In the Days of the Comet
H. G. Wells
Part 3 out of 5
to the Public Library to consult a map.
Shaphambury was on the coast of Essex, a long and complicated
journey from Clayton. I went to the railway-station and made some
memoranda from the time-tables. The porters I asked were not very
clear about Shaphambury, but the booking-office clerk was helpful,
and we puzzled out all I wanted to know. Then I came out into the
coaly street again. At the least I ought to have two pounds.
I went back to the Public Library and into the newspaper room to
think over this problem.
A fact intruded itself upon me. People seemed in an altogether
exceptional stir about the morning journals, there was something
unusual in the air of the room, more people and more talking than
usual, and for a moment I was puzzled. Then I bethought me: "This
war with Germany, of course!" A naval battle was supposed to be in
progress in the North Sea. Let them! I returned to the consideration
of my own affairs.
Could I go and make it up with him, and then borrow? I weighed the
chances of that. Then I thought of selling or pawning something,
but that seemed difficult. My winter overcoat had not cost a pound
when it was new, my watch was not likely to fetch many shillings.
Still, both these things might be factors. I thought with a certain
repugnance of the little store my mother was probably making for
the rent. She was very secretive about that, and it was locked in
an old tea-caddy in her bedroom. I knew it would be almost impossible
to get any of that money from her willingly, and though I told
myself that in this issue of passion and death no detail mattered,
I could not get rid of tormenting scruples whenever I thought of
that tea-caddy. Was there no other course? Perhaps after every
other source had been tapped I might supplement with a few shillings
frankly begged from her. "These others," I said to myself, thinking
without passion for once of the sons of the Secure, "would find it
difficult to run their romances on a pawnshop basis. However, we
must manage it."
I felt the day was passing on, but I did not get excited about
that. "Slow is swiftest," Parload used to say, and I meant to get
everything thought out completely, to take a long aim and then to
act as a bullet flies.
I hesitated at a pawnshop on my way home to my midday meal, but I
determined not to pledge my watch until I could bring my overcoat
I ate silently, revolving plans.
After our midday dinner--it was a potato-pie, mostly potato with
some scraps of cabbage and bacon--I put on my overcoat and got it
out of the house while my mother was in the scullery at the back.
A scullery in the old world was, in the case of such houses as
ours, a damp, unsavory, mainly subterranean region behind the dark
living-room kitchen, that was rendered more than typically dirty
in our case by the fact that into it the coal-cellar, a yawning
pit of black uncleanness, opened, and diffused small crunchable
particles about the uneven brick floor. It was the region of
"washing-up," that greasy, damp function that followed every meal;
its atmosphere had ever a cooling steaminess and the memory of
boiled cabbage, and the sooty black stains where saucepan or kettle
had been put down for a minute, scraps of potato-peel caught by
the strainer of the escape-pipe, and rags of a quite indescribable
horribleness of acquisition, called "dish-clouts," rise in my
memory at the name. The altar of this place was the "sink," a tank
of stone, revolting to a refined touch, grease-filmed and unpleasant
to see, and above this was a tap for cold water, so arranged that
when the water descended it splashed and wetted whoever had turned
it on. This tap was our water supply. And in such a place you
must fancy a little old woman, rather incompetent and very gentle,
a soul of unselfishness and sacrifice, in dirty clothes, all come
from their original colors to a common dusty dark gray, in worn,
ill-fitting boots, with hands distorted by ill use, and untidy
graying hair--my mother. In the winter her hands would be "chapped,"
and she would have a cough. And while she washes up I go out, to
sell my overcoat and watch in order that I may desert her.
I gave way to queer hesitations in pawning my two negotiable articles.
A weakly indisposition to pawn in Clayton, where the pawnbroker
knew me, carried me to the door of the place in Lynch Street,
Swathinglea, where I had bought my revolver. Then came an idea that
I was giving too many facts about myself to one man, and I came
back to Clayton after all. I forget how much money I got, but I
remember that it was rather less than the sum I had made out to be
the single fare to Shaphambury. Still deliberate, I went back to
the Public Library to find out whether it was possible, by walking
for ten or twelve miles anywhere, to shorten the journey. My boots
were in a dreadful state, the sole of the left one also was now
peeling off, and I could not help perceiving that all my plans
might be wrecked if at this crisis I went on shoe leather in which
I could only shuffle. So long as I went softly they would serve,
but not for hard walking. I went to the shoemaker in Hacker Street,
but he would not promise any repairs for me under forty-eight hours.
I got back home about five minutes to three, resolved to start by
the five train for Birmingham in any case, but still dissatisfied
about my money. I thought of pawning a book or something of that
sort, but I could think of nothing of obvious value in the house.
My mother's silver--two gravy-spoons and a salt-cellar--had been
pawned for some weeks, since, in fact, the June quarter day. But
my mind was full of hypothetical opportunities.
As I came up the steps to our door, I remarked that Mr. Gabbitas
looked at me suddenly round his dull red curtains with a sort of
alarmed resolution in his eye and vanished, and as I walked along
the passage he opened his door upon me suddenly and intercepted
You are figuring me, I hope, as a dark and sullen lout in shabby,
cheap, old-world clothes that are shiny at all the wearing surfaces,
and with a discolored red tie and frayed linen. My left hand keeps
in my pocket as though there is something it prefers to keep a grip
upon there. Mr. Gabbitas was shorter than I, and the first note
he struck in the impression he made upon any one was of something
bright and birdlike. I think he wanted to be birdlike, he possessed
the possibility of an avian charm, but, as a matter of fact, there
was nothing of the glowing vitality of the bird in his being. And
a bird is never out of breath and with an open mouth. He was in
the clerical dress of that time, that costume that seems now almost
the strangest of all our old-world clothing, and he presented it in
its cheapest form--black of a poor texture, ill-fitting, strangely
cut. Its long skirts accentuated the tubbiness of his body, the
shortness of his legs. The white tie below his all-round collar,
beneath his innocent large-spectacled face, was a little grubby,
and between his not very clean teeth he held a briar pipe. His
complexion was whitish, and although he was only thirty-three or
four perhaps, his sandy hair was already thinning from the top of
To your eye, now, he would seem the strangest figure, in the utter
disregard of all physical beauty or dignity about him. You would
find him extraordinarily odd, but in the old days he met not only
with acceptance but respect. He was alive until within a year or so
ago, but his later appearance changed. As I saw him that afternoon
he was a very slovenly, ungainly little human being indeed, not only
was his clothing altogether ugly and queer, but had you stripped
the man stark, you would certainly have seen in the bulging paunch
that comes from flabby muscles and flabbily controlled appetites,
and in the rounded shoulders and flawed and yellowish skin, the same
failure of any effort toward clean beauty. You had an instinctive
sense that so he had been from the beginning. You felt he was not
only drifting through life, eating what came in his way, believing
what came in his way, doing without any vigor what came in his way,
but that into life also he had drifted. You could not believe him
the child of pride and high resolve, or of any splendid passion of
love. He had just HAPPENED. . . But we all happened then. Why am
I taking this tone over this poor little curate in particular?
"Hello!" he said, with an assumption of friendly ease. "Haven't
seen you for weeks! Come in and have a gossip."
An invitation from the drawing-room lodger was in the nature of a
command. I would have liked very greatly to have refused it, never
was invitation more inopportune, but I had not the wit to think
of an excuse. "All right," I said awkwardly, and he held the door
open for me.
"I'd be very glad if you would," he amplified. "One doesn't get
much opportunity of intelligent talk in this parish."
What the devil was he up to, was my secret preoccupation. He fussed
about me with a nervous hospitality, talking in jumpy fragments,
rubbing his hands together, and taking peeps at me over and round
his glasses. As I sat down in his leather-covered armchair, I had
an odd memory of the one in the Clayton dentist's operating-room--I
know not why.
"They're going to give us trouble in the North Sea, it seems," he
remarked with a sort of innocent zest. "I'm glad they mean fighting."
There was an air of culture about his room that always cowed me,
and that made me constrained even on this occasion. The table under
the window was littered with photographic material and the later
albums of his continental souvenirs, and on the American cloth
trimmed shelves that filled the recesses on either side of the
fireplace were what I used to think in those days a quite incredible
number of books--perhaps eight hundred altogether, including
the reverend gentleman's photograph albums and college and school
text-books. This suggestion of learning was enforced by the
little wooden shield bearing a college coat-of-arms that hung over
the looking-glass, and by a photograph of Mr. Gabbitas in cap and
gown in an Oxford frame that adorned the opposite wall. And in the
middle of that wall stood his writing-desk, which I knew to have
pigeon-holes when it was open, and which made him seem not merely
cultured but literary. At that he wrote sermons, composing them
"Yes," he said, taking possession of the hearthrug, "the war had
to come sooner or later. If we smash their fleet for them now;
well, there's an end to the matter!"
He stood on his toes and then bumped down on his heels, and looked
blandly through his spectacles at a water-color by his sister--the
subject was a bunch of violets--above the sideboard which was his
pantry and tea-chest and cellar. "Yes," he said as he did so.
I coughed, and wondered how I might presently get away.
He invited me to smoke--that queer old practice! --and then when
I declined, began talking in a confidential tone of this "dreadful
business" of the strikes. "The war won't improve THAT outlook," he
said, and was very grave for a moment.
He spoke of the want of thought for their wives and children shown
by the colliers in striking merely for the sake of the union, and
this stirred me to controversy, and distracted me a little from my
resolution to escape.
"I don't quite agree with that," I said, clearing my throat. "If
the men didn't strike for the union now, if they let that be broken
up, where would they be when the pinch of reductions did come?"
To which he replied that they couldn't expect to get top-price
wages when the masters were selling bottom-price coal. I replied,
"That isn't it. The masters don't treat them fairly. They have to
To which Mr. Gabbitas answered, "Well, I don't know. I've been in
the Four Towns some time, and I must say I don't think the balance
of injustice falls on the masters' side."
"It falls on the men," I agreed, wilfully misunderstanding him.
And so we worked our way toward an argument. "Confound this
argument!" I thought; but I had no skill in self-extraction, and
my irritation crept into my voice. Three little spots of color came
into the cheeks and nose of Mr. Gabbitas, but his voice showed
nothing of his ruffled temper.
"You see," I said, "I'm a socialist. I don't think this world was
made for a small minority to dance on the faces of every one else."
"My dear fellow," said the Rev. Gabbitas, "I'M a socialist too.
Who isn't. But that doesn't lead me to class hatred."
"You haven't felt the heel of this confounded system. I have."
"Ah!" said he; and catching him on that note came a rap at the front
door, and, as he hung suspended, the sound of my mother letting
some one in and a timid rap.
"NOW," thought I, and stood up, resolutely, but he would not let
me. "No, no, no!" said he. "It's only for the Dorcas money."
He put his hand against my chest with an effect of physical
compulsion, and cried, "Come in!"
"Our talk's just getting interesting," he protested; and there
entered Miss Ramell, an elderly little young lady who was mighty
in Church help in Clayton.
He greeted her--she took no notice of me--and went to his bureau,
and I remained standing by my chair but unable to get out of the
room. "I'm not interrupting?" asked Miss Ramell.
"Not in the least," he said; drew out the carriers and opened his
desk. I could not help seeing what he did.
I was so fretted by my impotence to leave him that at the moment
it did not connect at all with the research of the morning that
he was taking out money. I listened sullenly to his talk with Miss
Ramell, and saw only, as they say in Wales, with the front of my
eyes, the small flat drawer that had, it seemed, quite a number
of sovereigns scattered over its floor. "They're so unreasonable,"
complained Miss Ramell. Who could be otherwise in a social
organization that bordered on insanity?
I turned away from them, put my foot on the fender, stuck my elbow
on the plush-fringed mantelboard, and studied the photographs,
pipes, and ash-trays that adorned it. What was it I had to think
out before I went to the station?
Of course! My mind made a queer little reluctant leap--it felt like
being forced to leap over a bottomless chasm--and alighted upon the
sovereigns that were just disappearing again as Mr. Gabbitas shut
"I won't interrupt your talk further," said Miss Ramell, receding
Mr. Gabbitas played round her politely, and opened the door for her
and conducted her into the passage, and for a moment or so I had
the fullest sense of proximity to those--it seemed to me
there must be ten or twelve--sovereigns. . . .
The front door closed and he returned. My chance of escape had
"I MUST be going," I said, with a curiously reinforced desire to
get away out of that room.
"My dear chap!" he insisted, "I can't think of it. Surely--there's
nothing to call you away." Then with an evident desire to shift the
venue of our talk, he asked, "You never told me what you thought
of Burble's little book."
I was now, beneath my dull display of submission, furiously angry
with him. It occurred to me to ask myself why I should defer
and qualify my opinions to him. Why should I pretend a feeling
of intellectual and social inferiority toward him. He asked what
I thought of Burble. I resolved to tell him--if necessary with
arrogance. Then perhaps he would release me. I did not sit down
again, but stood by the corner of the fireplace.
"That was the little book you lent me last summer?" I said.
"He reasons closely, eh?" he said, and indicated the armchair with
a flat hand, and beamed persuasively.
I remained standing. "I didn't think much of his reasoning powers,"
"He was one of the cleverest bishops London ever had."
"That may be. But he was dodging about in a jolly feeble case,"
"That he's wrong. I don't think he proves his case. I don't think
Christianity is true. He knows himself for the pretender he is.
Mr. Gabbitas went, I think, a shade paler than his wont, and propitiation
vanished from his manner. His eyes and mouth were round, his face
seemed to get round, his eyebrows curved at my remarks.
"I'm sorry you think that," he said at last, with a catch in his
He did not repeat his suggestion that I should sit. He made a step
or two toward the window and turned. "I suppose you will admit--" he
began, with a faintly irritating note of intellectual condescension.
. . . .
I will not tell you of his arguments or mine. You will find if
you care to look for them, in out-of-the-way corners of our book
museums, the shriveled cheap publications--the publications of the
Rationalist Press Association, for example --on which my arguments
were based. Lying in that curious limbo with them, mixed up with
them and indistinguishable, are the endless "Replies" of orthodoxy,
like the mixed dead in some hard-fought trench. All those disputes
of our fathers, and they were sometimes furious disputes, have
gone now beyond the range of comprehension. You younger people, I
know, read them with impatient perplexity. You cannot understand
how sane creatures could imagine they had joined issue at all
in most of these controversies. All the old methods of systematic
thinking, the queer absurdities of the Aristotelian logic, have
followed magic numbers and mystical numbers, and the Rumpelstiltskin
magic of names now into the blackness of the unthinkable. You can
no more understand our theological passions than you can understand
the fancies that made all ancient peoples speak of their gods only
by circumlocutions, that made savages pine away and die because
they had been photographed, or an Elizabethan farmer turn back from
a day's expedition because he had met three crows. Even I, who have
been through it all, recall our controversies now with something
Faith we can understand to-day, all men live by faith, but in the
old time every one confused quite hopelessly Faith and a forced,
incredible Belief in certain pseudo-concrete statements. I am
inclined to say that neither believers nor unbelievers had faith as
we understand it--they had insufficient intellectual power. They
could not trust unless they had something to see and touch and
say, like their barbarous ancestors who could not make a bargain
without exchange of tokens. If they no longer worshipped stocks and
stones, or eked out their needs with pilgrimages and images, they
still held fiercely to audible images, to printed words and formulae.
But why revive the echoes of the ancient logomachies?
Suffice it that we lost our tempers very readily in pursuit of
God and Truth, and said exquisitely foolish things on either side.
And on the whole--from the impartial perspective of my three and
seventy years--I adjudicate that if my dialectic was bad, that of
the Rev. Gabbitas was altogether worse.
Little pink spots came into his cheeks, a squealing note into his
voice. We interrupted each other more and more rudely. We invented
facts and appealed to authorities whose names I mispronounced;
and, finding Gabbitas shy of the higher criticism and the Germans,
I used the names of Karl Marx and Engels as Bible exegetes with no
little effect. A silly wrangle! a preposterous wrangle!--you must
imagine our talk becoming louder, with a developing quarrelsome
note--my mother no doubt hovering on the staircase and listening
in alarm as who should say, "My dear, don't offend it! Oh, don't
offend it! Mr. Gabbitas enjoys its friendship. Try to think whatever
Mr. Gabbitas says"--though we still kept in touch with a pretence
of mutual deference. The ethical superiority of Christianity to
all other religions came to the fore--I know not how. We dealt with
the matter in bold, imaginative generalizations, because of the
insufficiency of our historical knowledge. I was moved to denounce
Christianity as the ethic of slaves, and declare myself a disciple
of a German writer of no little vogue in those days, named Nietzsche.
For a disciple I must confess I was particularly ill acquainted
with the works of the master. Indeed, all I knew of him had come
to me through a two-column article in The Clarion for the previous
week. . . . But the Rev. Gabbitas did not read The Clarion.
I am, I know, putting a strain upon your credulity when I tell you
that I now have little doubt that the Rev. Gabbitas was absolutely
ignorant even of the name of Nietzsche, although that writer presented
a separate and distinct attitude of attack upon the faith that was
in the reverend gentleman's keeping.
"I'm a disciple of Nietzsche," said I, with an air of extensive
He shied away so awkwardly at the name that I repeated it at once.
"But do you know what Nietzsche says?" I pressed him viciously.
"He has certainly been adequately answered," said he, still trying
to carry it off.
"Who by?" I rapped out hotly. "Tell me that!" and became mercilessly
A happy accident relieved Mr. Gabbitas from the embarrassment
of that challenge, and carried me another step along my course of
It came on the heels of my question in the form of a clatter of
horses without, and the gride and cessation of wheels. I glimpsed
a straw-hatted coachman and a pair of grays. It seemed an incredibly
magnificent carriage for Clayton.
"Eh!" said the Rev. Gabbitas, going to the window. "Why, it's old
Mrs. Verrall! It's old Mrs. Verrall. Really! What CAN she want with
He turned to me, and the flush of controversy had passed and his
face shone like the sun. It was not every day, I perceived, that
Mrs. Verrall came to see him.
"I get so many interruptions," he said, almost grinning. "You must
excuse me a minute! Then--then I'll tell you about that fellow.
But don't go. I pray you don't go. I can assure you. . . . MOST
He went out of the room waving vague prohibitory gestures.
"I MUST go," I cried after him.
"No, no, no!" in the passage. "I've got your answer," I think it
was he added, and "quite mistaken;" and I saw him running down the
steps to talk to the old lady.
I swore. I made three steps to the window, and this brought me
within a yard of that accursed drawer.
I glanced at it, and then at that old woman who was so absolutely
powerful, and instantly her son and Nettie's face were flaming in
my brain. The Stuarts had, no doubt, already accepted accomplished
facts. And I too--
What was I doing here?
What was I doing here while judgment escaped me?
I woke up. I was injected with energy. I took one reassuring look
at the curate's obsequious back, at the old lady's projected nose
and quivering hand, and then with swift, clean movements I had the
little drawer open, four sovereigns in my pocket, and the drawer
shut again. Then again at the window--they were still talking.
That was all right. He might not look in that drawer for hours. I
glanced at his clock. Twenty minutes still before the Birmingham
train. Time to buy a pair of boots and get away. But how I was to
get to the station?
I went out boldly into the passage, and took my hat and stick. .
. . Walk past him?
Yes. That was all right! He could not argue with me while so
important a person engaged him. . . . I came boldly down the steps.
"I want a list made, Mr. Gabbitas, of all the really DESERVING
cases," old Mrs. Verrall was saying.
It is curious, but it did not occur to me that here was a mother
whose son I was going to kill. I did not see her in that aspect
at all. Instead, I was possessed by a realization of the blazing
imbecility of a social system that gave this palsied old woman
the power to give or withhold the urgent necessities of life from
hundreds of her fellow-creatures just according to her poor, foolish
old fancies of desert.
"We could make a PROVISIONAL list of that sort," he was saying,
and glanced round with a preoccupied expression at me.
"I MUST go," I said at his flash of inquiry, and added, "I'll be
back in twenty minutes," and went on my way. He turned again to
his patroness as though he forgot me on the instant. Perhaps after
all he was not sorry.
I felt extraordinarily cool and capable, exhilarated, if anything,
by this prompt, effectual theft. After all, my great determination
would achieve itself. I was no longer oppressed by a sense
of obstacles, I felt I could grasp accidents and turn them to my
advantage. I would go now down Hacker Street to the little shoemaker's
--get a sound, good pair of boots--ten minutes--and then to the
railway-station--five minutes more--and off! I felt as efficient
and non-moral as if I was Nietzsche's Over-man already come. It did
not occur to me that the curate's clock might have a considerable
margin of error.
I missed the train.
Partly that was because the curate's clock was slow, and partly
it was due to the commercial obstinacy of the shoemaker, who would
try on another pair after I had declared my time was up. I bought
the final pair however, gave him a wrong address for the return of
the old ones, and only ceased to feel like the Nietzschean Over-man,
when I saw the train running out of the station.
Even then I did not lose my head. It occurred to me almost at once
that, in the event of a prompt pursuit, there would be a great
advantage in not taking a train from Clayton; that, indeed, to have
done so would have been an error from which only luck had saved
me. As it was, I had already been very indiscreet in my inquiries
about Shaphambury; for once on the scent the clerk could not fail
to remember me. Now the chances were against his coming into the
case. I did not go into the station therefore at all, I made no
demonstration of having missed the train, but walked quietly past,
down the road, crossed the iron footbridge, and took the way back
circuitously by White's brickfields and the allotments to the way
over Clayton Crest to Two-Mile Stone, where I calculated I should
have an ample margin for the 6.13 train.
I was not very greatly excited or alarmed then. Suppose, I reasoned,
that by some accident the curate goes to that drawer at once: will
he be certain to miss four out of ten or eleven sovereigns? If he
does, will he at once think I have taken them? If he does, will
he act at once or wait for my return? If he acts at once, will he
talk to my mother or call in the police? Then there are a dozen
roads and even railways out of the Clayton region, how is he to
know which I have taken? Suppose he goes straight at once to the
right station, they will not remember my departure for the simple
reason that I didn't depart. But they may remember about Shaphambury?
It was unlikely.
I resolved not to go directly to Shaphambury from Birmingham, but
to go thence to Monkshampton, thence to Wyvern, and then come down
on Shaphambury from the north. That might involve a night at some
intermediate stopping-place but it would effectually conceal me
from any but the most persistent pursuit. And this was not a case
of murder yet, but only the theft of four sovereigns.
I had argued away all anxiety before I reached Clayton Crest.
At the Crest I looked back. What a world it was! And suddenly it
came to me that I was looking at this world for the last time. If
I overtook the fugitives and succeeded, I should die with them--or
hang. I stopped and looked back more attentively at that wide ugly
It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never
to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that
had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some
indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it
from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened
by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear
afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity.
And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which
I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight,
to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But
it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous,
how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and
homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools,
forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels,
a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which
men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and
damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other
things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay,
the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the
public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal
homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism,
with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its
products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like
a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.
I did not think these things clearly that afternoon. Much less did
I ask how I, with my murderous purpose, stood to them all. I write
down that realization of disorder and suffocation here and now as
though I had thought it, but indeed then I only felt it, felt it
transitorily as I looked back, and then stood with the thing escaping
from my mind.
I should never see that country-side again.
I came back to that. At any rate I wasn't sorry. The chances were
I should die in sweet air, under a clean sky.
From distant Swathinglea came a little sound, the minute undulation
of a remote crowd, and then rapidly three shots.
That held me perplexed for a space. . . . Well, anyhow I was
leaving it all! Thank God I was leaving it all! Then, as I turned
to go on, I thought of my mother.
It seemed an evil world in which to leave one's mother. My thoughts
focused upon her very vividly for a moment. Down there, under that
afternoon light, she was going to and fro, unaware as yet that
she had lost me, bent and poking about in the darkling underground
kitchen, perhaps carrying a lamp into the scullery to trim, or
sitting patiently, staring into the fire, waiting tea for me. A
great pity for her, a great remorse at the blacker troubles that
lowered over her innocent head, came to me. Why, after all, was
I doing this thing?
I stopped again dead, with the hill crest rising between me and
home. I had more than half a mind to return to her.
Then I thought of the curate's sovereigns. If he has missed them
already, what should I return to? And, even if I returned, how
could I put them back?
And what of the night after I renounced my revenge? What of the
time when young Verrall came back? And Nettie?
No! The thing had to be done.
But at least I might have kissed my mother before I came away, left
her some message, reassured her at least for a little while.
All night she would listen and wait for me. . . . .
Should I send her a telegram from Two-Mile Stone?
It was no good now; too late, too late. To do that would be to tell
the course I had taken, to bring pursuit upon me, swift and sure,
if pursuit there was to be. No. My mother must suffer!
I went on grimly toward Two-Mile Stone, but now as if some greater
will than mine directed my footsteps thither.
I reached Birmingham before darkness came, and just caught the last
train for Monkshampton, where I had planned to pass the night.
CHAPTER THE FIFTH
THE PURSUIT OF THE TWO LOVERS
As the train carried me on from Birmingham to Monkshampton, it
carried me not only into a country where I had never been before,
but out of the commonplace daylight and the touch and quality
of ordinary things, into the strange unprecedented night that was
ruled by the giant meteor of the last days.
There was at that time a curious accentuation of the common alternation
of night and day. They became separated with a widening difference
of value in regard to all mundane affairs. During the day, the
comet was an item in the newspapers, it was jostled by a thousand
more living interests, it was as nothing in the skirts of the war
storm that was now upon us. It was an astronomical phenomenon,
somewhere away over China, millions of miles away in the deeps.
We forgot it. But directly the sun sank one turned ever and again
toward the east, and the meteor resumed its sway over us.
One waited for its rising, and yet each night it came as a surprise.
Always it rose brighter than one had dared to think, always larger and
with some wonderful change in its outline, and now with a strange,
less luminous, greener disk upon it that grew with its growth, the
umbra of the earth. It shone also with its own light, so that this
shadow was not hard or black, but it shone phosphorescently and with
a diminishing intensity where the stimulus of the sun's rays was
withdrawn. As it ascended toward the zenith, as the last trailing
daylight went after the abdicating sun, its greenish white illumination
banished the realities of day, diffused a bright ghostliness over
all things. It changed the starless sky about it to an extraordinary
deep blue, the profoundest color in the world, such as I have never
seen before or since. I remember, too, that as I peered from the
train that was rattling me along to Monkshampton, I perceived and
was puzzled by a coppery red light that mingled with all the shadows
that were cast by it.
It turned our ugly English industrial towns to phantom cities.
Everywhere the local authorities discontinued street lighting--one
could read small print in the glare,--and so at Monkshampton I
went about through pale, white, unfamiliar streets, whose electric
globes had shadows on the path. Lit windows here and there burnt
ruddy orange, like holes cut in some dream curtain that hung before
a furnace. A policeman with noiseless feet showed me an inn woven
of moonshine, a green-faced man opened to us, and there I abode
the night. And the next morning it opened with a mighty clatter,
and was a dirty little beerhouse that stank of beer, and there was
a fat and grimy landlord with red spots upon his neck, and much
noisy traffic going by on the cobbles outside.
I came out, after I had paid my bill, into a street that echoed
to the bawlings of two newsvendors and to the noisy yappings of a
dog they had raised to emulation. They were shouting: "Great British
disaster in the North Sea. A battleship lost with all hands!"
I bought a paper, went on to the railway station reading such
details as were given of this triumph of the old civilization, of
the blowing up of this great iron ship, full of guns and explosives
and the most costly and beautiful machinery of which that time was
capable, together with nine hundred able-bodied men, all of them
above the average, by a contact mine towed by a German submarine.
I read myself into a fever of warlike emotions. Not only did I
forget the meteor, but for a time I forgot even the purpose that
took me on to the railway station, bought my ticket, and was now
carrying me onward to Shaphambury.
So the hot day came to its own again, and people forgot the night.
Each night, there shone upon us more and more insistently, beauty,
wonder, the promise of the deeps, and we were hushed, and marveled
for a space. And at the first gray sounds of dawn again, at the
shooting of bolts and the noise of milk-carts, we forgot, and the
dusty habitual day came yawning and stretching back again. The
stains of coal smoke crept across the heavens, and we rose to the
soiled disorderly routine of life.
"Thus life has always been," we said; "thus it will always be."
The glory of those nights was almost universally regarded as
spectacular merely. It signified nothing to us. So far as western
Europe went, it was only a small and ignorant section of the lower
classes who regarded the comet as a portent of the end of the
world. Abroad, where there were peasantries, it was different, but
in England the peasantry had already disappeared. Every one read.
The newspaper, in the quiet days before our swift quarrel with Germany
rushed to its climax, had absolutely dispelled all possibilities
of a panic in this matter. The very tramps upon the high-roads, the
children in the nursery, had learnt that at the utmost the whole
of that shining cloud could weigh but a few score tons. This fact
had been shown quite conclusively by the enormous deflections that
had at last swung it round squarely at our world. It had passed
near three of the smallest asteroids without producing the minutest
perceptible deflection in their course; while, on its own part, it
had described a course through nearly three degrees. When it struck
our earth there was to be a magnificent spectacle, no doubt, for
those who were on the right side of our planet to see, but beyond
that nothing. It was doubtful whether we were on the right side.
The meteor would loom larger and larger in the sky, but with the
umbra of our earth eating its heart of brightness out, and at last
it would be the whole sky, a sky of luminous green clouds, with
a white brightness about the horizon, west and east. Then a pause
--a pause of not very exactly definite duration--and then, no doubt,
a great blaze of shooting stars. They might be of some unwonted
color because of the unknown element that line in the green revealed.
For a little while the zenith would spout shooting stars. Some,
it was hoped, would reach the earth and be available for analysis.
That, science said, would be all. The green clouds would whirl and
vanish, and there might be thunderstorms. But through the attenuated
wisps of comet shine, the old sky, the old stars, would reappear,
and all would be as it had been before. And since this was to happen
between one and eleven in the morning of the approaching Tuesday--I
slept at Monkshampton on Saturday night,--it would be only partially
visible, if visible at all, on our side of the earth. Perhaps, if
it came late, one would see no more than a shooting star low down
in the sky. All this we had with the utmost assurances of science.
Still it did not prevent the last nights being the most beautiful
and memorable of human experiences.
The nights had become very warm, and when next day I had ranged
Shaphambury in vain, I was greatly tormented, as that unparalleled
glory of the night returned, to think that under its splendid
benediction young Verrall and Nettie made love to one another.
I walked backward and forward, backward and forward, along the sea
front, peering into the faces of the young couples who promenaded,
with my hand in my pocket ready, and a curious ache in my heart
that had no kindred with rage. Until at last all the promenaders
had gone home to bed, and I was alone with the star.
My train from Wyvern to Shaphambury that morning was a whole hour
late; they said it was on account of the movement of troops to meet
a possible raid from the Elbe.
Shaphambury seemed an odd place to me even then. But something was
quickening in me at that time to feel the oddness of many accepted
things. Now in the retrospect I see it as intensely queer. The whole
place was strange to my untraveled eyes; the sea even was strange.
Only twice in my life had I been at the seaside before, and then
I had gone by excursion to places on the Welsh coast whose great
cliffs of rock and mountain backgrounds made the effect of the horizon
very different from what it is upon the East Anglian seaboard. Here
what they call a cliff was a crumbling bank of whitey-brown earth
not fifty feet high.
So soon as I arrived I made a systematic exploration of Shaphambury.
To this day I retain the clearest memories of the plan I shaped
out then, and how my inquiries were incommoded by the overpowering
desire of every one to talk of the chances of a German raid, before
the Channel Fleet got round to us. I slept at a small public-house
in a Shaphambury back street on Sunday night. I did not get on to
Shaphambury from Wyvern until two in the afternoon, because of the
infrequency of Sunday trains, and I got no clue whatever until late
in the afternoon of Monday. As the little local train bumped into
sight of the place round the curve of a swelling hill, one saw
a series of undulating grassy spaces, amidst which a number of
conspicuous notice-boards appealed to the eye and cut up the distant
sea horizon. Most of these referred to comestibles or to remedies
to follow the comestibles; and they were colored with a view to be
memorable rather than beautiful, to "stand out" amidst the gentle
grayish tones of the east coast scenery. The greater number, I may
remark, of the advertisements that were so conspicuous a factor
in the life of those days, and which rendered our vast tree-pulp
newspapers possible, referred to foods, drinks, tobacco, and the
drugs that promised a restoration of the equanimity these other
articles had destroyed. Wherever one went one was reminded in glaring
letters that, after all, man was little better than a worm, that
eyeless, earless thing that burrows and lives uncomplainingly
amidst nutritious dirt, "an alimentary canal with the subservient
appendages thereto." But in addition to such boards there were also
the big black and white boards of various grandiloquently named
"estates." The individualistic enterprise of that time had led to
the plotting out of nearly all the country round the seaside towns
into roads and building-plots--all but a small portion of the south
and east coast was in this condition, and had the promises of those
schemes been realized the entire population of the island might
have been accommodated upon the sea frontiers. Nothing of the sort
happened, of course; the whole of this uglification of the coast-line
was done to stimulate a little foolish gambling in plots, and
one saw everywhere agents' boards in every state of freshness and
decay, ill-made exploitation roads overgrown with grass, and here
and there, at a corner, a label, "Trafalgar Avenue," or "Sea View
Road." Here and there, too, some small investor, some shopman with
"savings," had delivered his soul to the local builders and built
himself a house, and there it stood, ill-designed, mean-looking,
isolated, ill-placed on a cheaply fenced plot, athwart which his
domestic washing fluttered in the breeze amidst a bleak desolation
of enterprise. Then presently our railway crossed a high road,
and a row of mean yellow brick houses--workmen's cottages, and
the filthy black sheds that made the "allotments" of that time a
universal eyesore, marked our approach to the more central areas
of--I quote the local guidebook --"one of the most delightful resorts
in the East Anglian poppy-land." Then more mean houses, the gaunt
ungainliness of the electric force station--it had a huge chimney,
because no one understood how to make combustion of coal complete--and
then we were in the railway station, and barely three-quarters of
a mile from the center of this haunt of health and pleasure.
I inspected the town thoroughly before I made my inquiries. The
road began badly with a row of cheap, pretentious, insolvent-looking
shops, a public-house, and a cab-stand, but, after an interval of
little red villas that were partly hidden amidst shrubbery gardens,
broke into a confusedly bright but not unpleasing High Street,
shuttered that afternoon and sabbatically still. Somewhere in the
background a church bell jangled, and children in bright, new-looking
clothes were going to Sunday-school. Thence through a square of
stuccoed lodging-houses, that seemed a finer and cleaner version of
my native square, I came to a garden of asphalt and euonymus--the
Sea Front. I sat down on a cast-iron seat, and surveyed first of all
the broad stretches of muddy, sandy beach, with its queer wheeled
bathing machines, painted with the advertisements of somebody's
pills--and then at the house fronts that stared out upon these visceral
counsels. Boarding-houses, private hotels, and lodging-houses in
terraces clustered closely right and left of me, and then came to
an end; in one direction scaffolding marked a building enterprise
in progress, in the other, after a waste interval, rose a monstrous
bulging red shape, a huge hotel, that dwarfed all other things.
Northward were low pale cliffs with white denticulations of tents,
where the local volunteers, all under arms, lay encamped, and
southward, a spreading waste of sandy dunes, with occasional bushes
and clumps of stunted pine and an advertisement board or so. A
hard blue sky hung over all this prospect, the sunshine cast inky
shadows, and eastward was a whitish sea. It was Sunday, and the
midday meal still held people indoors.
A queer world! thought I even then--to you now it must seem impossibly
queer,--and after an interval I forced myself back to my own affair.
How was I to ask? What was I to ask for? I puzzled for a long time
over that--at first I was a little tired and indolent--and then
presently I had a flow of ideas.
My solution was fairly ingenious. I invented the following story.
I happened to be taking a holiday in Shaphambury, and I was making
use of the opportunity to seek the owner of a valuable feather boa,
which had been left behind in the hotel of my uncle at Wyvern by a
young lady, traveling with a young gentleman--no doubt a youthful
married couple. They had reached Shaphambury somewhen on Thursday.
I went over the story many times, and gave my imaginary uncle and
his hotel plausible names. At any rate this yarn would serve as
a complete justification for all the questions I might wish to ask.
I settled that, but I still sat for a time, wanting the energy to
begin. Then I turned toward the big hotel. Its gorgeous magnificence
seemed to my inexpert judgment to indicate the very place a rich
young man of good family would select.
Huge draught-proof doors were swung round for me by an ironically
polite under-porter in a magnificent green uniform, who looked at
my clothes as he listened to my question and then with a German
accent referred me to a gorgeous head porter, who directed me to
a princely young man behind a counter of brass and polish, like a
bank--like several banks. This young man, while he answered me, kept
his eye on my collar and tie--and I knew that they were abominable.
"I want to find a lady and gentleman who came to Shaphambury on
Tuesday," I said.
"Friends of yours?" he asked with a terrible fineness of irony.
I made out at last that here at any rate the young people had not
been. They might have lunched there, but they had had no room. But
I went out--door opened again for me obsequiously --in a state of
social discomfiture, and did not attack any other establishment
My resolution had come to a sort of ebb. More people were promenading,
and their Sunday smartness abashed me. I forgot my purpose in an
acute sense of myself. I felt that the bulge of my pocket caused
by the revolver was conspicuous, and I was ashamed. I went along
the sea front away from the town, and presently lay down among
pebbles and sea poppies. This mood of reaction prevailed with me
all that afternoon. In the evening, about sundown, I went to the
station and asked questions of the outporters there. But outporters,
I found, were a class of men who remembered luggage rather than
people, and I had no sort of idea what luggage young Verrall and
Nettie were likely to have with them.
Then I fell into conversation with a salacious wooden-legged old
man with a silver ring, who swept the steps that went down to the
beach from the parade. He knew much about young couples, but only
in general terms, and nothing of the particular young couple I
sought. He reminded me in the most disagreeable way of the sensuous
aspects of life, and I was not sorry when presently a gunboat
appeared in the offing signalling the coastguard and the camp, and
cut short his observations upon holidays, beaches, and morals.
I went, and now I was past my ebb, and sat in a seat upon the parade,
and watched the brightening of those rising clouds of chilly fire
that made the ruddy west seem tame. My midday lassitude was going,
my blood was running warmer again. And as the twilight and that filmy
brightness replaced the dusty sunlight and robbed this unfamiliar
place of all its matter-of-fact queerness, its sense of aimless
materialism, romance returned to me, and passion, and my thoughts
of honor and revenge. I remember that change of mood as occurring
very vividly on this occasion, but I fancy that less distinctly I
had felt this before many times. In the old times, night and the
starlight had an effect of intimate reality the daytime did not possess.
The daytime--as one saw it in towns and populous places--had hold
of one, no doubt, but only as an uproar might, it was distracting,
conflicting, insistent. Darkness veiled the more salient aspects of
those agglomerations of human absurdity, and one could exist--one
I had a queer illusion that night, that Nettie and her lover were
close at hand, that suddenly I should come on them. I have already
told how I went through the dusk seeking them in every couple that
drew near. And I dropped asleep at last in an unfamiliar bedroom
hung with gaudily decorated texts, cursing myself for having wasted
I sought them in vain the next morning, but after midday I came in
quick succession on a perplexing multitude of clues. After failing
to find any young couple that corresponded to young Verrall
and Nettie, I presently discovered an unsatisfactory quartette of
Any of these four couples might have been the one I sought; with
regard to none of them was there conviction. They had all arrived
either on Wednesday or Thursday. Two couples were still in occupation
of their rooms, but neither of these were at home. Late in the
afternoon I reduced my list by eliminating a young man in drab, with
side whiskers and long cuffs, accompanied by a lady, of thirty or
more, of consciously ladylike type. I was disgusted at the sight
of them; the other two young people had gone for a long walk, and
though I watched their boarding-house until the fiery cloud shone
out above, sharing and mingling in an unusually splendid sunset,
I missed them. Then I discovered them dining at a separate table
in the bow window, with red-shaded candles between them, peering
out ever and again at this splendor that was neither night nor day.
The girl in her pink evening dress looked very light and pretty
to me--pretty enough to enrage me,--she had well shaped arms and
white, well-modeled shoulders, and the turn of her cheek and the
fair hair about her ears was full of subtle delights; but she was
not Nettie, and the happy man with her was that odd degenerate type
our old aristocracy produced with such odd frequency, chinless,
large bony nose, small fair head, languid expression, and a neck
that had demanded and received a veritable sleeve of collar. I
stood outside in the meteor's livid light, hating them and cursing
them for having delayed me so long. I stood until it was evident
they remarked me, a black shape of envy, silhouetted against the
That finished Shaphambury. The question I now had to debate was
which of the remaining couples I had to pursue.
I walked back to the parade trying to reason my next step out, and
muttering to myself, because there was something in that luminous
wonderfulness that touched one's brain, and made one feel a little
One couple had gone to London; the other had gone to the Bungalow
village at Bone Cliff. Where, I wondered, was Bone Cliff?
I came upon my wooden-legged man at the top of his steps.
"Hullo," said I.
He pointed seaward with his pipe, his silver ring shone in the sky
"Rum," he said.
"What is?" I asked.
"Search-lights! Smoke! Ships going north! If it wasn't for this
blasted Milky Way gone green up there, we might see."
He was too intent to heed my questions for a time. Then he vouchsafed
over his shoulder--
"Know Bungalow village?--rather. Artis' and such. Nice goings on!
Mixed bathing--something scandalous. Yes."
"But where is it?" I said, suddenly exasperated.
"There!" he said. "What's that flicker? A gunflash--or I'm a lost
"You'd hear," I said, "long before it was near enough to see a
He didn't answer. Only by making it clear I would distract him until
he told me what I wanted to know could I get him to turn from his
absorbed contemplation of that phantom dance between the sea rim and
the shine. Indeed I gripped his arm and shook him. Then he turned
upon me cursing.
"Seven miles," he said, "along this road. And now go to 'ell with
I answered with some foul insult by way of thanks, and so we parted,
and I set off towards the bungalow village.
I found a policeman, standing star-gazing, a little way beyond the
end of the parade, and verified the wooden-legged man's directions.
"It's a lonely road, you know," he called after me. . . .
I had an odd intuition that now at last I was on the right track.
I left the dark masses of Shaphambury behind me, and pushed out
into the dim pallor of that night, with the quiet assurance of a
traveler who nears his end.
The incidents of that long tramp I do not recall in any orderly
succession, the one progressive thing is my memory of a growing
fatigue. The sea was for the most part smooth and shining like a
mirror, a great expanse of reflecting silver, barred by slow broad
undulations, but at one time a little breeze breathed like a faint
sigh and ruffled their long bodies into faint scaly ripples that
never completely died out again. The way was sometimes sandy, thick
with silvery colorless sand, and sometimes chalky and lumpy, with
lumps that had shining facets; a black scrub was scattered, sometimes
in thickets, sometimes in single bunches, among the somnolent
hummocks of sand. At one place came grass, and ghostly great sheep
looming up among the gray. After a time black pinewoods intervened,
and made sustained darknesses along the road, woods that frayed
out at the edges to weirdly warped and stunted trees. Then isolated
pine witches would appear, and make their rigid gestures at me as
I passed. Grotesquely incongruous amidst these forms, I presently
came on estate boards, appealing, "Houses can be built to suit
purchaser," to the silence, to the shadows, and the glare.
Once I remember the persistent barking of a dog from somewhere inland
of me, and several times I took out and examined my revolver very
carefully. I must, of course, have been full of my intention when
I did that, I must have been thinking of Nettie and revenge, but
I cannot now recall those emotions at all. Only I see again very
distinctly the greenish gleams that ran over lock and barrel as I
turned the weapon in my hand.
Then there was the sky, the wonderful, luminous, starless, moonless
sky, and the empty blue deeps of the edge of it, between the meteor
and the sea. And once--strange phantoms!-- I saw far out upon
the shine, and very small and distant, three long black warships,
without masts, or sails, or smoke, or any lights, dark, deadly,
furtive things, traveling very swiftly and keeping an equal distance.
And when I looked again they were very small, and then the shine
had swallowed them up.
Then once a flash and what I thought was a gun, until I looked
up and saw a fading trail of greenish light still hanging in the
sky. And after that there was a shiver and whispering in the air,
a stronger throbbing in one's arteries, a sense of refreshment,
a renewal of purpose. . . .
Somewhere upon my way the road forked, but I do not remember
whether that was near Shaphambury or near the end of my walk. The
hesitation between two rutted unmade roads alone remains clear in
At last I grew weary. I came to piled heaps of decaying seaweed
and cart tracks running this way and that, and then I had missed
the road and was stumbling among sand hummocks quite close to the
sea. I came out on the edge of the dimly glittering sandy beach,
and something phosphorescent drew me to the water's edge. I bent
down and peered at the little luminous specks that floated in the
Presently with a sigh I stood erect, and contemplated the lonely
peace of that last wonderful night. The meteor had now trailed its
shining nets across the whole space of the sky and was beginning
to set; in the east the blue was coming to its own again; the sea
was an intense edge of blackness, and now, escaped from that great
shine, and faint and still tremulously valiant, one weak elusive
star could just be seen, hovering on the verge of the invisible.
How beautiful it was! how still and beautiful! Peace! peace!--the
peace that passeth understanding, robed in light descending! . . .
My heart swelled, and suddenly I was weeping.
There was something new and strange in my blood. It came to me that
indeed I did not want to kill.
I did not want to kill. I did not want to be the servant of my
passions any more. A great desire had come to me to escape from
life, from the daylight which is heat and conflict and desire, into
that cool night of eternity--and rest. I had played--I had done.
I stood upon the edge of the great ocean, and I was filled with an
inarticulate spirit of prayer, and I desired greatly--peace from
And presently, there in the east, would come again the red discoloring
curtain over these mysteries, the finite world again, the gray and
growing harsh certainties of dawn. My resolve I knew would take up
with me again. This was a rest for me, an interlude, but to-morrow
I should be William Leadford once more, ill-nourished, ill-dressed,
ill-equipped and clumsy, a thief and shamed, a wound upon the face
of life, a source of trouble and sorrow even to the mother I loved;
no hope in life left for me now but revenge before my death.
Why this paltry thing, revenge? It entered into my thoughts that
I might end the matter now and let these others go.
To wade out into the sea, into this warm lapping that mingled the
natures of water and light, to stand there breast-high, to thrust
my revolver barrel into my mouth------?
I swung about with an effort. I walked slowly up the beach thinking. . . .
I turned and looked back at the sea. No! Something within me said,
I must think.
It was troublesome to go further because the hummocks and
the tangled bushes began. I sat down amidst a black cluster of
shrubs, and rested, chin on hand. I drew my revolver from my pocket
and looked at it, and held it in my hand. Life? Or Death? . . .
I seemed to be probing the very deeps of being, but indeed
imperceptibly I fell asleep, and sat dreaming.
Two people were bathing in the sea.
I had awakened. It was still that white and wonderful night, and
the blue band of clear sky was no wider than before. These people
must have come into sight as I fell asleep, and awakened me almost
at once. They waded breast-deep in the water, emerging, coming
shoreward, a woman, with her hair coiled about her head, and in
pursuit of her a man, graceful figures of black and silver, with a
bright green surge flowing off from them, a pattering of flashing
wavelets about them. He smote the water and splashed it toward
her, she retaliated, and then they were knee-deep, and then for an
instant their feet broke the long silver margin of the sea.
Each wore a tightly fitting bathing dress that hid nothing of the
shining, dripping beauty of their youthful forms.
She glanced over her shoulder and found him nearer than she thought,
started, gesticulated, gave a little cry that pierced me to the
heart, and fled up the beach obliquely toward me, running like the
wind, and passed me, vanished amidst the black distorted bushes,
and was gone --she and her pursuer, in a moment, over the ridge of
I heard him shout between exhaustion and laughter. . . .
And suddenly I was a thing of bestial fury, standing up with hands
held up and clenched, rigid in gesture of impotent threatening,
against the sky. . . .
For this striving, swift thing of light and beauty was Nettie--and
this was the man for whom I had been betrayed!
And, it blazed upon me, I might have died there by the sheer ebbing
of my will--unavenged!
In another moment I was running and stumbling, revolver in hand, in
quiet unsuspected pursuit of them, through the soft and noiseless
I came up over the little ridge and discovered the bungalow village
I had been seeking, nestling in a crescent lap of dunes. A door
slammed, the two runners had vanished, and I halted staring.
There was a group of three bungalows nearer to me than the others.
Into one of these three they had gone, and I was too late to see
which. All had doors and windows carelessly open, and none showed
This place, upon which I had at last happened, was a fruit of the
reaction of artistic-minded and carelessly living people against
the costly and uncomfortable social stiffness of the more formal
seaside resorts of that time. It was, you must understand, the custom
of the steam-railway companies to sell their carriages after they
had been obsolete for a sufficient length of years, and some genius
had hit upon the possibility of turning these into little habitable
cabins for the summer holiday. The thing had become a fashion with
a certain Bohemian-spirited class; they added cabin to cabin, and
these little improvised homes, gaily painted and with broad verandas
and supplementary leantos added to their accommodation, made the
brightest contrast conceivable to the dull rigidities of the decorous
resorts. Of course there were many discomforts in such camping that
had to be faced cheerfully, and so this broad sandy beach was sacred
to high spirits and the young. Art muslin and banjoes, Chinese
lanterns and frying, are leading "notes," I find, in the impression
of those who once knew such places well. But so far as I was
concerned this odd settlement of pleasure-squatters was a mystery
as well as a surprise, enhanced rather than mitigated by an
imaginative suggestion or so I had received from the wooden-legged
man at Shaphambury. I saw the thing as no gathering of light
hearts and gay idleness, but grimly--after the manner of poor men
poisoned by the suppression of all their cravings after joy. To the
poor man, to the grimy workers, beauty and cleanness were absolutely
denied; out of a life of greasy dirt, of muddied desires, they
watched their happier fellows with a bitter envy and foul, tormenting
suspicions. Fancy a world in which the common people held love
to be a sort of beastliness, own sister to being drunk! . . .
There was in the old time always something cruel at the bottom of
this business of sexual love. At least that is the impression I
have brought with me across the gulf of the great Change. To succeed
in love seemed such triumph as no other success could give,
but to fail was as if one was tainted. . . .
I felt no sense of singularity that this thread of savagery should
run through these emotions of mine and become now the whole strand
of these emotions. I believed, and I think I was right in believing,
that the love of all true lovers was a sort of defiance then, that
they closed a system in each other's arms and mocked the world
without. You loved against the world, and these two loved AT me.
They had their business with one another, under the threat of a
watchful fierceness. A sword, a sharp sword, the keenest edge in
life, lay among their roses.
Whatever may be true of this for others, for me and my imagination,
at any rate, it was altogether true. I was never for dalliance, I was
never a jesting lover. I wanted fiercely; I made love impatiently.
Perhaps I had written irrelevant love-letters for that
very reason; because with this stark theme I could not play. . .
The thought of Nettie's shining form, of her shrinking bold abandon
to her easy conqueror, gave me now a body of rage that was nearly
too strong for my heart and nerves and the tense powers of my merely
physical being. I came down among the pale sand-heaps slowly toward
that queer village of careless sensuality, and now within my puny
body I was coldly sharpset for pain and death, a darkly gleaming
hate, a sword of evil, drawn.
I halted, and stood planning what I had to do.
Should I go to bungalow after bungalow until one of the two I sought
answered to my rap? But suppose some servant intervened!
Should I wait where I was--perhaps until morning--watching? And
All the nearer bungalows were very still now. If I walked softly
to them, from open windows, from something seen or overheard,
I might get a clue to guide me. Should I advance circuitously,
creeping upon them, or should I walk straight to the door? It was
bright enough for her to recognize me clearly at a distance of many
The difficulty to my mind lay in this, that if I involved other
people by questions, I might at last confront my betrayers with
these others close about me, ready to snatch my weapon and seize
my hands. Besides, what names might they bear here?
"Boom!" the sound crept upon my senses, and then again it came.
I turned impatiently as one turns upon an impertinence, and beheld
a great ironclad not four miles out, steaming fast across the
dappled silver, and from its funnels sparks, intensely red, poured
out into the night. As I turned, came the hot flash of its guns,
firing seaward, and answering this, red flashes and a streaming
smoke in the line between sea and sky. So I remembered it, and I
remember myself staring at it--in a state of stupid arrest. It was
an irrelevance. What had these things to do with me?
With a shuddering hiss, a rocket from a headland beyond the village
leapt up and burst hot gold against the glare, and the sound of
the third and fourth guns reached me.
The windows of the dark bungalows, one after another, leapt out,
squares of ruddy brightness that flared and flickered and became
steadily bright. Dark heads appeared looking seaward, a door opened,
and sent out a brief lane of yellow to mingle and be lost in the
comet's brightness. That brought me back to the business in hand.
"Boom! boom!" and when I looked again at the great ironclad,
a little torchlike spurt of flame wavered behind her funnels. I
could hear the throb and clangor of her straining engines. . . .
I became aware of the voices of people calling to one another in
the village. A white-robed, hooded figure, some man in a bathing
wrap, absurdly suggestive of an Arab in his burnous, came out from
one of the nearer bungalows, and stood clear and still and shadowless
in the glare.
He put his hands to shade his seaward eyes, and shouted to people
The people within--MY people! My fingers tightened on my revolver.
What was this war nonsense to me? I would go round among the hummocks
with the idea of approaching the three bungalows inconspicuously
from the flank. This fight at sea might serve my purpose--except
for that, it had no interest for me at all. Boom! boom! The huge
voluminous concussions rushed past me, beat at my heart and passed.
In a moment Nettie would come out to see.
First one and then two other wrappered figures came out of the
bungalows to join the first. His arm pointed seaward, and his voice,
a full tenor, rose in explanation. I could hear some of the words.
"It's a German!" he said. "She's caught."
Some one disputed that, and there followed a little indistinct
babble of argument. I went on slowly in the circuit I had marked
out, watching these people as I went.
They shouted together with such a common intensity of direction
that I halted and looked seaward. I saw the tall fountain flung by
a shot that had just missed the great warship. A second rose still
nearer us, a third, and a fourth, and then a great uprush of dust,
a whirling cloud, leapt out of the headland whence the rocket had
come, and spread with a slow deliberation right and left. Hard on
that an enormous crash, and the man with the full voice leapt and
Let me see! Of course, I had to go round beyond the bungalows, and
then come up towards the group from behind.
A high-pitched woman's voice called, "Honeymooners! honeymooners!
Come out and see!"
Something gleamed in the shadow of the nearer bungalow, and
a man's voice answered from within. What he said I did not catch,
but suddenly I heard Nettie calling very distinctly, "We've been
The man who had first come out shouted, "Don't you hear the guns?
They're fighting--not five miles from shore."
"Eh?" answered the bungalow, and a window opened.
I did not hear the reply, because of the faint rustle of my own
movements. Clearly these people were all too much occupied by the
battle to look in my direction, and so I walked now straight toward
the darkness that held Nettie and the black desire of my heart.
"Look!" cried some one, and pointed skyward.
I glanced up, and behold! The sky was streaked with bright green
trails. They radiated from a point halfway between the western
horizon and the zenith, and within the shining clouds of the meteor
a streaming movement had begun, so that it seemed to be pouring
both westwardly and back toward the east, with a crackling sound, as
though the whole heaven was stippled over with phantom pistol-shots.
It seemed to me then as if the meteor was coming to help me,
descending with those thousand pistols like a curtain to fend off
this unmeaning foolishness of the sea.
"Boom!" went a gun on the big ironclad, and "boom!" and the guns
of the pursuing cruisers flashed in reply.
To glance up at that streaky, stirring light scum of the sky made
one's head swim. I stood for a moment dazed, and more than a little
giddy. I had a curious instant of purely speculative thought. Suppose,
after all, the fanatics were right, and the world WAS coming to an
end! What a score that would be for Parload!
Then it came into my head that all these things were happening to
consecrate my revenge! The war below, the heavens above, were the
thunderous garment of my deed. I heard Nettie's voice cry out not
fifty yards away, and my passion surged again. I was to return to
her amid these terrors bearing unanticipated death. I was to possess
her, with a bullet, amidst thunderings and fear. At the thought I
lifted up my voice to a shout that went unheard, and advanced now
recklessly, revolver displayed in my hand.
It was fifty yards, forty yards, thirty yards --the little group
of people, still heedless of me, was larger and more important now,
the green-shot sky and the fighting ships remoter. Some one darted
out from the bungalow, with an interrupted question, and stopped,
suddenly aware of me. It was Nettie, with some coquettish dark
wrap about her, and the green glare shining on her sweet face and
white throat. I could see her expression, stricken with dismay and
terror, at my advance, as though something had seized her by the
heart and held her still--a target for my shots.
"Boom!" came the ironclad's gunshot like a command. "Bang!" the
bullet leapt from my hand. Do you know, I did not want to shoot
her then. Indeed I did not want to shoot her then! Bang! and I
had fired again, still striding on, and--each time it seemed I had
She moved a step or so toward me, still staring, and then someone
intervened, and near beside her I saw young Verrall.
A heavy stranger, the man in the hooded bath-gown, a fat, foreign-looking
man, came out of nowhere like a shield before them. He seemed a
preposterous interruption. His face was full of astonishment and
terror. He rushed across my path with arms extended and open hands,
as one might try to stop a runaway horse. He shouted some nonsense.
He seemed to want to dissuade me, as though dissuasion had anything
to do with it now.
"Not you, you fool!" I said hoarsely. "Not you!" But he hid Nettie
By an enormous effort I resisted a mechanical impulse to shoot
through his fat body. Anyhow, I knew I mustn't shoot him. For
a moment I was in doubt, then I became very active, turned aside
abruptly and dodged his pawing arm to the left, and so found two
others irresolutely in my way. I fired a third shot in the air, just
over their heads, and ran at them. They hastened left and right; I
pulled up and faced about within a yard of a foxy-faced young man
coming sideways, who seemed about to grapple me. At my resolute
halt he fell back a pace, ducked, and threw up a defensive arm,
and then I perceived the course was clear, and ahead of me, young
Verrall and Nettie --he was holding her arm to help her--running
away. "Of course!" said I.
I fired a fourth ineffectual shot, and then in an access of fury
at my misses, started out to run them down and shoot them barrel to
backbone. "These people!" I said, dismissing all these interferences.
. . ."A yard," I panted, speaking aloud to myself, "a yard! Till
then, take care, you mustn't--mustn't shoot again."
Some one pursued me, perhaps several people --I do not
know, we left them all behind. . . .
We ran. For a space I was altogether intent upon the swift monotony
of flight and pursuit. The sands were changed to a whirl of green
moonshine, the air was thunder. A luminous green haze rolled about
us. What did such things matter? We ran. Did I gain or lose? that
was the question. They ran through a gap in a broken fence that
sprang up abruptly out of nothingness and turned to the right. I
noted we were in a road. But this green mist! One seemed to plough
through it. They were fading into it, and at that thought I made
a spurt that won a dozen feet or more.
She staggered. He gripped her arm, and dragged her forward. They
doubled to the left. We were off the road again and on turf. It
felt like turf. I tripped and fell at a ditch that was somehow
full of smoke, and was up again, but now they were phantoms
half gone into the livid swirls about me. . . .
Still I ran.
On, on! I groaned with the violence of my effort. I staggered
again and swore. I felt the concussions of great guns tear past me
through the murk.
They were gone! Everything was going, but I kept on running. Once
more I stumbled. There was something about my feet that impeded
me, tall grass or heather, but I could not see what it was, only
this smoke that eddied about my knees. There was a noise and spinning
in my brain, a vain resistance to a dark green curtain that was
falling, falling, falling, fold upon fold. Everything grew darker
I made one last frantic effort, and raised my revolver, fired my
penultimate shot at a venture, and fell headlong to the ground.
And behold! the green curtain was a black one, and the earth and
I and all things ceased to be.
BOOK THE SECOND
THE GREEN VAPORS
CHAPTER THE FIRST
I SEEMED to awaken out of a refreshing sleep.
I did not awaken with a start, but opened my eyes, and lay very
comfortably looking at a line of extraordinarily scarlet poppies
that glowed against a glowing sky. It was the sky of a magnificent
sunrise, and an archipelago of gold-beached purple islands floated in
a sea of golden green. The poppies too, swan-necked buds, blazing
corollas, translucent stout seed-vessels, stoutly upheld, had a
luminous quality, seemed wrought only from some more solid kind of
I stared unwonderingly at these things for a time, and then there
rose upon my consciousness, intermingling with these, the bristling
golden green heads of growing barley.
A remote faint question, where I might be, drifted and vanished
again in my mind. Everything was very still.
Everything was as still as death.
I felt very light, full of the sense of physical well-being.
I perceived I was lying on my side in a little trampled space
in a weedy, flowering barley field, that was in some inexplicable
way saturated with light and beauty. I sat up, and remained for a
long time filled with the delight and charm of the delicate little
convolvulus that twined among the barley stems, the pimpernel that
laced the ground below.
Then that question returned. What was this place? How had I come
to be sleeping here?
I could not remember.
It perplexed me that somehow my body felt strange to me. It was
unfamiliar--I could not tell how--and the barley, and the beautiful
weeds, and the slowly developing glory of the dawn behind; all
those things partook of the same unfamiliarity. I felt as though
I was a thing in some very luminous painted window, as though this
dawn broke through me. I felt I was part of some exquisite picture
painted in light and joy.
A faint breeze bent and rustled the barley-heads, and jogged my
Who was I? That was a good way of beginning.
I held up my left hand and arm before me, a grubby hand, a frayed
cuff; but with a quality of painted unreality, transfigured as a
beggar might have been by Botticelli. I looked for a time steadfastly
at a beautiful pearl sleeve-link.
I remembered Willie Leadford, who had owned that arm and hand, as
though he had been some one else.
Of course! My history--its rough outline rather than the immediate
past--began to shape itself in my memory, very small, very bright
and inaccessible, like a thing watched through a microscope.
Clayton and Swathinglea returned to my mind; the slums and darkness,
Dureresque, minute and in their rich dark colors pleasing, and through
them I went towards my destiny. I sat hands on knees recalling that
queer passionate career that had ended with my futile shot into
the growing darkness of the End. The thought of that shot awoke my
There was something in it now, something absurd, that made me smile
Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable
I sighed for pity, not only pity for myself, but for all the hot
hearts, the tormented brains, the straining, striving things of hope
and pain, who had found their peace at last beneath the pouring
mist and suffocation of the comet. Because certainly that world was
over and done. They were all so weak and unhappy, and I was now so
strong and so serene. For I felt sure I was dead; no one living
could have this perfect assurance of good, this strong and confident
peace. I had made an end of the fever called living. I was dead,
and it was all right, and these------?
I felt an inconsistency.
These, then, must be the barley fields of God!--the still and
silent barley fields of God, full of unfading poppy flowers whose
seeds bear peace.
It was queer to find barley fields in heaven, but no doubt there
were many surprises in store for me.
How still everything was! Peace! The peace that passeth understanding.
After all it had come to me! But, indeed, everything was very still!
No bird sang. Surely I was alone in the world! No birds sang. Yes,
and all the distant sounds of life had ceased, the lowing
of cattle, the barking of dogs. . . .
Something that was like fear beatified came into my heart. It was
all right, I knew; but to be alone! I stood up and met the hot
summons of the rising sun, hurrying towards me, as it were,
with glad tidings, over the spikes of the barley. . . .
Blinded, I made a step. My foot struck something hard, and I looked
down to discover my revolver, a blue-black thing, like a dead snake
at my feet.
For a moment that puzzled me.
Then I clean forgot about it. The wonder of the quiet took possession
of my soul. Dawn, and no birds singing!
How beautiful was the world! How beautiful, but how still! I walked
slowly through the barley towards a line of elder bushes, wayfaring
tree and bramble that made the hedge of the field. I noted as
I passed along a dead shrew mouse, as it seemed to me, among the
haums; then a still toad. I was surprised that this did not leap
aside from my footfalls, and I stooped and picked it up. Its body
was limp like life, but it made no struggle, the brightness of its
eye was veiled, it did not move in my hand.
It seems to me now that I stood holding that lifeless little creature
for some time. Then very softly I stooped down and replaced it. I
was trembling--trembling with a nameless emotion. I looked with
quickened eyes closely among the barley stems, and behold, now
everywhere I saw beetles, flies, and little creatures that did not
move, lying as they fell when the vapors overcame them; they seemed
no more than painted things. Some were novel creatures to me. I
was very unfamiliar with natural things. "My God!" I cried; "but
is it only I------?"
And then at my next movement something squealed sharply. I turned
about, but I could not see it, only I saw a little stir in a rut
and heard the diminishing rustle of the unseen creature's flight.
And at that I turned to my toad again, and its eye moved and it
stirred. And presently, with infirm and hesitating gestures, it
stretched its limbs and began to crawl away from me.
But wonder, that gentle sister of fear, had me now. I saw a little
way ahead a brown and crimson butterfly perched upon a cornflower.
I thought at first it was the breeze that stirred it, and then I
saw its wings were quivering. And even as I watched it, it started
into life, and spread itself, and fluttered into the air.
I watched it fly, a turn this way, a turn that, until suddenly it
seemed to vanish. And now, life was returning to this thing and
that on every side of me, with slow stretchings and bendings,
with twitterings, with a little start and stir. . . .
I came slowly, stepping very carefully because of these drugged,
feebly awakening things, through the barley to the hedge. It was a
very glorious hedge, so that it held my eyes. It flowed along and
interlaced like splendid music. It was rich with lupin, honeysuckle,
campions, and ragged robin; bed straw, hops, and wild clematis
twined and hung among its branches, and all along its ditch border
the starry stitchwort lifted its childish faces, and chorused in
lines and masses. Never had I seen such a symphony of note-like
flowers and tendrils and leaves. And suddenly in its depths, I
heard a chirrup and the whirr of startled wings.
Nothing was dead, but everything had changed to beauty! And I
stood for a time with clean and happy eyes looking at the intricate
delicacy before me and marveling how richly God has made
his worlds. . . . .
"Tweedle-Tweezle," a lark had shot the stillness with his shining
thread of song; one lark, and then presently another, invisibly in
the air, making out of that blue quiet a woven cloth of gold. . . .
The earth recreated--only by the reiteration of such phrases
may I hope to give the intense freshness of that dawn. For a time
I was altogether taken up with the beautiful details of being, as
regardless of my old life of jealous passion and impatient sorrow
as though I was Adam new made. I could tell you now with infinite
particularity of the shut flowers that opened as I looked, of tendrils
and grass blades, of a blue-tit I picked up very tenderly--never
before had I remarked the great delicacy of feathers --that presently
disclosed its bright black eye and judged me, and perched, swaying
fearlessly, upon my finger, and spread unhurried wings and flew
away, and of a great ebullition of tadpoles in the ditch; like all
the things that lived beneath the water, they had passed unaltered
through the Change. Amid such incidents, I lived those first great
moments, losing for a time in the wonder of each little part the
mighty wonder of the whole.
A little path ran between hedge and barley, and along this, leisurely
and content and glad, looking at this beautiful thing and that,
moving a step and stopping, then moving on again, I came presently
to a stile, and deep below it, and overgrown, was a lane.
And on the worn oak of the stile was a round label, and on the
label these words, "Swindells' G 90 Pills."
I sat myself astraddle on the stile, not fully grasping all the
implications of these words. But they perplexed me even more than
the revolver and my dirty cuff.
About me now the birds lifted up their little hearts and sang, ever
more birds and more.
I read the label over and over again, and joined it to the fact
that I still wore my former clothes, and that my revolver had been
lying at my feet. One conclusion stared out at me. This was no new
planet, no glorious hereafter such as I had supposed. This beautiful
wonderland was the world, the same old world of my rage and death!
But at least it was like meeting a familiar house-slut, washed and
dignified, dressed in a queen's robes, worshipful and fine. . . .
It might be the old world indeed, but something new lay upon all
things, a glowing certitude of health and happiness. It might be
the old world, but the dust and fury of the old life was certainly
done. At least I had no doubt of that.
I recalled the last phases of my former life, that darkling climax
of pursuit and anger and universal darkness and the whirling green
vapors of extinction. The comet had struck the earth and made an
end to all things; of that too I was assured.
But afterward? . . .
The imaginations of my boyhood came back as speculative possibilities.
In those days I had believed firmly in the necessary advent of a
last day, a great coming out of the sky, trumpetings and fear, the
Resurrection, and the Judgment. My roving fancy now suggested to
me that this Judgment must have come and passed. That it had passed
and in some manner missed me. I was left alone here, in a swept and
garnished world (except, of course, for this label of Swindells'
to begin again perhaps. . . .
No doubt Swindells has got his deserts.
My mind ran for a time on Swindells, on the imbecile pushfulness of
that extinct creature, dealing in rubbish, covering the country-side
with lies in order to get--what had he sought? --a silly, ugly,
great house, a temper-destroying motor-car, a number of disrespectful,
abject servants; thwarted intrigues for a party-fund baronetcy as
the crest of his life, perhaps. You cannot imagine the littleness
of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities! And for
the first time in my existence I thought of these things without
bitterness. In the former days I had seen wickedness, I had
seen tragedy, but now I saw only the extraordinary foolishness of
the old life. The ludicrous side of human wealth and importance
turned itself upon me, a shining novelty, poured down upon me like
the sunrise, and engulfed me in laughter. Swindells! Swindells,
damned! My vision of Judgment became a delightful burlesque. I saw
the chuckling Angel sayer with his face veiled, and the corporeal
presence of Swindells upheld amidst the laughter of the spheres.
"Here's a thing, and a very pretty thing, and what's to be done with
this very pretty thing?" I saw a soul being drawn from a rotund,
substantial-looking body like a whelk from its shell. . . .
I laughed loudly and long. And behold! even as I laughed the keen
point of things accomplished stabbed my mirth, and I was weeping,
weeping aloud, convulsed with weeping, and the tears were pouring
down my face.
Everywhere the awakening came with the sunrise. We awakened to the
gladness of the morning; we walked dazzled in a light that was joy.
Everywhere that was so. It was always morning. It was morning
because, until the direct rays of the sun touched it, the changing
nitrogen of our atmosphere did not pass into its permanent phase,
and the sleepers lay as they had fallen. In its intermediate
state the air hung inert, incapable of producing either revival or
stupefaction, no longer green, but not yet changed to the
gas that now lives in us. . . .
To every one, I think, came some parallel to the mental states I
have already sought to describe --a wonder, an impression of joyful
novelty. There was also very commonly a certain confusion of the
intelligence, a difficulty in self-recognition. I remember clearly
as I sat on my stile that presently I had the clearest doubts of
my own identity and fell into the oddest metaphysical questionings.
"If this be I," I said, "then how is it I am no longer madly seeking
Nettie? Nettie is now the remotest thing--and all my wrongs. Why
have I suddenly passed out of all that passion? Why does
not the thought of Verrall quicken my pulses?" . . .
I was only one of many millions who that morning had the same doubts. I
suppose one knows one's self for one's self when one returns from
sleep or insensibility by the familiarity of one's bodily sensations,
and that morning all our most intimate bodily sensations were
changed. The intimate chemical processes of life were changed, its
nervous metaboly. For the fluctuating, uncertain, passion-darkened
thought and feeling of the old time came steady, full-bodied,
wholesome processes. Touch was different, sight was different, sound
and all the senses were subtler; had it not been that our thought
was steadier and fuller, I believe great multitudes of men would
have gone mad. But, as it was, we understood. The dominant impression
I would convey in this account of the Change is one of enormous
release, of a vast substantial exaltation. There was an effect, as
it were, of light-headedness that was also clear-headedness, and
the alteration in one's bodily sensations, instead of producing the
mental obfuscation, the loss of identity that was a common mental
trouble under former conditions, gave simply a new detachment from
the tumid passions and entanglements of the personal life.
In this story of my bitter, restricted youth that I have been
telling you, I have sought constantly to convey the narrowness, the
intensity, the confusion, muddle, and dusty heat of the old world.
It was quite clear to me, within an hour of my awakening, that all
that was, in some mysterious way, over and done. That, too, was the
common experience. Men stood up; they took the new air into their
lungs--a deep long breath, and the past fell from them; they could
forgive, they could disregard, they could attempt. . . . And it
was no new thing, no miracle that sets aside the former order of
the world. It was a change in material conditions, a change in the
atmosphere, that at one bound had released them. Some of them it
had released to death. . . . Indeed, man himself had changed not
at all. We knew before the Change, the meanest knew, by glowing
moments in ourselves and others, by histories and music and beautiful
things, by heroic instances and splendid stories, how fine mankind
could be, how fine almost any human being could upon occasion be;
but the poison in the air, its poverty in all the nobler elements
which made such moments rare and remarkable--all that has changed.
The air was changed, and the Spirit of Man that had drowsed and
slumbered and dreamt dull and evil things, awakened, and stood with
wonder-clean eyes, refreshed, looking again on life.
The miracle of the awakening came to me in solitude, the laughter,
and then the tears. Only after some time did I come upon another
man. Until I heard his voice calling I did not seem to feel there
were any other people in the world. All that seemed past, with
all the stresses that were past. I had come out of the individual
pit in which my shy egotism had lurked, I had overflowed to all
humanity, I had seemed to be all humanity; I had laughed at Swindells
as I could have laughed at myself, and this shout that came to me
seemed like the coming of an unexpected thought in my own mind.
But when it was repeated I answered.
"I am hurt," said the voice, and I descended into the lane forthwith,
and so came upon Melmount sitting near the ditch with his back to
Some of the incidental sensory impressions of that morning bit so
deeply into my mind that I verily believe, when at last I face the
greater mysteries that lie beyond this life, when the things of
this life fade from me as the mists of the morning fade before the
sun, these irrelevant petty details will be the last to leave me,
will be the last wisps visible of that attenuating veil. I believe,
for instance, I could match the fur upon the collar of his great
motoring coat now, could paint the dull red tinge of his big
cheek with his fair eyelashes just catching the light and showing
beyond. His hat was off, his dome-shaped head, with its smooth hair
between red and extreme fairness, was bent forward in scrutiny of
his twisted foot. His back seemed enormous. And there was something
about the mere massive sight of him that filled me with liking.
"What's wrong?" said I.
"I say," he said, in his full deliberate tones, straining round
to see me and showing a profile, a well-modeled nose, a sensitive,
clumsy, big lip, known to every caricaturist in the world, "I'm in
a fix. I fell and wrenched my ankle. Where are you?"
I walked round him and stood looking at his face. I perceived he
had his gaiter and sock and boot off, the motor gauntlets had been
cast aside, and he was kneading the injured part in an exploratory
manner with his thick thumbs.
"By Jove!" I said, "you're Melmount!"
"Melmount!" He thought. "That's my name," he said, without looking
up. . . . "But it doesn't affect my ankle."
We remained silent for few moments except for a grunt of pain from
"Do you know?" I asked, "what has happened to things?"
He seemed to complete his diagnosis. "It's not broken," he said.
"Do you know," I repeated, "what has happened to everything?"
"No," he said, looking up at me incuriously for the first time.
"There's some difference------"
"There's a difference." He smiled, a smile of unexpected pleasantness,
and an interest was coming into his eyes. "I've been a little
preoccupied with my own internal sensations. I remark an extraordinary
brightness about things. Is that it?"
"That's part of it. And a queer feeling, a clear-headedness------"
He surveyed me and meditated gravely. "I woke up," he said, feeling
his way in his memory.
"I lost my way--I forget quite how. There was a curious green fog."
He stared at his foot, remembering. "Something to do with a comet.
I was by a hedge in the darkness. Tried to run. . . . Then I
must have pitched into this lane. Look!" He pointed with his head.
"There's a wooden rail new broken there. I must have stumbled over
that out of the field above." He scrutinized this and concluded. "Yes.
. . ."
"It was dark," I said, "and a sort of green gas came out of nothing
everywhere. That is the last I remember."
"And then you woke up? So did I. . . . In a state of great bewilderment.
Certainly there's something odd in the air. I was--I was rushing
along a road in a motor-car, very much excited and preoccupied. I
got down----" He held out a triumphant finger. "Ironclads!"
"NOW I've got it! We'd strung our fleet from here to Texel. We'd
got right across them and the Elbe mined. We'd lost the Lord Warden.
By Jove, yes. The Lord Warden! A battleship that cost two million
pounds--and that fool Rigby said it didn't matter! Eleven hundred
men went down. ... I remember now. We were sweeping up the North
Sea like a net, with the North Atlantic fleet waiting at the Faroes
for 'em--and not one of 'em had three days' coal! Now, was that a
dream? No! I told a lot of people as much--a meeting was it? --to
reassure them. They were warlike but extremely frightened. Queer
people--paunchy and bald like gnomes, most of them. Where? Of
course! We had it all over--a big dinner --oysters!--Colchester.
I'd been there, just to show all this raid scare was nonsense. And
I was coming back here. . . . But it doesn't seem as though that
was--recent. I suppose it was. Yes, of course!--it was. I got out
of my car at the bottom of the rise with the idea of walking along
the cliff path, because every one said one of their battleships was
being chased along the shore. That's clear! I heard their guns ___"
He reflected. "Queer I should have forgotten! Did YOU hear any
I said I had heard them.
"Was it last night?"
"Late last night. One or two in the morning."
He leant back on his hand and looked at me, smiling frankly. "Even
now," he said, "it's odd, but the whole of that seems like a silly
dream. Do you think there WAS a Lord Warden? Do you really believe
we sank all that machinery--for fun? It was a dream. And yet--it
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