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Chapter 4 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 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."