No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century tha_his world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater tha_an’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about thei_arious concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowl_s a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swar_nd multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fr_ver this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of thei_mpire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope d_he same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources o_uman danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them a_mpossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits o_hose departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other me_pon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionar_nterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as our_re to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool an_nsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surel_rew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the grea_isillusionment.
The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the sun a_ mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it receives fro_he sun is barely half of that received by this world. It must be, if th_ebular hypothesis has any truth, older than our world; and long before thi_arth ceased to be molten, life upon its surface must have begun its course.
The fact that it is scarcely one seventh of the volume of the earth must hav_ccelerated its cooling to the temperature at which life could begin. It ha_ir and water and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence.
Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer, up to th_ery end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that intelligent lif_ight have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level.
Nor was it generally understood that since Mars is older than our earth, wit_carcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, i_ecessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning bu_earer its end.
The secular cooling that must someday overtake our planet has already gone fa_ndeed with our neighbour. Its physical condition is still largely a mystery,
but we know now that even in its equatorial region the midday temperatur_arely approaches that of our coldest winter. Its air is much more attenuate_han ours, its oceans have shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface,
and as its slow seasons change huge snowcaps gather and melt about either pol_nd periodically inundate its temperate zones. That last stage of exhaustion,
which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem fo_he inhabitants of Mars. The immediate pressure of necessity has brightene_heir intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts. An_ooking across space with instruments, and intelligences such as we hav_carcely dreamed of, they see, at its nearest distance only 35,000,000 o_iles sunward of them, a morning star of hope, our own warmer planet, gree_ith vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent o_ertility, with glimpses through its drifting cloud wisps of broad stretche_f populous country and narrow, navy-crowded seas.
And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least a_lien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side o_an already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and i_ould seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world i_ar gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowde_nly with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is,
indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation afte_eneration, creeps upon them.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless an_tter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such a_he vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians,
in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in _ar of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fift_ears. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred i_he same spirit?
The Martians seem to have calculated their descent with amazing subtlety—thei_athematical learning is evidently far in excess of ours—and to have carrie_ut their preparations with a well-nigh perfect unanimity. Had our instrument_ermitted it, we might have seen the gathering trouble far back in th_ineteenth century. Men like Schiaparelli watched the red planet—it is odd,
by-the-bye, that for countless centuries Mars has been the star of war—bu_ailed to interpret the fluctuating appearances of the markings they mapped s_ell. All that time the Martians must have been getting ready.
During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated par_f the disk, first at the Salt Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, an_hen by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue o_ATURE dated August 2. I am inclined to think that this blaze may have bee_he casting of the huge gun, in the vast pit sunk into their planet, fro_hich their shots were fired at us. Peculiar markings, as yet unexplained,
were seen near the site of that outbreak during the next two oppositions.
The storm burst upon us six years ago now. As Mars approached opposition,
Lavelle of Java set the wires of the astronomical exchange palpitating wit_he amazing intelligence of a huge outbreak of incandescent gas upon th_lanet. It had occurred towards midnight of the twelfth; and the spectroscope,
to which he had at once resorted, indicated a mass of flaming gas, chiefl_ydrogen, moving with an enormous velocity towards this earth. This jet o_ire had become invisible about a quarter past twelve. He compared it to _olossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, “a_laming gases rushed out of a gun.”
A singularly appropriate phrase it proved. Yet the next day there was nothin_f this in the papers except a little note in the DAILY TELEGRAPH, and th_orld went in ignorance of one of the gravest dangers that ever threatened th_uman race. I might not have heard of the eruption at all had I not me_gilvy, the well-known astronomer, at Ottershaw. He was immensely excited a_he news, and in the excess of his feelings invited me up to take a turn wit_im that night in a scrutiny of the red planet.
In spite of all that has happened since, I still remember that vigil ver_istinctly: the black and silent observatory, the shadowed lantern throwing _eeble glow upon the floor in the corner, the steady ticking of the clockwor_f the telescope, the little slit in the roof—an oblong profundity with th_tardust streaked across it. Ogilvy moved about, invisible but audible.
Looking through the telescope, one saw a circle of deep blue and the littl_ound planet swimming in the field. It seemed such a little thing, so brigh_nd small and still, faintly marked with transverse stripes, and slightl_lattened from the perfect round. But so little it was, so silvery warm—_in’s-head of light! It was as if it quivered, but really this was th_elescope vibrating with the activity of the clockwork that kept the planet i_iew.
As I watched, the planet seemed to grow larger and smaller and to advance an_ecede, but that was simply that my eye was tired. Forty millions of miles i_as from us—more than forty millions of miles of void. Few people realise th_mmensity of vacancy in which the dust of the material universe swims.
Near it in the field, I remember, were three faint points of light, thre_elescopic stars infinitely remote, and all around it was the unfathomabl_arkness of empty space. You know how that blackness looks on a frost_tarlight night. In a telescope it seems far profounder. And invisible to m_ecause it was so remote and small, flying swiftly and steadily towards m_cross that incredible distance, drawing nearer every minute by so man_housands of miles, came the Thing they were sending us, the Thing that was t_ring so much struggle and calamity and death to the earth. I never dreamed o_t then as I watched; no one on earth dreamed of that unerring missile.
That night, too, there was another jetting out of gas from the distant planet.
I saw it. A reddish flash at the edge, the slightest projection of the outlin_ust as the chronometer struck midnight; and at that I told Ogilvy and he too_y place. The night was warm and I was thirsty, and I went stretching my leg_lumsily and feeling my way in the darkness, to the little table where th_iphon stood, while Ogilvy exclaimed at the streamer of gas that came ou_owards us.
That night another invisible missile started on its way to the earth fro_ars, just a second or so under twenty-four hours after the first one. _emember how I sat on the table there in the blackness, with patches of gree_nd crimson swimming before my eyes. I wished I had a light to smoke by,
little suspecting the meaning of the minute gleam I had seen and all that i_ould presently bring me. Ogilvy watched till one, and then gave it up; and w_it the lantern and walked over to his house. Down below in the darkness wer_ttershaw and Chertsey and all their hundreds of people, sleeping in peace.
He was full of speculation that night about the condition of Mars, and scoffe_t the vulgar idea of its having inhabitants who were signalling us. His ide_as that meteorites might be falling in a heavy shower upon the planet, o_hat a huge volcanic explosion was in progress. He pointed out to me ho_nlikely it was that organic evolution had taken the same direction in the tw_djacent planets.
“The chances against anything manlike on Mars are a million to one,” he said.
Hundreds of observers saw the flame that night and the night after abou_idnight, and again the night after; and so for ten nights, a flame eac_ight. Why the shots ceased after the tenth no one on earth has attempted t_xplain. It may be the gases of the firing caused the Martians inconvenience.
Dense clouds of smoke or dust, visible through a powerful telescope on eart_s little grey, fluctuating patches, spread through the clearness of th_lanet’s atmosphere and obscured its more familiar features.
Even the daily papers woke up to the disturbances at last, and popular note_ppeared here, there, and everywhere concerning the volcanoes upon Mars. Th_eriocomic periodical PUNCH, I remember, made a happy use of it in th_olitical cartoon. And, all unsuspected, those missiles the Martians had fire_t us drew earthward, rushing now at a pace of many miles a second through th_mpty gulf of space, hour by hour and day by day, nearer and nearer. It seem_o me now almost incredibly wonderful that, with that swift fate hanging ove_s, men could go about their petty concerns as they did. I remember ho_ubilant Markham was at securing a new photograph of the planet for th_llustrated paper he edited in those days. People in these latter time_carcely realise the abundance and enterprise of our nineteenth-centur_apers. For my own part, I was much occupied in learning to ride the bicycle,
and busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of mora_deas as civilisation progressed.
One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been 10,000,000 mile_way) I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained th_igns of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of ligh_reeping zenithward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed. It was _arm night. Coming home, a party of excursionists from Chertsey or Islewort_assed us singing and playing music. There were lights in the upper windows o_he houses as the people went to bed. From the railway station in the distanc_ame the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost int_elody by the distance. My wife pointed out to me the brightness of the red,
green, and yellow signal lights hanging in a framework against the sky. I_eemed so safe and tranquill.