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 coolin_ur flushed faces. I wonder how long we sat! None of us afterwards could agre_t all on that point. We were bewildered, stunned, semi-conscious. We had al_raced our courage for death, but this fearful and sudden new fact—that w_ust continue to live after we had survived the race to which w_elonged—struck us with the shock of a physical blow and left us prostrate.
Then gradually the suspended mechanism began to move once more; the shuttle_f memory worked; ideas weaved themselves together in our minds. We saw, wit_ivid, merciless clearness, the relations between the past, the present, an_he future—the lives that we had led and the lives which we would have t_ive. Our eyes turned in silent horror upon those of our companions and foun_he same answering look in theirs. Instead of the joy which men might hav_een expected to feel who had so narrowly escaped an imminent death, _errible wave of darkest depression submerged us. Everything on earth that w_oved had been washed away into the great, infinite, unknown ocean, and her_ere we marooned upon this desert island of a world, without companions, hopes, or aspirations. A few years' skulking like jackals among the graves o_he 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 w_ad only passed with the others! Oh, why did you save us? I feel as if it i_e that are dead and everyone else alive."
Challenger's great eyebrows were drawn down in concentrated thought, while hi_uge, hairy paw closed upon the outstretched hand of his wife. I had observe_hat she always held out her arms to him in trouble as a child would to it_other.
"Without being a fatalist to the point of nonresistance," said he, "I hav_lways 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 whethe_ou don't," remarked Lord John. "You've got to take it, whether you take i_ightin' or take it lyin' down, so what's the odds whether you acquiesce o_ot?
I can't remember that anyone asked our permission before the thing began, an_obody's likely to ask it now. So what difference can it make what we ma_hink of it?"
"It is just all the difference between happiness and misery," said Challenge_ith an abstracted face, still patting his wife's hand. "You can swim with th_ide and have peace in mind and soul, or you can thrust against it and b_ruised and weary. This business is beyond us, so let us accept it as i_tands and say no more."
"But what in the world are we to do with our lives?" I asked, appealing i_esperation to the blue, empty heaven.
"What am I to do, for example? There are no newspapers, so there's an end o_y vocation."
"And there's nothin' left to shoot, and no more soldierin', so there's an en_f mine," said Lord John.
"And there are no students, so there's an end of mine," cried Summerlee.
"But I have my husband and my house, so I can thank heaven that there is n_nd 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 fo_nvestigation."
He had now flung open the windows and we were gazing out upon the silent an_otionless 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 th_xtent 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 _istinctly 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 seventee_ours the world has been soaked in the poisonous ether. For that length o_ime the Great Gardener has sterilized the human mold which had grown over th_urface of His fruit. Is it possible that the work is incompletely done—tha_thers may have survived besides ourselves?"
"That's what I was wonderin'" said Lord John. "Why should we be the onl_ebbles on the beach?"
"It is absurd to suppose that anyone besides ourselves can possibly hav_urvived," said Summerlee with conviction. "Consider that the poison was s_irulent that even a man who is as strong as an ox and has not a nerve in hi_ody, like Malone here, could hardly get up the stairs before he fel_nconscious. Is it likely that anyone could stand seventeen minutes of it, fa_ess hours?"
"Unless someone saw it coming and made preparation, same as old frien_hallenger did."
"That, I think, is hardly probable," said Challenger, projecting his beard an_inking his eyelids. "The combination of observation, inference, an_nticipatory imagination which enabled me to foresee the danger is what on_an 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 th_oison worked from below upwards and would possibly be less virulent in th_igher 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 _ascinating field for study. One could imagine, therefore, that if one had t_earch for survivors one would turn one's eyes with best hopes of success t_ome Tibetan village or some Alpine farm, many thousands of feet above the se_evel."
"Well, considerin' that there are no railroads and no steamers you might a_ell 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 an_ine," said he in a very dubious voice; "but so it did yesterday. I am by n_eans assured that it is all over."
Challenger shrugged his shoulders.
"We must come back once more to our fatalism," said he. "If the world ha_ndergone this experience before, which is not outside the range o_ossibility; it was certainly a very long time ago. Therefore, we ma_easonably 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 shoc_ou are mighty likely to have a second one right on the top of it. I thin_e'd be wise to stretch our legs and have a breath of air while we have th_hance. Since our oxygen is exhausted we may just as well be caught outside a_n."
It was strange the absolute lethargy which had come upon us as a reactio_fter our tremendous emotions of the last twenty-four hours. It was bot_ental and physical, a deep-lying feeling that nothing mattered and tha_verything was a weariness and a profitless exertion. Even Challenger ha_uccumbed to it, and sat in his chair, with his great head leaning upon hi_ands and his thoughts far away, until Lord John and I, catching him by eac_rm, fairly lifted him on to his feet, receiving only the glare and growl o_n angry mastiff for our trouble. However, once we had got out of our narro_aven of refuge into the wider atmosphere of everyday life, our normal energ_ame gradually back to us once more.
But what were we to begin to do in that graveyard of a world? Could ever me_ave been faced with such a question since the dawn of time? It is true tha_ur 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 ar_ere ours for the taking. But what were we to DO? Some few tasks appealed t_s at once, since they lay ready to our hands. We descended into the kitche_nd laid the two domestics upon their respective beds. They seemed to hav_ied without suffering, one in the chair by the fire, the other upon th_cullery floor. Then we carried in poor Austin from the yard. His muscles wer_et as hard as a board in the most exaggerated rigor mortis, while th_ontraction of the fibres had drawn his mouth into a hard sardonic grin. Thi_ymptom was prevalent among all who had died from the poison. Wherever we wen_e were confronted by those grinning faces, which seemed to mock at ou_readful position, smiling silently and grimly at the ill-fated survivors o_heir race.
"Look here," said Lord John, who had paced restlessly about the dining-roo_hilst 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 wha_ou 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 tha_his place can teach us."
"Where should we go, then?"
"That's all very well," grumbled Summerlee. "You may be equal to a forty-mil_alk, but I'm not so sure about Challenger, with his stumpy legs, and I a_erfectly sure about myself." Challenger was very much annoyed.
"If you could see your way, sir, to confining your remarks to your ow_hysical peculiarities, you would find that you had an ample field fo_omment," he cried.
"I had no intention to offend you, my dear Challenger," cried our tactles_riend, "You can't be held responsible for your own physique. If nature ha_iven you a short, heavy body you cannot possibly help having stumpy legs."
Challenger was too furious to answer. He could only growl and blink an_ristle. Lord John hastened to intervene before the dispute became mor_iolent.
"You talk of walking. Why should we walk?" said he.
"Do you suggest taking a train?" asked Challenger, still simmering.
"What's the matter with the motor-car? Why should we not go in that?"
"I am not an expert," said Challenger, pulling at his beard reflectively. "A_he same time, you are right in supposing that the human intellect in it_igher manifestations should be sufficiently flexible to turn itself t_nything. Your idea is an excellent one, Lord John. I myself will drive yo_ll to London."
"You will do nothing of the kind," said Summerlee with decision.
"No, indeed, George!" cried his wife. "You only tried once, and you remembe_ow you crashed through the gate of the garage."
"It was a momentary want of concentration," said Challenger complacently. "Yo_an 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 neve_hought I'd live to take the whole human race in one load. There's just roo_or five, as I remember it. Get your things on, and I'll be ready at the doo_y ten o'clock."
Sure enough, at the hour named, the car came purring and crackling from th_ard with Lord John at the wheel. I took my seat beside him, while the lady, _seful little buffer state, was squeezed in between the two men of wrath a_he back. Then Lord John released his brakes, slid his lever rapidly fro_irst to third, and we sped off upon the strangest drive that ever huma_eings have taken since man first came upon the earth.
You are to picture the loveliness of nature upon that August day, th_reshness of the morning air, the golden glare of the summer sunshine, th_loudless sky, the luxuriant green of the Sussex woods, and the deep purple o_eather-clad downs. As you looked round upon the many-coloured beauty of th_cene all thought of a vast catastrophe would have passed from your mind ha_t not been for one sinister sign—the solemn, all-embracing silence. There i_ gentle hum of life which pervades a closely-settled country, so deep an_onstant that one ceases to observe it, as the dweller by the sea loses al_ense of the constant murmur of the waves. The twitter of birds, the buzz o_nsects, the far-off echo of voices, the lowing of cattle, the distant barkin_f dogs, roar of trains, and rattle of carts—all these form one low, unremitting note, striking unheeded upon the ear. We missed it now. Thi_eadly silence was appalling. So solemn was it, so impressive, that the buz_nd rattle of our motor-car seemed an unwarrantable intrusion, an indecen_isregard of this reverent stillness which lay like a pall over and round th_uins of humanity. It was this grim hush, and the tall clouds of smoke whic_ose here and there over the country-side from smoldering buildings, whic_ast a chill into our hearts as we gazed round at the glorious panorama of th_eald.
And then there were the dead! At first those endless groups of drawn an_rinning faces filled us with a shuddering horror. So vivid and mordant wa_he impression that I can live over again that slow descent of the statio_ill, the passing by the nurse-girl with the two babes, the sight of the ol_orse on his knees between the shafts, the cabman twisted across his seat, an_he young man inside with his hand upon the open door in the very act o_pringing out. Lower down were six reapers all in a litter, their limb_rossing, 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 o_ature, the over-excited nerve ceased to respond. The very vastness of th_orror took away from its personal appeal. Individuals merged into groups, groups into crowds, crowds into a universal phenomenon which one soon accepte_s the inevitable detail of every scene. Only here and there, where som_articularly brutal or grotesque incident caught the attention, did the min_ome back 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 u_ith the strongest sense of intolerable injustice. We could have wept—Mrs.
Challenger did weep—when we passed a great council school and saw the lon_rail of tiny figures scattered down the road which led from it. They had bee_ismissed by their terrified teachers and were speeding for their homes whe_he poison caught them in its net. Great numbers of people were at the ope_indows of the houses. In Tunbridge Wells there was hardly one which had no_ts staring, smiling face. At the last instant the need of air, that ver_raving for oxygen which we alone had been able to satisfy, had sent the_lying 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 ha_allen in the roadway. It was a lucky thing that in Lord John we had found a_xpert driver, for it was no easy matter to pick one's way. Passing throug_he villages or towns we could only go at a walking pace, and once, _emember, opposite the school at Tonbridge, we had to halt some time while w_arried aside the bodies which blocked our path.
A few small, definite pictures stand out in my memory from amid that lon_anorama of death upon the Sussex and Kentish high roads. One was that of _reat, glittering motor-car standing outside the inn at the village o_outhborough. It bore, as I should guess, some pleasure party upon thei_eturn 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. Wit_hem were a rakish-looking elderly man and a young aristocrat, his eyeglas_till in his eye, his cigarette burned down to the stub between the fingers o_is begloved hand. Death must have come on them in an instant and fixed the_s they sat. Save that the elderly man had at the last moment torn out hi_ollar in an effort to breathe, they might all have been asleep. On one sid_f the car a waiter with some broken glasses beside a tray was huddled nea_he step. On the other, two very ragged tramps, a man and a woman, lay wher_hey had fallen, the man with his long, thin arm still outstretched, even a_e 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 dissolvin_rotoplasm.
I remember another singular picture, some miles on the London side o_evenoaks. There is a large convent upon the left, with a long, green slope i_ront 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 u_he slope, facing towards them, a single figure whom we took to be the Mothe_uperior. Unlike the pleasure-seekers in the motor-car, these people seemed t_ave had warning of their danger and to have died beautifully together, th_eachers and the taught, assembled for their last common lesson.
My mind is still stunned by that terrific experience, and I grope vainly fo_eans 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 ou_ompanions behind us save an occasional whimper from the lady. As to Lor_ohn, he was too intent upon his wheel and the difficult task of threading hi_ay along such roads to have time or inclination for conversation. One phras_e used with such wearisome iteration that it stuck in my memory and at las_lmost 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 an_isaster displayed itself before us. "Pretty doin's! What!" he cried, as w_escended 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 Stree_f Lewisham and the Old Kent Road.
It was here that we received a sudden and amazing shock. Out of the window o_ humble corner house there appeared a fluttering handkerchief waving at th_nd of a long, thin human arm. Never had the sight of unexpected death cause_ur hearts to stop and then throb so wildly as did this amazing indication o_ife. Lord John ran the motor to the curb, and in an instant we had rushe_hrough the open door of the house and up the staircase to the second-floo_ront room from which the signal proceeded.
A very old lady sat in a chair by the open window, and close to her, lai_cross a second chair, was a cylinder of oxygen, smaller but of the same shap_s 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 invali_nd cannot stir."
"Well, madam," Challenger answered, "it is a lucky chance that we happened t_ass."
"I have one all-important question to ask you," said she. "Gentlemen, I be_hat you will be frank with me. What effect will these events have upon Londo_nd North-Western Railway shares?"
We should have laughed had it not been for the tragic eagerness with which sh_istened for our answer. Mrs. Burston, for that was her name, was an age_idow, whose whole income depended upon a small holding of this stock. He_ife had been regulated by the rise and fall of the dividend, and she coul_orm no conception of existence save as it was affected by the quotation o_er shares. In vain we pointed out to her that all the money in the world wa_ers for the taking and was useless when taken. Her old mind would not adap_tself to the new idea, and she wept loudly over her vanished stock. "It wa_ll 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 wher_he whole great forest had fallen. She was a confirmed invalid and a_sthmatic. Oxygen had been prescribed for her malady, and a tube was in he_oom at the moment of the crisis. She had naturally inhaled some as had bee_er habit when there was a difficulty with her breathing. It had given he_elief, 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 al_ecessaries of life and promised to communicate with her in a couple of day_t 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 th_bstacles more bewildering. It was with difficulty that we made our way acros_ondon Bridge. The approaches to it upon the Middlesex side were choked fro_nd to end with frozen traffic which made all further advance in tha_irection impossible. A ship was blazing brightly alongside one of the wharve_ear the bridge, and the air was full of drifting smuts and of a heavy acri_mell of burning. There was a cloud of dense smoke somewhere near the House_f Parliament, but it was impossible from where we were to see what was o_ire.
"I don't know how it strikes you," Lord John remarked as he brought his engin_o a standstill, "but it seems to me the country is more cheerful than th_own. Dead London is gettin' on my nerves. I'm for a cast round and the_ettin' back to Rotherfield."
"I confess that I do not see what we can hope for here," said Professo_ummerlee.
"At the same time," said Challenger, his great voice booming strangely ami_he silence, "it is difficult for us to conceive that out of seven millions o_eople there is only this one old woman who by some peculiarity o_onstitution or some accident of occupation has managed to survive thi_atastrophe."
"If there should be others, how can we hope to find them, George?" asked th_ady. "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 som_ifficulty along the crowded pavement of King William Street and entered th_pen door of a large insurance office. It was a corner house, and we chose i_s commanding a view in every direction. Ascending the stair, we passe_hrough what I suppose to have been the board-room, for eight elderly men wer_eated round a long table in the centre of it. The high window was open and w_ll stepped out upon the balcony. From it we could see the crowded cit_treets radiating in every direction, while below us the road was black fro_ide to side with the tops of the motionless taxis. All, or nearly all, ha_heir heads pointed outwards, showing how the terrified men of the city had a_he last moment made a vain endeavor to rejoin their families in the suburb_r the country. Here and there amid the humbler cabs towered the great brass- spangled motor-car of some wealthy magnate, wedged hopelessly among the damme_tream of arrested traffic. Just beneath us there was such a one of great siz_nd luxurious appearance, with its owner, a fat old man, leaning out, half hi_ross body through the window, and his podgy hand, gleaming with diamonds, outstretched as he urged his chauffeur to make a last effort to break throug_he press.
A dozen motor-buses towered up like islands in this flood, the passengers wh_rowded the roofs lying all huddled together and across eash others' laps lik_ child's toys in a nursery. On a broad lamp pedestal in the centre of th_oadway, a burly policeman was standing, leaning his back against the post i_o 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 th_round beside him. A paper-cart had got blocked in the crowd, and we coul_ead in large letters, black upon yellow, "Scene at Lord's. County Matc_nterrupted." This must have been the earliest edition, for there were othe_lacards bearing the legend, "Is It the End? Great Scientist's Warning." An_nother, "Is Challenger Justified? Ominous Rumours."
Challenger pointed the latter placard out to his wife, as it thrust itsel_ike a banner above the throng. I could see him throw out his chest and strok_is beard as he looked at it. It pleased and flattered that complex mind t_hink that London had died with his name and his words still present in thei_houghts. His feelings were so evident that they aroused the sardonic commen_f his colleague.
"In the limelight to the last, Challenger," he remarked.
"So it would appear," he answered complacently. "Well," he added as he looke_own the long vista of the radiating streets, all silent and all choked u_ith death, "I really see no purpose to be served by our staying any longer i_ondon. I suggest that we return at once to Rotherfield and then take counse_s 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 ou_emories from the dead city. It is a glimpse which we had of the interior o_he old church of St. Mary's, which is at the very point where our car wa_waiting us. Picking our way among the prostrate figures upon the steps, w_ushed open the swing door and entered. It was a wonderful sight. The churc_as crammed from end to end with kneeling figures in every posture o_upplication and abasement. At the last dreadful moment, brought suddenly fac_o face with the realities of life, those terrific realities which hang ove_s even while we follow the shadows, the terrified people had rushed int_hose old city churches which for generations had hardly ever held _ongregation. There they huddled as close as they could kneel, many of them i_heir agitation still wearing their hats, while above them in the pulpit _oung man in lay dress had apparently been addressing them when he and the_ad 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 _ightmare, the grey, dusty church, the rows of agonized figures, the dimnes_nd silence of it all. We moved about with hushed whispers, walking upon ou_ip-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 th_opes for the bell-ringers. Why should we not send a message out over Londo_hich would attract to us anyone who might still be alive? I ran across, an_ulling at the list-covered rope, I was surprised to find how difficult it wa_o swing the bell. Lord John had followed me.
"By George, young fellah!" said he, pulling off his coat. "You've hit on _ooced 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 an_ummerlee had added their weight to ours that we heard the roaring an_langing above our heads which told us that the great clapper was ringing ou_ts music. Far over dead London resounded our message of comradeship and hop_o any fellow-man surviving. It cheered our own hearts, that strong, metalli_all, and we turned the more earnestly to our work, dragged two feet off th_arth with each upward jerk of the rope, but all straining together on th_ownward heave, Challenger the lowest of all, bending all his great strengt_o the task and flopping up and down like a monstrous bull-frog, croaking wit_very pull. It was at that moment that an artist might have taken a picture o_he four adventurers, the comrades of many strange perils in the past, who_ate 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 th_xertion. Then we went out into the portico of the church and looked eagerl_p and down the silent, crowded streets. Not a sound, not a motion, in answe_o 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, le_s get back to Rotherfield. Another hour of this dreadful, silent city woul_rive me mad."
We got into the car without another word. Lord John backed her round an_urned her to the south. To us the chapter seemed closed. Little did w_oresee the strange new chapter which was to open.