The Poison Belt by Arthur Conan Doyle
Part 2 out of 2
could be so true to their life's work to the very end, why
should not I, in my humble way, be as constant? No human eye
might ever rest upon what I had done. But the long night had to
be passed somehow, and for me at least, sleep seemed to be out
of the question. My notes would help to pass the weary hours and
to occupy my thoughts. Thus it is that now I have before me the
notebook with its scribbled pages, written confusedly upon my
knee in the dim, waning light of our one electric torch. Had I
the literary touch, they might have been worthy of the occasion,
As it is, they may still serve to bring to other minds the
long-drawn emotions and tremors of that awful night.
A DIARY OF THE DYING
How strange the words look scribbled at the top of the empty
page of my book! How stranger still that it is I, Edward Malone,
who have written them--I who started only some twelve hours ago
from my rooms in Streatham without one thought of the marvels
which the day was to bring forth! I look back at the chain of
incidents, my interview with McArdle, Challenger's first note of
alarm in the Times, the absurd journey in the train, the
pleasant luncheon, the catastrophe, and now it has come to
this--that we linger alone upon an empty planet, and so sure is
our fate that I can regard these lines, written from mechanical
professional habit and never to be seen by human eyes, as the
words of one who is already dead, so closely does he stand to
the shadowed borderland over which all outside this one little
circle of friends have already gone. I feel how wise and true
were the words of Challenger when he said that the real tragedy
would be if we were left behind when all that is noble and good
and beautiful had passed. But of that there can surely be no
danger. Already our second tube of oxygen is drawing to an end.
We can count the poor dregs of our lives almost to a minute.
We have just been treated to a lecture, a good quarter of an
hour long, from Challenger, who was so excited that he roared
and bellowed as if he were addressing his old rows of scientific
sceptics in the Queen's Hall. He had certainly a strange
audience to harangue: his wife perfectly acquiescent and
absolutely ignorant of his meaning, Summerlee seated in the
shadow, querulous and critical but interested, Lord John
lounging in a corner somewhat bored by the whole proceeding, and
myself beside the window watching the scene with a kind of
detached attention, as if it were all a dream or something in
which I had no personal interest whatever. Challenger sat at the
centre table with the electric light illuminating the slide
under the microscope which he had brought from his dressing
room. The small vivid circle of white light from the mirror left
half of his rugged, bearded face in brilliant radiance and half
in deepest shadow. He had, it seems, been working of late upon
the lowest forms of life, and what excited him at the present
moment was that in the microscopic slide made up the day before
he found the amoeba to he still alive.
"You can see it for yourselves," he kept repeating in great
excitement. "Summerlee, will you step across and satisfy
yourself upon the point? Malone, will you kindly verify what I
say? The little spindle-shaped things in the centre are diatoms
and may be disregarded since they are probably vegetable rather
than animal. But the right-hand side you will see an undoubted
amoeba, moving sluggishly across the field. The upper screw is
the fine adjustment. Look at it for yourselves."
Summerlee did so and acquiesced. So did I and perceived a little
creature which looked as if it were made of ground glass flowing
in a sticky way across the lighted circle. Lord John was
prepared to take him on trust.
"I'm not troublin' my head whether he's alive or dead," said he.
"We don't so much as know each other by sight, so why should I
take it to heart? I don't suppose he's worryin' himself over the
state of OUR health."
I laughed at this, and Challenger looked in my direction with
his coldest and most supercilious stare. It was a most
"The flippancy of the half-educated is more obstructive to
science than the obtuseness of the ignorant," said he. "If Lord
John Roxton would condescend----"
"My dear George, don't be so peppery," said his wife, with her
hand on the black mane that drooped over the microscope. "What
can it matter whether the amoeba is alive or not?"
"It matters a great deal," said Challenger gruffly.
"Well, let's hear about it," said Lord John with a good-humoured
smile. "We may as well talk about that as anything else. If you
think I've been too off-hand with the thing, or hurt its feelin's
in any way, I'll apologize."
"For my part," remarked Summerlee in his creaky, argumentative
voice, "I can't see why you should attach such importance to the
creature being alive. It is in the same atmosphere as ourselves,
so naturally the poison does not act upon it. If it were outside
of this room it would be dead, like all other animal life."
"Your remarks, my good Summerlee," said Challenger with enormous
condescension (oh, if I could paint that over-bearing, arrogant
face in the vivid circle of reflection from the microscope
mirror!)--"your remarks show that you imperfectly appreciate
the situation. This specimen was mounted yesterday and is
hermetically sealed. None of our oxygen can reach it. But the
ether, of course, has penetrated to it, as to every other point
upon the universe. Therefore, it has survived the poison.
we may argue that every amoeba outside this room, instead of
being dead, as you have erroneously stated, has really survived
"Well, even now I don't feel inclined to hip-hurrah about it,"
said Lord John. "What does it matter?"
"It just matters this, that the world is a living instead of a
dead one. If you had the scientific imagination, you would cast
your mind forward from this one fact, and you would see some few
millions of years hence--a mere passing moment in the enormous
flux of the ages--the whole world teeming once more with the
animal and human life which will spring from this tiny root. You
have seen a prairie fire where the flames have swept every trace
of grass or plant from the surface of the earth and left only a
blackened waste. You would think that it must be forever desert.
Yet the roots of growth have been left behind, and when you pass
the place a few years hence you can no longer tell where the
black scars used to be. Here in this tiny creature are the roots
of growth of the animal world, and by its inherent development,
and evolution, it will surely in time remove every trace of this
incomparable crisis in which we are now involved."
"Dooced interestin'!" said Lord John, lounging across and
looking through the microscope. "Funny little chap to hang
number one among the family portraits. Got a fine big shirt-stud
"The dark object is his nucleus," said Challenger with the air
of a nurse teaching letters to a baby.
"Well, we needn't feel lonely," said Lord John laughing.
"There's somebody livin' besides us on the earth."
"You seem to take it for granted, Challenger," said Summerlee,
"that the object for which this world was created was that it
should produce and sustain human life."
"Well, sir, and what object do you suggest?" asked Challenger,
bristling at the least hint of contradiction.
"Sometimes I think that it is only the monstrous conceit of
mankind which makes him think that all this stage was erected
for him to strut upon."
"We cannot be dogmatic about it, but at least without what you
have ventured to call monstrous conceit we can surely say that
we are the highest thing in nature."
"The highest of which we have cognizance."
"That, sir, goes without saying."
"Think of all the millions and possibly billions of years that
the earth swung empty through space--or, if not empty, at least
without a sign or thought of the human race. Think of it, washed
by the rain and scorched by the sun and swept by the wind for
those unnumbered ages. Man only came into being yesterday so far
as geological times goes. Why, then, should it be taken for
granted that all this stupendous preparation was for his
"For whose then--or for what?"
Summerlee shrugged his shoulders.
"How can we tell? For some reason altogether beyond our
conception--and man may have been a mere accident, a by-product
evolved in the process. It is as if the scum upon the surface of
the ocean imagined that the ocean was created in order to
produce and sustain it or a mouse in a cathedral thought that
the building was its own proper ordained residence."
I have jotted down the very words of their argument, but now it
degenerates into a mere noisy wrangle with much polysyllabic
scientific jargon upon each side. It is no doubt a privilege to
hear two such brains discuss the highest questions; but as they
are in perpetual disagreement, plain folk like Lord John and I
get little that is positive from the exhibition. They neutralize
each other and we are left as they found us. Now the hubbub has
ceased, and Summerlee is coiled up in his chair, while
Challenger, still fingering the screws of his microscope, is
keeping up a continual low, deep, inarticulate growl like the
sea after a storm. Lord John comes over to me, and we look out
together into the night.
There is a pale new moon--the last moon that human eyes will
ever rest upon--and the stars are most brilliant. Even in the
clear plateau air of South America I have never seen them
brighter. Possibly this etheric change has some effect upon
light. The funeral pyre of Brighton is still blazing, and there
is a very distant patch of scarlet in the western sky, which may
mean trouble at Arundel or Chichester, possibly even at
Portsmouth. I sit and muse and make an occasional note. There
a sweet melancholy in the air. Youth and beauty and chivalry and
love--is this to be the end of it all? The starlit earth looks
a dreamland of gentle peace. Who would imagine it as the
terrible Golgotha strewn with the bodies of the human race?
Suddenly, I find myself laughing.
"Halloa, young fellah!" says Lord John, staring at me in
surprise. "We could do with a joke in these hard times. What
"I was thinking of all the great unsolved questions," I answer,
"the questions that we spent so much labor and thought over.
Think of Anglo-German competition, for example--or the Persian
Gulf that my old chief was so keen about. Whoever would have
guessed, when we fumed and fretted so, how they were to be
We fall into silence again. I fancy that each of us is thinking
of friends that have gone before. Mrs. Challenger is sobbing
quietly, and her husband is whispering to her. My mind turns to
all the most unlikely people, and I see each of them lying white
and rigid as poor Austin does in the yard. There is McArdle, for
example, I know exactly where he is, with his face upon his
writing desk and his hand on his own telephone, just as I heard
him fall. Beaumont, the editor, too--I suppose he is lying upon
the blue-and-red Turkey carpet which adorned his sanctum. And
the fellows in the reporters' room--Macdona and Murray and Bond.
They had certainly died hard at work on their job, with
full of vivid impressions and strange happenings in their
hands. I could just imagine how this one would have been packed
off to the doctors, and that other to Westminster, and yet a
third to St. Paul's. What glorious rows of head-lines they must
have seen as a last vision beautiful, never destined to
materialize in printer's ink! I could see Macdona among the
doctors--"Hope in Harley Street"--Mac had always a weakness for
alliteration. "Interview with Mr. Soley Wilson." "Famous
Specialist says `Never despair!'" "Our Special Correspondent
found the eminent scientist seated upon the roof, whither he had
retreated to avoid the crowd of terrified patients who had
stormed his dwelling. With a manner which plainly showed his
appreciation of the immense gravity of the occasion, the
celebrated physician refused to admit that every avenue of hope
had been closed." That's how Mac would start. Then there was
Bond; he would probably do St. Paul's. He fancied his own
literary touch. My word, what a theme for him! "Standing in the
little gallery under the dome and looking down upon that packed
mass of despairing humanity, groveling at this last instant
before a Power which they had so persistently ignored, there
rose to my ears from the swaying crowd such a low moan of
entreaty and terror, such a shuddering cry for help to the
Unknown, that----" and so forth.
Yes, it would be a great end for a reporter, though, like
myself, he would die with the treasures still unused. What would
Bond not give, poor chap, to see "J. H. B." at the foot of a
column like that?
But what drivel I am writing! It is just an attempt to pass the
weary time. Mrs. Challenger has gone to the inner dressing-room,
and the Professor says that she is asleep. He is making notes
and consulting books at the central table, as calmly as if years
of placid work lay before him. He writes with a very noisy quill
pen which seems to be screeching scorn at all who disagree with
Summerlee has dropped off in his chair and gives from time to
time a peculiarly exasperating snore. Lord John lies back with
his hands in his pockets and his eyes closed. How people can
sleep under such conditions is more than I can imagine.
Three-thirty a.m. I have just wakened with a start. It was five
minutes past eleven when I made my last entry. I remember
winding up my watch and noting the time. So I have wasted some
five hours of the little span still left to us. Who would have
believed it possible? But I feel very much fresher, and ready
for my fate--or try to persuade myself that I am. And yet, the
fitter a man is, and the higher his tide of life, the more must
he shrink from death. How wise and how merciful is that
provision of nature by which his earthly anchor is usually
loosened by many little imperceptible tugs, until his
consciousness has drifted out of its untenable earthly harbor
into the great sea beyond!
Mrs. Challenger is still in the dressing room. Challenger has
fallen asleep in his chair. What a picture! His enormous frame
leans back, his huge, hairy hands are clasped across his
waistcoat, and his head is so tilted that I can see nothing
above his collar save a tangled bristle of luxuriant beard. He
shakes with the vibration of his own snoring. Summerlee adds his
occasional high tenor to Challenger's sonorous bass. Lord John
is sleeping also, his long body doubled up sideways in a
basket-chair. The first cold light of dawn is just stealing into
the room, and everything is grey and mournful.
I look out at the sunrise--that fateful sunrise which will shine
upon an unpeopled world. The human race is gone, extinguished in
a day, but the planets swing round and the tides rise or fall,
and the wind whispers, and all nature goes her way, down, as it
would seem, to the very amoeba, with never a sign that he who
styled himself the lord of creation had ever blessed or cursed
the universe with his presence. Down in the yard lies Austin
with sprawling limbs, his face glimmering white in the dawn, and
the hose nozzle still projecting from his dead hand. The whole
of human kind is typified in that one half-ludicrous and
half-pathetic figure, lying so helpless beside the machine which
it used to control.
Here end the notes which I made at the time. Henceforward events
were too swift and too poignant to allow me to write, but they
are too clearly outlined in my memory that any detail could
Some chokiness in my throat made me look at the oxygen
cylinders, and I was startled at what I saw. The sands of our
lives were running very low. At some period in the night
Challenger had switched the tube from the third to the fourth
cylinder. Now it was clear that this also was nearly exhausted.
That horrible feeling of constriction was closing in upon me. I
ran across and, unscrewing the nozzle, I changed it to our last
supply. Even as I did so my conscience pricked me, for I felt
that perhaps if I had held my hand all of them might have passed
in their sleep. The thought was banished, however, by the voice
of the lady from the inner room crying:--
"George, George, I am stifling!"
"It is all right, Mrs. Challenger," I answered as the others
started to their feet. "I have just turned on a fresh supply."
Even at such a moment I could not help smiling at Challenger,
who with a great hairy fist in each eye was like a huge, bearded
baby, new wakened out of sleep. Summerlee was shivering like a
man with the ague, human fears, as he realized his position,
rising for an instant above the stoicism of the man of science.
Lord John, however, was as cool and alert as if he had just been
roused on a hunting morning.
"Fifthly and lastly," said he, glancing at the tube. "Say, young
fellah, don't tell me you've been writin' up your impressions in
that paper on your knee."
"Just a few notes to pass the time."
"Well, I don't believe anyone but an Irishman would have done
that. I expect you'll have to wait till little brother amoeba
gets grown up before you'll find a reader. He don't seem to take
much stock of things just at present. Well, Herr Professor, what
are the prospects?"
Challenger was looking out at the great drifts of morning mist
which lay over the landscape. Here and there the wooded hills
rose like conical islands out of this woolly sea.
"It might be a winding sheet," said Mrs. Challenger, who had
entered in her dressing-gown. "There's that song of yours,
George, `Ring out the old, ring in the new.' It was prophetic.
But you are shivering, my poor dear friends. I have been warm
under a coverlet all night, and you cold in your chairs. But
I'll soon set you right."
The brave little creature hurried away, and presently we heard
the sizzling of a kettle. She was back soon with five steaming
cups of cocoa upon a tray.
"Drink these," said she. "You will feel so much better."
And we did. Summerlee asked if he might light his pipe, and we
all had cigarettes. It steadied our nerves, I think, but it was
a mistake, for it made a dreadful atmosphere in that stuffy
room. Challenger had to open the ventilator.
"How long, Challenger?" asked Lord John.
"Possibly three hours," he answered with a shrug.
"I used to be frightened," said his wife. "But the nearer I get
it, the easier it seems. Don't you think we ought to pray,
"You will pray, dear, if you wish," the big man answered, very
gently. "We all have our own ways of praying. Mine is a
acquiescence in whatever fate may send me--a cheerful
acquiescence. The highest religion and the highest science seem
to unite on that."
"I cannot truthfully describe my mental attitude as acquiescence
and far less cheerful acquiescence," grumbled Summerlee over his
pipe. "I submit because I have to. I confess that I should have
liked another year of life to finish my classification of the
"Your unfinished work is a small thing," said Challenger
pompously, "when weighed against the fact that my own MAGNUM
OPUS, `The Ladder of Life,' is still in the first stages. My
brain, my reading, my experience--in fact, my whole unique
equipment--were to be condensed into that epoch-making volume.
And yet, as I say, I acquiesce."
"I expect we've all left some loose ends stickin' out," said
Lord John. "What are yours, young fellah?"
"I was working at a book of verses," I answered.
"Well, the world has escaped that, anyhow," said Lord John.
"There's always compensation somewhere if you grope around."
"What about you?" I asked.
"Well, it just so happens that I was tidied up and ready. I'd
promised Merivale to go to Tibet for a snow leopard in the
spring. But it's hard on you, Mrs. Challenger, when you have
just built up this pretty home."
"Where George is, there is my home. But, oh, what would I not
give for one last walk together in the fresh morning air upon
those beautiful downs!"
Our hearts re-echoed her words. The sun had burst through the
gauzy mists which veiled it, and the whole broad Weald was
washed in golden light. Sitting in our dark and poisonous
atmosphere that glorious, clean, wind-swept countryside seemed
a very dream of beauty. Mrs. Challenger held her hand stretched
out to it in her longing. We drew up chairs and sat in a
semicircle in the window. The atmosphere was already very close.
It seemed to me that the shadows of death were drawing in upon
us--the last of our race. It was like an invisible curtain
closing down upon every side.
"That cylinder is not lastin' too well," said Lord John with a
long gasp for breath.
"The amount contained is variable," said Challenger, "depending
upon the pressure and care with which it has been bottled. I am
inclined to agree with you, Roxton, that this one is defective."
"So we are to be cheated out of the last hour of our lives,"
Summerlee remarked bitterly. "An excellent final illustration of
the sordid age in which we have lived. Well, Challenger, now is
your time if you wish to study the subjective phenomena of
"Sit on the stool at my knee and give me your hand," said
Challenger to his wife. "I think, my friends, that a further
delay in this insufferable atmosphere is hardly advisable. You
would not desire it, dear, would you?"
His wife gave a little groan and sank her face against his leg.
"I've seen the folk bathin' in the Serpentine in winter," said
Lord John. "When the rest are in, you see one or two shiverin'
on the bank, envyin' the others that have taken the plunge. It's
the last that have the worst of it. I'm all for a header and
have done with it."
"You would open the window and face the ether?"
"Better be poisoned than stifled."
Summerlee nodded his reluctant acquiescence and held out his
thin hand to Challenger.
"We've had our quarrels in our time, but that's all over," said
he. "We were good friends and had a respect for each other under
the surface. Good-by!"
"Good-by, young fellah!" said Lord John. "The window's plastered
up. You can't open it."
Challenger stooped and raised his wife, pressing her to his
breast, while she threw her arms round his neck.
"Give me that field-glass, Malone," said he gravely.
I handed it to him.
"Into the hands of the Power that made us we render ourselves
again!" he shouted in his voice of thunder, and at the words he
hurled the field-glass through the window.
Full in our flushed faces, before the last tinkle of falling
fragments had died away, there came the wholesome breath of the
wind, blowing strong and sweet.
I don't know how long we sat in amazed silence. Then as in a
dream, I heard Challenger's voice once more.
"We are back in normal conditions," he cried. "The world has
cleared the poison belt, but we alone of all mankind are saved."
THE DEAD WORLD
I remember that we all sat gasping in our chairs, with that
sweet, wet south-western breeze, fresh from the sea, flapping the
muslin curtains and cooling our flushed faces. I wonder how long
we sat! None of us afterwards could agree at all on that point.
We were bewildered, stunned, semi-conscious. We had all braced
our courage for death, but this fearful and sudden new
fact--that we must continue to live after we had survived the
race to which we belonged--struck us with the shock of a
physical blow and left us prostrate. Then gradually the
suspended mechanism began to move once more; the shuttles of
memory worked; ideas weaved themselves together in our minds. We
saw, with vivid, merciless clearness, the relations between the
past, the present, and the future--the lives that we had led and
the lives which we would have to live. Our eyes turned in silent
horror upon those of our companions and found the same answering
look in theirs. Instead of the joy which men might have been
expected to feel who had so narrowly escaped an imminent death,
a terrible wave of darkest depression submerged us. Everything
on earth that we loved had been washed away into the great,
infinite, unknown ocean, and here were we marooned upon this
desert island of a world, without companions, hopes, or
aspirations. A few years' skulking like jackals among the graves
of the human race and then our belated and lonely end would come.
"It's dreadful, George, dreadful!" the lady cried in an agony of
sobs. "If we had only passed with the others! Oh, why did you
us? I feel as if it is we that are dead and everyone else
Challenger's great eyebrows were drawn down in concentrated
thought, while his huge, hairy paw closed upon the outstretched
hand of his wife. I had observed that she always held out her
arms to him in trouble as a child would to its mother.
"Without being a fatalist to the point of nonresistance," said
he, "I have always found that the highest wisdom lies in an
acquiescence with the actual." He spoke slowly, and there was a
vibration of feeling in his sonorous voice.
"I do NOT acquiesce," said Summerlee firmly.
"I don't see that it matters a row of pins whether you acquiesce
or whether you don't," remarked Lord John. "You've got to take
it, whether you take it fightin' or take it lyin' down, so
what's the odds whether you acquiesce or not?
I can't remember that anyone asked our permission before the
thing began, and nobody's likely to ask it now. So what
difference can it make what we may think of it?"
"It is just all the difference between happiness and misery,"
said Challenger with an abstracted face, still patting his
wife's hand. "You can swim with the tide and have peace in mind
and soul, or you can thrust against it and be bruised and weary.
This business is beyond us, so let us accept it as it stands and
say no more."
"But what in the world are we to do with our lives?" I asked,
appealing in desperation to the blue, empty heaven.
"What am I to do, for example? There are no newspapers, so
there's an end of my vocation."
"And there's nothin' left to shoot, and no more soldierin', so
there's an end of mine," said Lord John.
"And there are no students, so there's an end of mine," cried
"But I have my husband and my house, so I can thank heaven that
there is no end of mine," said the lady.
"Nor is there an end of mine," remarked Challenger, "for science
is not dead, and this catastrophe in itself will offer us many
most absorbing problems for investigation."
He had now flung open the windows and we were gazing out upon
the silent and motionless landscape.
"Let me consider," he continued. "It was about three, or a
little after, yesterday afternoon that the world finally entered
the poison belt to the extent of being completely submerged. It
is now nine o'clock. The question is, at what hour did we pass
out from it?"
"The air was very bad at daybreak," said I.
"Later than that," said Mrs. Challenger. "As late as eight
o'clock I distinctly felt the same choking at my throat which
came at the outset."
"Then we shall say that it passed just after eight o'clock. For
seventeen hours the world has been soaked in the poisonous
ether. For that length of time the Great Gardener has sterilized
the human mold which had grown over the surface of His fruit. Is
it possible that the work is incompletely done--that others may
have survived besides ourselves?"
"That's what I was wonderin'" said Lord John. "Why should we be
the only pebbles on the beach?"
"It is absurd to suppose that anyone besides ourselves can
possibly have survived," said Summerlee with conviction.
"Consider that the poison was so virulent that even a man who is
as strong as an ox and has not a nerve in his body, like Malone
here, could hardly get up the stairs before he fell unconscious.
Is it likely that anyone could stand seventeen minutes of it,
far less hours?"
"Unless someone saw it coming and made preparation, same as old
friend Challenger did."
"That, I think, is hardly probable," said Challenger, projecting
his beard and sinking his eyelids. "The combination of
observation, inference, and anticipatory imagination which
enabled me to foresee the danger is what one can hardly expect
twice in the same generation."
"Then your conclusion is that everyone is certainly dead?"
"There can be little doubt of that. We have to remember,
however, that the poison worked from below upwards and would
possibly be less virulent in the higher strata of the
atmosphere. It is strange, indeed, that it should be so; but it
presents one of those features which will afford us in the
future a fascinating field for study. One could imagine,
therefore, that if one had to search for survivors one would
turn one's eyes with best hopes of success to some Tibetan
village or some Alpine farm, many thousands of feet above the
"Well, considerin' that there are no railroads and no steamers
you might as well talk about survivors in the moon," said Lord
John. "But what I'm askin' myself is whether it's really over or
whether it's only half-time."
Summerlee craned his neck to look round the horizon. "It seems
clear and fine," said he in a very dubious voice; "but so
it did yesterday. I am by no means assured that it is all over."
Challenger shrugged his shoulders.
"We must come back once more to our fatalism," said he. "If the
world has undergone this experience before, which is not outside
the range of possibility; it was certainly a very long time ago.
Therefore, we may reasonably hope that it will be very long
before it occurs again. "
"That's all very well," said Lord John, "but if you get an
earthquake shock you are mighty likely to have a second one
right on the top of it. I think we'd be wise to stretch our legs
and have a breath of air while we have the chance. Since our
oxygen is exhausted we may just as well be caught outside as in."
It was strange the absolute lethargy which had come upon us as
a reaction after our tremendous emotions of the last twenty-four
hours. It was both mental and physical, a deep-lying feeling
nothing mattered and that everything was a weariness and a
profitless exertion. Even Challenger had succumbed to it, and
sat in his chair, with his great head leaning upon his hands and
his thoughts far away, until Lord John and I, catching him by
each arm, fairly lifted him on to his feet, receiving only the
glare and growl of an angry mastiff for our trouble. However,
once we had got out of our narrow haven of refuge into the wider
atmosphere of everyday life, our normal energy came gradually
back to us once more.
But what were we to begin to do in that graveyard of a world?
Could ever men have been faced with such a question since the
dawn of time? It is true that our own physical needs, and even
our luxuries, were assured for the future. All the stores of
food, all the vintages of wine, all the treasures of art were
ours for the taking. But what were we to DO? Some few tasks
appealed to us at once, since they lay ready to our hands. We
descended into the kitchen and laid the two domestics upon their
respective beds. They seemed to have died without suffering, one
in the chair by the fire, the other upon the scullery floor.
we carried in poor Austin from the yard. His muscles were set as
hard as a board in the most exaggerated rigor mortis, while the
contraction of the fibres had drawn his mouth into a hard
sardonic grin. This symptom was prevalent among all who had died
from the poison. Wherever we went we were confronted by those
grinning faces, which seemed to mock at our dreadful position,
smiling silently and grimly at the ill-fated survivors of their
"Look here," said Lord John, who had paced restlessly about the
dining-room whilst we partook of some food, "I don't know how
you fellows feel about it, but for my part, I simply CAN'T sit
here and do nothin'."
"Perhaps," Challenger answered, "you would have the kindness to
suggest what you think we ought to do."
"Get a move on us and see all that has happened."
"That is what I should myself propose."
"But not in this little country village. We can see from the
window all that this place can teach us."
"Where should we go, then?"
"That's all very well," grumbled Summerlee. "You may be equal to
a forty-mile walk, but I'm not so sure about Challenger, with
his stumpy legs, and I am perfectly sure about myself."
Challenger was very much annoyed.
"If you could see your way, sir, to confining your remarks to
your own physical peculiarities, you would find that you had an
ample field for comment," he cried.
"I had no intention to offend you, my dear Challenger," cried
our tactless friend, "You can't be held responsible for your own
physique. If nature has given you a short, heavy body you cannot
possibly help having stumpy legs."
Challenger was too furious to answer. He could only growl and
blink and bristle. Lord John hastened to intervene before the
dispute became more violent.
"You talk of walking. Why should we walk?" said he.
"Do you suggest taking a train?" asked Challenger, still
"What's the matter with the motor-car? Why should we not go in
"I am not an expert," said Challenger, pulling at his beard
reflectively. "At the same time, you are right in supposing that
the human intellect in its higher manifestations should be
sufficiently flexible to turn itself to anything. Your idea is
excellent one, Lord John. I myself will drive you all to
"You will do nothing of the kind," said Summerlee with decision.
"No, indeed, George!" cried his wife. "You only tried once, and
you remember how you crashed through the gate of the garage."
"It was a momentary want of concentration," said Challenger
complacently. "You can consider the matter settled. I will
certainly drive you all to London."
The situation was relieved by Lord John.
"What's the car?" he asked.
"A twenty-horsepower Humber."
"Why, I've driven one for years," said he. "By George!" he
added. "I never thought I'd live to take the whole human race in
one load. There's just room for five, as I remember it. Get
things on, and I'll be ready at the door by ten o'clock."
Sure enough, at the hour named, the car came purring and
crackling from the yard with Lord John at the wheel. I took my
seat beside him, while the lady, a useful little buffer state,
squeezed in between the two men of wrath at the back. Then Lord
John released his brakes, slid his lever rapidly from first to
third, and we sped off upon the strangest drive that ever human
beings have taken since man first came upon the earth.
You are to picture the loveliness of nature upon that August
day, the freshness of the morning air, the golden glare of the
summer sunshine, the cloudless sky, the luxuriant green of the
Sussex woods, and the deep purple of heather-clad downs. As you
looked round upon the many-coloured beauty of the scene all
thought of a vast catastrophe would have passed from your mind
had it not been for one sinister sign--the solemn, all-embracing
silence. There is a gentle hum of life which pervades a
closely-settled country, so deep and constant that one ceases to
observe it, as the dweller by the sea loses all sense of the
murmur of the waves. The twitter of birds, the buzz of insects,
the far-off echo of voices, the lowing of cattle, the distant
barking of dogs, roar of trains, and rattle of carts--all these
form one low, unremitting note, striking unheeded upon the ear.
We missed it now. This deadly silence was appalling. So solemn
was it, so impressive, that the buzz and rattle of our motor-car
seemed an unwarrantable intrusion, an indecent disregard of this
reverent stillness which lay like a pall over and round the
ruins of humanity. It was this grim hush, and the tall clouds of
smoke which rose here and there over the country-side from
smoldering buildings, which cast a chill into our hearts as we
gazed round at the glorious panorama of the Weald.
And then there were the dead! At first those endless groups of
drawn and grinning faces filled us with a shuddering horror. So
vivid and mordant was the impression that I can live over again
that slow descent of the station hill, the passing by the
nurse-girl with the two babes, the sight of the old horse on his
knees between the shafts, the cabman twisted across his seat,
and the young man inside with his hand upon the open door in the
very act of springing out. Lower down were six reapers all in a
litter, their limbs crossing, their dead, unwinking eyes gazing
upwards at the glare of heaven. These things I see as in a
photograph. But soon, by the merciful provision of nature, the
over-excited nerve ceased to respond. The very vastness of the
horror took away from its personal appeal. Individuals merged
into groups, groups into crowds, crowds into a universal
phenomenon which one soon accepted as the inevitable detail of
every scene. Only here and there, where some particularly brutal
or grotesque incident caught the attention, did the mind come
with a sudden shock to the personal and human meaning of it all.
Above all, there was the fate of the children. That, I remember,
filled us with the strongest sense of intolerable injustice. We
could have wept--Mrs. Challenger did weep--when we passed a
great council school and saw the long trail of tiny figures
scattered down the road which led from it. They had been
dismissed by their terrified teachers and were speeding for
their homes when the poison caught them in its net. Great
numbers of people were at the open windows of the houses. In
Tunbridge Wells there was hardly one which had not its staring,
smiling face. At the last instant the need of air, that very
craving for oxygen which we alone had been able to satisfy, had
sent them flying to the window. The sidewalks too were littered
with men and women, hatless and bonnetless, who had rushed out
of the houses. Many of them had fallen in the roadway. It was a
lucky thing that in Lord John we had found an expert driver, for
it was no easy matter to pick one's way. Passing through the
villages or towns we could only go at a walking pace, and once,
I remember, opposite the school at Tonbridge, we had to halt some
time while we carried aside the bodies which blocked our path.
A few small, definite pictures stand out in my memory from amid
that long panorama of death upon the Sussex and Kentish high
roads. One was that of a great, glittering motor-car standing
outside the inn at the village of Southborough. It bore, as I
should guess, some pleasure party upon their return from
Brighton or from Eastbourne. There were three gaily dressed
women, all young and beautiful, one of them with a Peking
spaniel upon her lap. With them were a rakish-looking elderly
man and a young aristocrat, his eyeglass still in his eye, his
cigarette burned down to the stub between the fingers of his
begloved hand. Death must have come on them in an instant and
fixed them as they sat. Save that the elderly man had at the
last moment torn out his collar in an effort to breathe, they
might all have been asleep. On one side of the car a waiter with
some broken glasses beside a tray was huddled near the step. On
the other, two very ragged tramps, a man and a woman, lay where
they had fallen, the man with his long, thin arm still
outstretched, even as he had asked for alms in his lifetime. One
instant of time had put aristocrat, waiter, tramp, and dog upon
one common footing of inert and dissolving protoplasm.
I remember another singular picture, some miles on the London
side of Sevenoaks. There is a large convent upon the left, with
a long, green slope in front of it. Upon this slope were
assembled a great number of school children, all kneeling at
prayer. In front of them was a fringe of nuns, and higher up the
slope, facing towards them, a single figure whom we took to be
the Mother Superior. Unlike the pleasure-seekers in the
these people seemed to have had warning of their danger and
to have died beautifully together, the teachers and the taught,
assembled for their last common lesson.
My mind is still stunned by that terrific experience, and I
grope vainly for means of expression by which I can reproduce
the emotions which we felt. Perhaps it is best and wisest not to
try, but merely to indicate the facts. Even Summerlee and
Challenger were crushed, and we heard nothing of our companions
behind us save an occasional whimper from the lady. As to Lord
John, he was too intent upon his wheel and the difficult task of
threading his way along such roads to have time or inclination
for conversation. One phrase he used with such wearisome
iteration that it stuck in my memory and at last almost made me
laugh as a comment upon the day of doom.
"Pretty doin's! What!"
That was his ejaculation as each fresh tremendous combination of
death and disaster displayed itself before us. "Pretty doin's!
What!" he cried, as we descended the station hill at
Rotherfield, and it was still "Pretty doin's! What!" as we
picked our way through a wilderness of death in the High Street
of Lewisham and the Old Kent Road.
It was here that we received a sudden and amazing shock. Out of
the window of a humble corner house there appeared a fluttering
handkerchief waving at the end of a long, thin human arm. Never
had the sight of unexpected death caused our hearts to stop and
then throb so wildly as did this amazing indication of life.
Lord John ran the motor to the curb, and in an instant we had
rushed through the open door of the house and up the staircase
to the second-floor front room from which the signal proceeded.
A very old lady sat in a chair by the open window, and close to
her, laid across a second chair, was a cylinder of oxygen,
smaller but of the same shape as those which had saved our own
lives. She turned her thin, drawn, bespectacled face toward us
as we crowded in at the doorway.
"I feared that I was abandoned here forever," said she, "for I
am an invalid and cannot stir."
"Well, madam," Challenger answered, "it is a lucky chance that
we happened to pass."
"I have one all-important question to ask you," said she.
"Gentlemen, I beg that you will be frank with me. What effect
these events have upon London and North-Western Railway shares?"
We should have laughed had it not been for the tragic eagerness
with which she listened for our answer. Mrs. Burston, for that
was her name, was an aged widow, whose whole income depended
upon a small holding of this stock. Her life had been regulated
by the rise and fall of the dividend, and she could form no
conception of existence save as it was affected by the quotation
of her shares. In vain we pointed out to her that all the money
in the world was hers for the taking and was useless when taken.
Her old mind would not adapt itself to the new idea, and she
wept loudly over her vanished stock. "It was all I had," she
wailed. "If that is gone I may as well go too."
Amid her lamentations we found out how this frail old plant had
lived where the whole great forest had fallen. She was a
confirmed invalid and an asthmatic. Oxygen had been prescribed
for her malady, and a tube was in her room at the moment of the
crisis. She had naturally inhaled some as had been her habit
when there was a difficulty with her breathing. It had given her
relief, and by doling out her supply she had managed to survive
the night. Finally she had fallen asleep and been awakened by
the buzz of our motor-car. As it was impossible to take her on
with us, we saw that she had all necessaries of life and promised
to communicate with her in a couple of days at the latest. So we
left her, still weeping bitterly over her vanished stock.
As we approached the Thames the block in the streets became
thicker and the obstacles more bewildering. It was with
difficulty that we made our way across London Bridge. The
approaches to it upon the Middlesex side were choked from end to
end with frozen traffic which made all further advance in that
direction impossible. A ship was blazing brightly alongside one
of the wharves near the bridge, and the air was full of drifting
smuts and of a heavy acrid smell of burning. There was a cloud
of dense smoke somewhere near the Houses of Parliament, but it
was impossible from where we were to see what was on fire.
"I don't know how it strikes you," Lord John remarked as he
brought his engine to a standstill, "but it seems to me the
country is more cheerful than the town. Dead London is gettin'
on my nerves. I'm for a cast round and then gettin' back to
"I confess that I do not see what we can hope for here," said
"At the same time," said Challenger, his great voice booming
strangely amid the silence, "it is difficult for us to conceive
that out of seven millions of people there is only this one old
woman who by some peculiarity of constitution or some accident
of occupation has managed to survive this catastrophe."
"If there should be others, how can we hope to find them,
George?" asked the lady. "And yet I agree with you that we
cannot go back until we have tried."
Getting out of the car and leaving it by the curb, we walked
with some difficulty along the crowded pavement of King William
Street and entered the open door of a large insurance office. It
was a corner house, and we chose it as commanding a view in
every direction. Ascending the stair, we passed through what I
suppose to have been the board-room, for eight elderly men were
seated round a long table in the centre of it. The high window
was open and we all stepped out upon the balcony. From it we
could see the crowded city streets radiating in every direction,
while below us the road was black from side to side with the
tops of the motionless taxis. All, or nearly all, had their
heads pointed outwards, showing how the terrified men of the
city had at the last moment made a vain endeavor to rejoin their
families in the suburbs or the country. Here and there amid the
humbler cabs towered the great brass-spangled motor-car of some
wealthy magnate, wedged hopelessly among the dammed stream of
arrested traffic. Just beneath us there was such a one of great
size and luxurious appearance, with its owner, a fat old man,
leaning out, half his gross body through the window, and his
podgy hand, gleaming with diamonds, outstretched as he urged his
chauffeur to make a last effort to break through the press.
A dozen motor-buses towered up like islands in this flood, the
passengers who crowded the roofs lying all huddled together and
across eash others' laps like a child's toys in a nursery. On a
broad lamp pedestal in the centre of the roadway, a burly
policeman was standing, leaning his back against the post in so
natural an attitude that it was hard to realize that he was not
alive, while at his feet there lay a ragged newsboy with his
bundle of papers on the ground beside him. A paper-cart had got
blocked in the crowd, and we could read in large letters, black
upon yellow, "Scene at Lord's. County Match Interrupted." This
must have been the earliest edition, for there were other
placards bearing the legend, "Is It the End? Great Scientist's
Warning." And another, "Is Challenger Justified? Ominous
Challenger pointed the latter placard out to his wife, as it
thrust itself like a banner above the throng. I could see him
throw out his chest and stroke his beard as he looked at it. It
pleased and flattered that complex mind to think that London had
died with his name and his words still present in their
thoughts. His feelings were so evident that they aroused the
sardonic comment of his colleague.
"In the limelight to the last, Challenger," he remarked.
"So it would appear," he answered complacently. "Well," he added
as he looked down the long vista of the radiating streets, all
silent and all choked up with death, "I really see no purpose to
be served by our staying any longer in London. I suggest that we
return at once to Rotherfield and then take counsel as to how we
shall most profitably employ the years which lie before us."
Only one other picture shall I give of the scenes which we
carried back in our memories from the dead city. It is a glimpse
which we had of the interior of the old church of St. Mary's,
which is at the very point where our car was awaiting us.
Picking our way among the prostrate figures upon the steps, we
pushed open the swing door and entered. It was a wonderful
sight. The church was crammed from end to end with kneeling
figures in every posture of supplication and abasement. At the
last dreadful moment, brought suddenly face to face with the
realities of life, those terrific realities which hang over us
even while we follow the shadows, the terrified people had
rushed into those old city churches which for generations had
hardly ever held a congregation. There they huddled as close as
they could kneel, many of them in their agitation still wearing
their hats, while above them in the pulpit a young man in lay
dress had apparently been addressing them when he and they had
been overwhelmed by the same fate. He lay now, like Punch in his
booth, with his head and two limp arms hanging over the ledge of
the pulpit. It was a nightmare, the grey, dusty church, the rows
of agonized figures, the dimness and silence of it all. We moved
about with hushed whispers, walking upon our tip-toes.
And then suddenly I had an idea. At one corner of the church,
near the door, stood the ancient font, and behind it a deep
recess in which there hung the ropes for the bell-ringers. Why
should we not send a message out over London which would attract
to us anyone who might still be alive? I ran across, and pulling
at the list-covered rope, I was surprised to find how difficult
it was to swing the bell. Lord John had followed me.
"By George, young fellah!" said he, pulling off his coat.
hit on a dooced good notion. Give me a grip and we'll soon have
a move on it."
But, even then, so heavy was the bell that it was not until
Challenger and Summerlee had added their weight to ours that we
heard the roaring and clanging above our heads which told us
that the great clapper was ringing out its music. Far over dead
London resounded our message of comradeship and hope to any
fellow-man surviving. It cheered our own hearts, that strong,
metallic call, and we turned the more earnestly to our work,
dragged two feet off the earth with each upward jerk of the
rope, but all straining together on the downward heave,
Challenger the lowest of all, bending all his great strength to
the task and flopping up and down like a monstrous bull-frog,
croaking with every pull. It was at that moment that an artist
might have taken a picture of the four adventurers, the comrades
of many strange perils in the past, whom fate had now chosen for
so supreme an experience. For half an hour we worked, the sweat
dropping from our faces, our arms and backs aching with the
exertion. Then we went out into the portico of the church and
looked eagerly up and down the silent, crowded streets. Not a
sound, not a motion, in answer to our summons.
"It's no use. No one is left," I cried.
"We can do nothing more," said Mrs. Challenger. "For God's sake,
George, let us get back to Rotherfield. Another hour of this
dreadful, silent city would drive me mad."
We got into the car without another word. Lord John backed her
round and turned her to the south. To us the chapter seemed
closed. Little did we foresee the strange new chapter which was
THE GREAT AWAKENING
And now I come to the end of this extraordinary incident, so
overshadowing in its importance, not only in our own small,
individual lives, but in the general history of the human race.
As I said when I began my narrative, when that history comes to
be written, this occurrence will surely stand out among all other
events like a mountain towering among its foothills. Our
has been reserved for a very special fate since it has been
to experience so wonderful a thing. How long its effect may
last--how long mankind may preserve the humility and reverence
which this great shock has taught it--can only be shown by the
future. I think it is safe to say that things can never be quite
the same again. Never can one realize how powerless and ignorant
one is, and how one is upheld by an unseen hand, until for an
instant that hand has seemed to close and to crush. Death has
been imminent upon us. We know that at any moment it may be
again. That grim presence shadows our lives, but who can deny
that in that shadow the sense of duty, the feeling of sobriety
and responsibility, the appreciation of the gravity and of the
objects of life, the earnest desire to develop and improve, have
grown and become real with us to a degree that has leavened our
whole society from end to end? It is something beyond sects and
beyond dogmas. It is rather an alteration of perspective, a
shifting of our sense of proportion, a vivid realization that we
are insignificant and evanescent creatures, existing on
and at the mercy of the first chill wind from the unknown. But
the world has grown graver with this knowledge it is not, I
a sadder place in consequence. Surely we are agreed that the
more sober and restrained pleasures of the present are deeper as
well as wiser than the noisy, foolish hustle which passed so
often for enjoyment in the days of old--days so recent and yet
already so inconceivable. Those empty lives which were wasted in
aimless visiting and being visited, in the worry of great and
unnecessary households, in the arranging and eating of elaborate
and tedious meals, have now found rest and health in the reading,
the music, the gentle family communion which comes from a simpler
and saner division of their time. With greater health and
pleasure they are richer than before, even after they have paid
those increased contributions to the common fund which have so
raised the standard of life in these islands.
There is some clash of opinion as to the exact hour of the great
awakening. It is generally agreed that, apart from the
of clocks, there may have been local causes which influenced the
action of the poison. Certainly, in each separate district the
resurrection was practically simultaneous. There are numerous
witnesses that Big Ben pointed to ten minutes past six at the
moment. The Astronomer Royal has fixed the Greenwich time at
twelve past six. On the other hand, Laird Johnson, a very
capable East Anglia observer, has recorded six-twenty as the
hour. In the Hebrides it was as late as seven. In our own case
there can be no doubt whatever, for I was seated in Challenger's
study with his carefully tested chronometer in front of me at
the moment. The hour was a quarter-past six.
An enormous depression was weighing upon my spirits. The
effect of all the dreadful sights which we had seen upon our
journey was heavy upon my soul. With my abounding animal health
and great physical energy any kind of mental clouding was a rare
event. I had the Irish faculty of seeing some gleam of humor in
every darkness. But now the obscurity was appalling and
unrelieved. The others were downstairs making their plans for
the future. I sat by the open window, my chin resting upon my
and my mind absorbed in the misery of our situation. Could we
continue to live? That was the question which I had begun to ask
myself. Was it possible to exist upon a dead world? Just as in
physics the greater body draws to itself the lesser, would we not
feel an overpowering attraction from that vast body of humanity
which had passed into the unknown? How would the end come?
it be from a return of the poison? Or would the earth be
uninhabitable from the mephitic products of universal decay? Or,
finally, might our awful situation prey upon and unbalance our
minds? A group of insane folk upon a dead world! My mind was
brooding upon this last dreadful idea when some slight noise
caused me to look down upon the road beneath me. The old cab
horse was coming up the hill!
I was conscious at the same instant of the twittering of birds,
of someone coughing in the yard below, and of a background of
movement in the landscape. And yet I remember that it was that
absurd, emaciated, superannuated cab-horse which held my gaze.
Slowly and wheezily it was climbing the slope. Then my eye
traveled to the driver sitting hunched up upon the box and
finally to the young man who was leaning out of the window
in some excitement and shouting a direction. They were all
indubitably, aggressively alive!
Everybody was alive once more! Had it all been a delusion? Was
it conceivable that this whole poison belt incident had been an
elaborate dream? For an instant my startled brain was really
ready to believe it. Then I looked down, and there was the
rising blister on my hand where it was frayed by the rope of
the city bell. It had really been so, then. And yet here was
the world resuscitated--here was life come back in an instant
full tide to the planet. Now, as my eyes wandered all over the
great landscape, I saw it in every direction--and moving, to my
amazement, in the very same groove in which it had halted. There
were the golfers. Was it possible that they were going on with
their game? Yes, there was a fellow driving off from a tee, and
that other group upon the green were surely putting for the hole.
The reapers were slowly trooping back to their work. The
nurse-girl slapped one of her charges and then began to push
the perambulator up the hill. Everyone had unconcernedly taken
up the thread at the very point where they had dropped it.
I rushed downstairs, but the hall door was open, and I heard the
voices of my companions, loud in astonishment and congratulation,
in the yard. How we all shook hands and laughed as we came
together, and how Mrs. Challenger kissed us all in her emotion,
before she finally threw herself into the bear-hug of her
"But they could not have been asleep!" cried Lord John. "Dash
it all, Challenger, you don't mean to believe that those folk
were asleep with their staring eyes and stiff limbs and that
awful death grin on their faces!"
"It can only have been the condition that is called catalepsy,"
said Challenger. "It has been a rare phenomenon in the past and
has constantly been mistaken for death. While it endures, the
temperature falls, the respiration disappears, the heartbeat
is indistinguishable--in fact, it IS death, save that it is
evanescent. Even the most comprehensive mind"--here he closed
his eyes and simpered--"could hardly conceive a universal
outbreak of it in this fashion."
"You may label it catalepsy," remarked Summerlee, "but, after
all, that is only a name, and we know as little of the result
as we do of the poison which has caused it. The most we can say
is that the vitiated ether has produced a temporary death."
Austin was seated all in a heap on the step of the car. It was
his coughing which I had heard from above. He had been holding
his head in silence, but now he was muttering to himself and
running his eyes over the car.
"Young fat-head!" he grumbled. "Can't leave things alone!"
"What's the matter, Austin?"
"Lubricators left running, sir. Someone has been fooling with
the car. I expect it's that young garden boy, sir."
Lord John looked guilty.
"I don't know what's amiss with me," continued Austin, staggering
to his feet. "I expect I came over queer when I was hosing her
down. I seem to remember flopping over by the step. But I'll
swear I never left those lubricator taps on."
In a condensed narrative the astonished Austin was told what
had happened to himself and the world. The mystery of the
dripping lubricators was also explained to him. He listened with
an air of deep distrust when told how an amateur had driven his
car and with absorbed interest to the few sentences in which
our experiences of the sleeping city were recorded. I can
remember his comment when the story was concluded.
"Was you outside the Bank of England, sir?"
"With all them millions inside and everybody asleep?"
"That was so."
"And I not there!" he groaned, and turned dismally once more
to the hosing of his car.
There was a sudden grinding of wheels upon gravel. The old cab
had actually pulled up at Challenger's door. I saw the young
occupant step out from it. An instant later the maid, who looked
as tousled and bewildered as if she had that instant been aroused
from the deepest sleep, appeared with a card upon a tray.
Challenger snorted ferociously as he looked at it, and his
thick black hair seemed to bristle up in his wrath.
"A pressman!" he growled. Then with a deprecating smile: "After
all, it is natural that the whole world should hasten to know
what I think of such an episode."
"That can hardly be his errand," said Summerlee, "for he was on
the road in his cab before ever the crisis came."
I looked at the card: "James Baxter, London Correspondent,
New York Monitor."
"You'll see him?" said I.
"Oh, George! You should be kinder and more considerate to
others. Surely you have learned something from what we
He tut-tutted and shook his big, obstinate head.
"A poisonous breed! Eh, Malone? The worst weed in modern
civilization, the ready tool of the quack and the hindrance
of the self-respecting man! When did they ever say a good
word for me?"
"When did you ever say a good word to them?" I answered. "Come,
sir, this is a stranger who has made a journey to see you. I am
sure that you won't be rude to him."
"Well, well," he grumbled, "you come with me and do the talking.
I protest in advance against any such outrageous invasion of my
private life." Muttering and mumbling, he came rolling after me
like an angry and rather ill-conditioned mastiff.
The dapper young American pulled out his notebook and plunged
instantly into his subject.
"I came down, sir," said he, "because our people in America would
very much like to hear more about this danger which is, in your
opinion, pressing upon the world."
"I know of no danger which is now pressing upon the world,"
Challenger answered gruffly.
The pressman looked at him in mild surprise.
"I meant, sir, the chances that the world might run into a belt
"I do not now apprehend any such danger," said Challenger.
The pressman looked even more perplexed.
"You are Professor Challenger, are you not?" he asked.
"Yes, sir; that is my name."
"I cannot understand, then, how you can say that there is no such
danger. I am alluding to your own letter, published above your
name in the London Times of this morning."
It was Challenger's turn to look surprised.
"This morning?" said he. "No London Times was published this
"Surely, sir," said the American in mild remonstrance, "you must
admit that the London Times is a daily paper." He drew out a
copy from his inside pocket. "Here is the letter to which I
Challenger chuckled and rubbed his hands.
"I begin to understand," said he. "So you read this letter
"And came at once to interview me?"
"Did you observe anything unusual upon the journey down?"
"Well, to tell the truth, your people seemed more lively and
generally human than I have ever seen them. The baggage man
set out to tell me a funny story, and that's a new experience
for me in this country."
"Why, no, sir, not that I can recall."
"Well, now, what hour did you leave Victoria?"
The American smiled.
"I came here to interview you, Professor, but it seems to be a
case of `Is this nigger fishing, or is this fish niggering?'
You're doing most of the work."
"It happens to interest me. Do you recall the hour?"
"Sure. It was half-past twelve."
"And you arrived?"
"At a quarter-past two."
"And you hired a cab?"
"That was so."
"How far do you suppose it is to the station?"
"Well, I should reckon the best part of two miles."
"So how long do you think it took you?"
"Well, half an hour, maybe, with that asthmatic in front."
"So it should be three o'clock?"
"Yes, or a trifle after it."
"Look at your watch."
The American did so and then stared at us in astonishment.
"Say!" he cried. "It's run down. That horse has broken every
record, sure. The sun is pretty low, now that I come to look at
it. Well, there's something here I don't understand."
"Have you no remembrance of anything remarkable as you came up
"Well, I seem to recollect that I was mighty sleepy once.
It comes back to me that I wanted to say something to the driver
and that I couldn't make him heed me. I guess it was the heat,
but I felt swimmy for a moment. That's all."
"So it is with the whole human race," said Challenger to me.
"They have all felt swimmy for a moment. None of them have as
yet any comprehension of what has occurred. Each will go on with
his interrupted job as Austin has snatched up his hose-pipe or
the golfer continued his game. Your editor, Malone, will
continue the issue of his papers, and very much amazed he will
be at finding that an issue is missing. Yes, my young friend,"
he added to the American reporter, with a sudden mood of amused
geniality, "it may interest you to know that the world has swum
through the poisonous current which swirls like the Gulf Stream
through the ocean of ether. You will also kindly note for your
own future convenience that to-day is not Friday, August the
twenty-seventh, but Saturday, August the twenty-eighth, and that
you sat senseless in your cab for twenty-eight hours upon the
And "right here," as my American colleague would say, I may
bring this narrative to an end. It is, as you are probably
aware, only a fuller and more detailed version of the account
which appeared in the Monday edition of the Daily Gazette--an
account which has been universally admitted to be the greatest
journalistic scoop of all time, which sold no fewer than
three-and-a-half million copies of the paper. Framed upon the
wall of my sanctum I retain those magnificent headlines:--
TWENTY-EIGHT HOURS' WORLD COMA
OUR CORRESPONDENT ESCAPES
THE OXYGEN ROOM
WEIRD MOTOR DRIVE
REPLACING THE MISSING PAGE
GREAT FIRES AND LOSS OF LIFE
WILL IT RECUR?
Underneath this glorious scroll came nine and a half columns of
narrative, in which appeared the first, last, and only account
of the history of the planet, so far as one observer could draw
it, during one long day of its existence. Challenger and
Summerlee have treated the matter in a joint scientific paper,
but to me alone was left the popular account. Surely I can sing
"Nunc dimittis." What is left but anti-climax in the life of a
journalist after that!
But let me not end on sensational headlines and a merely
personal triumph. Rather let me quote the sonorous passages in
which the greatest of daily papers ended its admirable leader
upon the subject--a leader which might well be filed for
reference by every thoughtful man.
"It has been a well-worn truism," said the Times, "that our
human race are a feeble folk before the infinite latent forces
which surround us. From the prophets of old and from the
philosophers of our own time the same message and warning have
reached us. But, like all oft-repeated truths, it has in time
lost something of its actuality and cogency. A lesson, an actual
experience, was needed to bring it home. It is from that
salutory but terrible ordeal that we have just emerged, with
minds which are still stunned by the suddenness of the blow and
with spirits which are chastened by the realization of our own
limitations and impotence. The world has paid a fearful price
for its schooling. Hardly yet have we learned the full tale of
disaster, but the destruction by fire of New York, of Orleans,
and of Brighton constitutes in itself one of the greatest
tragedies in the history of our race. When the account of the
railway and shipping accidents has been completed, it will
furnish grim reading, although there is evidence to show that in
the vast majority of cases the drivers of trains and engineers
of steamers succeeded in shutting off their motive power before
succumbing to the poison. But the material damage, enormous as
it is both in life and in property, is not the consideration
which will be uppermost in our minds to-day. All this may in
be forgotten. But what will not be forgotten, and what will and
should continue to obsess our imaginations, is this revelation
of the possibilities of the universe, this destruction of our
ignorant self-complacency, and this demonstration of how narrow
is the path of our material existence and what abysses may lie
upon either side of it. Solemnity and humility are at the base
of all our emotions to-day. May they be the foundations upon
a more earnest and reverent race may build a more worthy temple."
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