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Chapter 17 The "Thunder Child"

  • Had the Martians aimed only at destruction, they might on Monday hav_nnihilated the entire population of London, as it spread itself slowl_hrough the home counties. Not only along the road through Barnet, but als_hrough Edgware and Waltham Abbey, and along the roads eastward to Southen_nd Shoeburyness, and south of the Thames to Deal and Broadstairs, poured th_ame frantic rout. If one could have hung that June morning in a balloon i_he blazing blue above London every northward and eastward road running out o_he tangled maze of streets would have seemed stippled black with th_treaming fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress. _ave set forth at length in the last chapter my brother's account of the roa_hrough Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realise how tha_warming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned. Never before in th_istory of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffere_ogether. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia ha_ver seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was n_isciplined march; it was a stampede—a stampede gigantic and terrible—withou_rder and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned,
  • driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of th_assacre of mankind.
  • Directly below him the balloonist would have seen the network of streets fa_nd wide, houses, churches, squares, crescents, gardens— alread_erelict—spread out like a huge map, and in the southward BLOTTED. Ove_aling, Richmond, Wimbledon, it would have seemed as if some monstrous pen ha_lung ink upon the chart. Steadily, incessantly, each black splash grew an_pread, shooting out ramifications this way and that, now banking itsel_gainst rising ground, now pouring swiftly over a crest into a new-foun_alley, exactly as a gout of ink would spread itself upon blotting paper.
  • And beyond, over the blue hills that rise southward of the river, th_littering Martians went to and fro, calmly and methodically spreading thei_oison cloud over this patch of country and then over that, laying it agai_ith their steam jets when it had served its purpose, and taking possession o_he conquered country. They do not seem to have aimed at extermination so muc_s at complete demoralisation and the destruction of any opposition. The_xploded any stores of powder they came upon, cut every telegraph, and wrecke_he railways here and there. They were hamstringing mankind. They seemed in n_urry to extend the field of their operations, and did not come beyond th_entral part of London all that day. It is possible that a very considerabl_umber of people in London stuck to their houses through Monday morning.
  • Certain it is that many died at home suffocated by the Black Smoke.
  • Until about midday the Pool of London was an astonishing scene. Steamboats an_hipping of all sorts lay there, tempted by the enormous sums of money offere_y fugitives, and it is said that many who swam out to these vessels wer_hrust off with boathooks and drowned. About one o'clock in the afternoon th_hinning remnant of a cloud of the black vapour appeared between the arches o_lackfriars Bridge. At that the Poopy became a scene of mad confusion,
  • fighting, and collision, and for some time a multitude of boats and barge_ammed in the northern arch of the Tower Bridge, and the sailors an_ightermen had to fight savagely against the people who swarmed upon them fro_he riverfront. People were actually clambering down the piers of the bridg_rom above.
  • When, an hour later, a Martian appeared beyond the Clock Tower and waded dow_he river, nothing but wreckage floated above Limehouse.
  • Of the falling of the fifth cylinder I have presently to tell. The sixth sta_ell at Wimbledon. My brother, keeping watch beside the women in the chaise i_ meadow, saw the green flash of it far beyond the hills. On Tuesday th_ittle party, still set upon getting across the sea, made its way through th_warming country towards Colchester. The news that the Martians were now i_ossession of the whole of London was confirmed. They had been seen a_ighgate, and even, it was said, at Neasden. But they did not come into m_rother's view until the morrow.
  • That day the scattered multitudes began to realise the urgent need o_rovisions. As they grew hungry the rights of property ceased to be regarded.
  • Farmers were out to defend their cattle-sheds, granaries, and ripening roo_rops with arms in their hands. A number of people now, like my brother, ha_heir faces eastward, and there were some desperate souls even going bac_owards London to get food. These were chiefly people from the norther_uburbs, whose knowledge of the Black Smoke came by hearsay. He heard tha_bout half the members of the government had gathered at Birmingham, and tha_normous quantities of high explosives were being prepared to be used i_utomatic mines across the Midland counties.
  • He was also told that the Midland Railway Company had replaced the desertion_f the first day's panic, had resumed traffic, and was running northwar_rains from St. Albans to relieve the congestion of the home counties. Ther_as also a placard in Chipping Ongar announcing that large stores of flou_ere available in the northern towns and that within twenty-four hours brea_ould be distributed among the starving people in the neighbourhood. But thi_ntelligence did not deter him from the plan of escape he had formed, and th_hree pressed eastward all day, and heard no more of the bread distributio_han this promise. Nor, as a matter of fact, did anyone else hear more of it.
  • That night fell the seventh star, falling upon Primrose Hill. It fell whil_iss Elphinstone was watching, for she took that duty alternately with m_rother. She saw it.
  • On Wednesday the three fugitives—they had passed the night in a field o_nripe wheat—reached Chelmsford, and there a body of the inhabitants, callin_tself the Committee of Public Supply, seized the pony as provisions, an_ould give nothing in exchange for it but the promise of a share in it th_ext day. Here there were rumours of Martians at Epping, and news of th_estruction of Waltham Abbey Powder Mills in a vain attempt to blow up one o_he invaders.
  • People were watching for Martians here from the church towers. My brother,
  • very luckily for him as it chanced, preferred to push on at once to the coas_ather than wait for food, although all three of them were very hungry. B_idday they passed through Tillingham, which, strangely enough, seemed to b_uite silent and deserted, save for a few furtive plunderers hunting for food.
  • Near Tillingham they suddenly came in sight of the sea, and the most amazin_rowd of shipping of all sorts that it is possible to imagine.
  • For after the sailors could no longer come up the Thames, they came on to th_ssex coast, to Harwich and Walton and Clacton, and afterwards to Foulness an_hoebury, to bring off the people. They lay in a huge sickle-shaped curve tha_anished into mist at last towards the Naze. Close inshore was a multitude o_ishing smacks— English, Scotch, French, Dutch, and Swedish; steam launche_rom the Thames, yachts, electric boats; and beyond were ships of larg_urden, a multitude of filthy colliers, trim merchantmen, cattle ships,
  • passenger boats, petroleum tanks, ocean tramps, an old white transport even,
  • neat white and grey liners from Southampton and Hamburg; and along the blu_oast across the Blackwater my brother could make out dimly a dense swarm o_oats chaffering with the people on the beach, a swarm which also extended u_he Blackwater almost to Maldon.
  • About a couple of miles out lay an ironclad, very low in the water, almost, t_y brother's perception, like a water-logged ship. This was the ram THUNDE_HILD. It was the only warship in sight, but far away to the right over th_mooth surface of the sea—for that day there was a dead calm—lay a serpent o_lack smoke to mark the next ironclads of the Channel Fleet, which hovered i_n extended line, steam up and ready for action, across the Thames estuar_uring the course of the Martian conquest, vigilant and yet powerless t_revent it.
  • At the sight of the sea, Mrs. Elphinstone, in spite of the assurances of he_ister-in-law, gave way to panic. She had never been out of England before,
  • she would rather die than trust herself friendless in a foreign country, an_o forth. She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and the Martian_ight prove very similar. She had been growing increasingly hysterical,
  • fearful, and depressed during the two days' journeyings. Her great idea was t_eturn to Stanmore. Things had been always well and safe at Stanmore. The_ould find George at Stanmore.
  • It was with the greatest difficulty they could get her down to the beach,
  • where presently my brother succeeded in attracting the attention of some me_n a paddle steamer from the Thames. They sent a boat and drove a bargain fo_hirty-six pounds for the three. The steamer was going, these men said, t_stend.
  • It was about two o'clock when my brother, having paid their fares at th_angway, found himself safely aboard the steamboat with his charges. There wa_ood aboard, albeit at exorbitant prices, and the three of them contrived t_at a meal on one of the seats forward.
  • There were already a couple of score of passengers aboard, some of whom ha_xpended their last money in securing a passage, but the captain lay off th_lackwater until five in the afternoon, picking up passengers until the seate_ecks were even dangerously crowded. He would probably have remained longe_ad it not been for the sound of guns that began about that hour in the south.
  • As if in answer, the ironclad seaward fired a small gun and hoisted a strin_f flags. A jet of smoke sprang out of her funnels.
  • Some of the passengers were of opinion that this firing came fro_hoeburyness, until it was noticed that it was growing louder. At the sam_ime, far away in the southeast the masts and upperworks of three ironclad_ose one after the other out of the sea, beneath clouds of black smoke. But m_rother's attention speedily reverted to the distant firing in the south. H_ancied he saw a column of smoke rising out of the distant grey haze.
  • The little steamer was already flapping her way eastward of the big crescen_f shipping, and the low Essex coast was growing blue and hazy, when a Martia_ppeared, small and faint in the remote distance, advancing along the mudd_oast from the direction of Foulness. At that the captain on the bridge swor_t the top of his voice with fear and anger at his own delay, and the paddle_eemed infected with his terror. Every soul aboard stood at the bulwarks or o_he seats of the steamer and stared at that distant shape, higher than th_rees or church towers inland, and advancing with a leisurely parody of _uman stride.
  • It was the first Martian my brother had seen, and he stood, more amazed tha_errified, watching this Titan advancing deliberately towards the shipping,
  • wading farther and farther into the water as the coast fell away. Then, fa_way beyond the Crouch, came another, striding over some stunted trees, an_hen yet another, still farther off, wading deeply through a shiny mudfla_hat seemed to hang halfway up between sea and sky. They were all stalkin_eaward, as if to intercept the escape of the multitudinous vessels that wer_rowded between Foulness and the Naze. In spite of the throbbing exertions o_he engines of the little paddle-boat, and the pouring foam that her wheel_lung behind her, she receded with terrifying slowness from this ominou_dvance.
  • Glancing northwestward, my brother saw the large crescent of shipping alread_rithing with the approaching terror; one ship passing behind another, anothe_oming round from broadside to end on, steamships whistling and giving of_olumes of steam, sails being let out, launches rushing hither and thither. H_as so fascinated by this and by the creeping danger away to the left that h_ad no eyes for anything seaward. And then a swift movement of the steamboat
  • (she had suddenly come round to avoid being run down) flung him headlong fro_he seat upon which he was standing. There was a shouting all about him, _rampling of feet, and a cheer that seemed to be answered faintly. Th_teamboat lurched and rolled him over upon his hands.
  • He sprang to his feet and saw to starboard, and not a hundred yards from thei_eeling, pitching boat, a vast iron bulk like the blade of a plough tearin_hrough the water, tossing it on either side in huge waves of foam that leape_owards the steamer, flinging her paddles helplessly in the air, and the_ucking her deck down almost to the waterline.
  • A douche of spray blinded my brother for a moment. When his eyes were clea_gain he saw the monster had passed and was rushing landward. Big iro_pperworks rose out of this headlong structure, and from that twin funnel_rojected and spat a smoking blast shot with fire. It was the torpedo ram,
  • THUNDER CHILD, steaming headlong, coming to the rescue of the threatene_hipping.
  • Keeping his footing on the heaving deck by clutching the bulwarks, my brothe_ooked past this charging leviathan at the Martians again, and he saw th_hree of them now close together, and standing so far out to sea that thei_ripod supports were almost entirely submerged. Thus sunken, and seen i_emote perspective, they appeared far less formidable than the huge iron bul_n whose wake the steamer was pitching so helplessly. It would seem they wer_egarding this new antagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence, it ma_e, the giant was even such another as themselves. The THUNDER CHILD fired n_un, but simply drove full speed towards them. It was probably her not firin_hat enabled her to get so near the enemy as she did. They did not know wha_o make of her. One shell, and they would have sent her to the botto_orthwith with the Heat-Ray.
  • She was steaming at such a pace that in a minute she seemed halfway betwee_he steamboat and the Martians—a diminishing black bulk against the recedin_orizontal expanse of the Essex coast.
  • Suddenly the foremost Martian lowered his tube and discharged a canister o_he black gas at the ironclad. It hit her larboard side and glanced off in a_nky jet that rolled away to seaward, an unfolding torrent of Black Smoke,
  • from which the ironclad drove clear. To the watchers from the steamer, low i_he water and with the sun in their eyes, it seemed as though she were alread_mong the Martians.
  • They saw the gaunt figures separating and rising out of the water as the_etreated shoreward, and one of them raised the camera-like generator of th_eat-Ray. He held it pointing obliquely downward, and a bank of steam spran_rom the water at its touch. It must have driven through the iron of th_hip's side like a white-hot iron rod through paper.
  • A flicker of flame went up through the rising steam, and then the Martia_eeled and staggered. In another moment he was cut down, and a great body o_ater and steam shot high in the air. The guns of the THUNDER CHILD sounde_hrough the reek, going off one after the other, and one shot splashed th_ater high close by the steamer, ricocheted towards the other flying ships t_he north, and smashed a smack to matchwood.
  • But no one heeded that very much. At the sight of the Martian's collapse th_aptain on the bridge yelled inarticulately, and all the crowding passenger_n the steamer's stern shouted together. And then they yelled again. For,
  • surging out beyond the white tumult, drove something long and black, th_lames streaming from its middle parts, its ventilators and funnels spoutin_ire.
  • She was alive still; the steering gear, it seems, was intact and her engine_orking. She headed straight for a second Martian, and was within a hundre_ards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear. Then with a violent thud, _linding flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped upward. The Martian staggere_ith the violence of her explosion, and in another moment the flamin_reckage, still driving forward with the impetus of its pace, had struck hi_nd crumpled him up like a thing of cardboard. My brother shoute_nvoluntarily. A boiling tumult of steam hid everything again.
  • "Two!," yelled the captain.
  • Everyone was shouting. The whole steamer from end to end rang with franti_heering that was taken up first by one and then by all in the crowdin_ultitude of ships and boats that was driving out to sea.
  • The steam hung upon the water for many minutes, hiding the third Martian an_he coast altogether. And all this time the boat was paddling steadily out t_ea and away from the fight; and when at last the confusion cleared, th_rifting bank of black vapour intervened, and nothing of the THUNDER CHIL_ould be made out, nor could the third Martian be seen. But the ironclads t_eaward were now quite close and standing in towards shore past the steamboat.
  • The little vessel continued to beat its way seaward, and the ironclads recede_lowly towards the coast, which was hidden still by a marbled bank of vapour,
  • part steam, part black gas, eddying and combining in the strangest way. Th_leet of refugees was scattering to the northeast; several smacks were sailin_etween the ironclads and the steamboat. After a time, and before they reache_he sinking cloud bank, the warships turned northward, and then abruptly wen_bout and passed into the thickening haze of evening southward. The coast gre_aint, and at last indistinguishable amid the low banks of clouds that wer_athering about the sinking sun.
  • Then suddenly out of the golden haze of the sunset came the vibration of guns,
  • and a form of black shadows moving. Everyone struggled to the rail of th_teamer and peered into the blinding furnace of the west, but nothing was t_e distinguished clearly. A mass of smoke rose slanting and barred the face o_he sun. The steamboat throbbed on its way through an interminable suspense.
  • The sun sank into grey clouds, the sky flushed and darkened, the evening sta_rembled into sight. It was deep twilight when the captain cried out an_ointed. My brother strained his eyes. Something rushed up into the sky out o_he greyness—rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminou_learness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, an_ery large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, an_anished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it raine_own darkness upon the land.