do. 'E's a very clevermanthe master--so clever that 'e's clean balmy sometimes. I've seen 'im rightoff 'is onionand no error. Welllook what 'e did this morning."
"What did he do?"
Austin bent over to me.
"'E bit the 'ousekeeper" said he in a hoarse whisper.
"Yessir. Bit 'er on the leg. I saw 'er with my own eyes startin' amarathon from the 'all-door."
"Good gracious!" "So you'd saysirif you could see some ofthe goings on. 'E don't make friends with the neighbors. There's some of themthinks that when 'e was up among those monsters you wrote aboutit was just `'OmeSweet 'Ome' for the masterand 'e was never in fitter company. That's what THEYsay. But I've served 'im ten yearsand I'm fond of 'imandmind you'e's agreat manwhen all's said an' doneand it's an honor to serve 'im. But 'e doestry one cruel at times. Now look at thatsir. That ain't what you might callold-fashioned 'ospitalityis it now? Just you read it for yourself."
The car on its lowest speed had ground its way up a steepcurving ascent. Atthe corner a notice-board peered over a well-clipped hedge. As Austin saiditwas not difficult to readfor the words were few and arresting:--
|---------------------------------------| | WARNING. | | ---- | | VisitorsPressmenand Mendicants | | are not encouraged. | | | | G. E. CHALLENGER. ||_______________________________________|
"Noit's not what you might call 'earty" said Austinshaking hishead and glancing up at the deplorable placard. "It wouldn't look well in aChristmas card. I beg your pardonsirfor I haven't spoke as much as this formany a long yearbut to-day my feelings seem to 'ave got the better of me. 'Ecan sack me till 'e's blue in the facebut I ain't goingand that's flat. I'm'is man and 'e's my masterand so it will beI expectto the end of thechapter."
We had passed between the white posts of a gate and up a curving drivelinedwith rhododendron bushes. Beyond stood a low brick housepicked out with whitewoodworkvery comfortable and pretty. Mrs. Challengera smalldaintysmilingfigurestood in the open doorway to welcome us.
"Wellmy dear" said Challengerbustling out of the car"hereare our visitors. It is something new for us to have visitorsis it not? Nolove lost between us and our neighborsis there? If they could get rat poisoninto our baker's cartI expect it would be there."
"It's dreadful--dreadful!" cried the ladybetween laughter andtears. "George is always quarreling with everyone. We haven't a friend onthe countryside."
"It enables me to concentrate my attention upon my incomparable wife"said Challengerpassing his shortthick arm round her waist. Picture a gorillaand a gazelleand you have the pair of them. "Comecomethese gentlemenare tired from the journeyand luncheon should be ready. Has Sarah returned?"
The lady shook her head ruefullyand the Professor laughed loudly andstroked his beard in his masterful fashion.
"Austin" he cried"when you have put up the car you willkindly help your mistress to lay the lunch. Nowgentlemenwill you please stepinto my studyfor there are one or two very urgent things which I am anxious tosay to you."
As we crossed the hall the telephone-bell rangand we were the involuntaryauditors of Professor Challenger's end of the ensuing dialogue. I say "we"but no one within a hundred yards could have failed to hear the booming of thatmonstrous voicewhich reverberated through the house. His answers lingered inmy mind.
"Yesyesof courseit is I.... YescertainlyTHE ProfessorChallengerthe famous Professorwho else?... Of courseevery word of itotherwise I should not have written it.... I shouldn't be surprised.... There isevery indication of it.... Within a day or so at the furthest.... WellI can'thelp thatcan I?... Very unpleasantno doubtbut I rather fancy it willaffect more important people than you. There is no use whining about it.... NoI couldn't possibly. You must take your chance.... That's enoughsir. Nonsense!I have something more important to do than to listen to such twaddle."
He shut off with a crash and led us upstairs into a large airy apartmentwhich formed his study. On the great mahogany desk seven or eight unopenedtelegrams were lying.
"Really" he said as he gathered them up"I begin to thinkthat it would save my correspondents' money if I were to adopt a telegraphicaddress. Possibly `NoahRotherfield' would be the most appropriate."
As usual when he made an obscure jokehe leaned against the desk andbellowed in a paroxysm of laughterhis hands shaking so that he could hardlyopen the envelopes.
"Noah! Noah!" he gaspedwith a face of beetrootwhile Lord Johnand I smiled in sympathy and Summerleelike a dyspeptic goatwagged his headin sardonic disagreement. Finally Challengerstill rumbling and explodingbegan to open his telegrams. The three of us stood in the bow window andoccupied ourselves in admiring the magnificent view.
It was certainly worth looking at. The road in its gentle curves had reallybrought us to a considerable elevation--seven hundred feetas we afterwardsdiscovered. Challenger's house was on the very edge of the hilland from itssouthern facein which was the study windowone looked across the vast stretchof the weald to where the gentle curves of the South Downs formed an undulatinghorizon. In a cleft of the hills a haze of smoke marked the position of Lewes.Immediately at our feet there lay a rolling plain of heatherwith the longvivid green stretches of the Crowborough golf courseall dotted with theplayers. A little to the souththrough an opening in the woodswe could see asection of the main line from London to Brighton. In the immediate foregroundunder our very noseswas a small enclosed yardin which stood the car whichhad brought us from the station.
An ejaculation from Challenger caused us to turn. He had read his telegramsand had arranged them in a little methodical pile upon his desk. His broadrugged faceor as much of it as was visible over the matted beardwas stilldeeply flushedand he seemed to be under the influence of some strongexcitement.
"Wellgentlemen" he saidin a voice as if he was addressing apublic meeting"this is indeed an interesting reunionand it takes placeunder extraordinary--I may say unprecedented--circumstances. May I ask if youhave observed anything upon your journey from town?"
"The only thing which I observed" said Summerlee with a sour smile"was that our young friend here has not improved in his manners during theyears that have passed. I am sorry to state that I have had to seriouslycomplain of his conduct in the trainand I should be wanting in frankness if Idid not say that it has left a most unpleasant impression in my mind."
"Wellwellwe all get a bit prosy sometimes" said Lord John."The young fellah meant no real harm. After allhe's an Internationalsoif he takes half an hour to describe a game of football he has more right to doit than most folk."
"Half an hour to describe a game!" I cried indignantly. "Whyit was you that took half an hour with some long-winded story about a buffalo.Professor Summerlee will be my witness."
"I can hardly judge which of you was the most utterly wearisome"said Summerlee. "I declare to youChallengerthat I never wish to hear offootball or of buffaloes so long as I live."
"I have never said one word to-day about football" I protested.
Lord John gave a shrill whistleand Summerlee shook his head sadly.
"So early in the day too" said he. "It is indeed deplorable.As I sat there in sad but thoughtful silence----"
"In silence!" cried Lord John. "Whyyou were doin' amusic-hall turn of imitations all the way--more like a runaway gramophone than aman."
Summerlee drew himself up in bitter protest.
"You are pleased to be facetiousLord John" said he with a faceof vinegar.
"Whydash it allthis is clear madness" cried Lord John. "Eachof us seems to know what the others did and none of us knows what he did himself.Let's put it all together from the first. We got into a first-class smokerthat's clearain't it? Then we began to quarrel over friend Challenger's letterin the Times."
"Ohyou diddid you?" rumbled our hosthis eyelids beginning todroop.
"You saidSummerleethat there was no possible truth in his contention."
"Dear me!" said Challengerpuffing out his chest and stroking hisbeard. "No possible truth! I seem to have heard the words before. And may Iask with what arguments the great and famous Professor Summerlee proceeded todemolish the humble individual who had ventured to express an opinion upon amatter of scientific possibility? Perhaps before he exterminates thatunfortunate nonentity he will condescend to give some reasons for the adverseviews which he has formed."
He bowed and shrugged and spread open his hands as he spoke with hiselaborate and elephantine sarcasm.
"The reason was simple enough" said the dogged Summerlee. "Icontended that if the ether surrounding the earth was so toxic in one quarterthat it produced dangerous symptomsit was hardly likely that we three in therailway carriage should be entirely unaffected."
The explanation only brought uproarious merriment from Challenger. He laugheduntil everything in the room seemed to rattle and quiver.
"Our worthy Summerlee isnot for the first timesomewhat out of touchwith the facts of the situation" said he at lastmopping his heated brow."NowgentlemenI cannot make my point better than by detailing to youwhat I have myself done this morning. You will the more easily condone anymental abberation upon your own part when you realize that even I have hadmoments when my balance has been disturbed. We have had for some years in thishousehold a housekeeper--one Sarahwith whose second name I have neverattempted to burden my memory. She is a woman of a severe and forbidding aspectprim and demure in her bearingvery impassive in her natureand never knownwithin our experience to show signs of any emotion. As I sat alone at mybreakfast--Mrs. Challenger is in the habit of keeping her room of a morning--itsuddenly entered my head that it would be entertaining and instructive to seewhether I could find any limits to this woman's inperturbability. I devised asimple but effective experiment. Having upset a small vase of flowers whichstood in the centre of the clothI rang the bell and slipped under the table.She entered andseeing the room emptyimagined that I had withdrawn to thestudy. As I had expectedshe approached and leaned over the table to replacethe vase. I had a vision of a cotton stocking and an elastic-sided boot.Protruding my headI sank my teeth into the calf of her leg. The experiment wassuccessful beyond belief. For some moments she stood paralyzedstaring down atmy head. Then with a shriek she tore herself free and rushed from the room. Ipursued her with some thoughts of an explanationbut she flew down the driveand some minutes afterwards I was able to pick her out with my field-glassestraveling very rapidly in a south-westerly direction. I tell you the anecdotefor what it is worth. I drop it into your brains and await its germination. Isit illuminative? Has it conveyed anything to your minds? What do YOU think of itLord John?"
Lord John shook his head gravely.
"You'll be gettin' into serious trouble some of these days if you don'tput a brake on" said he.
"Perhaps you have some observation to makeSummerlee?"
"You should drop all work instantlyChallengerand take three monthsin a German watering-place" said he.
"Profound! Profound!" cried Challenger. "Nowmy young friendis it possible that wisdom may come from you where your seniors have so signallyfailed?"
And it did. I say it with all modestybut it did. Of courseit all seemsobvious enough to you who know what occurredbut it was not so very clear wheneverything was new. But it came on me suddenly with the full force of absoluteconviction.
"Poison!" I cried.
Theneven as I said the wordmy mind flashed back over the whole morning'sexperiencespast Lord John with his buffalopast my own hysterical tearspastthe outrageous conduct of Professor Summerleeto the queer happenings in Londonthe row in the parkthe driving of the chauffeurthe quarrel at the oxygenwarehouse. Everything fitted suddenly into its place.
"Of course" I cried again. "It is poison. We are all poisoned."
"Exactly" said Challengerrubbing his hands"we are allpoisoned. Our planet has swum into the poison belt of etherand is now flyingdeeper into it at the rate of some millions of miles a minute. Our young friendhas expressed the cause of all our troubles and perplexities in a single word`poison.'"
We looked at each other in amazed silence. No comment seemed to meet thesituation.
"There is a mental inhibition by which such symptoms can be checked andcontrolled" said Challenger. "I cannot expect to find it developed inall of you to the same point which it has reached in mefor I suppose that thestrength of our different mental processes bears some proportion to each other.But no doubt it is appreciable even in our young friend here. After the littleoutburst of high spirits which so alarmed my domestic I sat down and reasonedwith myself. I put it to myself that I had never before felt impelled to biteany of my household. The impulse had then been an abnormal one. In an instant Iperceived the truth. My pulse upon examination was ten beats above the usualand my reflexes were increased. I called upon my higher and saner selfthe realG. E. C.seated serene and impregnable behind all mere molecular disturbance. Isummoned himI sayto watch the foolish mental tricks which the poison wouldplay. I found that I was indeed the master. I could recognize and control adisordered mind. It was a remarkable exhibition of the victory of mind overmatterfor it was a victory over that particular form of matter which is mostintimately connected with mind. I might almost say that mind was at fault andthat personality controlled it. Thuswhen my wife came downstairs and I wasimpelled to slip behind the door and alarm her by some wild cry as she enteredI was able to stifle the impulse and to greet her with dignity and restraint. Anoverpowering desire to quack like a duck was met and mastered in the samefashion.
Laterwhen I descended to order the car and found Austin bending over itabsorbed in repairsI controlled my open hand even after I had lifted it andrefrained from giving him an experience which would possibly have caused him tofollow in the steps of the housekeeper. On the contraryI touched him on theshoulder and ordered the car to be at the door in time to meet your train. Atthe present instant I am most forcibly tempted to take Professor Summerlee bythat silly old beard of his and to shake his head violently backwards andforwards. And yetas you seeI am perfectly restrained. Let me commend myexample to you."
"I'll look out for that buffalo" said Lord John.
"And I for the football match." "It may be that you are rightChallenger" said Summerlee in a chastened voice. "I am willing toadmit that my turn of mind is critical rather than constructive and that I amnot a ready convert to any new theoryespecially when it happens to be sounusual and fantastic as this one. Howeveras I cast my mind back over theevents of the morningand as I reconsider the fatuous conduct of my companionsI find it easy to believe that some poison of an exciting kind was responsiblefor their symptoms."
Challenger slapped his colleague good-humouredly upon the shoulder. "Weprogress" said he. "Decidedly we progress."
"And praysir" asked Summerlee humbly"what is your opinionas to the present outlook?"
"With your permission I will say a few words upon that subject." Heseated himself upon his deskhis shortstumpy legs swinging in front of him."We are assisting at a tremendous and awful function. It isin my opinionthe end of the world."
The end of the world! Our eyes turned to the great bow-window and we lookedout at the summer beauty of the country-sidethe long slopes of heatherthegreat country-housesthe cozy farmsthe pleasure-seekers upon the links.
The end of the world! One had often heard the wordsbut the idea that theycould ever have an immediate practical significancethat it should not be atsome vague datebut nowto-daythat was a tremendousa staggering thought.We were all struck solemn and waited in silence for Challenger to continue. Hisoverpowering presence and appearance lent such force to the solemnity of hiswords that for a moment all the crudities and absurdities of the man vanishedand he loomed before us as something majestic and beyond the range of ordinaryhumanity. Then to meat leastthere came back the cheering recollection of howtwice since we had entered the room he had roared with laughter. SurelyIthoughtthere are limits to mental detachment. The crisis cannot be so great orso pressing after all.
`You will conceive a bunch of grapes" said he"which are coveredby some infinitesimal but noxious bacillus. The gardener passes it through adisinfecting medium. It may be that he desires his grapes to be cleaner. It maybe that he needs space to breed some fresh bacillus less noxious than the last.He dips it into the poison and they are gone. Our Gardener isin my opinionabout to dip the solar systemand the human bacillusthe little mortal vibriowhich twisted and wriggled upon the outer rind of the earthwill in an instantbe sterilized out of existence."
Again there was silence. It was broken by the high trill of thetelephone-bell.
"There is one of our bacilli squeaking for help" said he with agrim smile. "They are beginning to realize that their continued existenceis not really one of the necessities of the universe."
He was gone from the room for a minute or two. I remember that none of usspoke in his absence. The situation seemed beyond all words or comments.
"The medical officer of health for Brighton" said he when hereturned. "The symptoms are for some reason developing more rapidly uponthe sea level. Our seven hundred feet of elevation give us an advantage. Folkseem to have learned that I am the first authority upon the question. No doubtit comes from my letter in the Times. That was the mayor of a provincial townwith whom I talked when we first arrived. You may have heard me upon thetelephone. He seemed to put an entirely inflated value upon his own life. Ihelped him to readjust his ideas."
Summerlee had risen and was standing by the window. His thinbony hands weretrembling with his emotion.
"Challenger" said he earnestly"this thing is too seriousfor mere futile argument. Do not suppose that I desire to irritate you by anyquestion I may ask. But I put it to you whether there may not be some fallacy inyour information or in your reasoning. There is the sun shining as brightly asever in the blue sky. There are the heather and the flowers and the birds. Thereare the folk enjoying themselves upon the golf-links and the laborers yondercutting the corn. You tell us that they and we may be upon the very brink ofdestruction--that this sunlit day may be that day of doom which the human racehas so long awaited. So far as we knowyou found this tremendous judgment uponwhat? Upon some abnormal lines in a spectrum--upon rumours from Sumatra--uponsome curious personal excitement which we have discerned in each other. Thislatter symptom is not so marked but that you and we couldby a deliberateeffortcontrol it. You need not stand on ceremony with usChallenger. We haveall faced death together before now. Speak outand let us know exactly where westandand whatin your opinionare our prospects for our future."
It was a bravegood speecha speech from that stanch and strong spiritwhich lay behind all the acidities and angularities of the old zoologist. LordJohn rose and shook him by the hand.
"My sentiment to a tick" said he. "NowChallengerit's upto you to tell us where we are. We ain't nervous folkas you know well; butwhen it comes to makin' a week-end visit and finding you've run full butt intothe Day of Judgmentit wants a bit of explainin'. What's the dangerand howmuch of it is thereand what are we goin' to do to meet it?"
He stoodtall and strongin the sunshine at the windowwith his brown handupon the shoulder of Summerlee. I was lying back in an armchairan extinguishedcigarette between my lipsin that sort of half-dazed state in which impressionsbecome exceedingly distinct. It may have been a new phase of the poisoningbutthe delirious promptings had all passed away and were succeeded by anexceedingly languid andat the same timeperceptive state of mind. I was aspectator. It did not seem to be any personal concern of mine. But here werethree strong men at a great crisisand it was fascinating to observe them.Challenger bent his heavy brows and stroked his beard before he answered. Onecould see that he was very carefully weighing his words.
"What was the last news when you left London?" he asked.
"I was at the Gazette office about ten" said I. "There was aReuter just come in from Singapore to the effect that the sickness seemed to beuniversal in Sumatra and that the lighthouses had not been lit in consequence."
"Events have been moving somewhat rapidly since then" saidChallengerpicking up his pile of telegrams. "I am in close touch bothwith the authorities and with the pressso that news is converging upon me fromall parts. There isin facta general and very insistent demand that I shouldcome to London; but I see no good end to be served. From the accounts thepoisonous effect begins with mental excitement; the rioting in Paris thismorning is said to have been very violentand the Welsh colliers are in a stateof uproar. So far as the evidence to hand can be trustedthis stimulativestagewhich varies much in races and in individualsis succeeded by a certainexaltation and mental lucidity--I seem to discern some signs of it in our youngfriend here--whichafter an appreciable intervalturns to comadeepeningrapidly into death. I fancyso far as my toxicology carries methat there aresome vegetable nerve poisons----"
"Datura" suggested Summerlee. "Excellent!" criedChallenger. "It would make for scientific precision if we named our toxicagent. Let it be daturon. To youmy dear Summerleebelongs thehonour--posthumousalasbut none the less unique--of having given a name tothe universal destroyerthe Great Gardener's disinfectant. The symptoms ofdaturonthenmay be taken to be such as I indicate. That it will involve thewhole world and that no life can possibly remain behind seems to me to becertainsince ether is a universal medium. Up to now it has been capricious inthe places which it has attackedbut the difference is only a matter of a fewhoursand it is like an advancing tide which covers one strip of sand and thenanotherrunning hither and thither in irregular streamsuntil at last it hassubmerged it all. There are laws at work in connection with the action anddistribution of daturon which would have been of deep interest had the time atour disposal permitted us to study them. So far as I can trace them"--herehe glanced over his telegrams--"the less developed races have been thefirst to respond to its influence. There are deplorable accounts from Africaand the Australian aborigines appear to have been already exterminated. TheNorthern races have as yet shown greater resisting power than the Southern. Thisyou seeis dated from Marseilles at nine-forty-five this morning. I give it toyou verbatim:--
"`All night delirious excitement throughout Provence. Tumult of vinegrowers at Nimes. Socialistic upheaval at Toulon. Sudden illness attended bycoma attacked population this morning. PESTE FOUDROYANTE. Great numbers of deadin the streets. Paralysis of business and universal chaos.'
"An hour later came the followingfrom the same source:--
"`We are threatened with utter extermination. Cathedrals and churchesfull to overflowing. The dead outnumber the living. It is inconceivable andhorrible. Decease seems to be painlessbut swift and inevitable.' "Thereis a similar telegram from Pariswhere the development is not yet as acute.India and Persia appear to be utterly wiped out. The Slavonic population ofAustria is downwhile the Teutonic has hardly been affected. Speaking generallythe dwellers upon the plains and upon the seashore seemso far as my limitedinformation goesto have felt the effects more rapidly than those inland or onthe heights. Even a little elevation makes a considerable differenceandperhaps if there be a survivor of the human racehe will again be found uponthe summit of some Ararat. Even our own little hill may presently prove to be atemporary island amid a sea of disaster. But at the present rate of advance afew short hours will submerge us all."
Lord John Roxton wiped his brow.
"What beats me" said he"is how you could sit there laughin'with that stack of telegrams under your hand. I've seen death as often as mostfolkbut universal death--it's awful!"
"As to the laughter" said Challenger"you will bear in mindthatlike yourselvesI have not been exempt from the stimulating cerebraleffects of the etheric poison. But as to the horror with which universal deathappears to inspire youI would put it to you that it is somewhat exaggerated.If you were sent to sea alone in an open boat to some unknown destinationyourheart might well sink within you. The isolationthe uncertaintywould oppressyou. But if your voyage were made in a goodly shipwhich bore within it allyour relations and your friendsyou would feel thathowever uncertain yourdestination might still remainyou would at least have one common andsimultaneous experience which would hold you to the end in the same closecommunion. A lonely death may be terriblebut a universal oneas painless asthis would appear to beis notin my judgmenta matter for apprehension.IndeedI could sympathize with the person who took the view that the horror layin the idea of surviving when all that is learnedfamousand exalted hadpassed away."
"Whatthendo you propose to do?" asked Summerleewho had foronce nodded his assent to the reasoning of his brother scientist.
"To take our lunch" said Challenger as the boom of a gong soundedthrough the house. "We have a cook whose omelettes are only excelled by hercutlets. We can but trust that no cosmic disturbance has dulled her excellentabilities. My Scharzberger of '96 must also be rescuedso far as our earnestand united efforts can do itfrom what would be a deplorable waste of a greatvintage." He levered his great bulk off the deskupon which he had satwhile he announced the doom of the planet. "Come" said he. "Ifthere is little time leftthere is the more need that we should spend it insober and reasonable enjoyment."
Andindeedit proved to be a very merry meal. It is true that we could notforget our awful situation. The full solemnity of the event loomed ever at theback of our minds and tempered our thoughts. But surely it is the soul which hasnever faced death which shies strongly from it at the end. To each of us men ithadfor one great epoch in our livesbeen a familiar presence. As to the ladyshe leaned upon the strong guidance of her mighty husband and was well contentto go whither his path might lead. The future was our fate. The present was ourown. We passed it in goodly comradeship and gentle merriment. Our minds wereasI have saidsingularly lucid. Even I struck sparks at times. As to Challengerhe was wonderful! Never have I so realized the elemental greatness of the manthe sweep and power of his understanding. Summerlee drew him on with his chorusof subacid criticismwhile Lord John and I laughed at the contest and the ladyher hand upon his sleevecontrolled the bellowings of the philosopher. Lifedeathfatethe destiny of man--these were the stupendous subjects of thatmemorable hourmade vital by the fact that as the meal progressed strangesudden exaltations in my mind and tinglings in my limbs proclaimed that theinvisible tide of death was slowly and gently rising around us. Once I saw LordJohn put his hand suddenly to his eyesand once Summerlee dropped back for aninstant in his chair. Each breath we breathed was charged with strange forces.And yet our minds were happy and at ease. Presently Austin laid the cigarettesupon the table and was about to withdraw.
"Austin!" said his master.
"I thank you for your faithful service." A smile stole over theservant's gnarled face.
"I've done my dutysir."
"I'm expecting the end of the world to-dayAustin."
"Yessir. What timesir?"
"I can't sayAustin. Before evening."
The taciturn Austin saluted and withdrew. Challenger lit a cigaretteanddrawing his chair closer to his wife'she took her hand in his.
"You know how matters standdear" said he. "I have explainedit also to our friends here. You're not afraid are you?"
"It won't be painfulGeorge?"
"No more than laughing-gas at the dentist's. Every time you have had ityou have practically died."
"But that is a pleasant sensation."
"So may death be. The worn-out bodily machine can't record itsimpressionbut we know the mental pleasure which lies in a dream or a trance.Nature may build a beautiful door and hang it with many a gauzy and shimmeringcurtain to make an entrance to the new life for our wondering souls. In all myprobings of the actualI have always found wisdom and kindness at the core; andif ever the frightened mortal needs tendernessit is surely as he makes thepassage perilous from life to life. NoSummerleeI will have none of yourmaterialismfor Iat leastam too great a thing to end in mere physicalconstituentsa packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here--here"--andhe beat his great head with his hugehairy fist--"there is something whichuses matterbut is not of it--something which might destroy deathbut whichdeath can never destroy."
"Talkin' of death" said Lord John. "I'm a Christian of sortsbut it seems to me there was somethin' mighty natural in those ancestors of ourswho were buried with their axes and bows and arrows and the likesame as ifthey were livin' on just the same as they used to. I don't know" he addedlooking round the table in a shamefaced way"that I wouldn't feel morehomely myself if I was put away with my old .450 Express and the fowlin'-piecethe shorter one with the rubbered stockand a clip or two of cartridges--just afool's fancyof coursebut there it is. How does it strike youHerrProfessor?"
"Well" said Summerlee"since you ask my opinionit strikesme as an indefensible throwback to the Stone Age or before it. I'm of thetwentieth century myselfand would wish to die like a reasonable civilized man.I don't know that I am more afraid of death than the rest of youfor I am anoldish manandcome what mayI can't have very much longer to live; but it isall against my nature to sit waiting without a struggle like a sheep for thebutcher. Is it quite certainChallengerthat there is nothing we can do?"
"To save us--nothing" said Challenger. "To prolong our livesa few hours and thus to see the evolution of this mighty tragedy before we areactually involved in it--that may prove to be within my powers. I have takencertain steps----"
"Exactly. The oxygen."
"But what can oxygen effect in the face of a poisoning of the ether?There is not a greater difference in quality between a brick-bat and a gas thanthere is between oxygen and ether. They are different planes of matter. Theycannot impinge upon one another. ComeChallengeryou could not defend such aproposition."
"My good Summerleethis etheric poison is most certainly influenced bymaterial agents. We see it in the methods and distribution of the outbreak. Weshould not A PRIORI have expected itbut it is undoubtedly a fact. Hence I amstrongly of opinion that a gas like oxygenwhich increases the vitality and theresisting power of the bodywould be extremely likely to delay the action ofwhat you have so happily named the daturon. It may be that I am mistakenbut Ihave every confidence in the correctness of my reasoning."
"Well" said Lord John"if we've got to sit suckin' at thosetubes like so many babies with their bottlesI'm not takin' any."
"There will be no need for that" Challenger answered. "Wehave made arrangements--it is to my wife that you chiefly owe it--that herboudoir shall be made as airtight as is practicable. With matting and varnishedpaper." "Good heavensChallengeryou don't suppose you can keep outether with varnished paper?"
"Reallymy worthy friendyou are a trifle perverse in missing thepoint. It is not to keep out the ether that we have gone to such trouble. It isto keep in the oxygen. I trust that if we can ensure an atmospherehyper-oxygenated to a certain pointwe may be able to retain our senses. I hadtwo tubes of the gas and you have brought me three more. It is not muchbut itis something."
"How long will they last?"
"I have not an idea. We will not turn them on until our symptoms becomeunbearable. Then we shall dole the gas out as it is urgently needed. It may giveus some hourspossibly even some dayson which we may look out upon a blastedworld. Our own fate is delayed to that extentand we will have the verysingular experiencewe fiveof beingin all probabilitythe absolute rearguard of the human race upon its march into the unknown. Perhaps you will bekind enough now to give me a hand with the cylinders. It seems to me that theatmosphere already grows somewhat more oppressive."
The chamber which was destined to be the scene of our unforgettableexperience was a charmingly feminine sitting-roomsome fourteen or sixteen feetsquare. At the end of itdivided by a curtain of red velvetwas a smallapartment which formed the Professor's dressing-room. This in turn opened into alarge bedroom. The curtain was still hangingbut the boudoir and dressing-roomcould be taken as one chamber for the purposes of our experiment. One door andthe window frame had been plastered round with varnished paper so as to bepractically sealed. Above the other doorwhich opened on to the landingtherehung a fanlight which could be drawn by a cord when some ventilation becameabsolutely necessary. A large shrub in a tub stood in each corner.
"How to get rid of our excessive carbon dioxide without unduly wastingour oxygen is a delicate and vital question" said Challengerlookinground him after the five iron tubes had been laid side by side against the wall."With longer time for preparation I could have brought the wholeconcentrated force of my intelligence to bear more fully upon the problembutas it is we must do what we can. The shrubs will be of some small service. Twoof the oxygen tubes are ready to be turned on at an instant's noticeso that wecannot be taken unawares. At the same timeit would be well not to go far fromthe roomas the crisis may be a sudden and urgent one."
There was a broadlow window opening out upon a balcony. The view beyond wasthe same as that which we had already admired from the study. Looking outIcould see no sign of disorder anywhere. There was a road curving down the sideof the hillunder my very eyes. A cab from the stationone of thoseprehistoric survivals which are only to be found in our country villageswastoiling slowly up the hill. Lower down was a nurse girl wheeling a perambulatorand leading a second child by the hand. The blue reeks of smoke from thecottages gave the whole widespread landscape an air of settled order and homelycomfort. Nowhere in the blue heaven or on the sunlit earth was there anyforeshadowing of a catastrophe. The harvesters were back in the fields once moreand the golfersin pairs and fourswere still streaming round the links. Therewas so strange a turmoil within my own headand such a jangling of myoverstrung nervesthat the indifference of those people was amazing.
"Those fellows don't seem to feel any ill effects" said Ipointing down at the links.
"Have you played golf?" asked Lord John.
"NoI have not."
"Wellyoung fellahwhen you do you'll learn that once fairly out on aroundit would take the crack of doom to stop a true golfer. Halloa! There'sthat telephone-bell again."
From time to time during and after lunch the highinsistent ring hadsummoned the Professor. He gave us the news as it came through to him in a fewcurt sentences. Such terrific items had never been registered in the world'shistory before. The great shadow was creeping up from the south like a risingtide of death. Egypt had gone through its delirium and was now comatose. Spainand Portugalafter a wild frenzy in which the Clericals and the Anarchists hadfought most desperatelywere now fallen silent. No cable messages were receivedany longer from South America. In North America the southern statesafter someterrible racial riotinghad succumbed to the poison. North of Maryland theeffect was not yet markedand in Canada it was hardly perceptible. BelgiumHollandand Denmark had each in turn been affected. Despairing messages wereflashing from every quarter to the great centres of learningto the chemistsand the doctors of world-wide reputeimploring their advice. The astronomerstoo were deluged with inquiries. Nothing could be done. The thing was universaland beyond our human knowledge or control. It was death--painless butinevitable--death for young and oldfor weak and strongfor rich and poorwithout hope or possibility of escape. Such was the news whichin scattereddistracted messagesthe telephone had brought us. The great cities already knewtheir fate and so far as we could gather were preparing to meet it with dignityand resignation. Yet here were our golfers and laborers like the lambs whogambol under the shadow of the knife. It seemed amazing. And yet how could theyknow? It had all come upon us in one giant stride. What was there in the morningpaper to alarm them? And now it was but three in the afternoon. Even as welooked some rumour seemed to have spreadfor we saw the reapers hurrying fromthe fields. Some of the golfers were returning to the club-house. They wererunning as if taking refuge from a shower. Their little caddies trailed behindthem. Others were continuing their game. The nurse had turned and was pushingher perambulator hurriedly up the hill again. I noticed that she had her hand toher brow. The cab had stopped and the tired horsewith his head sunk to hiskneeswas resting. Above there was a perfect summer sky--one huge vault ofunbroken bluesave for a few fleecy white clouds over the distant downs. If thehuman race must die to-dayit was at least upon a glorious death-bed. And yetall that gentle loveliness of nature made this terrific and wholesaledestruction the more pitiable and awful. Surely it was too goodly a residencethat we should be so swiftlyso ruthlesslyevicted from it!
But I have said that the telephone-bell had rung once more. Suddenly I heardChallenger's tremendous voice from the hall.
"Malone!" he cried. "You are wanted." I rushed down tothe instrument. It was McArdle speaking from London.
"That youMr. Malone?" cried his familiar voice. "Mr. Malonethere are terrible goings-on in London. For God's sakesee if ProfessorChallenger can suggest anything that can be done."
"He can suggest nothingsir" I answered. "He regards thecrisis as universal and inevitable. We have some oxygen herebut it can onlydefer our fate for a few hours."
"Oxygen!" cried the agonized voice. "There is no time to getany. The office has been a perfect pandemonium ever since you left in themorning. Now half of the staff are insensible. I am weighed down with heavinessmyself. From my window I can see the people lying thick in Fleet Street. Thetraffic is all held up. Judging by the last telegramsthe whole world----"
His voice had been sinkingand suddenly stopped. An instant later I heardthrough the telephone a muffled thudas if his head had fallen forward on thedesk.
"Mr. McArdle!" I cried. "Mr. McArdle!"
There was no answer. I knew as I replaced the receiver that I should neverhear his voice again.
At that instantjust as I took a step backwards from the telephonethething was on us. It was as if we were bathersup to our shoulders in waterwhosuddenly are submerged by a rolling wave. An invisible hand seemed to havequietly closed round my throat and to be gently pressing the life from me. I wasconscious of immense oppression upon my chestgreat tightness within my headaloud singing in my earsand bright flashes before my eyes. I staggered to thebalustrades of the stair. At the same momentrushing and snorting like awounded buffaloChallenger dashed past mea terrible visionwith red-purplefaceengorged eyesand bristling hair. His little wifeinsensible to allappearancewas slung over his great shoulderand he blundered and thundered upthe stairscrambling and trippingbut carrying himself and her through sheerwill-force through that mephitic atmosphere to the haven of temporary safety. Atthe sight of his effort I too rushed up the stepsclamberingfallingclutching at the railuntil I tumbled half senseless upon by face on the upperlanding. Lord John's fingers of steel were in the collar of my coatand amoment later I was stretched upon my backunable to speak or moveon theboudoir carpet. The woman lay beside meand Summerlee was bunched in a chair bythe windowhis head nearly touching his knees. As in a dream I saw Challengerlike a monstrous beetlecrawling slowly across the floorand a moment later Iheard the gentle hissing of the escaping oxygen. Challenger breathed two orthree times with enormous gulpshis lungs roaring as he drew in the vital gas.
"It works!" he cried exultantly. "My reasoning has beenjustified!" He was up on his feet againalert and strong. With a tube inhis hand he rushed over to his wife and held it to her face. In a few secondsshe moanedstirredand sat up. He turned to meand I felt the tide of lifestealing warmly through my arteries. My reason told me that it was but a littlerespiteand yetcarelessly as we talk of its valueevery hour of existencenow seemed an inestimable thing. Never have I known such a thrill of sensuousjoy as came with that freshet of life. The weight fell away from my lungstheband loosened from my browa sweet feeling of peace and gentlelanguid comfortstole over me. I lay watching Summerlee revive under the same remedyandfinally Lord John took his turn. He sprang to his feet and gave me a hand torisewhile Challenger picked up his wife and laid her on the settee.
"OhGeorgeI am so sorry you brought me back" she saidholdinghim by the hand. "The door of death is indeedas you saidhung withbeautifulshimmering curtains; foronce the choking feeling had passedit wasall unspeakably soothing and beautiful. Why have you dragged me back?"
"Because I wish that we make the passage together. We have been togetherso many years. It would be sad to fall apart at the supreme moment."
For a moment in his tender voice I caught a glimpse of a new Challengersomething very far from the bullyingrantingarrogant man who had alternatelyamazed and offended his generation. Here in the shadow of death was theinnermost Challengerthe man who had won and held a woman's love. Suddenly hismood changed and he was our strong captain once again.
"Alone of all mankind I saw and foretold this catastrophe" said hewith a ring of exultation and scientific triumph in his voice. "As to youmy good SummerleeI trust your last doubts have been resolved as to the meaningof the blurring of the lines in the spectrum and that you will no longer contendthat my letter in the Times was based upon a delusion."
For once our pugnacious colleague was deaf to a challenge. He could but sitgasping and stretching his longthin limbsas if to assure himself that he wasstill really upon this planet. Challenger walked across to the oxygen tubeandthe sound of the loud hissing fell away till it was the most gentle sibilation.
"We must husband our supply of the gas" said he. "Theatmosphere of the room is now strongly hyperoxygenatedand I take it that noneof us feel any distressing symptoms. We can only determine by actual experimentswhat amount added to the air will serve to neutralize the poison. Let us see howthat will do."
We sat in silent nervous tension for five minutes or moreobserving our ownsensations. I had just begun to fancy that I felt the constriction round mytemples again when Mrs. Challenger called out from the sofa that she wasfainting. Her husband turned on more gas.
"In pre-scientific days" said he"they used to keep a whitemouse in every submarineas its more delicate organization gave signs of avicious atmosphere before it was perceived by the sailors. Youmy dearwill beour white mouse. I have now increased the supply and you are better."
"YesI am better."
"Possibly we have hit upon the correct mixture. When we have ascertainedexactly how little will serve we shall be able to compute how long we shall beable to exist. Unfortunatelyin resuscitating ourselves we have alreadyconsumed a considerable proportion of this first tube."
"Does it matter?" asked Lord Johnwho was standing with his handsin his pockets close to the window. "If we have to gowhat is the use ofholdin' on? You don't suppose there's any chance for us?"
Challenger smiled and shook his head.
"Wellthendon't you think there is more dignity in takin' the jumpand not waitin' to he pushed in? If it must be soI'm for sayin' our prayersturnin' off the gasand openin' the window."
"Why not?" said the lady bravely. "SurelyGeorgeLord Johnis right and it is better so."
"I most strongly object" cried Summerlee in a querulous voice."When we must die let us by all means diebut to deliberately anticipatedeath seems to me to be a foolish and unjustifiable action."
"What does our young friend say to it?" asked Challenger.
"I think we should see it to the end."
"And I am strongly of the same opinion" said he.
"ThenGeorgeif you say soI think so too" cried the lady.
"WellwellI'm only puttin' it as an argument" said Lord John."If you all want to see it through I am with you. It's dooced interestin'and no mistake about that. I've had my share of adventures in my lifeand asmany thrills as most folkbut I'm endin' on my top note."
"Granting the continuity of life" said Challenger.
"A large assumption!" cried Summerlee. Challenger stared at him insilent reproof.
"Granting the continuity of life" said hein his most didacticmanner"none of us can predicate what opportunities of observation one mayhave from what we may call the spirit plane to the plane of matter. It surelymust be evident to the most obtuse person" (here he glared a Summerlee)"that it is while we are ourselves material that we are most fitted towatch and form a judgment upon material phenomena. Therefore it is only bykeeping alive for these few extra hours that we can hope to carry on with us tosome future existence a clear conception of the most stupendous event that theworldor the universe so far as we know ithas ever encountered. To me itwould seem a deplorable thing that we should in any way curtail by so much as aminute so wonderful an experience."
"I am strongly of the same opinion" cried Summerlee.
"Carried without a division" said Lord John. "By Georgethatpoor devil of a chauffeur of yours down in the yard has made his last journey.No use makin' a sally and bringin' him in?"
"It would be absolute madness" cried Summerlee.
"WellI suppose it would" said Lord John. "It couldn't helphim and would scatter our gas all over the houseeven if we ever got back alive.My wordlook at the little birds under the trees!"
We drew four chairs up to the longlow windowthe lady still resting withclosed eyes upon the settee. I remember that the monstrous and grotesque ideacrossed my mind--the illusion may have been heightened by the heavy stuffinessof the air which we were breathing--that we were in four front seats of thestalls at the last act of the drama of the world.
In the immediate foregroundbeneath our very eyeswas the small yard withthe half-cleaned motor-car standing in it. Austinthe chauffeurhad receivedhis final notice at lastfor he was sprawling beside the wheelwith a greatblack bruise upon his forehead where it had struck the step or mud-guard infalling. He still held in his hand the nozzle of the hose with which he had beenwashing down his machine. A couple of small plane trees stood in the corner ofthe yardand underneath them lay several pathetic little balls of fluffyfeatherswith tiny feet uplifted. The sweep of death's scythe had includedeverythinggreat and smallwithin its swath.
Over the wall of the yard we looked down upon the winding roadwhich led tothe station. A group of the reapers whom we had seen running from the fieldswere lying all pell-melltheir bodies crossing each otherat the bottom of it.Farther upthe nurse-girl lay with her head and shoulders propped against theslope of the grassy bank. She had taken the baby from the perambulatorand itwas a motionless bundle of wraps in her arms. Close behind her a tiny patch uponthe roadside showed where the little boy was stretched. Still nearer to us wasthe dead cab-horsekneeling between the shafts. The old driver was hanging overthe splash-board like some grotesque scarecrowhis arms dangling absurdly infront of him. Through the window we could dimly discern that a young man wasseated inside. The door was swinging open and his hand was grasping the handleas if he had attempted to leap forth at the last instant. In the middle distancelay the golf linksdotted as they had been in the morning with the dark figuresof the golferslying motionless upon the grass of the course or among theheather which skirted it. On one particular green there were eight bodiesstretched where a foursome with its caddies had held to their game to the last.No bird flew in the blue vault of heavenno man or beast moved upon the vastcountryside which lay before us. The evening sun shone its peaceful radianceacross itbut there brooded over it all the stillness and the silence ofuniversal death--a death in which we were so soon to join. At the presentinstant that one frail sheet of glassby holding in the extra oxygen whichcounteracted the poisoned ethershut us off from the fate of all our kind. Fora few short hours the knowledge and foresight of one man could preserve ourlittle oasis of life in the vast desert of death and save us from participationin the common catastrophe. Then the gas would run lowwe too should lie gaspingupon that cherry-coloured boudoir carpetand the fate of the human race and ofall earthly life would be complete. For a long timein a mood which was toosolemn for speechwe looked out at the tragic world.
"There is a house on fire" said Challenger at lastpointing to acolumn of smoke which rose above the trees. "There willI expectbe manysuch--possibly whole cities in flames--when we consider how many folk may havedropped with lights in their hands. The fact of combustion is in itself enoughto show that the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere is normal and that it isthe ether which is at fault. Ahthere you see another blaze on the top ofCrowborough Hill. It is the golf clubhouseor I am mistaken. There is thechurch clock chiming the hour. It would interest our philosophers to know thatman-made mechanisms has survived the race who made it."
"By George!" cried Lord Johnrising excitedly from his chair."What's that puff of smoke? It's a train."
We heard the roar of itand presently it came flying into sightgoing atwhat seemed to me to be a prodigious speed. Whence it had comeor how farwehad no means of knowing. Only by some miracle of luck could it have gone anydistance. But now we were to see the terrific end of its career. A train of coaltrucks stood motionless upon the line. We held our breath as the express roaredalong the same track. The crash was horrible. Engine and carriages piledthemselves into a hill of splintered wood and twisted iron. Red spurts of flameflickered up from the wreckage until it was all ablaze. For half an hour we satwith hardly a wordstunned by the stupendous sight.
"Poorpoor people!" cried Mrs. Challenger at lastclinging with awhimper to her husband's arm.
"My dearthe passengers on that train were no more animate than thecoals into which they crashed or the carbon which they have now become"said Challengerstroking her hand soothingly. "It was a train of theliving when it left Victoriabut it was driven and freighted by the dead longbefore it reached its fate."
"All over the world the same thing must be going on" said I as avision of strange happenings rose before me. "Think of the ships atsea--how they will steam on and onuntil the furnaces die down or until theyrun full tilt upon some beach. The sailing ships too--how they will back andfill with their cargoes of dead sailorswhile their timbers rot and theirjoints leaktill one by one they sink below the surface. Perhaps a centuryhence the Atlantic may still be dotted with the old drifting derelicts."
"And the folk in the coal-mines" said Summerlee with a dismalchuckle. "If ever geologists should by any chance live upon earth againthey will have some strange theories of the existence of man in carboniferousstrata."
"I don't profess to know about such things" remarked Lord John"but it seems to me the earth will be `To letempty' after this. Whenonce our human crowd is wiped off ithow will it ever get on again?"
"The world was empty before" Challenger answered gravely."Under laws which in their inception are beyond and above usit becamepeopled. Why may the same process not happen again?"
"My dear Challengeryou can't mean that?"
"I am not in the habitProfessor Summerleeof saying things which I donot mean. The observation is trivial." Out went the beard and down came theeyelids.
"Wellyou lived an obstinate dogmatistand you mean to die one"said Summerlee sourly.
"And yousirhave lived an unimaginative obstructionist and never canhope now to emerge from it."
"Your worst critics will never accuse you of lacking imagination"Summerlee retorted.
"Upon my word!" said Lord John. "It would be like you if youused up our last gasp of oxygen in abusing each other. What can it matterwhether folk come back or not? It surely won't be in our time." "Inthat remarksiryou betray your own very pronounced limitations" saidChallenger severely. "The true scientific mind is not to be tied down byits own conditions of time and space. It builds itself an observatory erectedupon the border line of presentwhich separates the infinite past from theinfinite future. From this sure post it makes its sallies even to the beginningand to the end of all things. As to deaththe scientific mind dies at its postworking in normal and methodic fashion to the end. It disregards so petty athing as its own physical dissolution as completely as it does all otherlimitations upon the plane of matter. Am I rightProfessor Summerlee?"
Summerlee grumbled an ungracious assent.
"With certain reservationsI agree" said he.
"The ideal scientific mind" continued Challenger--"I put itin the third person rather than appear to be too self-complacent--the idealscientific mind should be capable of thinking out a point of abstract knowledgein the interval between its owner falling from a balloon and reaching the earth.Men of this strong fibre are needed to form the conquerors of nature and thebodyguard of truth."
"It strikes me nature's on top this time" said Lord Johnlookingout of the window. "I've read some leadin' articles about you gentlemencontrollin' herbut she's gettin' a bit of her own back."
"It is but a temporary setback" said Challenger with conviction."A few million yearswhat are they in the great cycle of time? Thevegetable world hasas you can seesurvived. Look at the leaves of that planetree. The birds are deadbut the plant flourishes. From this vegetable life inpond and in marsh will comein timethe tiny crawling microscopic slugs whichare the pioneers of that great army of life in which for the instant we fivehave the extraordinary duty of serving as rear guard. Once the lowest form oflife has established itselfthe final advent of man is as certain as the growthof the oak from the acorn. The old circle will swing round once more."
"But the poison?" I asked. "Will that not nip life in the bud?"
"The poison may be a mere stratum or layer in the ether--a mephitic GulfStream across that mighty ocean in which we float. Or tolerance may beestablished and life accommodate itself to a new condition. The mere fact thatwith a comparatively small hyperoxygenation of our blood we can hold out againstit is surely a proof in itself that no very great change would be needed toenable animal life to endure it."
The smoking house beyond the trees had burst into flames. We could see thehigh tongues of fire shooting up into the air.
"It's pretty awful" muttered Lord Johnmore impressed than I hadever seen him.
"Wellafter allwhat does it matter?" I remarked. "The worldis dead. Cremation is surely the best burial."
"It would shorten us up if this house went ablaze."
"I foresaw the danger" said Challenger"and asked my wife toguard against it."
"Everything is quite safedear. But my head begins to throb again. Whata dreadful atmosphere!"
"We must change it" said Challenger. He bent over his cylinder ofoxygen.
"It's nearly empty" said he. "It has lasted us some three anda half hours. It is now close on eight o'cloek. We shall get through the nightcomfortably. I should expect the end about nine o'clock to-morrow morning. Weshall see one sunrisewhich shall be all our own."
He turned on his second tube and opened for half a minute the fanlight overthe door. Then as the air became perceptibly betterbut our own symptoms moreacutehe closed it once again.
"By the way" said he"man does not live upon oxygen alone.It's dinner time and over. I assure yougentlementhat when I invited you tomy home and to what I had hoped would be an interesting reunionI had intendedthat my kitchen should justify itself. Howeverwe must do what we can. I amsure that you will agree with me that it would be folly to consume our air toorapidly by lighting an oil-stove. I have some small provision of cold meatsbreadand pickles whichwith a couple of bottles of claretmay serve ourturn. Thank youmy dear--now as ever you are the queen of managers."
It was indeed wonderful howwith the self-respect and sense of propriety ofthe British housekeeperthe lady had within a few minutes adorned the centraltable with a snow-white clothlaid the napkins upon itand set forth thesimple meal with all the elegance of civilizationincluding an electric torchlamp in the centre. Wonderful also was it to find that our appetites wereravenous.
"It is the measure of our emotion" said Challenger with that airof condescension with which he brought his scientific mind to the explanation ofhumble facts. "We have gone through a great crisis. That means moleculardisturbance. That in turn means the need for repair. Great sorrow or great joyshould bring intense hunger--not abstinence from foodas our novelists willhave it."
"That's why the country folk have great feasts at funerals" Ihazarded.
"Exactly. Our young friend has hit upon an excellent illustration. Letme give you another slice of tongue."
"The same with savages" said Lord Johncutting away at the beef."I've seen them buryin' a chief up the Aruwimi Riverand they ate a hippothat must have weighed as much as a tribe. There are some of them down NewGuinea way that eat the late-lamented himselfjust by way of a last tidy up.Wellof all the funeral feasts on this earthI suppose the one we are takin'is the queerest."
"The strange thing is" said Mrs. Challenger"that I find itimpossible to feel grief for those who are gone. There are my father and motherat Bedford. I know that they are deadand yet in this tremendous universaltragedy I can feel no sharp sorrow for any individualseven for them."
"And my old mother in her cottage in Ireland" said I. "I cansee her in my mind's eyewith her shawl and her lace caplying back withclosed eyes in the old high-backed chair near the windowher glasses and herbook beside her. Why should I mourn. her? She has passed and I am passingand Imay be nearer her in some other life than England is to Ireland. Yet I grieve tothink that that dear body is no more."
"As to the body" remarked Challenger"we do not mourn overthe parings of our nails nor the cut locks of our hairthough they were oncepart of ourselves. Neither does a one-legged man yearn sentimentally over hismissing member. The physical body has rather been a source of pain and fatigueto us. It is the constant index of our limitations. Why then should we worryabout its detachment from our psychical selves?"
"If they can indeed be detached" Summerlee grumbled. "Butanyhowuniversal death is dreadful."
"As I have already explained" said Challenger"a universaldeath must in its nature be far less terrible than a isolated one."
"Same in a battle" remarked Lord John. "If you saw a singleman lying on that floor with his chest knocked in and a hole in his face itwould turn you sick. But I've seen ten thousand on their backs in the Soudanand it gave me no such feelin'for when you are makin' history the life of anyman is too small a thing to worry over. When a thousand million pass overtogethersame as happened to-dayyou can't pick your own partic'lar out of thecrowd."
"I wish it were well over with us" said the lady wistfully."OhGeorgeI am so frightened."
"You'll be the bravest of us alllittle ladywhen the time comes. I'vebeen a blusterous old husband to youdearbut you'll just bear in mind that G.E. C. is as he was made and couldn't help himself. After allyou wouldn't havehad anyone else?"
"No one in the whole wide worlddear" said sheand put her armsround his bull neck. We three walked to the window and stood amazed at the sightwhich met our eyes.
Darkness had fallen and the dead world was shrouded in gloom. But rightacross the southern horizon was one long vivid scarlet streakwaxing and waningin vivid pulses of lifeleaping suddenly to a crimson zenith and then dyingdown to a glowing line of fire.
"Lewes is ablaze!"
"Noit is Brighton which is burning" said Challengersteppingacross to join us. "You can see the curved back of the downs against theglow. That fire is miles on the farther side of it. The whole town must bealight."
There were several red glares at different pointsand the pile of DEBRISupon the railway line was still smoldering darklybut they all seemed merepin-points of light compared to that monstrous conflagration throbbing beyondthe hills. What copy it would have made for the Gazette! Had ever a journalistsuch an opening and so little chance of using it--the scoop of scoopsand noone to appreciate it? And thensuddenlythe old instinct of recording cameover me. If these men of science could be so true to their life's work to thevery endwhy should not Iin my humble waybe as constant? No human eye mightever rest upon what I had done. But the long night had to be passed somehowandfor me at leastsleep seemed to be out of the question. My notes would help topass the weary hours and to occupy my thoughts. Thus it is that now I havebefore me the notebook with its scribbled pageswritten confusedly upon my kneein the dimwaning light of our one electric torch. Had I the literary touchthey might have been worthy of the occasionAs it isthey may still serve tobring to other minds the long-drawn emotions and tremors of that awful night.
How strange the words look scribbled at the top of the empty page of my book!How stranger still that it is IEdward Malonewho have written them--I whostarted only some twelve hours ago from my rooms in Streatham without onethought of the marvels which the day was to bring forth! I look back at thechain of incidentsmy interview with McArdleChallenger's first note of alarmin the Timesthe absurd journey in the trainthe pleasant luncheonthecatastropheand now it has come to this--that we linger alone upon an emptyplanetand so sure is our fate that I can regard these lineswritten frommechanical professional habit and never to be seen by human eyesas the wordsof one who is already deadso closely does he stand to the shadowed borderlandover which all outside this one little circle of friends have already gone. Ifeel how wise and true were the words of Challenger when he said that the realtragedy would be if we were left behind when all that is noble and good andbeautiful had passed. But of that there can surely be no danger. Already oursecond tube of oxygen is drawing to an end. We can count the poor dregs of ourlives almost to a minute.
We have just been treated to a lecturea good quarter of an hour longfromChallengerwho was so excited that he roared and bellowed as if he wereaddressing his old rows of scientific sceptics in the Queen's Hall. He hadcertainly a strange audience to harangue: his wife perfectly acquiescent andabsolutely ignorant of his meaningSummerlee seated in the shadowquerulousand critical but interestedLord John lounging in a corner somewhat bored bythe whole proceedingand myself beside the window watching the scene with akind of detached attentionas if it were all a dream or something in which Ihad no personal interest whatever. Challenger sat at the centre table with theelectric light illuminating the slide under the microscope which he had broughtfrom his dressing room. The small vivid circle of white light from the mirrorleft half of his ruggedbearded face in brilliant radiance and half in deepestshadow. He hadit seemsbeen working of late upon the lowest forms of lifeand what excited him at the present moment was that in the microscopic slidemade up the day before he found the amoeba to he still alive.
"You can see it for yourselves" he kept repeating in greatexcitement. "Summerleewill you step across and satisfy yourself upon thepoint? Malonewill you kindly verify what I say? The little spindle-shapedthings in the centre are diatoms and may be disregarded since they are probablyvegetable rather than animal. But the right-hand side you will see an undoubtedamoebamoving sluggishly across the field. The upper screw is the fineadjustment. Look at it for yourselves."
Summerlee did so and acquiesced. So did I and perceived a little creaturewhich looked as if it were made of ground glass flowing in a sticky way acrossthe lighted circle. Lord John was prepared to take him on trust.
"I'm not troublin' my head whether he's alive or dead" said he."We don't so much as know each other by sightso why should I take it toheart? I don't suppose he's worryin' himself over the state of OUR health."
I laughed at thisand Challenger looked in my direction with his coldest andmost supercilious stare. It was a most petrifying experience.
"The flippancy of the half-educated is more obstructive to science thanthe obtuseness of the ignorant" said he. "If Lord John Roxton wouldcondescend----"
"My dear Georgedon't be so peppery" said his wifewith her handon the black mane that drooped over the microscope. "What can it matterwhether the amoeba is alive or not?"
"It matters a great deal" said Challenger gruffly.
"Welllet's hear about it" said Lord John with a good-humouredsmile. "We may as well talk about that as anything else. If you think I'vebeen too off-hand with the thingor hurt its feelin's in any wayI'llapologize."
"For my part" remarked Summerlee in his creakyargumentativevoice"I can't see why you should attach such importance to the creaturebeing alive. It is in the same atmosphere as ourselvesso naturally the poisondoes not act upon it. If it were outside of this room it would be deadlike allother animal life."
"Your remarksmy good Summerlee" said Challenger with enormouscondescension (ohif I could paint that over-bearingarrogant face in thevivid circle of reflection from the microscope mirror!)--"your remarks showthat you imperfectly appreciate the situation. This specimen was mountedyesterday and is hermetically sealed. None of our oxygen can reach it. But theetherof coursehas penetrated to itas to every other point upon theuniverse. Thereforeit has survived the poison. Hencewe may argue that everyamoeba outside this roominstead of being deadas you have erroneously statedhas really survived the catastrophe."
"Welleven now I don't feel inclined to hip-hurrah about it" saidLord John. "What does it matter?"
"It just matters thisthat the world is a living instead of a dead one.If you had the scientific imaginationyou would cast your mind forward fromthis one factand you would see some few millions of years hence--a merepassing moment in the enormous flux of the ages--the whole world teeming oncemore with the animal and human life which will spring from this tiny root. Youhave seen a prairie fire where the flames have swept every trace of grass orplant from the surface of the earth and left only a blackened waste. You wouldthink that it must be forever desert. Yet the roots of growth have been leftbehindand when you pass the place a few years hence you can no longer tellwhere the black scars used to be. Here in this tiny creature are the roots ofgrowth of the animal worldand by its inherent developmentand evolutionitwill surely in time remove every trace of this incomparable crisis in which weare now involved."
"Dooced interestin'!" said Lord Johnlounging across and lookingthrough the microscope. "Funny little chap to hang number one among thefamily portraits. Got a fine big shirt-stud on him!"
"The dark object is his nucleus" said Challenger with the air of anurse teaching letters to a baby.
"Wellwe needn't feel lonely" said Lord John laughing. "There'ssomebody livin' besides us on the earth."
"You seem to take it for grantedChallenger" said Summerlee"that the object for which this world was created was that it shouldproduce and sustain human life."
"Wellsirand what object do you suggest?" asked Challengerbristling at the least hint of contradiction.
"Sometimes I think that it is only the monstrous conceit of mankindwhich makes him think that all this stage was erected for him to strut upon."
"We cannot be dogmatic about itbut at least without what you haveventured to call monstrous conceit we can surely say that we are the highestthing in nature."
"The highest of which we have cognizance."
"Thatsirgoes without saying."
"Think of all the millions and possibly billions of years that the earthswung empty through space--orif not emptyat least without a sign or thoughtof the human race. Think of itwashed by the rain and scorched by the sun andswept by the wind for those unnumbered ages. Man only came into being yesterdayso far as geological times goes. Whythenshould it be taken for granted thatall this stupendous preparation was for his benefit?"
"For whose then--or for what?"
Summerlee shrugged his shoulders.
"How can we tell? For some reason altogether beyond our conception--andman may have been a mere accidenta by-product evolved in the process. It is asif the scum upon the surface of the ocean imagined that the ocean was created inorder to produce and sustain it or a mouse in a cathedral thought that thebuilding was its own proper ordained residence."
I have jotted down the very words of their argumentbut now it degeneratesinto a mere noisy wrangle with much polysyllabic scientific jargon upon eachside. It is no doubt a privilege to hear two such brains discuss the highestquestions; but as they are in perpetual disagreementplain folk like Lord Johnand I get little that is positive from the exhibition. They neutralize eachother and we are left as they found us. Now the hubbub has ceasedand Summerleeis coiled up in his chairwhile Challengerstill fingering the screws of hismicroscopeis keeping up a continual lowdeepinarticulate growl like the seaafter a storm. Lord John comes over to meand we look out together into thenight.
There is a pale new moon--the last moon that human eyes will ever restupon--and the stars are most brilliant. Even in the clear plateau air of SouthAmerica I have never seen them brighter. Possibly this etheric change has someeffect upon light. The funeral pyre of Brighton is still blazingand there is avery distant patch of scarlet in the western skywhich may mean trouble atArundel or Chichesterpossibly even at Portsmouth. I sit and muse and make anoccasional note. There is a sweet melancholy in the air. Youth and beauty andchivalry and love--is this to be the end of it all? The starlit earth looks adreamland of gentle peace. Who would imagine it as the terrible Golgotha strewnwith the bodies of the human race? SuddenlyI find myself laughing.
"Halloayoung fellah!" says Lord Johnstaring at me in surprise."We could do with a joke in these hard times. What was itthen?"
"I was thinking of all the great unsolved questions" I answer"the questions that we spent so much labor and thought over. Think ofAnglo-German competitionfor example--or the Persian Gulf that my old chief wasso keen about. Whoever would have guessedwhen we fumed and fretted sohowthey were to be eventually solved?"
We fall into silence again. I fancy that each of us is thinking of friendsthat have gone before. Mrs. Challenger is sobbing quietlyand her husband iswhispering to her. My mind turns to all the most unlikely peopleand I see eachof them lying white and rigid as poor Austin does in the yard. There is McArdlefor exampleI know exactly where he iswith his face upon his writing desk andhis hand on his own telephonejust as I heard him fall. Beaumontthe editortoo--I suppose he is lying upon the blue-and-red Turkey carpet which adorned hissanctum. And the fellows in the reporters' room--Macdona and Murray and Bond.They had certainly died hard at work on their jobwith note-books full of vividimpressions and strange happenings in their hands. I could just imagine how thisone would have been packed off to the doctorsand that other to Westminsterand yet a third to St. Paul's. What glorious rows of head-lines they must haveseen as a last vision beautifulnever destined to materialize in printer's ink!I could see Macdona among the doctors--"Hope in Harley Street"--Machad always a weakness for alliteration. "Interview with Mr. SoleyWilson." "Famous Specialist says `Never despair!'" "OurSpecial Correspondent found the eminent scientist seated upon the roofwhitherhe had retreated to avoid the crowd of terrified patients who had stormed hisdwelling. With a manner which plainly showed his appreciation of the immensegravity of the occasionthe celebrated physician refused to admit that everyavenue of hope had been closed." That's how Mac would start. Then there wasBond; he would probably do St. Paul's. He fancied his own literary touch. Mywordwhat a theme for him! "Standing in the little gallery under the domeand looking down upon that packed mass of despairing humanitygroveling at thislast instant before a Power which they had so persistently ignoredthere roseto my ears from the swaying crowd such a low moan of entreaty and terrorsuch ashuddering cry for help to the Unknownthat----" and so forth.
Yesit would be a great end for a reporterthoughlike myselfhe woulddie with the treasures still unused. What would Bond not givepoor chapto see"J. H. B." at the foot of a column like that?
But what drivel I am writing! It is just an attempt to pass the weary time.Mrs. Challenger has gone to the inner dressing-roomand the Professor says thatshe is asleep. He is making notes and consulting books at the central tableascalmly as if years of placid work lay before him. He writes with a very noisyquill pen which seems to be screeching scorn at all who disagree with him.
Summerlee has dropped off in his chair and gives from time to time apeculiarly exasperating snore. Lord John lies back with his hands in his pocketsand his eyes closed. How people can sleep under such conditions is more than Ican imagine.
Three-thirty a.m. I have just wakened with a start. It was five minutes pasteleven when I made my last entry. I remember winding up my watch and noting thetime. So I have wasted some five hours of the little span still left to us. Whowould have believed it possible? But I feel very much fresherand ready for myfate--or try to persuade myself that I am. And yetthe fitter a man isand thehigher his tide of lifethe more must he shrink from death. How wise and howmerciful is that provision of nature by which his earthly anchor is usuallyloosened by many little imperceptible tugsuntil his consciousness has driftedout of its untenable earthly harbor into the great sea beyond!
Mrs. Challenger is still in the dressing room. Challenger has fallen asleepin his chair. What a picture! His enormous frame leans backhis hugehairyhands are clasped across his waistcoatand his head is so tilted that I can seenothing above his collar save a tangled bristle of luxuriant beard. He shakeswith the vibration of his own snoring. Summerlee adds his occasional high tenorto Challenger's sonorous bass. Lord John is sleeping alsohis long body doubledup sideways in a basket-chair. The first cold light of dawn is just stealinginto the roomand everything is grey and mournful.
I look out at the sunrise--that fateful sunrise which will shine upon anunpeopled world. The human race is goneextinguished in a daybut the planetsswing round and the tides rise or falland the wind whispersand all naturegoes her waydownas it would seemto the very amoebawith never a sign thathe who styled himself the lord of creation had ever blessed or cursed theuniverse with his presence. Down in the yard lies Austin with sprawling limbshis face glimmering white in the dawnand the hose nozzle still projecting fromhis dead hand. The whole of human kind is typified in that one half-ludicrousand half-pathetic figurelying so helpless beside the machine which it used tocontrol.
Here end the notes which I made at the time. Henceforward events were tooswift and too poignant to allow me to writebut they are too clearly outlinedin my memory that any detail could escape me.
Some chokiness in my throat made me look at the oxygen cylindersand I wasstartled at what I saw. The sands of our lives were running very low. At someperiod in the night Challenger had switched the tube from the third to thefourth cylinder. Now it was clear that this also was nearly exhausted. Thathorrible feeling of constriction was closing in upon me. I ran across andunscrewing the nozzleI changed it to our last supply. Even as I did so myconscience pricked mefor I felt that perhaps if I had held my hand all of themmight have passed in their sleep. The thought was banishedhoweverby thevoice of the lady from the inner room crying:--
"GeorgeGeorgeI am stifling!"
"It is all rightMrs. Challenger" I answered as the othersstarted to their feet. "I have just turned on a fresh supply."
Even at such a moment I could not help smiling at Challengerwho with agreat hairy fist in each eye was like a hugebearded babynew wakened out ofsleep. Summerlee was shivering like a man with the aguehuman fearsas herealized his positionrising for an instant above the stoicism of the man ofscience. Lord Johnhoweverwas as cool and alert as if he had just been rousedon a hunting morning.
"Fifthly and lastly" said heglancing at the tube. "Sayyoung fellahdon't tell me you've been writin' up your impressions in thatpaper on your knee."
"Just a few notes to pass the time."
"WellI don't believe anyone but an Irishman would have done that. Iexpect you'll have to wait till little brother amoeba gets grown up beforeyou'll find a reader. He don't seem to take much stock of things just at present.WellHerr Professorwhat are the prospects?"
Challenger was looking out at the great drifts of morning mist which lay overthe landscape. Here and there the wooded hills rose like conical islands out ofthis woolly sea.
"It might be a winding sheet" said Mrs. Challengerwho hadentered in her dressing-gown. "There's that song of yoursGeorge`Ringout the oldring in the new.' It was prophetic. But you are shiveringmy poordear friends. I have been warm under a coverlet all nightand you cold in yourchairs. But I'll soon set you right."
The brave little creature hurried awayand presently we heard the sizzlingof a kettle. She was back soon with five steaming cups of cocoa upon a tray.
"Drink these" said she. "You will feel so much better."
And we did. Summerlee asked if he might light his pipeand we all hadcigarettes. It steadied our nervesI thinkbut it was a mistakefor it made adreadful atmosphere in that stuffy room. Challenger had to open the ventilator.
"How longChallenger?" asked Lord John.
"Possibly three hours" he answered with a shrug.
"I used to be frightened" said his wife. "But the nearer Iget to itthe easier it seems. Don't you think we ought to prayGeorge?"
"You will praydearif you wish" the big man answeredverygently. "We all have our own ways of praying. Mine is a completeacquiescence in whatever fate may send me--a cheerful acquiescence. The highestreligion and the highest science seem to unite on that."
"I cannot truthfully describe my mental attitude as acquiescence and farless cheerful acquiescence" grumbled Summerlee over his pipe. "Isubmit because I have to. I confess that I should have liked another year oflife to finish my classification of the chalk fossils."
"Your unfinished work is a small thing" said Challenger pompously"when weighed against the fact that my own MAGNUM OPUS`The Ladder ofLife' is still in the first stages. My brainmy readingmy experience--infactmy whole unique equipment--were to be condensed into that epoch-makingvolume. And yetas I sayI acquiesce."
"I expect we've all left some loose ends stickin' out" said LordJohn. "What are yoursyoung fellah?"
"I was working at a book of verses" I answered.
"Wellthe world has escaped thatanyhow" said Lord John. "There'salways compensation somewhere if you grope around."
"What about you?" I asked.
"Wellit just so happens that I was tidied up and ready. I'd promisedMerivale to go to Tibet for a snow leopard in the spring. But it's hard on youMrs. Challengerwhen you have just built up this pretty home."
"Where George isthere is my home. Butohwhat would I not give forone last walk together in the fresh morning air upon those beautifuldowns!"
Our hearts re-echoed her words. The sun had burst through the gauzy mistswhich veiled itand the whole broad Weald was washed in golden light. Sittingin our dark and poisonous atmosphere that gloriouscleanwind-sweptcountryside seemed a very dream of beauty. Mrs. Challenger held her handstretched out to it in her longing. We drew up chairs and sat in a semicircle inthe window. The atmosphere was already very close. It seemed to me that theshadows of death were drawing in upon us--the last of our race. It was like aninvisible curtain closing down upon every side.
"That cylinder is not lastin' too well" said Lord John with a longgasp for breath.
"The amount contained is variable" said Challenger"depending upon the pressure and care with which it has been bottled. I aminclined to agree with youRoxtonthat this one is defective."
"So we are to be cheated out of the last hour of our lives"Summerlee remarked bitterly. "An excellent final illustration of the sordidage in which we have lived. WellChallengernow is your time if you wish tostudy the subjective phenomena of physical dissolution."
"Sit on the stool at my knee and give me your hand" saidChallenger to his wife. "I thinkmy friendsthat a further delay in thisinsufferable atmosphere is hardly advisable. You would not desire itdearwould you?"
His wife gave a little groan and sank her face against his leg.
"I've seen the folk bathin' in the Serpentine in winter" said LordJohn. "When the rest are inyou see one or two shiverin' on the bankenvyin' the others that have taken the plunge. It's the last that have the worstof it. I'm all for a header and have done with it."
"You would open the window and face the ether?"
"Better be poisoned than stifled."
Summerlee nodded his reluctant acquiescence and held out his thin hand toChallenger.
"We've had our quarrels in our timebut that's all over" said he."We were good friends and had a respect for each other under the surface.Good-by!"
"Good-byyoung fellah!" said Lord John. "The window'splastered up. You can't open it."
Challenger stooped and raised his wifepressing her to his breastwhile shethrew her arms round his neck.
"Give me that field-glassMalone" said he gravely.
I handed it to him.
"Into the hands of the Power that made us we render ourselvesagain!" he shouted in his voice of thunderand at the words he hurled thefield-glass through the window.
Full in our flushed facesbefore the last tinkle of falling fragments haddied awaythere came the wholesome breath of the windblowing strong andsweet.
I don't know how long we sat in amazed silence. Then as in a dreamI heardChallenger's voice once more.
"We are back in normal conditions" he cried. "The world hascleared the poison beltbut we alone of all mankind are saved."
I remember that we all sat gasping in our chairswith that sweetwetsouth-western breezefresh from the seaflapping the muslin curtains andcooling our flushed faces. I wonder how long we sat! None of us afterwards couldagree at all on that point. We were bewilderedstunnedsemi-conscious. We hadall braced our courage for deathbut this fearful and sudden new fact--that wemust continue to live after we had survived the race to which webelonged--struck us with the shock of a physical blow and left us prostrate.Then gradually the suspended mechanism began to move once more; the shuttles ofmemory worked; ideas weaved themselves together in our minds. We sawwithvividmerciless clearnessthe relations between the pastthe presentand thefuture--the lives that we had led and the lives which we would have to live. Oureyes turned in silent horror upon those of our companions and found the sameanswering look in theirs. Instead of the joy which men might have been expectedto feel who had so narrowly escaped an imminent deatha terrible wave ofdarkest depression submerged us. Everything on earth that we loved had beenwashed away into the greatinfiniteunknown oceanand here were we maroonedupon this desert island of a worldwithout companionshopesor aspirations. Afew years' skulking like jackals among the graves of the human race and then ourbelated and lonely end would come.
"It's dreadfulGeorgedreadful!" the lady cried in an agony ofsobs. "If we had only passed with the others! Ohwhy did you save us? Ifeel as if it is we that are dead and everyone else alive."
Challenger's great eyebrows were drawn down in concentrated thoughtwhilehis hugehairy paw closed upon the outstretched hand of his wife. I hadobserved that she always held out her arms to him in trouble as a child would toits mother.
"Without being a fatalist to the point of nonresistance" said he"I have always found that the highest wisdom lies in an acquiescence withthe actual." He spoke slowlyand there was a vibration of feeling in hissonorous voice.
"I do NOT acquiesce" said Summerlee firmly.
"I don't see that it matters a row of pins whether you acquiesce orwhether you don't" remarked Lord John. "You've got to take itwhether you take it fightin' or take it lyin' downso what's the odds whetheryou acquiesce or not?
I can't remember that anyone asked our permission before the thing beganandnobody's likely to ask it now. So what difference can it make what we may thinkof it?"
"It is just all the difference between happiness and misery" saidChallenger with an abstracted facestill patting his wife's hand. "You canswim with the tide and have peace in mind and soulor you can thrust against itand be bruised and weary. This business is beyond usso let us accept it as itstands and say no more."
"But what in the world are we to do with our lives?" I askedappealing in desperation to the blueempty heaven.
"What am I to dofor example? There are no newspapersso there's anend of my vocation."
"And there's nothin' left to shootand no more soldierin'so there'san end of mine" said Lord John.
"And there are no studentsso there's an end of mine" criedSummerlee.
"But I have my husband and my houseso I can thank heaven that there isno end of mine" said the lady.
"Nor is there an end of mine" remarked Challenger"forscience is not deadand this catastrophe in itself will offer us many mostabsorbing problems for investigation."
He had now flung open the windows and we were gazing out upon the silent andmotionless landscape.
"Let me consider" he continued. "It was about threeor alittle afteryesterday afternoon that the world finally entered the poison beltto the extent of being completely submerged. It is now nine o'clock. Thequestion isat what hour did we pass out from it?"
"The air was very bad at daybreak" said I.
"Later than that" said Mrs. Challenger. "As late as eighto'clock I distinctly felt the same choking at my throat which came at theoutset."
"Then we shall say that it passed just after eight o'clock. Forseventeen hours the world has been soaked in the poisonous ether. For thatlength of time the Great Gardener has sterilized the human mold which had grownover the surface of His fruit. Is it possible that the work is incompletelydone--that others may have survived besides ourselves?"
"That's what I was wonderin'" said Lord John. "Why should webe the only pebbles on the beach?"
"It is absurd to suppose that anyone besides ourselves can possibly havesurvived" said Summerlee with conviction. "Consider that the poisonwas so virulent that even a man who is as strong as an ox and has not a nerve inhis bodylike Malone herecould hardly get up the stairs before he fellunconscious. Is it likely that anyone could stand seventeen minutes of itfarless hours?"
"Unless someone saw it coming and made preparationsame as old friendChallenger did."
"ThatI thinkis hardly probable" said Challengerprojectinghis beard and sinking his eyelids. "The combination of observationinferenceand anticipatory imagination which enabled me to foresee the dangeris what one can hardly expect twice in the same generation."
"Then your conclusion is that everyone is certainly dead?"
"There can be little doubt of that. We have to rememberhoweverthatthe poison worked from below upwards and would possibly be less virulent in thehigher strata of the atmosphere. It is strangeindeedthat it should be so;but it presents one of those features which will afford us in the future afascinating field for study. One could imaginethereforethat if one had tosearch for survivors one would turn one's eyes with best hopes of success tosome Tibetan village or some Alpine farmmany thousands of feet above the sealevel."
"Wellconsiderin' that there are no railroads and no steamers you mightas well talk about survivors in the moon" said Lord John. "But whatI'm askin' myself is whether it's really over or whether it's onlyhalf-time."
Summerlee craned his neck to look round the horizon. "It seems clear andfine" said he in a very dubious voice; "but so it did yesterday. I amby no means assured that it is all over."
Challenger shrugged his shoulders.
"We must come back once more to our fatalism" said he. "Ifthe world has undergone this experience beforewhich is not outside the rangeof possibility; it was certainly a very long time ago. Thereforewe mayreasonably hope that it will be very long before it occurs again. "
"That's all very well" said Lord John"but if you get anearthquake shock you are mighty likely to have a second one right on the top ofit. I think we'd be wise to stretch our legs and have a breath of air while wehave the chance. Since our oxygen is exhausted we may just as well be caughtoutside as in."
It was strange the absolute lethargy which had come upon us as a reactionafter our tremendous emotions of the last twenty-four hours. It was both mentaland physicala deep-lying feeling that nothing mattered and that everything wasa weariness and a profitless exertion. Even Challenger had succumbed to itandsat in his chairwith his great head leaning upon his hands and his thoughtsfar awayuntil Lord John and Icatching him by each armfairly lifted him onto his feetreceiving only the glare and growl of an angry mastiff for ourtrouble. Howeveronce we had got out of our narrow haven of refuge into thewider atmosphere of everyday lifeour normal energy came gradually back to usonce more.
But what were we to begin to do in that graveyard of a world? Could ever menhave been faced with such a question since the dawn of time? It is true that ourown physical needsand even our luxurieswere assured for the future. All thestores of foodall the vintages of wineall the treasures of art were ours forthe taking. But what were we to DO? Some few tasks appealed to us at oncesincethey lay ready to our hands. We descended into the kitchen and laid the twodomestics upon their respective beds. They seemed to have died withoutsufferingone in the chair by the firethe other upon the scullery floor. Thenwe carried in poor Austin from the yard. His muscles were set as hard as a boardin the most exaggerated rigor mortiswhile the contraction of the fibres haddrawn his mouth into a hard sardonic grin. This symptom was prevalent among allwho had died from the poison. Wherever we went we were confronted by thosegrinning faceswhich seemed to mock at our dreadful positionsmiling silentlyand grimly at the ill-fated survivors of their race.
"Look here" said Lord Johnwho had paced restlessly about thedining-room whilst we partook of some food"I don't know how you fellowsfeel about itbut for my partI simply CAN'T sit here and do nothin'."
"Perhaps" Challenger answered"you would have the kindnessto suggest what you think we ought to do."
"Get a move on us and see all that has happened."
"That is what I should myself propose."
"But not in this little country village. We can see from the window allthat this place can teach us."
"Where should we gothen?"
"That's all very well" grumbled Summerlee. "You may be equalto a forty-mile walkbut I'm not so sure about Challengerwith his stumpylegsand I am perfectly sure about myself." Challenger was very muchannoyed.
"If you could see your waysirto confining your remarks to your ownphysical peculiaritiesyou would find that you had an ample field forcomment" he cried.
"I had no intention to offend youmy dear Challenger" cried ourtactless friend"You can't be held responsible for your own physique. Ifnature has given you a shortheavy body you cannot possibly help having stumpylegs."
Challenger was too furious to answer. He could only growl and blink andbristle. Lord John hastened to intervene before the dispute became more violent.
"You talk of walking. Why should we walk?" said he.
"Do you suggest taking a train?" asked Challengerstill simmering.
"What's the matter with the motor-car? Why should we not go inthat?"
"I am not an expert" said Challengerpulling at his beardreflectively. "At the same timeyou are right in supposing that the humanintellect in its higher manifestations should be sufficiently flexible to turnitself to anything. Your idea is an excellent oneLord John. I myself willdrive you all to London."
"You will do nothing of the kind" said Summerlee with decision.
"NoindeedGeorge!" cried his wife. "You only tried onceand you remember how you crashed through the gate of the garage."
"It was a momentary want of concentration" said Challengercomplacently. "You can consider the matter settled. I will certainly driveyou all to London."
The situation was relieved by Lord John.
"What's the car?" he asked.
"A twenty-horsepower Humber."
"WhyI've driven one for years" said he. "By George!"he added. "I never thought I'd live to take the whole human race in oneload. There's just room for fiveas I remember it. Get your things onand I'llbe ready at the door by ten o'clock."
Sure enoughat the hour namedthe car came purring and crackling from theyard with Lord John at the wheel. I took my seat beside himwhile the ladyauseful little buffer statewas squeezed in between the two men of wrath at theback. Then Lord John released his brakesslid his lever rapidly from first tothirdand we sped off upon the strangest drive that ever human beings havetaken since man first came upon the earth.
You are to picture the loveliness of nature upon that August daythefreshness of the morning airthe golden glare of the summer sunshinethecloudless skythe luxuriant green of the Sussex woodsand the deep purple ofheather-clad downs. As you looked round upon the many-coloured beauty of thescene all thought of a vast catastrophe would have passed from your mind had itnot been for one sinister sign--the solemnall-embracing silence. There is agentle hum of life which pervades a closely-settled countryso deep andconstant that one ceases to observe itas the dweller by the sea loses allsense of the constant murmur of the waves. The twitter of birdsthe buzz ofinsectsthe far-off echo of voicesthe lowing of cattlethe distant barkingof dogsroar of trainsand rattle of carts--all these form one lowunremitting notestriking unheeded upon the ear. We missed it now. This deadlysilence was appalling. So solemn was itso impressivethat the buzz and rattleof our motor-car seemed an unwarrantable intrusionan indecent disregard ofthis reverent stillness which lay like a pall over and round the ruins ofhumanity. It was this grim hushand the tall clouds of smoke which rose hereand there over the country-side from smoldering buildingswhich cast a chillinto our hearts as we gazed round at the glorious panorama of the Weald.
And then there were the dead! At first those endless groups of drawn andgrinning faces filled us with a shuddering horror. So vivid and mordant was theimpression that I can live over again that slow descent of the station hillthepassing by the nurse-girl with the two babesthe sight of the old horse on hisknees between the shaftsthe cabman twisted across his seatand the young maninside with his hand upon the open door in the very act of springing out. Lowerdown were six reapers all in a littertheir limbs crossingtheir deadunwinking eyes gazing upwards at the glare of heaven. These things I see as in aphotograph. But soonby the merciful provision of naturethe over-excitednerve ceased to respond. The very vastness of the horror took away from itspersonal appeal. Individuals merged into groupsgroups into crowdscrowds intoa universal phenomenon which one soon accepted as the inevitable detail of everyscene. Only here and therewhere some particularly brutal or grotesque incidentcaught the attentiondid the mind come back with a sudden shock to the personaland human meaning of it all.
Above allthere was the fate of the children. ThatI rememberfilled uswith the strongest sense of intolerable injustice. We could have wept--Mrs.Challenger did weep--when we passed a great council school and saw the longtrail of tiny figures scattered down the road which led from it. They had beendismissed by their terrified teachers and were speeding for their homes when thepoison caught them in its net. Great numbers of people were at the open windowsof the houses. In Tunbridge Wells there was hardly one which had not itsstaringsmiling face. At the last instant the need of airthat very cravingfor oxygen which we alone had been able to satisfyhad sent them flying to thewindow. The sidewalks too were littered with men and womenhatless andbonnetlesswho had rushed out of the houses. Many of them had fallen in theroadway. It was a lucky thing that in Lord John we had found an expert driverfor it was no easy matter to pick one's way. Passing through the villages ortowns we could only go at a walking paceand onceI rememberopposite theschool at Tonbridgewe had to halt some time while we carried aside the bodieswhich blocked our path.
A few smalldefinite pictures stand out in my memory from amid that longpanorama of death upon the Sussex and Kentish high roads. One was that of agreatglittering motor-car standing outside the inn at the village ofSouthborough. It boreas I should guesssome pleasure party upon their returnfrom Brighton or from Eastbourne. There were three gaily dressed womenallyoung and beautifulone of them with a Peking spaniel upon her lap. With themwere a rakish-looking elderly man and a young aristocrathis eyeglass still inhis eyehis cigarette burned down to the stub between the fingers of hisbegloved hand. Death must have come on them in an instant and fixed them as theysat. Save that the elderly man had at the last moment torn out his collar in aneffort to breathethey might all have been asleep. On one side of the car awaiter with some broken glasses beside a tray was huddled near the step. On theothertwo very ragged trampsa man and a womanlay where they had fallentheman with his longthin arm still outstretchedeven as he had asked for alms inhis lifetime. One instant of time had put aristocratwaitertrampand dogupon one common footing of inert and dissolving protoplasm.
I remember another singular picturesome miles on the London side ofSevenoaks. There is a large convent upon the leftwith a longgreen slope infront of it. Upon this slope were assembled a great number of school childrenall kneeling at prayer. In front of them was a fringe of nunsand higher up theslopefacing towards thema single figure whom we took to be the MotherSuperior. Unlike the pleasure-seekers in the motor-carthese people seemed tohave had warning of their danger and to have died beautifully togethertheteachers and the taughtassembled for their last common lesson.
My mind is still stunned by that terrific experienceand I grope vainly formeans of expression by which I can reproduce the emotions which we felt. Perhapsit is best and wisest not to trybut merely to indicate the facts. EvenSummerlee and Challenger were crushedand we heard nothing of our companionsbehind us save an occasional whimper from the lady. As to Lord Johnhe was toointent upon his wheel and the difficult task of threading his way along suchroads to have time or inclination for conversation. One phrase he used with suchwearisome iteration that it stuck in my memory and at last almost made me laughas a comment upon the day of doom.
"Pretty doin's! What!"
That was his ejaculation as each fresh tremendous combination of death anddisaster displayed itself before us. "Pretty doin's! What!" he criedas we descended the station hill at Rotherfieldand it was still "Prettydoin's! What!" as we picked our way through a wilderness of death in theHigh Street of Lewisham and the Old Kent Road.
It was here that we received a sudden and amazing shock. Out of the window ofa humble corner house there appeared a fluttering handkerchief waving at the endof a longthin human arm. Never had the sight of unexpected death caused ourhearts to stop and then throb so wildly as did this amazing indication of life.Lord John ran the motor to the curband in an instant we had rushed through theopen door of the house and up the staircase to the second-floor front room fromwhich the signal proceeded.
A very old lady sat in a chair by the open windowand close to herlaidacross a second chairwas a cylinder of oxygensmaller but of the same shapeas those which had saved our own lives. She turned her thindrawnbespectacledface toward us as we crowded in at the doorway.
"I feared that I was abandoned here forever" said she"for Iam an invalid and cannot stir."
"Wellmadam" Challenger answered"it is a lucky chance thatwe happened to pass."
"I have one all-important question to ask you" said she."GentlemenI beg that you will be frank with me. What effect will theseevents have upon London and North-Western Railway shares?"
We should have laughed had it not been for the tragic eagerness with whichshe listened for our answer. Mrs. Burstonfor that was her namewas an agedwidowwhose whole income depended upon a small holding of this stock. Her lifehad been regulated by the rise and fall of the dividendand she could form noconception of existence save as it was affected by the quotation of her shares.In vain we pointed out to her that all the money in the world was hers for thetaking and was useless when taken. Her old mind would not adapt itself to thenew ideaand she wept loudly over her vanished stock. "It was all Ihad" she wailed. "If that is gone I may as well go too."
Amid her lamentations we found out how this frail old plant had lived wherethe whole great forest had fallen. She was a confirmed invalid and an asthmatic.Oxygen had been prescribed for her maladyand a tube was in her room at themoment of the crisis. She had naturally inhaled some as had been her habit whenthere was a difficulty with her breathing. It had given her reliefand bydoling out her supply she had managed to survive the night. Finally she hadfallen asleep and been awakened by the buzz of our motor-car. As it wasimpossible to take her on with uswe saw that she had all necessaries of lifeand promised to communicate with her in a couple of days at the latest. So weleft herstill weeping bitterly over her vanished stock.
As we approached the Thames the block in the streets became thicker and theobstacles more bewildering. It was with difficulty that we made our way acrossLondon Bridge. The approaches to it upon the Middlesex side were choked from endto end with frozen traffic which made all further advance in that directionimpossible. A ship was blazing brightly alongside one of the wharves near thebridgeand the air was full of drifting smuts and of a heavy acrid smell ofburning. There was a cloud of dense smoke somewhere near the Houses ofParliamentbut it was impossible from where we were to see what was on fire.
"I don't know how it strikes you" Lord John remarked as he broughthis engine to a standstill"but it seems to me the country is morecheerful than the town. Dead London is gettin' on my nerves. I'm for a castround and then gettin' back to Rotherfield."
"I confess that I do not see what we can hope for here" saidProfessor Summerlee.
"At the same time" said Challengerhis great voice boomingstrangely amid the silence"it is difficult for us to conceive that out ofseven millions of people there is only this one old woman who by somepeculiarity of constitution or some accident of occupation has managed tosurvive this catastrophe."
"If there should be othershow can we hope to find themGeorge?"asked the lady. "And yet I agree with you that we cannot go back until wehave tried."
Getting out of the car and leaving it by the curbwe walked with somedifficulty along the crowded pavement of King William Street and entered theopen door of a large insurance office. It was a corner houseand we chose it ascommanding a view in every direction. Ascending the stairwe passed throughwhat I suppose to have been the board-roomfor eight elderly men were seatedround a long table in the centre of it. The high window was open and we allstepped out upon the balcony. From it we could see the crowded city streetsradiating in every directionwhile below us the road was black from side toside with the tops of the motionless taxis. Allor nearly allhad their headspointed outwardsshowing how the terrified men of the city had at the lastmoment made a vain endeavor to rejoin their families in the suburbs or thecountry. Here and there amid the humbler cabs towered the great brass-spangledmotor-car of some wealthy magnatewedged hopelessly among the dammed stream ofarrested traffic. Just beneath us there was such a one of great size andluxurious appearancewith its ownera fat old manleaning outhalf his grossbody through the windowand his podgy handgleaming with diamondsoutstretched as he urged his chauffeur to make a last effort to break throughthe press.
A dozen motor-buses towered up like islands in this floodthe passengers whocrowded the roofs lying all huddled together and across eash others' laps like achild's toys in a nursery. On a broad lamp pedestal in the centre of theroadwaya burly policeman was standingleaning his back against the post in sonatural an attitude that it was hard to realize that he was not alivewhile athis feet there lay a ragged newsboy with his bundle of papers on the groundbeside him. A paper-cart had got blocked in the crowdand we could read inlarge lettersblack upon yellow"Scene at Lord's. County MatchInterrupted." This must have been the earliest editionfor there wereother placards bearing the legend"Is It the End? Great Scientist'sWarning." And another"Is Challenger Justified? OminousRumours."
Challenger pointed the latter placard out to his wifeas it thrust itselflike a banner above the throng. I could see him throw out his chest and strokehis beard as he looked at it. It pleased and flattered that complex mind tothink that London had died with his name and his words still present in theirthoughts. His feelings were so evident that they aroused the sardonic comment ofhis colleague.
"In the limelight to the lastChallenger" he remarked.
"So it would appear" he answered complacently. "Well"he added as he looked down the long vista of the radiating streetsall silentand all choked up with death"I really see no purpose to be served by ourstaying any longer in London. I suggest that we return at once to Rotherfieldand then take counsel as to how we shall most profitably employ the years whichlie before us."
Only one other picture shall I give of the scenes which we carried back inour memories from the dead city. It is a glimpse which we had of the interior ofthe old church of St. Mary'swhich is at the very point where our car wasawaiting us. Picking our way among the prostrate figures upon the stepswepushed open the swing door and entered. It was a wonderful sight. The church wascrammed from end to end with kneeling figures in every posture of supplicationand abasement. At the last dreadful momentbrought suddenly face to face withthe realities of lifethose terrific realities which hang over us even while wefollow the shadowsthe terrified people had rushed into those old city churcheswhich for generations had hardly ever held a congregation. There they huddled asclose as they could kneelmany of them in their agitation still wearing theirhatswhile above them in the pulpit a young man in lay dress had apparentlybeen addressing them when he and they had been overwhelmed by the same fate. Helay nowlike Punch in his boothwith his head and two limp arms hanging overthe ledge of the pulpit. It was a nightmarethe greydusty churchthe rows ofagonized figuresthe dimness and silence of it all. We moved about with hushedwhisperswalking upon our tip-toes.
And then suddenly I had an idea. At one corner of the churchnear the doorstood the ancient fontand behind it a deep recess in which there hung theropes for the bell-ringers. Why should we not send a message out over Londonwhich would attract to us anyone who might still be alive? I ran acrossandpulling at the list-covered ropeI was surprised to find how difficult it wasto swing the bell. Lord John had followed me.
"By Georgeyoung fellah!" said hepulling off his coat."You've hit on a dooced good notion. Give me a grip and we'll soon have amove on it."
Buteven thenso heavy was the bell that it was not until Challenger andSummerlee had added their weight to ours that we heard the roaring and clangingabove our heads which told us that the great clapper was ringing out its music.Far over dead London resounded our message of comradeship and hope to anyfellow-man surviving. It cheered our own heartsthat strongmetallic callandwe turned the more earnestly to our workdragged two feet off the earth witheach upward jerk of the ropebut all straining together on the downward heaveChallenger the lowest of allbending all his great strength to the task andflopping up and down like a monstrous bull-frogcroaking with every pull. Itwas at that moment that an artist might have taken a picture of the fouradventurersthe comrades of many strange perils in the pastwhom fate had nowchosen for so supreme an experience. For half an hour we workedthe sweatdropping from our facesour arms and backs aching with the exertion. Then wewent out into the portico of the church and looked eagerly up and down thesilentcrowded streets. Not a soundnot a motionin answer to our summons.
"It's no use. No one is left" I cried.
"We can do nothing more" said Mrs. Challenger. "For God'ssakeGeorgelet us get back to Rotherfield. Another hour of this dreadfulsilent city would drive me mad."
We got into the car without another word. Lord John backed her round andturned her to the south. To us the chapter seemed closed. Little did we foreseethe strange new chapter which was to open.
And now I come to the end of this extraordinary incidentso overshadowing inits importancenot only in our own smallindividual livesbut in the generalhistory of the human race. As I said when I began my narrativewhen thathistory comes to be writtenthis occurrence will surely stand out among allother events like a mountain towering among its foothills. Our generation hasbeen reserved for a very special fate since it has been chosen to experience sowonderful a thing. How long its effect may last--how long mankind may preservethe humility and reverence which this great shock has taught it--can only beshown by the future. I think it is safe to say that things can never be quitethe same again. Never can one realize how powerless and ignorant one isand howone is upheld by an unseen handuntil for an instant that hand has seemed toclose and to crush. Death has been imminent upon us. We know that at any momentit may be again. That grim presence shadows our livesbut who can deny that inthat shadow the sense of dutythe feeling of sobriety and responsibilitytheappreciation of the gravity and of the objects of lifethe earnest desire todevelop and improvehave grown and become real with us to a degree that hasleavened our whole society from end to end? It is something beyond sects andbeyond dogmas. It is rather an alteration of perspectivea shifting of oursense of proportiona vivid realization that we are insignificant andevanescent creaturesexisting on sufferance and at the mercy of the first chillwind from the unknown. But if the world has grown graver with this knowledge itis notI thinka sadder place in consequence. Surely we are agreed that themore sober and restrained pleasures of the present are deeper as well as wiserthan the noisyfoolish hustle which passed so often for enjoyment in the daysof old--days so recent and yet already so inconceivable. Those empty lives whichwere wasted in aimless visiting and being visitedin the worry of great andunnecessary householdsin the arranging and eating of elaborate and tediousmealshave now found rest and health in the readingthe musicthe gentlefamily communion which comes from a simpler and saner division of their time.With greater health and greater pleasure they are richer than beforeeven afterthey have paid those increased contributions to the common fund which have soraised the standard of life in these islands.
There is some clash of opinion as to the exact hour of the great awakening.It is generally agreed thatapart from the difference of clocksthere may havebeen local causes which influenced the action of the poison. Certainlyin eachseparate district the resurrection was practically simultaneous. There arenumerous witnesses that Big Ben pointed to ten minutes past six at the moment.The Astronomer Royal has fixed the Greenwich time at twelve past six. On theother handLaird Johnsona very capable East Anglia observerhas recordedsix-twenty as the hour. In the Hebrides it was as late as seven. In our own casethere can be no doubt whateverfor I was seated in Challenger's study with hiscarefully tested chronometer in front of me at the moment. The hour was aquarter-past six.
An enormous depression was weighing upon my spirits. The cumulative effect ofall the dreadful sights which we had seen upon our journey was heavy upon mysoul. With my abounding animal health and great physical energy any kind ofmental clouding was a rare event. I had the Irish faculty of seeing some gleamof humor in every darkness. But now the obscurity was appalling and unrelieved.The others were downstairs making their plans for the future. I sat by the openwindowmy chin resting upon my hand and my mind absorbed in the misery of oursituation. Could we continue to live? That was the question which I had begun toask myself. Was it possible to exist upon a dead world? Just as in physics thegreater body draws to itself the lesserwould we not feel an overpoweringattraction from that vast body of humanity which had passed into the unknown?How would the end come? Would it be from a return of the poison? Or would theearth be uninhabitable from the mephitic products of universal decay? Orfinallymight our awful situation prey upon and unbalance our minds? A group ofinsane folk upon a dead world! My mind was brooding upon this last dreadful ideawhen some slight noise caused me to look down upon the road beneath me. The oldcab horse was coming up the hill!
I was conscious at the same instant of the twittering of birdsof someonecoughing in the yard belowand of a background of movement in the landscape.And yet I remember that it was that absurdemaciatedsuperannuated cab-horsewhich held my gaze. Slowly and wheezily it was climbing the slope. Then my eyetraveled to the driver sitting hunched up upon the box and finally to the youngman who was leaning out of the window in some excitement and shouting adirection. They were all indubitablyaggressively alive!
Everybody was alive once more! Had it all been a delusion? Was it conceivablethat this whole poison belt incident had been an elaborate dream? For an instantmy startled brain was really ready to believe it. Then I looked downand therewas the rising blister on my hand where it was frayed by the rope of the citybell. It had really been sothen. And yet here was the world resuscitated--herewas life come back in an instant full tide to the planet. Nowas my eyeswandered all over the great landscapeI saw it in every direction--and movingto my amazementin the very same groove in which it had halted. There were thegolfers. Was it possible that they were going on with their game? Yesthere wasa fellow driving off from a teeand that other group upon the green were surelyputting for the hole. The reapers were slowly trooping back to their work. Thenurse-girl slapped one of her charges and then began to push the perambulator upthe hill. Everyone had unconcernedly taken up the thread at the very point wherethey had dropped it.
I rushed downstairsbut the hall door was openand I heard the voices of mycompanionsloud in astonishment and congratulationin the yard. How we allshook hands and laughed as we came togetherand how Mrs. Challenger kissed usall in her emotionbefore she finally threw herself into the bear-hug of herhusband.
"But they could not have been asleep!" cried Lord John. "Dashit allChallengeryou don't mean to believe that those folk were asleep withtheir staring eyes and stiff limbs and that awful death grin on theirfaces!"
"It can only have been the condition that is called catalepsy"said Challenger. "It has been a rare phenomenon in the past and hasconstantly been mistaken for death. While it enduresthe temperature fallstherespiration disappearsthe heartbeat is indistinguishable--in factit ISdeathsave that it is evanescent. Even the most comprehensive mind"--herehe closed his eyes and simpered--"could hardly conceive a universaloutbreak of it in this fashion."
"You may label it catalepsy" remarked Summerlee"butafterallthat is only a nameand we know as little of the result as we do of thepoison which has caused it. The most we can say is that the vitiated ether hasproduced a temporary death."
Austin was seated all in a heap on the step of the car. It was his coughingwhich I had heard from above. He had been holding his head in silencebut nowhe was muttering to himself and running his eyes over the car.
"Young fat-head!" he grumbled. "Can't leave thingsalone!"
"What's the matterAustin?"
"Lubricators left runningsir. Someone has been fooling with the car. Iexpect it's that young garden boysir."
Lord John looked guilty.
"I don't know what's amiss with me" continued Austinstaggeringto his feet. "I expect I came over queer when I was hosing her down. I seemto remember flopping over by the step. But I'll swear I never left thoselubricator taps on."
In a condensed narrative the astonished Austin was told what had happened tohimself and the world. The mystery of the dripping lubricators was alsoexplained to him. He listened with an air of deep distrust when told how anamateur had driven his car and with absorbed interest to the few sentences inwhich our experiences of the sleeping city were recorded. I can remember hiscomment when the story was concluded.
"Was you outside the Bank of Englandsir?"
"With all them millions inside and everybody asleep?"
"That was so."
"And I not there!" he groanedand turned dismally once more to thehosing of his car.
There was a sudden grinding of wheels upon gravel. The old cab had actuallypulled up at Challenger's door. I saw the young occupant step out from it. Aninstant later the maidwho looked as tousled and bewildered as if she had thatinstant been aroused from the deepest sleepappeared with a card upon a tray.Challenger snorted ferociously as he looked at itand his thick black hairseemed to bristle up in his wrath.
"A pressman!" he growled. Then with a deprecating smile:"After allit is natural that the whole world should hasten to know what Ithink of such an episode."
"That can hardly be his errand" said Summerlee"for he wason the road in his cab before ever the crisis came."
I looked at the card: "James BaxterLondon CorrespondentNew YorkMonitor."
"You'll see him?" said I.
"OhGeorge! You should be kinder and more considerate to others. Surelyyou have learned something from what we have undergone."
He tut-tutted and shook his bigobstinate head.
"A poisonous breed! EhMalone? The worst weed in modern civilizationthe ready tool of the quack and the hindrance of the self-respecting man! Whendid they ever say a good word for me?"
"When did you ever say a good word to them?" I answered."Comesirthis is a stranger who has made a journey to see you. I am surethat you won't be rude to him."
"Wellwell" he grumbled"you come with me and do thetalking. I protest in advance against any such outrageous invasion of my privatelife." Muttering and mumblinghe came rolling after me like an angry andrather ill-conditioned mastiff.
The dapper young American pulled out his notebook and plunged instantly intohis subject.
"I came downsir" said he"because our people in Americawould very much like to hear more about this danger which isin your opinionpressing upon the world."
"I know of no danger which is now pressing upon the world"Challenger answered gruffly.
The pressman looked at him in mild surprise.
"I meantsirthe chances that the world might run into a belt ofpoisonous ether."
"I do not now apprehend any such danger" said Challenger.
The pressman looked even more perplexed.
"You are Professor Challengerare you not?" he asked.
"Yessir; that is my name."
"I cannot understandthenhow you can say that there is no suchdanger. I am alluding to your own letterpublished above your name in theLondon Times of this morning."
It was Challenger's turn to look surprised.
"This morning?" said he. "No London Times was published thismorning."
"Surelysir" said the American in mild remonstrance"youmust admit that the London Times is a daily paper." He drew out a copy fromhis inside pocket. "Here is the letter to which I refer."
Challenger chuckled and rubbed his hands.
"I begin to understand" said he. "So you read this letterthis morning?"
"And came at once to interview me?"
"Did you observe anything unusual upon the journey down?"
"Wellto tell the truthyour people seemed more lively and generallyhuman than I have ever seen them. The baggage man set out to tell me a funnystoryand that's a new experience for me in this country."
"Whynosirnot that I can recall."
"Wellnowwhat hour did you leave Victoria?"
The American smiled.
"I came here to interview youProfessorbut it seems to be a case of`Is this nigger fishingor is this fish niggering?' You're doing most of thework."
"It happens to interest me. Do you recall the hour?"
"Sure. It was half-past twelve."
"And you arrived?"
"At a quarter-past two."
"And you hired a cab?"
"That was so."
"How far do you suppose it is to the station?"
"WellI should reckon the best part of two miles."
"So how long do you think it took you?"
"Wellhalf an hourmaybewith that asthmatic in front."
"So it should be three o'clock?"
"Yesor a trifle after it."
"Look at your watch."
The American did so and then stared at us in astonishment.
"Say!" he cried. "It's run down. That horse has broken everyrecordsure. The sun is pretty lownow that I come to look at it. Wellthere's something here I don't understand."
"Have you no remembrance of anything remarkable as you came up thehill?"
"WellI seem to recollect that I was mighty sleepy once.
It comes back to me that I wanted to say something to the driver and that Icouldn't make him heed me. I guess it was the heatbut I felt swimmy for amoment. That's all."
"So it is with the whole human race" said Challenger to me."They have all felt swimmy for a moment. None of them have as yet anycomprehension of what has occurred. Each will go on with his interrupted job asAustin has snatched up his hose-pipe or the golfer continued his game. YoureditorMalonewill continue the issue of his papersand very much amazed hewill be at finding that an issue is missing. Yesmy young friend" headded to the American reporterwith a sudden mood of amused geniality"itmay interest you to know that the world has swum through the poisonous currentwhich swirls like the Gulf Stream through the ocean of ether. You will alsokindly note for your own future convenience that to-day is not FridayAugustthe twenty-seventhbut SaturdayAugust the twenty-eighthand that you satsenseless in your cab for twenty-eight hours upon the Rotherfield hill."
And "right here" as my American colleague would sayI may bringthis narrative to an end. It isas you are probably awareonly a fuller andmore detailed version of the account which appeared in the Monday edition of theDaily Gazette--an account which has been universally admitted to be the greatestjournalistic scoop of all timewhich sold no fewer than three-and-a-halfmillion copies of the paper. Framed upon the wall of my sanctum I retain thosemagnificent headlines:--
TWENTY-EIGHT HOURS' WORLD COMA UNPRECEDENTED EXPERIENCE CHALLENGER JUSTIFIEDOUR CORRESPONDENT ESCAPES ENTHRALLING NARRATIVE THE OXYGEN ROOM WEIRD MOTORDRIVE DEAD LONDON REPLACING THE MISSING PAGE GREAT FIRES AND LOSS OF LIFE WILLIT RECUR?
Underneath this glorious scroll came nine and a half columns of narrativeinwhich appeared the firstlastand only account of the history of the planetso far as one observer could draw itduring one long day of its existence.Challenger and Summerlee have treated the matter in a joint scientific paperbut to me alone was left the popular account. Surely I can sing "Nuncdimittis." What is left but anti-climax in the life of a journalist afterthat!
But let me not end on sensational headlines and a merely personal triumph.Rather let me quote the sonorous passages in which the greatest of daily papersended its admirable leader upon the subject--a leader which might well be filedfor reference by every thoughtful man.
"It has been a well-worn truism" said the Times"that ourhuman race are a feeble folk before the infinite latent forces which surroundus. From the prophets of old and from the philosophers of our own time the samemessage and warning have reached us. Butlike all oft-repeated truthsit hasin time lost something of its actuality and cogency. A lessonan actualexperiencewas needed to bring it home. It is from that salutory but terribleordeal that we have just emergedwith minds which are still stunned by thesuddenness of the blow and with spirits which are chastened by the realizationof our own limitations and impotence. The world has paid a fearful price for itsschooling. Hardly yet have we learned the full tale of disasterbut thedestruction by fire of New Yorkof Orleansand of Brighton constitutes initself one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our race. When theaccount of the railway and shipping accidents has been completedit willfurnish grim readingalthough there is evidence to show that in the vastmajority of cases the drivers of trains and engineers of steamers succeeded inshutting off their motive power before succumbing to the poison. But thematerial damageenormous as it is both in life and in propertyis not theconsideration which will be uppermost in our minds to-day. All this may in timebe forgotten. But what will not be forgottenand what will and should continueto obsess our imaginationsis this revelation of the possibilities of theuniversethis destruction of our ignorant self-complacencyand thisdemonstration of how narrow is the path of our material existence and whatabysses may lie upon either side of it. Solemnity and humility are at the baseof all our emotions to-day. May they be the foundations upon which a moreearnest and reverent race may build a more worthy temple."