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 wh_tarted only some twelve hours ago from my rooms in Streatham without on_hought of the marvels which the day was to bring forth! I look back at th_hain of incidents, my interview with McArdle, Challenger's first note o_larm 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 a_mpty planet, and so sure is our fate that I can regard these lines, writte_rom mechanical professional habit and never to be seen by human eyes, as th_ords of one who is already dead, so closely does he stand to the shadowe_orderland over which all outside this one little circle of friends hav_lready gone. I feel how wise and true were the words of Challenger when h_aid that the real tragedy would be if we were left behind when all that i_oble and good and beautiful had passed. But of that there can surely be n_anger. Already our second tube of oxygen is drawing to an end. We can coun_he poor dregs of our lives almost to a minute.
We have just been treated to a lecture, a good quarter of an hour long, fro_hallenger, who was so excited that he roared and bellowed as if he wer_ddressing his old rows of scientific sceptics in the Queen's Hall. He ha_ertainly a strange audience to harangue: his wife perfectly acquiescent an_bsolutely ignorant of his meaning, Summerlee seated in the shadow, querulou_nd critical but interested, Lord John lounging in a corner somewhat bored b_he whole proceeding, and myself beside the window watching the scene with _ind of detached attention, as if it were all a dream or something in which _ad no personal interest whatever. Challenger sat at the centre table with th_lectric light illuminating the slide under the microscope which he ha_rought from his dressing room. The small vivid circle of white light from th_irror left half of his rugged, bearded face in brilliant radiance and half i_eepest shadow. He had, it seems, been working of late upon the lowest form_f life, and what excited him at the present moment was that in th_icroscopic slide made up the day before he found the amoeba to he stil_live.
"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 th_entre are diatoms and may be disregarded since they are probably vegetabl_ather 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 creatur_hich looked as if it were made of ground glass flowing in a sticky way acros_he 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 s_uch as know each other by sight, so why should I take it to heart? I don'_uppose he's worryin' himself over the state of our health."
I laughed at this, and Challenger looked in my direction with his coldest an_ost supercilious stare. It was a most petrifying experience.
"The flippancy of the half-educated is more obstructive to science than th_btuseness 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 th_lack mane that drooped over the microscope. "What can it matter whether th_moeba 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. "W_ay 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'_ee why you should attach such importance to the creature being alive. It i_n the same atmosphere as ourselves, so naturally the poison does not act upo_t. If it were outside of this room it would be dead, like all other anima_ife."
"Your remarks, my good Summerlee," said Challenger with enormous condescension (oh, if I could paint that over-bearing, arrogant face in the vivid circle o_eflection from the microscope mirror!)—"your remarks show that yo_mperfectly appreciate the situation. This specimen was mounted yesterday an_s hermetically sealed. None of our oxygen can reach it. But the ether, o_ourse, has penetrated to it, as to every other point upon the universe.
Therefore, it has survived the poison. Hence, we may argue that every amoeb_utside this room, instead of being dead, as you have erroneously stated, ha_eally survived the catastrophe."
"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. I_ou had the scientific imagination, you would cast your mind forward from thi_ne fact, and you would see some few millions of years hence—a mere passin_oment in the enormous flux of the ages—the whole world teeming once more wit_he animal and human life which will spring from this tiny root. You have see_ prairie fire where the flames have swept every trace of grass or plant fro_he surface of the earth and left only a blackened waste. You would think tha_t must be forever desert. Yet the roots of growth have been left behind, an_hen you pass the place a few years hence you can no longer tell where th_lack scars used to be. Here in this tiny creature are the roots of growth o_he animal world, and by its inherent development, and evolution, it wil_urely in time remove every trace of this incomparable crisis in which we ar_ow involved."
"Dooced interestin'!" said Lord John, lounging across and looking through th_icroscope. "Funny little chap to hang number one among the family portraits.
Got a fine big shirt-stud on him!"
"The dark object is his nucleus," said Challenger with the air of a nurs_eaching letters to a baby.
"Well, we needn't feel lonely," said Lord John laughing. "There's somebod_ivin' besides us on the earth."
"You seem to take it for granted, Challenger," said Summerlee, "that th_bject for which this world was created was that it should produce and sustai_uman life."
"Well, sir, and what object do you suggest?" asked Challenger, bristling a_he least hint of contradiction.
"Sometimes I think that it is only the monstrous conceit of mankind whic_akes 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 venture_o call monstrous conceit we can surely say that we are the highest thing i_ature."
"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 swun_mpty through space—or, if not empty, at least without a sign or thought o_he human race. Think of it, washed by the rain and scorched by the sun an_wept by the wind for those unnumbered ages. Man only came into bein_esterday so far as geological times goes. Why, then, should it be taken fo_ranted that all this stupendous preparation was for his benefit?"
"For whose then—or for what?"
Summerlee shrugged his shoulders.
"How can we tell? For some reason altogether beyond our conception—and man ma_ave been a mere accident, a by-product evolved in the process. It is as i_he scum upon the surface of the ocean imagined that the ocean was created i_rder to produce and sustain it or a mouse in a cathedral thought that th_uilding was its own proper ordained residence."
I have jotted down the very words of their argument, but now it degenerate_nto a mere noisy wrangle with much polysyllabic scientific jargon upon eac_ide. It is no doubt a privilege to hear two such brains discuss the highes_uestions; but as they are in perpetual disagreement, plain folk like Lor_ohn and I get little that is positive from the exhibition. They neutraliz_ach other and we are left as they found us. Now the hubbub has ceased, an_ummerlee is coiled up in his chair, while Challenger, still fingering th_crews of his microscope, is keeping up a continual low, deep, inarticulat_rowl like the sea after a storm. Lord John comes over to me, and we look ou_ogether into the night.
There is a pale new moon—the last moon that human eyes will ever rest upon—an_he stars are most brilliant. Even in the clear plateau air of South America _ave never seen them brighter. Possibly this etheric change has some effec_pon light. The funeral pyre of Brighton is still blazing, and there is a ver_istant patch of scarlet in the western sky, which may mean trouble at Arunde_r Chichester, possibly even at Portsmouth. I sit and muse and make a_ccasional note. There is a sweet melancholy in the air. Youth and beauty an_hivalry and love—is this to be the end of it all? The starlit earth looks _reamland of gentle peace. Who would imagine it as the terrible Golgoth_trewn with the bodies of the human race? Suddenly, I find myself laughing.
"Halloa, young fellah!" says Lord John, staring at me in surprise. "We coul_o with a joke in these hard times. What was it, then?"
"I was thinking of all the great unsolved questions," I answer, "the question_hat we spent so much labor and thought over. Think of Anglo-Germa_ompetition, for example—or the Persian Gulf that my old chief was so kee_bout. Whoever would have guessed, when we fumed and fretted so, how they wer_o be eventually solved?"
We fall into silence again. I fancy that each of us is thinking of friend_hat have gone before. Mrs. Challenger is sobbing quietly, and her husband i_hispering to her. My mind turns to all the most unlikely people, and I se_ach of them lying white and rigid as poor Austin does in the yard. There i_cArdle, for example, I know exactly where he is, with his face upon hi_riting 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 Turke_arpet which adorned his sanctum. And the fellows in the reporters'
room—Macdona and Murray and Bond. They had certainly died hard at work o_heir job, with note-books full of vivid impressions and strange happenings i_heir hands. I could just imagine how this one would have been packed off t_he 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 visio_eautiful, never destined to materialize in printer's ink! I could see Macdon_mong the doctors—"Hope in Harley Street"—Mac had always a weakness fo_lliteration. "Interview with Mr. Soley Wilson." "Famous Specialist says
'Never despair!'" "Our Special Correspondent found the eminent scientis_eated upon the roof, whither he had retreated to avoid the crowd of terrifie_atients who had stormed his dwelling. With a manner which plainly showed hi_ppreciation of the immense gravity of the occasion, the celebrated physicia_efused to admit that every avenue of hope had been closed." That's how Ma_ould start. Then there was Bond; he would probably do St. Paul's. He fancie_is own literary touch. My word, what a theme for him! "Standing in the littl_allery under the dome and looking down upon that packed mass of despairin_umanity, groveling at this last instant before a Power which they had s_ersistently ignored, there rose to my ears from the swaying crowd such a lo_oan 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 di_ith 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 say_hat she is asleep. He is making notes and consulting books at the centra_able, as calmly as if years of placid work lay before him. He writes with _ery noisy quill pen which seems to be screeching scorn at all who disagre_ith him.
Summerlee has dropped off in his chair and gives from time to time _eculiarly exasperating snore. Lord John lies back with his hands in hi_ockets and his eyes closed. How people can sleep under such conditions i_ore than I can imagine.
Three-thirty a.m. I have just wakened with a start. It was five minutes pas_leven when I made my last entry. I remember winding up my watch and notin_he time. So I have wasted some five hours of the little span still left t_s. Who would have believed it possible? But I feel very much fresher, an_eady for my fate—or try to persuade myself that I am. And yet, the fitter _an 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 earthl_nchor is usually loosened by many little imperceptible tugs, until hi_onsciousness has drifted out of its untenable earthly harbor into the grea_ea beyond!
Mrs. Challenger is still in the dressing room. Challenger has fallen asleep i_is chair. What a picture! His enormous frame leans back, his huge, hair_ands are clasped across his waistcoat, and his head is so tilted that I ca_ee nothing above his collar save a tangled bristle of luxuriant beard. H_hakes with the vibration of his own snoring. Summerlee adds his occasiona_igh tenor to Challenger's sonorous bass. Lord John is sleeping also, his lon_ody doubled up sideways in a basket-chair. The first cold light of dawn i_ust stealing into the room, and everything is grey and mournful.
I look out at the sunrise—that fateful sunrise which will shine upon a_npeopled world. The human race is gone, extinguished in a day, but th_lanets swing round and the tides rise or fall, and the wind whispers, and al_ature goes her way, down, as it would seem, to the very amoeba, with never _ign that he who styled himself the lord of creation had ever blessed o_ursed the universe with his presence. Down in the yard lies Austin wit_prawling limbs, his face glimmering white in the dawn, and the hose nozzl_till projecting from his dead hand. The whole of human kind is typified i_hat one half-ludicrous and half-pathetic figure, lying so helpless beside th_achine which it used to control.
Here end the notes which I made at the time. Henceforward events were to_wift and too poignant to allow me to write, but they are too clearly outline_n my memory that any detail could escape me.
Some chokiness in my throat made me look at the oxygen cylinders, and I wa_tartled at what I saw. The sands of our lives were running very low. At som_eriod in the night Challenger had switched the tube from the third to th_ourth cylinder. Now it was clear that this also was nearly exhausted. Tha_orrible 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 m_onscience pricked me, for I felt that perhaps if I had held my hand all o_hem might have passed in their sleep. The thought was banished, however, b_he 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 thei_eet. "I have just turned on a fresh supply."
Even at such a moment I could not help smiling at Challenger, who with a grea_airy fist in each eye was like a huge, bearded baby, new wakened out o_leep. Summerlee was shivering like a man with the ague, human fears, as h_ealized his position, rising for an instant above the stoicism of the man o_cience. Lord John, however, was as cool and alert as if he had just bee_oused on a hunting morning.
"Fifthly and lastly," said he, glancing at the tube. "Say, young fellah, don'_ell 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 expec_ou'll have to wait till little brother amoeba gets grown up before you'l_ind 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 ove_he landscape. Here and there the wooded hills rose like conical islands ou_f this woolly sea.
"It might be a winding sheet," said Mrs. Challenger, who had entered in he_ressing-gown. "There's that song of yours, George, 'Ring out the old, ring i_he new.' It was prophetic. But you are shivering, my poor dear friends. _ave been warm under a coverlet all night, and you cold in your chairs. Bu_'ll soon set you right."
The brave little creature hurried away, and presently we heard the sizzling o_ 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 ha_igarettes. It steadied our nerves, I think, but it was a mistake, for it mad_ dreadful atmosphere in that stuffy room. Challenger had to open th_entilator.
"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 to it, th_asier it seems. Don't you think we ought to pray, George?"
"You will pray, dear, if you wish," the big man answered, very gently. "We al_ave our own ways of praying. Mine is a complete acquiescence in whatever fat_ay send me—a cheerful acquiescence. The highest religion and the highes_cience seem to unite on that."
"I cannot truthfully describe my mental attitude as acquiescence and far les_heerful acquiescence," grumbled Summerlee over his pipe. "I submit because _ave to. I confess that I should have liked another year of life to finish m_lassification of the chalk fossils."
"Your unfinished work is a small thing," said Challenger pompously, "whe_eighed against the fact that my own Magnum Opus, 'The Ladder of Life,' i_till in the first stages. My brain, my reading, my experience—in fact, m_hole unique equipment—were to be condensed into that epoch-making volume. An_et, as I say, I acquiesce."
"I expect we've all left some loose ends stickin' out," said Lord John. "Wha_re 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 alway_ompensation somewhere if you grope around."
"What about you?" I asked.
"Well, it just so happens that I was tidied up and ready. I'd promise_erivale to go to Tibet for a snow leopard in the spring. But it's hard o_ou, 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 on_ast walk together in the fresh morning air upon those beautiful downs!"
Our hearts re-echoed her words. The sun had burst through the gauzy mist_hich veiled it, and the whole broad Weald was washed in golden light. Sittin_n our dark and poisonous atmosphere that glorious, clean, wind-swep_ountryside seemed a very dream of beauty. Mrs. Challenger held her han_tretched out to it in her longing. We drew up chairs and sat in a semicircl_n the window. The atmosphere was already very close. It seemed to me that th_hadows of death were drawing in upon us—the last of our race. It was like a_nvisible curtain closing down upon every side.
"That cylinder is not lastin' too well," said Lord John with a long gasp fo_reath.
"The amount contained is variable," said Challenger, "depending upon th_ressure and care with which it has been bottled. I am inclined to agree wit_ou, Roxton, that this one is defective."
"So we are to be cheated out of the last hour of our lives," Summerle_emarked bitterly. "An excellent final illustration of the sordid age in whic_e have lived. Well, Challenger, now is your time if you wish to study th_ubjective phenomena of physical dissolution."
"Sit on the stool at my knee and give me your hand," said Challenger to hi_ife. "I think, my friends, that a further delay in this insufferabl_tmosphere 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' th_thers 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 t_hallenger.
"We've had our quarrels in our time, but that's all over," said he. "We wer_ood 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'_pen it."
Challenger stooped and raised his wife, pressing her to his breast, while sh_hrew 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!" h_houted in his voice of thunder, and at the words he hurled the field-glas_hrough the window.
Full in our flushed faces, before the last tinkle of falling fragments ha_ied away, there came the wholesome breath of the wind, blowing strong an_weet.
I don't know how long we sat in amazed silence. Then as in a dream, I hear_hallenger's voice once more.
"We are back in normal conditions," he cried. "The world has cleared th_oison belt, but we alone of all mankind are saved."