The Poison Belt
By Arthur Conan Doyle
Being an account of another adventure of
Prof. George E. Challenger, Lord John Roxton,
Prof. Summerlee, and Mr. E. D. Malone,
the discoverers of "The Lost World"
THE BLURRING OF LINES
It is imperative that now at once, while these stupendous events
are still clear in my mind, I should set them down with that
exactness of detail which time may blur. But even as I do so, I
am overwhelmed by the wonder of the fact that it should be our
little group of the "Lost World"--Professor Challenger,
Professor Summerlee, Lord John Roxton, and myself--who have
passed through this amazing experience.
When, some years ago, I chronicled in the Daily Gazette our
epoch-making journey in South America, I little thought that it
should ever fall to my lot to tell an even stranger personal
experience, one which is unique in all human annals and must
stand out in the records of history as a great peak among the
humble foothills which surround it. The event itself will always
be marvellous, but the circumstances that we four were together
at the time of this extraordinary episode came about in a most
natural and, indeed, inevitable fashion. I will explain the
events which led up to it as shortly and as clearly as I can,
though I am well aware that the fuller the detail upon such a
subject the more welcome it will be to the reader, for the
public curiosity has been and still is insatiable.
It was upon Friday, the twenty-seventh of August--a date forever
memorable in the history of the world--that I went down to the
office of my paper and asked for three days' leave of absence
from Mr. McArdle, who still presided over our news department.
The good old Scotchman shook his head, scratched his dwindling
fringe of ruddy fluff, and finally put his reluctance into words.
"I was thinking, Mr. Malone, that we could employ you to
advantage these days. I was thinking there was a story that you
are the only man that could handle as it should be handled."
"I am sorry for that," said I, trying to hide my disappointment.
"Of course if I am needed, there is an end of the matter. But
the engagement was important and intimate. If I could be spared----"
"Well, I don't see that you can."
It was bitter, but I had to put the best face I could upon it.
After all, it was my own fault, for I should have known by this
time that a journalist has no right to make plans of his own.
"Then I'll think no more of it," said I with as much
cheerfulness as I could assume at so short a notice. "What was
it that you wanted me to do?"
"Well, it was just to interview that deevil of a man down at
"You don't mean Professor Challenger?" I cried.
"Aye, it's just him that I do mean. He ran young Alec Simpson of
the Courier a mile down the high road last week by the collar
of his coat and the slack of his breeches. You'll have read of
it, likely, in the police report. Our boys would as soon
interview a loose alligator in the zoo. But you could do it, I'm
thinking--an old friend like you."
"Why," said I, greatly relieved, "this makes it all easy.
happens that it was to visit Professor Challenger at Rotherfield
that I was asking for leave of absence. The fact is, that it is
the anniversary of our main adventure on the plateau three years
ago, and he has asked our whole party down to his house to see
him and celebrate the occasion."
"Capital!" cried McArdle, rubbing his hands and beaming through
his glasses. "Then you will be able to get his opeenions out of
him. In any other man I would say it was all moonshine, but the
fellow has made good once, and who knows but he may again!"
"Get what out of him?" I asked. "What has he been doing?"
"Haven't you seen his letter on `Scientific Possibeelities' in
McArdle dived down and picked a copy from the floor.
"Read it aloud," said he, indicating a column with his finger.
"I'd be glad to hear it again, for I am not sure now that I have
the man's meaning clear in my head."
This was the letter which I read to the news editor of the
"Sir,--I have read with amusement, not wholly unmixed with some
less complimentary emotion, the complacent and wholly fatuous
letter of James Wilson MacPhail which has lately appeared in
your columns upon the subject of the blurring of Fraunhofer's
lines in the spectra both of the planets and of the fixed stars.
He dismisses the matter as of no significance. To a wider
intelligence it may well seem of very great possible
importance--so great as to involve the ultimate welfare of every
man, woman, and child upon this planet. I can hardly hope, by
the use of scientific language, to convey any sense of my
meaning to those ineffectual people who gather their ideas from
the columns of a daily newspaper. I will endeavour, therefore,
condescend to their limitation and to indicate the situation by
the use of a homely analogy which will be within the limits of
the intelligence of your readers."
"Man, he's a wonder--a living wonder!" said McArdle, shaking
head reflectively. "He'd put up the feathers of a sucking-dove
and set up a riot in a Quakers' meeting. No wonder he has made
London too hot for him. It's a peety, Mr. Malone, for it's a
grand brain! We'll let's have the analogy."
"We will suppose," I read, "that a small bundle of connected
corks was launched in a sluggish current upon a voyage across
the Atlantic. The corks drift slowly on from day to day with the
same conditions all round them. If the corks were sentient we
could imagine that they would consider these conditions to be
permanent and assured. But we, with our superior knowledge, know
that many things might happen to surprise the corks. They might
possibly float up against a ship, or a sleeping whale, or become
entangled in seaweed. In any case, their voyage would probably
end by their being thrown up on the rocky coast of Labrador. But
what could they know of all this while they drifted so gently day
by day in what they thought was a limitless and homogeneous
Your readers will possibly comprehend that the Atlantic, in this
parable, stands for the mighty ocean of ether through which we
drift and that the bunch of corks represents the little and
obscure planetary system to which we belong. A third-rate sun,
with its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satellites, we
float under the same daily conditions towards some unknown end,
some squalid catastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate
confines of space, where we are swept over an etheric Niagara or
dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see no room here for
the shallow and ignorant optimism of your correspondent, Mr.
James Wilson MacPhail, but many reasons why we should watch with
a very close and interested attention every indication of change
in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate
"Man, he'd have made a grand meenister," said McArdle. "It
booms like an organ. Let's get doun to what it is that's
The general blurring and shifting of Fraunhofer's lines of the
spectrum point, in my opinion, to a widespread cosmic change of
a subtle and singular character. Light from a planet is the
reflected light of the sun. Light from a star is a self-produced
light. But the spectra both from planets and stars have, in this
instance, all undergone the same change. Is it, then, a change
in those planets and stars? To me such an idea is inconceivable.
What common change could simultaneously come upon them all? Is
it a change in our own atmosphere? It is possible, but in the
highest degree improbable, since we see no signs of it around
us, and chemical analysis has failed to reveal it. What, then,
is the third possibility? That it may be a change in the
conducting medium, in that infinitely fine ether which extends
from star to star and pervades the whole universe. Deep in that
ocean we are floating upon a slow current. Might that current
not drift us into belts of ether which are novel and have
properties of which we have never conceived? There is a change
somewhere. This cosmic disturbance of the spectrum proves it.
It may be a good change. It may be an evil one. It may be a
neutral one. We do not know. Shallow observers may treat the matter
as one which can be disregarded, but one who like myself is
possessed of the deeper intelligence of the true philosopher
will understand that the possibilities of the universe are
incalculable and that the wisest man is he who holds himself
ready for the unexpected. To take an obvious example, who would
undertake to say that the mysterious and universal outbreak of
illness, recorded in your columns this very morning as having
broken out among the indigenous races of Sumatra, has no
connection with some cosmic change to which they may respond
more quickly than the more complex peoples of Europe? I throw
out the idea for what it is worth. To assert it is, in the
present stage, as unprofitable as to deny it, but it is an
unimaginative numskull who is too dense to perceive that it is
well within the bounds of scientific possibility.
"GEORGE EDWARD CHALLENGER.
"THE BRIARS, ROTHERFIELD."
"It's a fine, steemulating letter," said McArdle thoughtfully,
fitting a cigarette into the long glass tube which he used as a
holder. "What's your opeenion of it, Mr. Malone?"
I had to confess my total and humiliating ignorance of the
subject at issue. What, for example, were Fraunhofer's lines?
McArdle had just been studying the matter with the aid of our
tame scientist at the office, and he picked from his desk two of
those many-coloured spectral bands which bear a general
resemblance to the hat-ribbons of some young and ambitious
cricket club. He pointed out to me that there were certain black
lines which formed crossbars upon the series of brilliant colours
extending from the red at one end through gradations of orange,
yellow, green, blue, and indigo to the violet at the other.
"Those dark bands are Fraunhofer's lines," said he. "The
are just light itself. Every light, if you can split it up with
a prism, gives the same colours. They tell us nothing. It is
the lines that count, because they vary according to what it may be
that produces the light. It is these lines that have been blurred
instead of clear this last week, and all the astronomers
have been quarreling over the reason. Here's a photograph of the
blurred lines for our issue to-morrow. The public have taken no
interest in the matter up to now, but this letter of Challenger's
in the Times will make them wake up, I'm thinking."
"And this about Sumatra?"
"Well, it's a long cry from a blurred line in a spectrum to a
sick nigger in Sumatra. And yet the chiel has shown us once
before that he knows what he's talking about. There is some
queer illness down yonder, that's beyond all doubt, and to-day
there's a cable just come in from Singapore that the lighthouses
are out of action in the Straits of Sundan, and two ships on the
beach in consequence. Anyhow, it's good enough for you to
interview Challenger upon. If you get anything definite, let us
have a column by Monday."
I was coming out from the news editor's room, turning over my
new mission in my mind, when I heard my name called from the
waiting-room below. It was a telegraph-boy with a wire which had
been forwarded from my lodgings at Streatham. The message was
from the very man we had been discussing, and ran thus:--
Malone, 17, Hill Street, Streatham.--Bring oxygen.--Challenger.
"Bring oxygen!" The Professor, as I remembered him, had an
elephantine sense of humour capable of the most clumsy and
unwieldly gambollings. Was this one of those jokes which used to
reduce him to uproarious laughter, when his eyes would disappear
and he was all gaping mouth and wagging beard, supremely
indifferent to the gravity of all around him? I turned the words
over, but could make nothing even remotely jocose out of them.
Then surely it was a concise order--though a very strange one.
He was the last man in the world whose deliberate command I
should care to disobey. Possibly some chemical experiment was
afoot; possibly----Well, it was no business of mine to speculate
upon why he wanted it. I must get it. There was nearly an hour
before I should catch the train at Victoria. I took a taxi, and
having ascertained the address from the telephone book, I made
for the Oxygen Tube Supply Company in Oxford Street.
As I alighted on the pavement at my destination, two youths
emerged from the door of the establishment carrying an iron
cylinder, which, with some trouble, they hoisted into a waiting
motor-car. An elderly man was at their heels scolding and
directing in a creaky, sardonic voice. He turned towards me.
There was no mistaking those austere features and that goatee
beard. It was my old cross-grained companion, Professor
"What!" he cried. "Don't tell me that YOU have had one
preposterous telegrams for oxygen?"
I exhibited it.
"Well, well! I have had one too, and, as you see, very much
against the grain, I have acted upon it. Our good friend is as
impossible as ever. The need for oxygen could not have been so
urgent that he must desert the usual means of supply and
encroach upon the time of those who are really busier than
himself. Why could he not order it direct?"
I could only suggest that he probably wanted it at once.
"Or thought he did, which is quite another matter. But it is
superfluous now for you to purchase any, since I have this
"Still, for some reason he seems to wish that I should bring
oxygen too. It will be safer to do exactly what he tells me."
Accordingly, in spite of many grumbles and remonstrances from
Summerlee, I ordered an additional tube, which was placed with
the other in his motor-car, for he had offered me a lift to
I turned away to pay off my taxi, the driver of which was very
cantankerous and abusive over his fare. As I came back to
Professor Summerlee, he was having a furious altercation with
the men who had carried down the oxygen, his little white goat's
beard jerking with indignation. One of the fellows called him,
I remember, "a silly old bleached cockatoo," which so enraged
his chauffeur that he bounded out of his seat to take the part
of his insulted master, and it was all we could do to prevent a
riot in the street.
These little things may seem trivial to relate, and passed as
mere incidents at the time. It is only now, as I look back, that
I see their relation to the whole story which I have to unfold.
The chauffeur must, as it seemed to me, have been a novice or
else have lost his nerve in this disturbance, for he drove
vilely on the way to the station. Twice we nearly had collisions
with other equally erratic vehicles, and I remember remarking
to Summerlee that the standard of driving in London
had very much declined. Once we brushed the very edge of a
great crowd which was watching a fight at the corner of the
Mall. The people, who were much excited, raised cries of
anger at the clumsy driving, and one fellow sprang upon the
step and waved a stick above our heads. I pushed him off, but
we were glad when we had got clear of them and safe out of
the park. These little events, coming one after the other,
left me very jangled in my nerves, and I could see from my
companion's petulant manner that his own patience had got to
a low ebb.
But our good humour was restored when we saw Lord John Roxton
waiting for us upon the platform, his tall, thin figure clad
in a yellow tweed shooting-suit. His keen face, with those
unforgettable eyes, so fierce and yet so humorous, flushed
with pleasure at the sight of us. His ruddy hair was shot
with grey, and the furrows upon his brow had been cut a
little deeper by Time's chisel, but in all else he was the
Lord John who had been our good comrade in the past.
"Hullo, Herr Professor! Hullo, young fella!" he shouted as
he came toward us.
He roared with amusement when he saw the oxygen cylinders
upon the porter's trolly behind us. "So you've got them
too!" he cried. "Mine is in the van. Whatever can the old
dear be after?"
"Have you seen his letter in the Times?" I asked.
"What was it?"
"Stuff and nonsense!" said Summerlee Harshly.
"Well, it's at the bottom of this oxygen business, or I am
mistaken," said I.
"Stuff and nonsense!" cried Summerlee again with quite
unnecessary violence. We had all got into a first-class
smoker, and he had already lit the short and charred old
briar pipe which seemed to singe the end of his long,
"Friend Challenger is a clever man," said he with great
vehemence. "No one can deny it. It's a fool that denies it.
Look at his hat. There's a sixty-ounce brain inside it--a big
engine, running smooth, and turning out clean work. Show me
the engine-house and I'll tell you the size of the engine.
But he is a born charlatan--you've heard me tell him so to
his face--a born charlatan, with a kind of dramatic trick of
jumping into the limelight. Things are quiet, so friend
Challenger sees a chance to set the public talking about him.
You don't imagine that he seriously believes all this
nonsense about a change in the ether and a danger to the
human race? Was ever such a cock-and-bull story in this life?"
He sat like an old white raven, croaking and shaking with
A wave of anger passed through me as I listened to Summerlee.
It was disgraceful that he should speak thus of the leader
who had been the source of all our fame and given us such an
experience as no men have ever enjoyed. I had opened my mouth
to utter some hot retort, when Lord John got before me.
"You had a scrap once before with old man Challenger," said
he sternly, "and you were down and out inside ten seconds. It
seems to me, Professor Summerlee, he's beyond your class, and
the best you can do with him is to walk wide and leave him
"Besides," said I, "he has been a good friend to every
us. Whatever his faults may be, he is as straight as a line,
and I don't believe he ever speaks evil of his comrades behind
"Well said, young fellah-my-lad," said Lord John Roxton. Then,
with a kindly smile, he slapped Professor Summerlee upon his
shoulder. "Come, Herr Professor, we're not going to quarrel at
this time of day. We've seen too much together. But keep off
grass when you get near Challenger, for this young fellah and I
have a bit of a weakness for the old dear."
But Summerlee was in no humour for compromise. His face was
screwed up in rigid disapproval, and thick curls of angry smoke
rolled up from his pipe.
"As to you, Lord John Roxton," he creaked, "your opinion
matter of science is of as much value in my eyes as my views
upon a new type of shot-gun would be in yours. I have my own
judgment, sir, and I use it in my own way. Because it has misled
me once, is that any reason why I should accept without
criticism anything, however far-fetched, which this man may care
to put forward? Are we to have a Pope of science, with
infallible decrees laid down EX CATHEDRA, and accepted without
question by the poor humble public? I tell you, sir, that I have
a brain of my own and that I should feel myself to be a snob and
a slave if I did not use it. If it pleases you to believe this
rigmarole about ether and Fraunhofer's lines upon the spectrum,
do so by all means, but do not ask one who is older and wiser
than yourself to share in your folly. Is it not evident that if
the ether were affected to the degree which he maintains, and if
it were obnoxious to human health, the result of it would
already be apparent upon ourselves?" Here he laughed with
uproarious triumph over his own argument. "Yes, sir, we should
already be very far from our normal selves, and instead of
sitting quietly discussing scientific problems in a railway
train we should be showing actual symptoms of the poison which
was working within us. Where do we see any signs of this
poisonous cosmic disturbance? Answer me that, sir! Answer me
that! Come, come, no evasion! I pin you to an answer!"
I felt more and more angry. There was something very irritating
and aggressive in Summerlee's demeanour.
"I think that if you knew more about the facts you might be less
positive in your opinion," said I.
Summerlee took his pipe from his mouth and fixed me with a stony
"Pray what do you mean, sir, by that somewhat impertinent
"I mean that when I was leaving the office the news editor told
me that a telegram had come in confirming the general illness of
the Sumatra natives, and adding that the lights had not been lit
in the Straits of Sunda."
"Really, there should be some limits to human folly!" cried
Summerlee in a positive fury. "Is it possible that you do not
realize that ether, if for a moment we adopt Challenger's
preposterous supposition, is a universal substance which is the
same here as at the other side of the world? Do you for an
instant suppose that there is an English ether and a Sumatran
ether? Perhaps you imagine that the ether of Kent is in some way
superior to the ether of Surrey, through which this train is now
bearing us. There really are no bounds to the credulity and
ignorance of the average layman. Is it conceivable that the
ether in Sumatra should be so deadly as to cause total
insensibility at the very time when the ether here has had no
appreciable effect upon us whatever? Personally, I can truly say
that I never felt stronger in body or better balanced in mind in
"That may be. I don't profess to be a scientific man," said
"though I have heard somewhere that the science of one
generation is usually the fallacy of the next. But it does not
take much common sense to see that, as we seem to know so little
about ether, it might be affected by some local conditions in
various parts of the world and might show an effect over there
which would only develop later with us."
"With `might' and `may' you can prove anything," cried Summerlee
furiously. "Pigs may fly. Yes, sir, pigs MAY fly--but they
don't. It is not worth arguing with you. Challenger has filled
you with his nonsense and you are both incapable of reason. I
had as soon lay arguments before those railway cushions."
"I must say, Professor Summerlee, that your manners do not seem
to have improved since I last had the pleasure of meeting you,"
said Lord John severely.
"You lordlings are not accustomed to hear the truth," Summerlee
answered with a bitter smile. "It comes as a bit of a shock,
does it not, when someone makes you realize that your title
leaves you none the less a very ignorant man?"
"Upon my word, sir," said Lord John, very stern and rigid,
you were a younger man you would not dare to speak to me in so
offensive a fashion."
Summerlee thrust out his chin, with its little wagging tuft of
"I would have you know, sir, that, young or old, there has never
been a time in my life when I was afraid to speak my mind to an
ignorant coxcomb--yes, sir, an ignorant coxcomb, if you had as
many titles as slaves could invent and fools could adopt."
For a moment Lord John's eyes blazed, and then, with a
tremendous effort, he mastered his anger and leaned back in his
seat with arms folded and a bitter smile upon his face. To me
all this was dreadful and deplorable. Like a wave, the memory of
the past swept over me, the good comradeship, the happy,
adventurous days--all that we had suffered and worked for and
won. That it should have come to this--to insults and abuse!
Suddenly I was sobbing--sobbing in loud, gulping, uncontrollable
sobs which refused to be concealed. My companions looked at me
in surprise. I covered my face with my hands.
"It's all right," said I. "Only--only it IS such a pity!"
"You're ill, young fellah, that's what's amiss with you,"
Lord John. "I thought you were queer from the first."
"Your habits, sir, have not mended in these three years,"
Summerlee, shaking his head. "I also did not fail to observe
your strange manner the moment we met. You need not waste your
sympathy, Lord John. These tears are purely alcoholic. The man
has been drinking. By the way, Lord John, I called you a coxcomb
just now, which was perhaps unduly severe. But the word reminds
me of a small accomplishment, trivial but amusing, which I used
to possess. You know me as the austere man of science. Can you
believe that I once had a well-deserved reputation in several
nurseries as a farmyard imitator? Perhaps I can help you to pass
the time in a pleasant way. Would it amuse you to hear me crow
like a cock?"
"No, sir," said Lord John, who was still greatly offended,
would NOT amuse me."
"My imitation of the clucking hen who had just laid an egg was
also considered rather above the average. Might I venture?"
"No, sir, no--certainly not."
But in spite of this earnest prohibition, Professor Summerlee
laid down his pipe and for the rest of our journey he
entertained--or failed to entertain--us by a succession of bird
and animal cries which seemed so absurd that my tears were
suddenly changed into boisterous laughter, which must have
become quite hysterical as I sat opposite this grave Professor
and saw him--or rather heard him--in the character of the
uproarious rooster or the puppy whose tail had been trodden
upon. Once Lord John passed across his newspaper, upon the
margin of which he had written in pencil, "Poor devil! Mad as a
hatter." No doubt it was very eccentric, and yet the performance
struck me as extraordinarily clever and amusing.
Whilst this was going on, Lord John leaned forward and told me
some interminable story about a buffalo and an Indian rajah
which seemed to me to have neither beginning nor end. Professor
Summerlee had just begun to chirrup like a canary, and Lord John
to get to the climax of his story, when the train drew up at
Jarvis Brook, which had been given us as the station for
And there was Challenger to meet us. His appearance was
glorious. Not all the turkey-cocks in creation could match the
slow, high-stepping dignity with which he paraded his own
railway station and the benignant smile of condescending
encouragement with which he regarded everybody around him. If he
had changed in anything since the days of old, it was that his
points had become accentuated. The huge head and broad sweep of
forehead, with its plastered lock of black hair, seemed even
greater than before. His black beard poured forward in a more
impressive cascade, and his clear grey eyes, with their insolent
and sardonic eyelids, were even more masterful than of yore.
He gave me the amused hand-shake and encouraging smile which the
head master bestows upon the small boy, and, having greeted the
others and helped to collect their bags and their cylinders of
oxygen, he stowed us and them away in a large motor-car which was
driven by the same impassive Austin, the man of few words, whom
I had seen in the character of butler upon the occasion of my
first eventful visit to the Professor. Our journey led us up a
winding hill through beautiful country. I sat in front with the
chauffeur, but behind me my three comrades seemed to me to be
all talking together. Lord John was still struggling with his
buffalo story, so far as I could make out, while once again I
heard, as of old, the deep rumble of Challenger and the
insistent accents of Summerlee as their brains locked in high
and fierce scientific debate. Suddenly Austin slanted his
mahogany face toward me without taking his eyes from his
"I'm under notice," said he.
"Dear me!" said I.
Everything seemed strange to-day. Everyone said queer,
things. It was like a dream.
"It's forty-seven times," said Austin reflectively.
"When do you go?" I asked, for want of some better observation.
"I don't go," said Austin.
The conversation seemed to have ended there, but presently he
came back to it.
"If I was to go, who would look after 'im?" He jerked his
toward his master. "Who would 'e get to serve 'im?"
"Someone else," I suggested lamely.
"Not 'e. No one would stay a week. If I was to go, that 'ouse
would run down like a watch with the mainspring out. I'm telling
you because you're 'is friend, and you ought to know. If I was
to take 'im at 'is word--but there, I wouldn't have the 'eart.
'E and the missus would be like two babes left out in a bundle.
I'm just everything. And then 'e goes and gives me notice."
"Why would no one stay?" I asked.
"Well, they wouldn't make allowances, same as I do. 'E's a very
clever man, the master--so clever that 'e's clean balmy
sometimes. I've seen 'im right off 'is onion, and no error.
Well, look what 'e did this morning."
"What did he do?"
Austin bent over to me.
"'E bit the 'ousekeeper," said he in a hoarse whisper.
"Yes, sir. Bit 'er on the leg. I saw 'er with my own eyes
startin' a marathon from the 'all-door."
"So you'd say, sir, if you could see some of the goings on. 'E
don't make friends with the neighbors. There's some of them
thinks that when 'e was up among those monsters you wrote about,
it was just `'Ome, Sweet 'Ome' for the master, and 'e was never
in fitter company. That's what THEY say. But I've served 'im
years, and I'm fond of 'im, and, mind you, 'e's a great man,
when all's said an' done, and it's an honor to serve 'im. But 'e
does try one cruel at times. Now look at that, sir. That ain't
what you might call old-fashioned 'ospitality, is it now? Just
you read it for yourself."
The car on its lowest speed had ground its way up a steep,
curving ascent. At the corner a notice-board peered over a
well-clipped hedge. As Austin said, it was not difficult to
read, for the words were few and arresting:--
| WARNING. |
| ---- |
| Visitors, Pressmen, and Mendicants |
| are not encouraged. |
| G. E. CHALLENGER. |
"No, it's not what you might call 'earty," said Austin, shaking
his head and glancing up at the deplorable placard. "It wouldn't
look well in a Christmas card. I beg your pardon, sir, for I
haven't spoke as much as this for many a long year, but to-day my
feelings seem to 'ave got the better of me. 'E can sack me till
'e's blue in the face, but I ain't going, and that's flat. I'm
'is man and 'e's my master, and so it will be, I expect, to the
end of the chapter."
We had passed between the white posts of a gate and up a curving
drive, lined with rhododendron bushes. Beyond stood a low brick
house, picked out with white woodwork, very comfortable and
pretty. Mrs. Challenger, a small, dainty, smiling figure, stood
in the open doorway to welcome us.
"Well, my dear," said Challenger, bustling out of the car,
are our visitors. It is something new for us to have visitors,
is it not? No love lost between us and our neighbors, is there?
If they could get rat poison into our baker's cart, I expect it
would be there."
"It's dreadful--dreadful!" cried the lady, between laughter
tears. "George is always quarreling with everyone. We haven't a
friend on the countryside."
"It enables me to concentrate my attention upon my incomparable
wife," said Challenger, passing his short, thick arm round her
waist. Picture a gorilla and a gazelle, and you have the pair of
them. "Come, come, these gentlemen are tired from the journey,
and luncheon should be ready. Has Sarah returned?"
The lady shook her head ruefully, and the Professor laughed
loudly and stroked his beard in his masterful fashion.
"Austin," he cried, "when you have put up the car you
kindly help your mistress to lay the lunch. Now, gentlemen, will
you please step into my study, for there are one or two very
urgent things which I am anxious to say to you."
THE TIDE OF DEATH
As we crossed the hall the telephone-bell rang, and we were the
involuntary auditors of Professor Challenger's end of the
ensuing dialogue. I say "we," but no one within a hundred yards
could have failed to hear the booming of that monstrous voice,
reverberated through the house. His answers lingered in my mind.
"Yes, yes, of course, it is I.... Yes, certainly, THE Professor
Challenger, the famous Professor, who else?... Of course, every
word of it, otherwise I should not have written it.... I
shouldn't be surprised.... There is every indication of it....
Within a day or so at the furthest.... Well, I can't help that,
can I?... Very unpleasant, no doubt, but I rather fancy it will
affect more important people than you. There is no use whining
about it.... No, I couldn't possibly. You must take your
chance.... That's enough, sir. Nonsense! I have something more
important to do than to listen to such twaddle."
He shut off with a crash and led us upstairs into a large airy
apartment which formed his study. On the great mahogany desk
seven or eight unopened telegrams were lying.
"Really," he said as he gathered them up, "I begin to
it would save my correspondents' money if I were to adopt a
telegraphic address. Possibly `Noah, Rotherfield,' would be the
As usual when he made an obscure joke, he leaned against the
desk and bellowed in a paroxysm of laughter, his hands shaking
so that he could hardly open the envelopes.
"Noah! Noah!" he gasped, with a face of beetroot, while Lord
John and I smiled in sympathy and Summerlee, like a dyspeptic
goat, wagged his head in sardonic disagreement. Finally
Challenger, still rumbling and exploding, began to open his
telegrams. The three of us stood in the bow window and occupied
ourselves in admiring the magnificent view.
It was certainly worth looking at. The road in its gentle curves
had really brought us to a considerable elevation--seven hundred
feet, as we afterwards discovered. Challenger's house was on the
very edge of the hill, and from its southern face, in which was
the study window, one looked across the vast stretch of the
weald to where the gentle curves of the South Downs formed an
undulating horizon. In a cleft of the hills a haze of smoke
marked the position of Lewes. Immediately at our feet there lay
a rolling plain of heather, with the long, vivid green stretches
of the Crowborough golf course, all dotted with the players. A
little to the south, through an opening in the woods, we could
see a section of the main line from London to Brighton. In the
immediate foreground, under our very noses, was a small enclosed
yard, in which stood the car which had brought us from the
An ejaculation from Challenger caused us to turn. He had read
his telegrams and had arranged them in a little methodical pile
upon his desk. His broad, rugged face, or as much of it as was
visible over the matted beard, was still deeply flushed, and he
seemed to be under the influence of some strong excitement.
"Well, gentlemen," he said, in a voice as if he was addressing
a public meeting, "this is indeed an interesting reunion, and it
takes place under extraordinary--I may say
unprecedented--circumstances. May I ask if you have observed
anything upon your journey from town?"
"The only thing which I observed," said Summerlee with a sour
smile, "was that our young friend here has not improved in his
manners during the years that have passed. I am sorry to state
that I have had to seriously complain of his conduct in the
train, and I should be wanting in frankness if I did not say
that it has left a most unpleasant impression in my mind."
"Well, well, we all get a bit prosy sometimes," said Lord
"The young fellah meant no real harm. After all, he's an
International, so if he takes half an hour to describe a game of
football he has more right to do it than most folk."
"Half an hour to describe a game!" I cried indignantly. "Why,
was you that took half an hour with some long-winded story about
a buffalo. Professor Summerlee will be my witness."
"I can hardly judge which of you was the most utterly wearisome,"
said Summerlee. "I declare to you, Challenger, that I never wish
to hear of football or of buffaloes so long as I live."
"I have never said one word to-day about football," I protested.
Lord John gave a shrill whistle, and Summerlee shook his head
"So early in the day too," said he. "It is indeed deplorable.
I sat there in sad but thoughtful silence----"
"In silence!" cried Lord John. "Why, you were doin' a
turn of imitations all the way--more like a runaway gramophone
than a man."
Summerlee drew himself up in bitter protest.
"You are pleased to be facetious, Lord John," said he with
face of vinegar.
"Why, dash it all, this is clear madness," cried Lord John.
"Each of us seems to know what the others did and none of us
knows what he did himself. Let's put it all together from the
first. We got into a first-class smoker, that's clear, ain't
it? Then we began to quarrel over friend Challenger's letter in
"Oh, you did, did you?" rumbled our host, his eyelids beginning
"You said, Summerlee, that there was no possible truth in his
"Dear me!" said Challenger, puffing out his chest and stroking
his beard. "No possible truth! I seem to have heard the words
before. And may I ask with what arguments the great and famous
Professor Summerlee proceeded to demolish the humble individual
who had ventured to express an opinion upon a matter of
scientific possibility? Perhaps before he exterminates that
unfortunate nonentity he will condescend to give some reasons
for the adverse views which he has formed."
He bowed and shrugged and spread open his hands as he spoke with
his elaborate and elephantine sarcasm.
"The reason was simple enough," said the dogged Summerlee.
contended that if the ether surrounding the earth was so toxic
in one quarter that it produced dangerous symptoms, it was
hardly likely that we three in the railway carriage should be
The explanation only brought uproarious merriment from
Challenger. He laughed until everything in the room seemed to
rattle and quiver.
"Our worthy Summerlee is, not for the first time, somewhat out
of touch with the facts of the situation," said he at last,
mopping his heated brow. "Now, gentlemen, I cannot make my point
better than by detailing to you what I have myself done this
morning. You will the more easily condone any mental abberation
upon your own part when you realize that even I have had moments
when my balance has been disturbed. We have had for some years
in this household a housekeeper--one Sarah, with whose second
name I have never attempted to burden my memory. She is a woman
of a severe and forbidding aspect, prim and demure in her
bearing, very impassive in her nature, and never known within
our experience to show signs of any emotion. As I sat alone at
my breakfast--Mrs. Challenger is in the habit of keeping her
room of a morning--it suddenly entered my head that it would be
entertaining and instructive to see whether I could find any
limits to this woman's inperturbability. I devised a simple but
effective experiment. Having upset a small vase of flowers which
stood in the centre of the cloth, I rang the bell and slipped
under the table. She entered and, seeing the room empty,
imagined that I had withdrawn to the study. As I had expected,
she approached and leaned over the table to replace the vase. I
had a vision of a cotton stocking and an elastic-sided boot.
Protruding my head, I sank my teeth into the calf of her leg.
The experiment was successful beyond belief. For some moments
she stood paralyzed, staring down at my head. Then with a shriek
she tore herself free and rushed from the room. I pursued her
with some thoughts of an explanation, but she flew down the
drive, and some minutes afterwards I was able to pick her out
with my field-glasses traveling very rapidly in a south-westerly
direction. I tell you the anecdote for what it is worth. I drop
it into your brains and await its germination. Is it
illuminative? Has it conveyed anything to your minds? What do
YOU think of it, Lord John?"
Lord John shook his head gravely.
"You'll be gettin' into serious trouble some of these days if
you don't put a brake on," said he.
"Perhaps you have some observation to make, Summerlee?"
"You should drop all work instantly, Challenger, and take three
months in a German watering-place," said he.
"Profound! Profound!" cried Challenger. "Now, my young
is it possible that wisdom may come from you where your seniors
have so signally failed?"
And it did. I say it with all modesty, but it did. Of course,
all seems obvious enough to you who know what occurred, but it
was not so very clear when everything was new. But it came on me
suddenly with the full force of absolute conviction.
"Poison!" I cried.
Then, even as I said the word, my mind flashed back over the
whole morning's experiences, past Lord John with his buffalo,
past my own hysterical tears, past the outrageous conduct of
Professor Summerlee, to the queer happenings in London, the row
in the park, the driving of the chauffeur, the quarrel at the
oxygen warehouse. Everything fitted suddenly into its place.
"Of course," I cried again. "It is poison. We are all
"Exactly," said Challenger, rubbing his hands, "we are
poisoned. Our planet has swum into the poison belt of ether, and
is now flying deeper into it at the rate of some millions of
miles a minute. Our young friend has expressed the cause of all
our troubles and perplexities in a single word, `poison.'"
We looked at each other in amazed silence. No comment seemed to
meet the situation.
"There is a mental inhibition by which such symptoms can be
checked and controlled," said Challenger. "I cannot expect to
find it developed in all of you to the same point which it has
reached in me, for I suppose that the strength of our different
mental processes bears some proportion to each other.
But no doubt it is appreciable even in our young friend here.
After the little outburst of high spirits which so alarmed my
domestic I sat down and reasoned with myself. I put it to myself
that I had never before felt impelled to bite any of my
household. The impulse had then been an abnormal one. In an
instant I perceived the truth. My pulse upon examination was ten
beats above the usual, and my reflexes were increased. I called
upon my higher and saner self, the real G. E. C., seated serene
and impregnable behind all mere molecular disturbance. I
summoned him, I say, to watch the foolish mental tricks
which the poison would play. I found that I was indeed the
master. I could recognize and control a disordered mind. It was
a remarkable exhibition of the victory of mind over matter, for
it was a victory over that particular form of matter which is
most intimately connected with mind. I might almost say that
mind was at fault and that personality controlled it. Thus, when
my wife came downstairs and I was impelled to slip behind the
door and alarm her by some wild cry as she entered, I was able
to stifle the impulse and to greet her with dignity and
restraint. An overpowering desire to quack like a duck was met
and mastered in the same fashion.
Later, when I descended to order the car and found Austin
bending over it absorbed in repairs, I controlled my open hand
even after I had lifted it and refrained from giving him an
experience which would possibly have caused him to follow in the
steps of the housekeeper. On the contrary, I touched him on the
shoulder and ordered the car to be at the door in time to meet
your train. At the present instant I am most forcibly tempted to
take Professor Summerlee by that silly old beard of his and to
shake his head violently backwards and forwards. And yet, as you
see, I am perfectly restrained. Let me commend my example to
"I'll look out for that buffalo," said Lord John.
"And I for the football match."
"It may be that you are right, Challenger," said Summerlee in
chastened voice. "I am willing to admit that my turn of mind is
critical rather than constructive and that I am not a ready
convert to any new theory, especially when it happens to be so
unusual and fantastic as this one. However, as I cast my mind
back over the events of the morning, and as I reconsider the
fatuous conduct of my companions, I find it easy to believe that
some poison of an exciting kind was responsible for their
Challenger slapped his colleague good-humouredly upon the
shoulder. "We progress," said he. "Decidedly we progress."
"And pray, sir," asked Summerlee humbly, "what is your
as to the present outlook?"
"With your permission I will say a few words upon that subject."
He seated himself upon his desk, his short, stumpy legs swinging
in front of him. "We are assisting at a tremendous and awful
function. It is, in my opinion, the end of the world."
The end of the world! Our eyes turned to the great bow-window
and we looked out at the summer beauty of the country-side, the
long slopes of heather, the great country-houses, the cozy
farms, the pleasure-seekers upon the links.
The end of the world! One had often heard the words, but the
idea that they could ever have an immediate practical
significance, that it should not be at some vague date, but now,
to-day, that was a tremendous, a staggering thought. We were all
struck solemn and waited in silence for Challenger to continue.
His overpowering presence and appearance lent such force to the
solemnity of his words that for a moment all the crudities and
absurdities of the man vanished, and he loomed before us as
something majestic and beyond the range of ordinary humanity.
Then to me, at least, there came back the cheering recollection
of how twice since we had entered the room he had roared with
laughter. Surely, I thought, there are limits to mental
detachment. The crisis cannot be so great or so pressing after
`You will conceive a bunch of grapes," said he, "which are
covered by some infinitesimal but noxious bacillus. The gardener
passes it through a disinfecting medium. It may be that he
desires his grapes to be cleaner. It may be that he needs space
to breed some fresh bacillus less noxious than the last. He dips
it into the poison and they are gone. Our Gardener is, in my
opinion, about to dip the solar system, and the human bacillus,
the little mortal vibrio which twisted and wriggled upon the
outer rind of the earth, will in an instant be sterilized out of
Again there was silence. It was broken by the high trill of the
"There is one of our bacilli squeaking for help," said he
a grim smile. "They are beginning to realize that their
existence is not really one of the necessities of the universe."
He was gone from the room for a minute or two. I remember that
none of us spoke in his absence. The situation seemed beyond all
words or comments.
"The medical officer of health for Brighton," said he when
returned. "The symptoms are for some reason developing more
rapidly upon the sea level. Our seven hundred feet of elevation
give us an advantage. Folk seem to have learned that I am the
first authority upon the question. No doubt it comes from my
letter in the Times. That was the mayor of a provincial town
with whom I talked when we first arrived. You may have heard me
upon the telephone. He seemed to put an entirely inflated value
upon his own life. I helped him to readjust his ideas."
Summerlee had risen and was standing by the window. His thin,
bony hands were trembling with his emotion.
"Challenger," said he earnestly, "this thing is too serious
mere futile argument. Do not suppose that I desire to irritate
you by any question I may ask. But I put it to you whether there
may not be some fallacy in your information or in your
reasoning. There is the sun shining as brightly as ever in the
blue sky. There are the heather and the flowers and the birds.
There are the folk enjoying themselves upon the golf-links and
the laborers yonder cutting the corn. You tell us that they and
we may be upon the very brink of destruction--that this sunlit
day may be that day of doom which the human race has so long
awaited. So far as we know, you found this tremendous judgment
upon what? Upon some abnormal lines in a spectrum--upon rumours
from Sumatra--upon some curious personal excitement which we have
discerned in each other. This latter symptom is not so marked
but that you and we could, by a deliberate effort, control it.
You need not stand on ceremony with us, Challenger. We have all
faced death together before now. Speak out, and let us know
exactly where we stand, and what, in your opinion, are our
prospects for our future."
It was a brave, good speech, a speech from that stanch and
strong spirit which lay behind all the acidities and
angularities of the old zoologist. Lord John rose and shook him
by the hand.
"My sentiment to a tick," said he. "Now, Challenger,
it's up to
you to tell us where we are. We ain't nervous folk, as you know
well; but when it comes to makin' a week-end visit and finding
you've run full butt into the Day of Judgment, it wants a bit of
explainin'. What's the danger, and how much of it is there, and
what are we goin' to do to meet it?"
He stood, tall and strong, in the sunshine at the window, with
his brown hand upon the shoulder of Summerlee. I was lying back
in an armchair, an extinguished cigarette between my lips, in
that sort of half-dazed state in which impressions become
exceedingly distinct. It may have been a new phase of the
poisoning, but the delirious promptings had all passed away and
were succeeded by an exceedingly languid and, at the same time,
perceptive state of mind. I was a spectator. It did not seem to
be any personal concern of mine. But here were three strong men
at a great crisis, and it was fascinating to observe them.
Challenger bent his heavy brows and stroked his beard before he
answered. One could see that he was very carefully weighing his
"What was the last news when you left London?" he asked.
"I was at the Gazette office about ten," said I. "There
Reuter just come in from Singapore to the effect that the
sickness seemed to be universal in Sumatra and that the
lighthouses had not been lit in consequence."
"Events have been moving somewhat rapidly since then," said
Challenger, picking up his pile of telegrams. "I am in close
touch both with the authorities and with the press, so that news
is converging upon me from all parts. There is, in fact, a
general and very insistent demand that I should come to London;
but I see no good end to be served. From the accounts the
poisonous effect begins with mental excitement; the rioting in
Paris this morning is said to have been very violent, and the
Welsh colliers are in a state of uproar. So far as the evidence
to hand can be trusted, this stimulative stage, which varies
much in races and in individuals, is succeeded by a certain
exaltation and mental lucidity--I seem to discern some signs of
it in our young friend here--which, after an appreciable
interval, turns to coma, deepening rapidly into death. I fancy,
so far as my toxicology carries me, that there are some
vegetable nerve poisons----"
"Datura," suggested Summerlee.
"Excellent!" cried Challenger. "It would make for scientific
precision if we named our toxic agent. Let it be daturon. To
you, my dear Summerlee, belongs the honour--posthumous, alas, but
none the less unique--of having given a name to the universal
destroyer, the Great Gardener's disinfectant. The symptoms of
daturon, then, may be taken to be such as I indicate. That it
will involve the whole world and that no life can possibly
remain behind seems to me to be certain, since ether is a
universal medium. Up to now it has been capricious in the places
which it has attacked, but the difference is only a matter of a
few hours, and it is like an advancing tide which covers one
strip of sand and then another, running hither and thither in
irregular streams, until at last it has submerged it all. There
are laws at work in connection with the action and distribution
of daturon which would have been of deep interest had the time
at our disposal permitted us to study them. So far as I can
trace them"--here he glanced over his telegrams--"the less
developed races have been the first to respond to its influence.
There are deplorable accounts from Africa, and the Australian
aborigines appear to have been already exterminated. The
Northern races have as yet shown greater resisting power than
the Southern. This, you see, is dated from Marseilles at
nine-forty-five this morning. I give it to you verbatim:--
"`All night delirious excitement throughout Provence. Tumult of
vine growers at Nimes. Socialistic upheaval at Toulon. Sudden
illness attended by coma attacked population this morning.
PESTE FOUDROYANTE. Great numbers of dead in the streets.
Paralysis of business and universal chaos.'
"An hour later came the following, from the same source:--
"`We are threatened with utter extermination. Cathedrals and
churches full to overflowing. The dead outnumber the living. It
is inconceivable and horrible. Decease seems to be painless, but
swift and inevitable.'
"There is a similar telegram from Paris, where the development
is not yet as acute. India and Persia appear to be utterly wiped
out. The Slavonic population of Austria is down, while the
Teutonic has hardly been affected. Speaking generally, the
dwellers upon the plains and upon the seashore seem, so far as
my limited information goes, to have felt the effects more
rapidly than those inland or on the heights. Even a little
elevation makes a considerable difference, and perhaps if there
be a survivor of the human race, he will again be found upon the
summit of some Ararat. Even our own little hill may presently
prove to be a temporary island amid a sea of disaster. But at
present rate of advance a few short hours will submerge us all."
Lord John Roxton wiped his brow.
"What beats me," said he, "is how you could sit there
with that stack of telegrams under your hand. I've seen death as
often as most folk, but universal death--it's awful!"
"As to the laughter," said Challenger, "you will bear
that, like yourselves, I have not been exempt from the
stimulating cerebral effects of the etheric poison. But as to
the horror with which universal death appears to inspire you, I
would put it to you that it is somewhat exaggerated. If you were
sent to sea alone in an open boat to some unknown destination,
your heart might well sink within you. The isolation, the
uncertainty, would oppress you. But if your voyage were made in
a goodly ship, which bore within it all your relations and your
friends, you would feel that, however uncertain your destination
might still remain, you would at least have one common and
simultaneous experience which would hold you to the end in the
same close communion. A lonely death may be terrible, but a
universal one, as painless as this would appear to be, is not,
in my judgment, a matter for apprehension. Indeed, I could
sympathize with the person who took the view that the horror lay
in the idea of surviving when all that is learned, famous, and
exalted had passed away."
"What, then, do you propose to do?" asked Summerlee, who had
once nodded his assent to the reasoning of his brother scientist.
"To take our lunch," said Challenger as the boom of a gong
sounded through the house. "We have a cook whose omelettes are
only excelled by her cutlets. We can but trust that no cosmic
disturbance has dulled her excellent abilities. My Scharzberger
of '96 must also be rescued, so far as our earnest and united
efforts can do it, from what would be a deplorable waste of a
great vintage." He levered his great bulk off the desk, upon
which he had sat while he announced the doom of the planet.
"Come," said he. "If there is little time left, there is
more need that we should spend it in sober and reasonable
And, indeed, it proved to be a very merry meal. It is true that
we could not forget our awful situation. The full solemnity of
the event loomed ever at the back of our minds and tempered our
thoughts. But surely it is the soul which has never faced death
which shies strongly from it at the end. To each of us men it
had, for one great epoch in our lives, been a familiar presence.
As to the lady, she leaned upon the strong guidance of her
mighty husband and was well content to go whither his path might
lead. The future was our fate. The present was our own. We
passed it in goodly comradeship and gentle merriment. Our minds
were, as I have said, singularly lucid. Even I struck sparks at
times. As to Challenger, he was wonderful! Never have I so
realized the elemental greatness of the man, the sweep and power
of his understanding. Summerlee drew him on with his chorus of
subacid criticism, while Lord John and I laughed at the contest
and the lady, her hand upon his sleeve, controlled the
bellowings of the philosopher. Life, death, fate, the destiny of
man--these were the stupendous subjects of that memorable hour,
made vital by the fact that as the meal progressed strange,
sudden exaltations in my mind and tinglings in my limbs
proclaimed that the invisible tide of death was slowly and
gently rising around us. Once I saw Lord John put his hand
suddenly to his eyes, and once Summerlee dropped back for an
instant in his chair. Each breath we breathed was charged with
strange forces. And yet our minds were happy and at ease.
Presently Austin laid the cigarettes upon the table and was
about to withdraw.
"Austin!" said his master.
"I thank you for your faithful service." A smile stole over
servant's gnarled face.
"I've done my duty, sir."
"I'm expecting the end of the world to-day, Austin."
"Yes, sir. What time, sir?"
"I can't say, Austin. Before evening."
"Very good, sir."
The taciturn Austin saluted and withdrew. Challenger lit a
cigarette, and, drawing his chair closer to his wife's, he
took her hand in his.
"You know how matters stand, dear," said he. "I have
it also to our friends here. You're not afraid are you?"
"It won't be painful, George?"
"No more than laughing-gas at the dentist's. Every time you have
had it you have practically died."
"But that is a pleasant sensation."
"So may death be. The worn-out bodily machine can't record its
impression, but we know the mental pleasure which lies in a
dream or a trance. Nature may build a beautiful door and hang it
with many a gauzy and shimmering curtain to make an entrance to
the new life for our wondering souls. In all my probings of the
actual, I have always found wisdom and kindness at the core; and
if ever the frightened mortal needs tenderness, it is surely as
he makes the passage perilous from life to life. No, Summerlee,
I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too
great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of
salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here--here"--and he beat
his great head with his huge, hairy fist--"there is something
which uses matter, but is not of it--something which might
destroy death, but which death can never destroy."
"Talkin' of death," said Lord John. "I'm a Christian
but it seems to me there was somethin' mighty natural in those
ancestors of ours who were buried with their axes and bows and
arrows and the like, same as if they were livin' on just the
same as they used to. I don't know," he added, looking round the
table in a shamefaced way, "that I wouldn't feel more homely
myself if I was put away with my old .450 Express and the
fowlin'-piece, the shorter one with the rubbered stock, and a
clip or two of cartridges--just a fool's fancy, of course, but
there it is. How does it strike you, Herr Professor?"
"Well," said Summerlee, "since you ask my opinion, it
as an indefensible throwback to the Stone Age or before it. I'm
of the twentieth century myself, and would wish to die like a
reasonable civilized man. I don't know that I am more afraid of
death than the rest of you, for I am an oldish man, and, come
what may, I can't have very much longer to live; but it is all
against my nature to sit waiting without a struggle like a sheep
for the butcher. Is it quite certain, Challenger, that there is
nothing we can do?"
"To save us--nothing," said Challenger. "To prolong our
few hours and thus to see the evolution of this mighty tragedy
before we are actually involved in it--that may prove to be
within my powers. I have taken certain steps----"
"Exactly. The oxygen."
"But what can oxygen effect in the face of a poisoning of the
ether? There is not a greater difference in quality between a
brick-bat and a gas than there is between oxygen and ether. They
are different planes of matter. They cannot impinge upon one
another. Come, Challenger, you could not defend such a
"My good Summerlee, this etheric poison is most certainly
influenced by material agents. We see it in the methods and
distribution of the outbreak. We should not A PRIORI have
expected it, but it is undoubtedly a fact. Hence I am strongly
of opinion that a gas like oxygen, which increases the vitality
and the resisting power of the body, would be extremely likely
to delay the action of what you have so happily named the
daturon. It may be that I am mistaken, but I have every
confidence in the correctness of my reasoning."
"Well," said Lord John, "if we've got to sit suckin'
tubes like so many babies with their bottles, I'm not takin'
"There will be no need for that," Challenger answered. "We
made arrangements--it is to my wife that you chiefly owe
it--that her boudoir shall be made as airtight as is
practicable. With matting and varnished paper."
"Good heavens, Challenger, you don't suppose you can keep out
ether with varnished paper?"
"Really, my worthy friend, you are a trifle perverse in missing
point. It is not to keep out the ether that we have gone to such
trouble. It is to keep in the oxygen. I trust that if we can
ensure an atmosphere hyper-oxygenated to a certain point, we may
be able to retain our senses. I had two tubes of the gas and you
have brought me three more. It is not much, but it is
"How long will they last?"
"I have not an idea. We will not turn them on until our symptoms
become unbearable. Then we shall dole the gas out as it is
urgently needed. It may give us some hours, possibly even some
days, on which we may look out upon a blasted world. Our own
fate is delayed to that extent, and we will have the very
singular experience, we five, of being, in all probability, the
absolute rear guard of the human race upon its march into the
unknown. Perhaps you will be kind enough now to give me a hand
with the cylinders. It seems to me that the atmosphere already
grows somewhat more oppressive."
The chamber which was destined to be the scene of our
unforgettable experience was a charmingly feminine sitting-room,
some fourteen or sixteen feet square. At the end of it, divided
by a curtain of red velvet, was a small apartment which formed
the Professor's dressing-room. This in turn opened into a large
bedroom. The curtain was still hanging, but the boudoir and
dressing-room could be taken as one chamber for the purposes of
our experiment. One door and the window frame had been plastered
round with varnished paper so as to be practically sealed. Above
the other door, which opened on to the landing, there hung a
fanlight which could be drawn by a cord when some ventilation
became absolutely necessary. A large shrub in a tub stood in
"How to get rid of our excessive carbon dioxide without unduly
wasting our oxygen is a delicate and vital question," said
Challenger, looking round him after the five iron tubes had been
laid side by side against the wall. "With longer time for
preparation I could have brought the whole concentrated force of
my intelligence to bear more fully upon the problem, but as it
is we must do what we can. The shrubs will be of some small
service. Two of the oxygen tubes are ready to be turned on at an
instant's notice, so that we cannot be taken unawares. At the
same time, it would be well not to go far from the room, as the
crisis may be a sudden and urgent one."
There was a broad, low window opening out upon a balcony. The
view beyond was the same as that which we had already admired
from the study. Looking out, I could see no sign of disorder
anywhere. There was a road curving down the side of the hill,
under my very eyes. A cab from the station, one of those
prehistoric survivals which are only to be found in our country
villages, was toiling slowly up the hill. Lower down was a nurse
girl wheeling a perambulator and leading a second child by the
hand. The blue reeks of smoke from the cottages gave the whole
widespread landscape an air of settled order and homely comfort.
Nowhere in the blue heaven or on the sunlit earth was there any
foreshadowing of a catastrophe. The harvesters were back in the
fields once more and the golfers, in pairs and fours, were still
streaming round the links. There was so strange a turmoil within
my own head, and such a jangling of my overstrung nerves, that
the indifference of those people was amazing.
"Those fellows don't seem to feel any ill effects," said I,
pointing down at the links.
"Have you played golf?" asked Lord John.
"No, I have not."
"Well, young fellah, when you do you'll learn that once fairly
out on a round, it would take the crack of doom to stop a true
golfer. Halloa! There's that telephone-bell again."
From time to time during and after lunch the high, insistent
ring had summoned the Professor. He gave us the news as it came
through to him in a few curt sentences. Such terrific items had
never been registered in the world's history before. The great
shadow was creeping up from the south like a rising tide of
death. Egypt had gone through its delirium and was now comatose.
Spain and Portugal, after a wild frenzy in which the Clericals
and the Anarchists had fought most desperately, were now fallen
silent. No cable messages were received any longer from South
America. In North America the southern states, after some
terrible racial rioting, had succumbed to the poison. North of
Maryland the effect was not yet marked, and in Canada it was
hardly perceptible. Belgium, Holland, and Denmark had each in
turn been affected. Despairing messages were flashing from every
quarter to the great centres of learning, to the chemists and
the doctors of world-wide repute, imploring their advice. The
astronomers too were deluged with inquiries. Nothing could be
done. The thing was universal and beyond our human knowledge or
control. It was death--painless but inevitable--death for young
and old, for weak and strong, for rich and poor, without hope or
possibility of escape. Such was the news which, in scattered,
distracted messages, the telephone had brought us. The great
cities already knew their fate and so far as we could gather
were preparing to meet it with dignity and resignation. Yet here
were our golfers and laborers like the lambs who gambol under
the shadow of the knife. It seemed amazing. And yet how could
they know? It had all come upon us in one giant stride. What
there in the morning paper to alarm them? And now it was but
three in the afternoon. Even as we looked some rumour seemed to
have spread, for we saw the reapers hurrying from the fields.
Some of the golfers were returning to the club-house. They were
running as if taking refuge from a shower. Their little caddies
trailed behind them. Others were continuing their game. The
nurse had turned and was pushing her perambulator hurriedly up
the hill again. I noticed that she had her hand to her brow.
cab had stopped and the tired horse, with his head sunk to his
knees, was resting. Above there was a perfect summer sky--one
huge vault of unbroken blue, save for a few fleecy white clouds
over the distant downs. If the human race must die to-day, it
at least upon a glorious death-bed. And yet all that gentle
loveliness of nature made this terrific and wholesale
destruction the more pitiable and awful. Surely it was too
goodly a residence that we should be so swiftly, so ruthlessly,
evicted from it!
But I have said that the telephone-bell had rung once more.
Suddenly I heard Challenger's tremendous voice from the hall.
"Malone!" he cried. "You are wanted."
I rushed down to the instrument. It was McArdle speaking from
"That you, Mr. Malone?" cried his familiar voice. "Mr.
there are terrible goings-on in London. For God's sake, see if
Professor Challenger can suggest anything that can be done."
"He can suggest nothing, sir," I answered. "He regards
crisis as universal and inevitable. We have some oxygen here,
but it can only defer our fate for a few hours."
"Oxygen!" cried the agonized voice. "There is no time
any. The office has been a perfect pandemonium ever since you
left in the morning. Now half of the staff are insensible. I am
weighed down with heaviness myself. From my window I can see the
people lying thick in Fleet Street. The traffic is all held up.
Judging by the last telegrams, the whole world----"
His voice had been sinking, and suddenly stopped. An instant
later I heard through the telephone a muffled thud, as if his
head had fallen forward on the desk.
"Mr. McArdle!" I cried. "Mr. McArdle!"
There was no answer. I knew as I replaced the receiver that I
should never hear his voice again.
At that instant, just as I took a step backwards from the
telephone, the thing was on us. It was as if we were bathers, up
to our shoulders in water, who suddenly are submerged by a
rolling wave. An invisible hand seemed to have quietly closed
round my throat and to be gently pressing the life from me. I
was conscious of immense oppression upon my chest, great
tightness within my head, a loud singing in my ears, and bright
flashes before my eyes. I staggered to the balustrades of the
stair. At the same moment, rushing and snorting like a wounded
buffalo, Challenger dashed past me, a terrible vision, with
red-purple face, engorged eyes, and bristling hair. His little
wife, insensible to all appearance, was slung over his great
shoulder, and he blundered and thundered up the stair,
scrambling and tripping, but carrying himself and her through
sheer will-force through that mephitic atmosphere to the haven
of temporary safety. At the sight of his effort I too rushed up
the steps, clambering, falling, clutching at the rail, until I
tumbled half senseless upon by face on the upper landing. Lord
John's fingers of steel were in the collar of my coat, and a
moment later I was stretched upon my back, unable to speak or
move, on the boudoir carpet. The woman lay beside me, and
Summerlee was bunched in a chair by the window, his head nearly
touching his knees. As in a dream I saw Challenger, like a
monstrous beetle, crawling slowly across the floor, and a moment
later I heard the gentle hissing of the escaping oxygen.
Challenger breathed two or three times with enormous gulps, his
lungs roaring as he drew in the vital gas.
"It works!" he cried exultantly. "My reasoning has been
justified!" He was up on his feet again, alert and strong. With
a tube in his hand he rushed over to his wife and held it to her
face. In a few seconds she moaned, stirred, and sat up. He
turned to me, and I felt the tide of life stealing warmly
through my arteries. My reason told me that it was but a little
respite, and yet, carelessly as we talk of its value, every hour
of existence now seemed an inestimable thing. Never have I known
such a thrill of sensuous joy as came with that freshet of life.
The weight fell away from my lungs, the band loosened from my
brow, a sweet feeling of peace and gentle, languid comfort stole
over me. I lay watching Summerlee revive under the same remedy,
and finally Lord John took his turn. He sprang to his feet and
gave me a hand to rise, while Challenger picked up his wife and
laid her on the settee.
"Oh, George, I am so sorry you brought me back," she said,
holding him by the hand. "The door of death is indeed, as you
said, hung with beautiful, shimmering curtains; for, once the
choking feeling had passed, it was all unspeakably soothing and
beautiful. Why have you dragged me back?"
"Because I wish that we make the passage together. We have been
together so many years. It would be sad to fall apart at the
For a moment in his tender voice I caught a glimpse of a new
Challenger, something very far from the bullying, ranting,
arrogant man who had alternately amazed and offended his
generation. Here in the shadow of death was the innermost
Challenger, the man who had won and held a woman's love.
Suddenly his mood changed and he was our strong captain once
"Alone of all mankind I saw and foretold this catastrophe,"
he with a ring of exultation and scientific triumph in his
voice. "As to you, my good Summerlee, I trust your last doubts
have been resolved as to the meaning of the blurring of the
lines in the spectrum and that you will no longer contend that
my letter in the Times was based upon a delusion."
For once our pugnacious colleague was deaf to a challenge. He
could but sit gasping and stretching his long, thin limbs, as if
to assure himself that he was still really upon this planet.
Challenger walked across to the oxygen tube, and the sound of
the loud hissing fell away till it was the most gentle
"We must husband our supply of the gas," said he. "The
atmosphere of the room is now strongly hyperoxygenated, and I
take it that none of us feel any distressing symptoms. We can
only determine by actual experiments what amount added to the
air will serve to neutralize the poison. Let us see how that
We sat in silent nervous tension for five minutes or more,
observing our own sensations. I had just begun to fancy that I
felt the constriction round my temples again when Mrs.
Challenger called out from the sofa that she was fainting. Her
husband turned on more gas.
"In pre-scientific days," said he, "they used to keep
mouse in every submarine, as its more delicate organization gave
signs of a vicious atmosphere before it was perceived by the
sailors. You, my dear, will be our white mouse. I have now
increased the supply and you are better."
"Yes, I am better."
"Possibly we have hit upon the correct mixture. When we have
ascertained exactly how little will serve we shall be able to
compute how long we shall be able to exist. Unfortunately, in
resuscitating ourselves we have already consumed a considerable
proportion of this first tube."
"Does it matter?" asked Lord John, who was standing with his
hands in his pockets close to the window. "If we have to go,
what is the use of holdin' on? You don't suppose there's any
chance for us?"
Challenger smiled and shook his head.
"Well, then, don't you think there is more dignity in takin' the
jump and not waitin' to he pushed in? If it must be so, I'm for
sayin' our prayers, turnin' off the gas, and openin' the window."
"Why not?" said the lady bravely. "Surely, George, Lord
right and it is better so."
"I most strongly object," cried Summerlee in a querulous voice.
"When we must die let us by all means die, but to deliberately
anticipate death seems to me to be a foolish and unjustifiable
"What does our young friend say to it?" asked Challenger.
"I think we should see it to the end."
"And I am strongly of the same opinion," said he.
"Then, George, if you say so, I think so too," cried the lady.
"Well, well, I'm only puttin' it as an argument," said Lord
John. "If you all want to see it through I am with you. It's
dooced interestin', and no mistake about that. I've had my share
of adventures in my life, and as many thrills as most folk, but
I'm endin' on my top note."
"Granting the continuity of life," said Challenger.
"A large assumption!" cried Summerlee. Challenger stared at
in silent reproof.
"Granting the continuity of life," said he, in his most didactic
manner, "none of us can predicate what opportunities of
observation one may have from what we may call the spirit plane
to the plane of matter. It surely must be evident to the most
obtuse person" (here he glared a Summerlee) "that it is while
are ourselves material that we are most fitted to watch and form
a judgment upon material phenomena. Therefore it is only by
keeping alive for these few extra hours that we can hope to
carry on with us to some future existence a clear conception of
the most stupendous event that the world, or the universe so far
as we know it, has ever encountered. To me it would seem a
deplorable thing that we should in any way curtail by so much as
a minute so wonderful an experience."
"I am strongly of the same opinion," cried Summerlee.
"Carried without a division," said Lord John. "By George,
poor devil of a chauffeur of yours down in the yard has made his
last journey. No use makin' a sally and bringin' him in?"
"It would be absolute madness," cried Summerlee.
"Well, I suppose it would," said Lord John. "It couldn't
and would scatter our gas all over the house, even if we ever got
back alive. My word, look at the little birds under the trees!"
We drew four chairs up to the long, low window, the lady still
resting with closed eyes upon the settee. I remember that the
monstrous and grotesque idea crossed my mind--the illusion may
have been heightened by the heavy stuffiness of the air which we
were breathing--that we were in four front seats of the stalls
at the last act of the drama of the world.
In the immediate foreground, beneath our very eyes, was the
small yard with the half-cleaned motor-car standing in it.
Austin, the chauffeur, had received his final notice at last, for
he was sprawling beside the wheel, with a great black bruise
upon his forehead where it had struck the step or mud-guard in
falling. He still held in his hand the nozzle of the hose with
which he had been washing down his machine. A couple of small
plane trees stood in the corner of the yard, and underneath them
lay several pathetic little balls of fluffy feathers, with tiny
feet uplifted. The sweep of death's scythe had included
everything, great and small, within its swath.
Over the wall of the yard we looked down upon the winding road,
which led to the station. A group of the reapers whom we had
seen running from the fields were lying all pell-mell, their
bodies crossing each other, at the bottom of it. Farther up, the
nurse-girl lay with her head and shoulders propped against the
slope of the grassy bank. She had taken the baby from the
perambulator, and it was a motionless bundle of wraps in her
arms. Close behind her a tiny patch upon the roadside showed
where the little boy was stretched. Still nearer to us was the
dead cab-horse, kneeling between the shafts. The old driver was
hanging over the splash-board like some grotesque scarecrow, his
arms dangling absurdly in front of him. Through the window we
could dimly discern that a young man was seated inside. The door
swinging open and his hand was grasping the handle, as if he had
attempted to leap forth at the last instant. In the middle
distance lay the golf links, dotted as they had been in the
morning with the dark figures of the golfers, lying motionless
upon the grass of the course or among the heather which skirted
it. On one particular green there were eight bodies stretched
where a foursome with its caddies had held to their game to the
last. No bird flew in the blue vault of heaven, no man or beast
moved upon the vast countryside which lay before us. The evening
sun shone its peaceful radiance across it, but there brooded
over it all the stillness and the silence of universal death--a
death in which we were so soon to join. At the present instant
that one frail sheet of glass, by holding in the extra oxygen
which counteracted the poisoned ether, shut us off from the fate
of all our kind. For a few short hours the knowledge and
foresight of one man could preserve our little oasis of life in
the vast desert of death and save us from participation in the
common catastrophe. Then the gas would run low, we too should
lie gasping upon that cherry-coloured boudoir carpet, and the
fate of the human race and of all earthly life would be
complete. For a long time, in a mood which was too solemn for
speech, we looked out at the tragic world.
"There is a house on fire," said Challenger at last, pointing
a column of smoke which rose above the trees. "There will, I
expect, be many such--possibly whole cities in flames--when we
consider how many folk may have dropped with lights in their
hands. The fact of combustion is in itself enough to show that
the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere is normal and that it
is the ether which is at fault. Ah, there you see another blaze
on the top of Crowborough Hill. It is the golf clubhouse, or I
am mistaken. There is the church clock chiming the hour. It
would interest our philosophers to know that man-made mechanisms
has survived the race who made it."
"By George!" cried Lord John, rising excitedly from his chair.
"What's that puff of smoke? It's a train."
We heard the roar of it, and presently it came flying into
sight, going at what seemed to me to be a prodigious speed.
Whence it had come, or how far, we had no means of knowing. Only
by some miracle of luck could it have gone any distance. But now
we were to see the terrific end of its career. A train of coal
trucks stood motionless upon the line. We held our breath as the
express roared along the same track. The crash was horrible.
Engine and carriages piled themselves into a hill of splintered
wood and twisted iron. Red spurts of flame flickered up from the
wreckage until it was all ablaze. For half an hour we sat with
hardly a word, stunned by the stupendous sight.
"Poor, poor people!" cried Mrs. Challenger at last, clinging
with a whimper to her husband's arm.
"My dear, the passengers on that train were no more animate than
the coals into which they crashed or the carbon which they have
now become," said Challenger, stroking her hand soothingly. "It
was a train of the living when it left Victoria, but it was
driven and freighted by the dead long before it reached its
"All over the world the same thing must be going on," said
a vision of strange happenings rose before me. "Think of the
ships at sea--how they will steam on and on, until the furnaces
die down or until they run full tilt upon some beach. The
sailing ships too--how they will back and fill with their cargoes
of dead sailors, while their timbers rot and their joints leak,
till one by one they sink below the surface. Perhaps a century
hence the Atlantic may still be dotted with the old drifting
"And the folk in the coal-mines," said Summerlee with a dismal
chuckle. "If ever geologists should by any chance live upon
earth again they will have some strange theories of the
existence of man in carboniferous strata."
"I don't profess to know about such things," remarked Lord
"but it seems to me the earth will be `To let, empty,' after
this. When once our human crowd is wiped off it, how will it
ever get on again?"
"The world was empty before," Challenger answered gravely.
"Under laws which in their inception are beyond and above us, it
became peopled. Why may the same process not happen again?"
"My dear Challenger, you can't mean that?"
"I am not in the habit, Professor Summerlee, of saying things
which I do not mean. The observation is trivial." Out went the
beard and down came the eyelids.
"Well, you lived an obstinate dogmatist, and you mean to die
one," said Summerlee sourly.
"And you, sir, have lived an unimaginative obstructionist and
never can hope now to emerge from it."
"Your worst critics will never accuse you of lacking
imagination," Summerlee retorted.
"Upon my word!" said Lord John. "It would be like you
used up our last gasp of oxygen in abusing each other. What can
it matter whether folk come back or not? It surely won't be in
our time." "In that remark, sir, you betray your own very
pronounced limitations," said Challenger severely. "The true
scientific mind is not to be tied down by its own conditions of
time and space. It builds itself an observatory erected upon the
border line of present, which separates the infinite past from
the infinite future. From this sure post it makes its sallies
even to the beginning and to the end of all things. As to death,
the scientific mind dies at its post working in normal and
methodic fashion to the end. It disregards so petty a thing as
its own physical dissolution as completely as it does all other
limitations upon the plane of matter. Am I right, Professor
Summerlee grumbled an ungracious assent.
"With certain reservations, I agree," said he.
"The ideal scientific mind," continued Challenger--"I
put it in
the third person rather than appear to be too
self-complacent--the ideal scientific mind should be capable of
thinking out a point of abstract knowledge in the interval
between its owner falling from a balloon and reaching the earth.
Men of this strong fibre are needed to form the conquerors of
nature and the bodyguard of truth."
"It strikes me nature's on top this time," said Lord John,
looking out of the window. "I've read some leadin' articles
about you gentlemen controllin' her, but she's gettin' a bit of
her own back."
"It is but a temporary setback," said Challenger with
conviction. "A few million years, what are they in the great
cycle of time? The vegetable world has, as you can see,
survived. Look at the leaves of that plane tree. The birds are
dead, but the plant flourishes. From this vegetable life in pond
and in marsh will come, in time, the tiny crawling microscopic
slugs which are the pioneers of that great army of life in which
for the instant we five have the extraordinary duty of serving as
rear guard. Once the lowest form of life has established itself,
the final advent of man is as certain as the growth of the oak
from the acorn. The old circle will swing round once more."
"But the poison?" I asked. "Will that not nip life in
"The poison may be a mere stratum or layer in the ether--a
mephitic Gulf Stream across that mighty ocean in which we float.
Or tolerance may be established and life accommodate itself to
a new condition. The mere fact that with a comparatively small
hyperoxygenation of our blood we can hold out against it is
surely a proof in itself that no very great change would be
needed to enable animal life to endure it."
The smoking house beyond the trees had burst into flames. We
could see the high tongues of fire shooting up into the air.
"It's pretty awful," muttered Lord John, more impressed than
had ever seen him.
"Well, after all, what does it matter?" I remarked. "The
is dead. Cremation is surely the best burial."
"It would shorten us up if this house went ablaze."
"I foresaw the danger," said Challenger, "and asked my
guard against it."
"Everything is quite safe, dear. But my head begins to throb
again. What a dreadful atmosphere!"
"We must change it," said Challenger. He bent over his cylinder
"It's nearly empty," said he. "It has lasted us some
three and a
half hours. It is now close on eight o'cloek. We shall get
the night comfortably. I should expect the end about nine
o'clock to-morrow morning. We shall see one sunrise, which shall
be all our own."
He turned on his second tube and opened for half a minute the
fanlight over the door. Then as the air became perceptibly
better, but our own symptoms more acute, he closed it once again.
"By the way," said he, "man does not live upon oxygen
It's dinner time and over. I assure you, gentlemen, that when I
invited you to my home and to what I had hoped would be an
interesting reunion, I had intended that my kitchen should
justify itself. However, we must do what we can. I am sure that
you will agree with me that it would be folly to consume our air
too rapidly by lighting an oil-stove. I have some small
of cold meats, bread, and pickles which, with a couple of
bottles of claret, may serve our turn. Thank you, my dear--now
as ever you are the queen of managers."
It was indeed wonderful how, with the self-respect and sense of
propriety of the British housekeeper, the lady had within a few
minutes adorned the central table with a snow-white cloth, laid
the napkins upon it, and set forth the simple meal with all the
elegance of civilization, including an electric torch lamp in
the centre. Wonderful also was it to find that our appetites
"It is the measure of our emotion," said Challenger with that
air of condescension with which he brought his scientific mind
to the explanation of humble facts. "We have gone through a
great crisis. That means molecular disturbance. That in turn
means the need for repair. Great sorrow or great joy should
bring intense hunger--not abstinence from food, as our novelists
will have it."
"That's why the country folk have great feasts at funerals,"
"Exactly. Our young friend has hit upon an excellent
illustration. Let me give you another slice of tongue."
"The same with savages," said Lord John, cutting away at the
beef. "I've seen them buryin' a chief up the Aruwimi River, and
they ate a hippo that must have weighed as much as a tribe.
There are some of them down New Guinea way that eat the
late-lamented himself, just by way of a last tidy up. Well, of
all the funeral feasts on this earth, I suppose the one we are
takin' is the queerest."
"The strange thing is," said Mrs. Challenger, "that I
impossible to feel grief for those who are gone. There are my
father and mother at Bedford. I know that they are dead, and yet
in this tremendous universal tragedy I can feel no sharp sorrow
for any individuals, even for them."
"And my old mother in her cottage in Ireland," said I. "I
see her in my mind's eye, with her shawl and her lace cap, lying
back with closed eyes in the old high-backed chair near the
window, her glasses and her book beside her. Why should I mourn.
her? She has passed and I am passing, and I may be nearer her in
some other life than England is to Ireland. Yet I grieve to
think that that dear body is no more."
"As to the body," remarked Challenger, "we do not mourn
parings of our nails nor the cut locks of our hair, though they
were once part of ourselves. Neither does a one-legged man yearn
sentimentally over his missing member. The physical body has
rather been a source of pain and fatigue to us. It is the
constant index of our limitations. Why then should we worry
about its detachment from our psychical selves?"
"If they can indeed be detached," Summerlee grumbled. "But,
anyhow, universal death is dreadful."
"As I have already explained," said Challenger, "a universal
death must in its nature be far less terrible than a isolated
"Same in a battle," remarked Lord John. "If you saw a
lying on that floor with his chest knocked in and a hole in his
face it would turn you sick. But I've seen ten thousand on their
backs in the Soudan, and it gave me no such feelin', for when you
are makin' history the life of any man is too small a thing to
worry over. When a thousand million pass over together, same as
happened to-day, you can't pick your own partic'lar out of the
"I wish it were well over with us," said the lady wistfully.
"Oh, George, I am so frightened."
"You'll be the bravest of us all, little lady, when the time
comes. I've been a blusterous old husband to you, dear, but
you'll just bear in mind that G. E. C. is as he was made and
couldn't help himself. After all, you wouldn't have had anyone
"No one in the whole wide world, dear," said she, and put
arms round his bull neck. We three walked to the window and
stood amazed at the sight which met our eyes.
Darkness had fallen and the dead world was shrouded in gloom.
But right across the southern horizon was one long vivid scarlet
streak, waxing and waning in vivid pulses of life, leaping
suddenly to a crimson zenith and then dying down to a glowing
line of fire.
"Lewes is ablaze!"
"No, it is Brighton which is burning," said Challenger, stepping
across to join us. "You can see the curved back of the downs
against the glow. That fire is miles on the farther side of it.
The whole town must be alight."
There were several red glares at different points, and the pile
of DEBRIS upon the railway line was still smoldering darkly,
but they all seemed mere pin-points of light compared to that
monstrous conflagration throbbing beyond the hills. What copy it
would have made for the Gazette! Had ever a journalist such an
opening and so little chance of using it--the scoop of scoops,
and no one to appreciate it? And then, suddenly, the old
instinct of recording came over me. If these men of science
could be so true to their life's work to the very end, why
should not I, in my humble way, be as constant? No human eye
might ever rest upon what I had done. But the long night had to
be passed somehow, and for me at least, sleep seemed to be out
of the question. My notes would help to pass the weary hours and
to occupy my thoughts. Thus it is that now I have before me the
notebook with its scribbled pages, written confusedly upon my
knee in the dim, waning light of our one electric torch. Had I
the literary touch, they might have been worthy of the occasion,
As it is, they may still serve to bring to other minds the
long-drawn emotions and tremors of that awful night.
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 who started only some twelve hours ago
from my rooms in Streatham without one thought of the marvels
which the day was to bring forth! I look back at the chain of
incidents, my interview with McArdle, Challenger's first note of
alarm 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 an empty planet, and so sure is
our fate that I can regard these lines, written from mechanical
professional habit and never to be seen by human eyes, as the
words of one who is already dead, so closely does he stand to
the shadowed borderland over which all outside this one little
circle of friends have already gone. I feel how wise and true
were the words of Challenger when he said that the real tragedy
would be if we were left behind when all that is noble and good
and beautiful had passed. But of that there can surely be no
danger. Already our second tube of oxygen is drawing to an end.
We can count the poor dregs of our lives almost to a minute.
We have just been treated to a lecture, a good quarter of an
hour long, from Challenger, who was so excited that he roared
and bellowed as if he were addressing his old rows of scientific
sceptics in the Queen's Hall. He had certainly a strange
audience to harangue: his wife perfectly acquiescent and
absolutely ignorant of his meaning, Summerlee seated in the
shadow, querulous and critical but interested, Lord John
lounging in a corner somewhat bored by the whole proceeding, and
myself beside the window watching the scene with a kind of
detached attention, as if it were all a dream or something in
which I had no personal interest whatever. Challenger sat at the
centre table with the electric light illuminating the slide
under the microscope which he had brought from his dressing
room. The small vivid circle of white light from the mirror left
half of his rugged, bearded face in brilliant radiance and half
in deepest shadow. He had, it seems, been working of late upon
the lowest forms of life, and what excited him at the present
moment was that in the microscopic slide made up the day before
he found the amoeba to he still alive.
"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 the centre are diatoms
and may be disregarded since they are probably vegetable rather
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
creature which looked as if it were made of ground glass flowing
in a sticky way across the lighted circle. Lord John was
prepared to take him on trust.
"I'm not troublin' my head whether he's alive or dead," said
"We don't so much as know each other by sight, so why should I
take it to heart? I don't suppose he's worryin' himself over the
state of OUR health."
I laughed at this, and Challenger looked in my direction with
his coldest and most supercilious stare. It was a most
"The flippancy of the half-educated is more obstructive to
science than the obtuseness of the ignorant," said he. "If Lord
John Roxton would condescend----"
"My dear George, don't be so peppery," said his wife, with
hand on the black mane that drooped over the microscope. "What
can it matter whether the amoeba 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. "We may 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't see why you should attach such importance to the
creature being alive. It is in the same atmosphere as ourselves,
so naturally the poison does not act upon it. If it were outside
of this room it would be dead, like all other animal life."
"Your remarks, my good Summerlee," said Challenger with enormous
condescension (oh, if I could paint that over-bearing, arrogant
face in the vivid circle of reflection from the microscope
mirror!)--"your remarks show that you imperfectly appreciate
the situation. This specimen was mounted yesterday and is
hermetically sealed. None of our oxygen can reach it. But the
ether, of course, has penetrated to it, as to every other point
upon the universe. Therefore, it has survived the poison.
we may argue that every amoeba outside this room, instead of
being dead, as you have erroneously stated, has really survived
"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. If you had the scientific imagination, you would cast
your mind forward from this one fact, and you would see some few
millions of years hence--a mere passing moment in the enormous
flux of the ages--the whole world teeming once more with the
animal and human life which will spring from this tiny root. You
have seen a prairie fire where the flames have swept every trace
of grass or plant from the surface of the earth and left only a
blackened waste. You would think that it must be forever desert.
Yet the roots of growth have been left behind, and when you pass
the place a few years hence you can no longer tell where the
black scars used to be. Here in this tiny creature are the roots
of growth of the animal world, and by its inherent development,
and evolution, it will surely in time remove every trace of this
incomparable crisis in which we are now involved."
"Dooced interestin'!" said Lord John, lounging across and
looking through the microscope. "Funny little chap to hang
number one among the family portraits. Got a fine big shirt-stud
"The dark object is his nucleus," said Challenger with the
of a nurse teaching letters to a baby.
"Well, we needn't feel lonely," said Lord John laughing.
"There's somebody livin' besides us on the earth."
"You seem to take it for granted, Challenger," said Summerlee,
"that the object for which this world was created was that it
should produce and sustain human life."
"Well, sir, and what object do you suggest?" asked Challenger,
bristling at the least hint of contradiction.
"Sometimes I think that it is only the monstrous conceit of
mankind which makes 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 ventured to call monstrous conceit we can surely say that
we are the highest thing in nature."
"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 swung empty through space--or, if not empty, at least
without a sign or thought of the human race. Think of it, washed
by the rain and scorched by the sun and swept by the wind for
those unnumbered ages. Man only came into being yesterday so far
as geological times goes. Why, then, should it be taken for
granted that all this stupendous preparation was for his
"For whose then--or for what?"
Summerlee shrugged his shoulders.
"How can we tell? For some reason altogether beyond our
conception--and man may have been a mere accident, a by-product
evolved in the process. It is as if the scum upon the surface of
the ocean imagined that the ocean was created in order to
produce and sustain it or a mouse in a cathedral thought that
the building was its own proper ordained residence."
I have jotted down the very words of their argument, but now it
degenerates into a mere noisy wrangle with much polysyllabic
scientific jargon upon each side. It is no doubt a privilege to
hear two such brains discuss the highest questions; but as they
are in perpetual disagreement, plain folk like Lord John and I
get little that is positive from the exhibition. They neutralize
each other and we are left as they found us. Now the hubbub has
ceased, and Summerlee is coiled up in his chair, while
Challenger, still fingering the screws of his microscope, is
keeping up a continual low, deep, inarticulate growl like the
sea after a storm. Lord John comes over to me, and we look out
together into the night.
There is a pale new moon--the last moon that human eyes will
ever rest upon--and the stars are most brilliant. Even in the
clear plateau air of South America I have never seen them
brighter. Possibly this etheric change has some effect upon
light. The funeral pyre of Brighton is still blazing, and there
is a very distant patch of scarlet in the western sky, which may
mean trouble at Arundel or Chichester, possibly even at
Portsmouth. I sit and muse and make an occasional note. There
a sweet melancholy in the air. Youth and beauty and chivalry and
love--is this to be the end of it all? The starlit earth looks
a dreamland of gentle peace. Who would imagine it as the
terrible Golgotha strewn with the bodies of the human race?
Suddenly, I find myself laughing.
"Halloa, young fellah!" says Lord John, staring at me in
surprise. "We could do with a joke in these hard times. What
"I was thinking of all the great unsolved questions," I answer,
"the questions that we spent so much labor and thought over.
Think of Anglo-German competition, for example--or the Persian
Gulf that my old chief was so keen about. Whoever would have
guessed, when we fumed and fretted so, how they were to be
We fall into silence again. I fancy that each of us is thinking
of friends that have gone before. Mrs. Challenger is sobbing
quietly, and her husband is whispering to her. My mind turns to
all the most unlikely people, and I see each of them lying white
and rigid as poor Austin does in the yard. There is McArdle, for
example, I know exactly where he is, with his face upon his
writing 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 Turkey carpet which adorned his sanctum. And
the fellows in the reporters' room--Macdona and Murray and Bond.
They had certainly died hard at work on their job, with
full of vivid impressions and strange happenings in their
hands. I could just imagine how this one would have been packed
off to the 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 vision beautiful, never destined to
materialize in printer's ink! I could see Macdona among the
doctors--"Hope in Harley Street"--Mac had always a weakness for
alliteration. "Interview with Mr. Soley Wilson." "Famous
Specialist says `Never despair!'" "Our Special Correspondent
found the eminent scientist seated upon the roof, whither he had
retreated to avoid the crowd of terrified patients who had
stormed his dwelling. With a manner which plainly showed his
appreciation of the immense gravity of the occasion, the
celebrated physician refused to admit that every avenue of hope
had been closed." That's how Mac would start. Then there was
Bond; he would probably do St. Paul's. He fancied his own
literary touch. My word, what a theme for him! "Standing in the
little gallery under the dome and looking down upon that packed
mass of despairing humanity, groveling at this last instant
before a Power which they had so persistently ignored, there
rose to my ears from the swaying crowd such a low moan 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 die with 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 says that she is asleep. He is making notes
and consulting books at the central table, as calmly as if years
of placid work lay before him. He writes with a very noisy quill
pen which seems to be screeching scorn at all who disagree with
Summerlee has dropped off in his chair and gives from time to
time a peculiarly exasperating snore. Lord John lies back with
his hands in his pockets and his eyes closed. How people can
sleep under such conditions is more than I can imagine.
Three-thirty a.m. I have just wakened with a start. It was five
minutes past eleven when I made my last entry. I remember
winding up my watch and noting the time. So I have wasted some
five hours of the little span still left to us. Who would have
believed it possible? But I feel very much fresher, and ready
for my fate--or try to persuade myself that I am. And yet, the
fitter a man 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 earthly anchor is usually
loosened by many little imperceptible tugs, until his
consciousness has drifted out of its untenable earthly harbor
into the great sea beyond!
Mrs. Challenger is still in the dressing room. Challenger has
fallen asleep in his chair. What a picture! His enormous frame
leans back, his huge, hairy hands are clasped across his
waistcoat, and his head is so tilted that I can see nothing
above his collar save a tangled bristle of luxuriant beard. He
shakes with the vibration of his own snoring. Summerlee adds his
occasional high tenor to Challenger's sonorous bass. Lord John
is sleeping also, his long body doubled up sideways in a
basket-chair. The first cold light of dawn is just stealing into
the room, and everything is grey and mournful.
I look out at the sunrise--that fateful sunrise which will shine
upon an unpeopled world. The human race is gone, extinguished in
a day, but the planets swing round and the tides rise or fall,
and the wind whispers, and all nature goes her way, down, as it
would seem, to the very amoeba, with never a sign that he who
styled himself the lord of creation had ever blessed or cursed
the universe with his presence. Down in the yard lies Austin
with sprawling limbs, his face glimmering white in the dawn, and
the hose nozzle still projecting from his dead hand. The whole
of human kind is typified in that one half-ludicrous and
half-pathetic figure, lying so helpless beside the machine which
it used to control.
Here end the notes which I made at the time. Henceforward events
were too swift and too poignant to allow me to write, but they
are too clearly outlined in my memory that any detail could
Some chokiness in my throat made me look at the oxygen
cylinders, and I was startled at what I saw. The sands of our
lives were running very low. At some period in the night
Challenger had switched the tube from the third to the fourth
cylinder. Now it was clear that this also was nearly exhausted.
That horrible 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 my conscience pricked me, for I felt
that perhaps if I had held my hand all of them might have passed
in their sleep. The thought was banished, however, by the 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 their feet. "I have just turned on a fresh supply."
Even at such a moment I could not help smiling at Challenger,
who with a great hairy fist in each eye was like a huge, bearded
baby, new wakened out of sleep. Summerlee was shivering like a
man with the ague, human fears, as he realized his position,
rising for an instant above the stoicism of the man of science.
Lord John, however, was as cool and alert as if he had just been
roused on a hunting morning.
"Fifthly and lastly," said he, glancing at the tube. "Say,
fellah, don't tell 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 expect you'll have to wait till little brother amoeba
gets grown up before you'll find 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 over the landscape. Here and there the wooded hills
rose like conical islands out of this woolly sea.
"It might be a winding sheet," said Mrs. Challenger, who had
entered in her dressing-gown. "There's that song of yours,
George, `Ring out the old, ring in the new.' It was prophetic.
But you are shivering, my poor dear friends. I have been warm
under a coverlet all night, and you cold in your chairs. But
I'll soon set you right."
The brave little creature hurried away, and presently we heard
the sizzling of a 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 had cigarettes. It steadied our nerves, I think, but it was
a mistake, for it made a dreadful atmosphere in that stuffy
room. Challenger had to open the ventilator.
"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
it, the easier it seems. Don't you think we ought to pray,
"You will pray, dear, if you wish," the big man answered,
gently. "We all have our own ways of praying. Mine is a
acquiescence in whatever fate may send me--a cheerful
acquiescence. The highest religion and the highest science seem
to unite on that."
"I cannot truthfully describe my mental attitude as acquiescence
and far less cheerful acquiescence," grumbled Summerlee over his
pipe. "I submit because I have to. I confess that I should have
liked another year of life to finish my classification of the
"Your unfinished work is a small thing," said Challenger
pompously, "when weighed against the fact that my own MAGNUM
OPUS, `The Ladder of Life,' is still in the first stages. My
brain, my reading, my experience--in fact, my whole unique
equipment--were to be condensed into that epoch-making volume.
And yet, as I say, I acquiesce."
"I expect we've all left some loose ends stickin' out," said
Lord John. "What are 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 always compensation somewhere if you grope around."
"What about you?" I asked.
"Well, it just so happens that I was tidied up and ready. I'd
promised Merivale to go to Tibet for a snow leopard in the
spring. But it's hard on you, 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 one last walk together in the fresh morning air upon
those beautiful downs!"
Our hearts re-echoed her words. The sun had burst through the
gauzy mists which veiled it, and the whole broad Weald was
washed in golden light. Sitting in our dark and poisonous
atmosphere that glorious, clean, wind-swept countryside seemed
a very dream of beauty. Mrs. Challenger held her hand stretched
out to it in her longing. We drew up chairs and sat in a
semicircle in the window. The atmosphere was already very close.
It seemed to me that the shadows of death were drawing in upon
us--the last of our race. It was like an invisible curtain
closing down upon every side.
"That cylinder is not lastin' too well," said Lord John with
long gasp for breath.
"The amount contained is variable," said Challenger, "depending
upon the pressure and care with which it has been bottled. I am
inclined to agree with you, Roxton, that this one is defective."
"So we are to be cheated out of the last hour of our lives,"
Summerlee remarked bitterly. "An excellent final illustration of
the sordid age in which we have lived. Well, Challenger, now is
your time if you wish to study the subjective phenomena of
"Sit on the stool at my knee and give me your hand," said
Challenger to his wife. "I think, my friends, that a further
delay in this insufferable atmosphere 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,"
Lord John. "When the rest are in, you see one or two shiverin'
on the bank, envyin' the others 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 to Challenger.
"We've had our quarrels in our time, but that's all over,"
he. "We were good friends and had a respect for each other under
the surface. Good-by!"
"Good-by, young fellah!" said Lord John. "The window's
up. You can't open it."
Challenger stooped and raised his wife, pressing her to his
breast, while she threw 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!" he shouted in his voice of thunder, and at the words he
hurled the field-glass through the window.
Full in our flushed faces, before the last tinkle of falling
fragments had died away, there came the wholesome breath of the
wind, blowing strong and sweet.
I don't know how long we sat in amazed silence. Then as in a
dream, I heard Challenger's voice once more.
"We are back in normal conditions," he cried. "The world
cleared the poison belt, but we alone of all mankind are saved."
THE DEAD WORLD
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 cooling our flushed faces. I wonder how long
we sat! None of us afterwards could agree at all on that point.
We were bewildered, stunned, semi-conscious. We had all braced
our courage for death, but this fearful and sudden new
fact--that we must continue to live after we had survived the
race to which we belonged--struck us with the shock of a
physical blow and left us prostrate. Then gradually the
suspended mechanism began to move once more; the shuttles of
memory worked; ideas weaved themselves together in our minds. We
saw, with vivid, merciless clearness, the relations between the
past, the present, and the future--the lives that we had led and
the lives which we would have to live. Our eyes turned in silent
horror upon those of our companions and found the same answering
look in theirs. Instead of the joy which men might have been
expected to feel who had so narrowly escaped an imminent death,
a terrible wave of darkest depression submerged us. Everything
on earth that we loved had been washed away into the great,
infinite, unknown ocean, and here were we marooned upon this
desert island of a world, without companions, hopes, or
aspirations. A few years' skulking like jackals among the graves
of the human race and then our belated and lonely end would come.
"It's dreadful, George, dreadful!" the lady cried in an agony
sobs. "If we had only passed with the others! Oh, why did you
us? I feel as if it is we that are dead and everyone else
Challenger's great eyebrows were drawn down in concentrated
thought, while his huge, hairy paw closed upon the outstretched
hand of his wife. I had observed that she always held out her
arms to him in trouble as a child would to its mother.
"Without being a fatalist to the point of nonresistance,"
he, "I have always 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 whether you don't," remarked Lord John. "You've got to take
it, whether you take it fightin' or take it lyin' down, so
what's the odds whether you acquiesce or not?
I can't remember that anyone asked our permission before the
thing began, and nobody's likely to ask it now. So what
difference can it make what we may think of it?"
"It is just all the difference between happiness and misery,"
said Challenger with an abstracted face, still patting his
wife's hand. "You can swim with the tide and have peace in mind
and soul, or you can thrust against it and be bruised and weary.
This business is beyond us, so let us accept it as it stands and
say no more."
"But what in the world are we to do with our lives?" I asked,
appealing in desperation to the blue, empty heaven.
"What am I to do, for example? There are no newspapers, so
there's an end of my vocation."
"And there's nothin' left to shoot, and no more soldierin', so
there's an end of mine," said Lord John.
"And there are no students, so there's an end of mine," cried
"But I have my husband and my house, so I can thank heaven that
there is no end of mine," said the lady.
"Nor is there an end of mine," remarked Challenger, "for
is not dead, and this catastrophe in itself will offer us many
most absorbing problems for investigation."
He had now flung open the windows and we were gazing out upon
the silent and motionless landscape.
"Let me consider," he continued. "It was about three,
little after, yesterday afternoon that the world finally entered
the poison belt to the extent 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
o'clock I distinctly 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
seventeen hours the world has been soaked in the poisonous
ether. For that length of time the Great Gardener has sterilized
the human mold which had grown over the surface of His fruit. Is
it possible that the work is incompletely done--that others may
have survived besides ourselves?"
"That's what I was wonderin'" said Lord John. "Why should
the only pebbles on the beach?"
"It is absurd to suppose that anyone besides ourselves can
possibly have survived," said Summerlee with conviction.
"Consider that the poison was so virulent that even a man who is
as strong as an ox and has not a nerve in his body, like Malone
here, could hardly get up the stairs before he fell unconscious.
Is it likely that anyone could stand seventeen minutes of it,
far less hours?"
"Unless someone saw it coming and made preparation, same as old
friend Challenger did."
"That, I think, is hardly probable," said Challenger, projecting
his beard and sinking his eyelids. "The combination of
observation, inference, and anticipatory imagination which
enabled me to foresee the danger is what one can 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 the poison worked from below upwards and would
possibly be less virulent in the higher 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 a fascinating field for study. One could imagine,
therefore, that if one had to search for survivors one would
turn one's eyes with best hopes of success to some Tibetan
village or some Alpine farm, many thousands of feet above the
"Well, considerin' that there are no railroads and no steamers
you might as well 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 and fine," said he in a very dubious voice; "but so
it did yesterday. I am by no means assured that it is all over."
Challenger shrugged his shoulders.
"We must come back once more to our fatalism," said he. "If
world has undergone this experience before, which is not outside
the range of possibility; it was certainly a very long time ago.
Therefore, we may reasonably hope that it will be very long
before it occurs again. "
"That's all very well," said Lord John, "but if you get
earthquake shock you are mighty likely to have a second one
right on the top of it. I think we'd be wise to stretch our legs
and have a breath of air while we have the chance. Since our
oxygen is exhausted we may just as well be caught outside as in."
It was strange the absolute lethargy which had come upon us as
a reaction after our tremendous emotions of the last twenty-four
hours. It was both mental and physical, a deep-lying feeling
nothing mattered and that everything was a weariness and a
profitless exertion. Even Challenger had succumbed to it, and
sat in his chair, with his great head leaning upon his hands and
his thoughts far away, until Lord John and I, catching him by
each arm, fairly lifted him on to his feet, receiving only the
glare and growl of an angry mastiff for our trouble. However,
once we had got out of our narrow haven of refuge into the wider
atmosphere of everyday life, our normal energy came gradually
back to us once more.
But what were we to begin to do in that graveyard of a world?
Could ever men have been faced with such a question since the
dawn of time? It is true that our 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 art were
ours for the taking. But what were we to DO? Some few tasks
appealed to us at once, since they lay ready to our hands. We
descended into the kitchen and laid the two domestics upon their
respective beds. They seemed to have died without suffering, one
in the chair by the fire, the other upon the scullery floor.
we carried in poor Austin from the yard. His muscles were set as
hard as a board in the most exaggerated rigor mortis, while the
contraction of the fibres had drawn his mouth into a hard
sardonic grin. This symptom was prevalent among all who had died
from the poison. Wherever we went we were confronted by those
grinning faces, which seemed to mock at our dreadful position,
smiling silently and grimly at the ill-fated survivors of their
"Look here," said Lord John, who had paced restlessly about
dining-room whilst 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
suggest what you 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 that this place can teach us."
"Where should we go, then?"
"That's all very well," grumbled Summerlee. "You may
be equal to
a forty-mile walk, but I'm not so sure about Challenger, with
his stumpy legs, and I am perfectly sure about myself."
Challenger was very much annoyed.
"If you could see your way, sir, to confining your remarks to
your own physical peculiarities, you would find that you had an
ample field for comment," he cried.
"I had no intention to offend you, my dear Challenger," cried
our tactless friend, "You can't be held responsible for your own
physique. If nature has given you a short, heavy body you cannot
possibly help having stumpy legs."
Challenger was too furious to answer. He could only growl and
blink and bristle. Lord John hastened to intervene before the
dispute became more violent.
"You talk of walking. Why should we walk?" said he.
"Do you suggest taking a train?" asked Challenger, still
"What's the matter with the motor-car? Why should we not go in
"I am not an expert," said Challenger, pulling at his beard
reflectively. "At the same time, you are right in supposing that
the human intellect in its higher manifestations should be
sufficiently flexible to turn itself to anything. Your idea is
excellent one, Lord John. I myself will drive you all to
"You will do nothing of the kind," said Summerlee with decision.
"No, indeed, George!" cried his wife. "You only tried
you remember how you crashed through the gate of the garage."
"It was a momentary want of concentration," said Challenger
complacently. "You can 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!"
added. "I never thought I'd live to take the whole human race in
one load. There's just room for five, as I remember it. Get
things on, and I'll be ready at the door by ten o'clock."
Sure enough, at the hour named, the car came purring and
crackling from the yard with Lord John at the wheel. I took my
seat beside him, while the lady, a useful little buffer state,
squeezed in between the two men of wrath at the back. Then Lord
John released his brakes, slid his lever rapidly from first to
third, and we sped off upon the strangest drive that ever human
beings have taken since man first came upon the earth.
You are to picture the loveliness of nature upon that August
day, the freshness of the morning air, the golden glare of the
summer sunshine, the cloudless sky, the luxuriant green of the
Sussex woods, and the deep purple of heather-clad downs. As you
looked round upon the many-coloured beauty of the scene all
thought of a vast catastrophe would have passed from your mind
had it not been for one sinister sign--the solemn, all-embracing
silence. There is a gentle hum of life which pervades a
closely-settled country, so deep and constant that one ceases to
observe it, as the dweller by the sea loses all sense of the
murmur of the waves. The twitter of birds, the buzz of insects,
the far-off echo of voices, the lowing of cattle, the distant
barking of dogs, roar of trains, and rattle of carts--all these
form one low, unremitting note, striking unheeded upon the ear.
We missed it now. This deadly silence was appalling. So solemn
was it, so impressive, that the buzz and rattle of our motor-car
seemed an unwarrantable intrusion, an indecent disregard of this
reverent stillness which lay like a pall over and round the
ruins of humanity. It was this grim hush, and the tall clouds of
smoke which rose here and there over the country-side from
smoldering buildings, which cast a chill into our hearts as we
gazed round at the glorious panorama of the Weald.
And then there were the dead! At first those endless groups of
drawn and grinning faces filled us with a shuddering horror. So
vivid and mordant was the impression that I can live over again
that slow descent of the station hill, the passing by the
nurse-girl with the two babes, the sight of the old horse on his
knees between the shafts, the cabman twisted across his seat,
and the young man inside with his hand upon the open door in the
very act of springing out. Lower down were six reapers all in a
litter, their limbs crossing, 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 of nature, the
over-excited nerve ceased to respond. The very vastness of the
horror took away from its personal appeal. Individuals merged
into groups, groups into crowds, crowds into a universal
phenomenon which one soon accepted as the inevitable detail of
every scene. Only here and there, where some particularly brutal
or grotesque incident caught the attention, did the mind come
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 us with the strongest sense of intolerable injustice. We
could have wept--Mrs. Challenger did weep--when we passed a
great council school and saw the long trail of tiny figures
scattered down the road which led from it. They had been
dismissed by their terrified teachers and were speeding for
their homes when the poison caught them in its net. Great
numbers of people were at the open windows of the houses. In
Tunbridge Wells there was hardly one which had not its staring,
smiling face. At the last instant the need of air, that very
craving for oxygen which we alone had been able to satisfy, had
sent them flying 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 had fallen in the roadway. It was a
lucky thing that in Lord John we had found an expert driver, for
it was no easy matter to pick one's way. Passing through the
villages or towns we could only go at a walking pace, and once,
I remember, opposite the school at Tonbridge, we had to halt some
time while we carried aside the bodies which blocked our path.
A few small, definite pictures stand out in my memory from amid
that long panorama of death upon the Sussex and Kentish high
roads. One was that of a great, glittering motor-car standing
outside the inn at the village of Southborough. It bore, as I
should guess, some pleasure party upon their return 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. With them were a rakish-looking elderly
man and a young aristocrat, his eyeglass still in his eye, his
cigarette burned down to the stub between the fingers of his
begloved hand. Death must have come on them in an instant and
fixed them as they sat. Save that the elderly man had at the
last moment torn out his collar in an effort to breathe, they
might all have been asleep. On one side of the car a waiter with
some broken glasses beside a tray was huddled near the step. On
the other, two very ragged tramps, a man and a woman, lay where
they had fallen, the man with his long, thin arm still
outstretched, even as he 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 dissolving protoplasm.
I remember another singular picture, some miles on the London
side of Sevenoaks. There is a large convent upon the left, with
a long, green slope in front 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 up the
slope, facing towards them, a single figure whom we took to be
the Mother Superior. Unlike the pleasure-seekers in the
these people seemed to have had warning of their danger and
to have died beautifully together, the teachers and the taught,
assembled for their last common lesson.
My mind is still stunned by that terrific experience, and I
grope vainly for means 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 our companions
behind us save an occasional whimper from the lady. As to Lord
John, he was too intent upon his wheel and the difficult task of
threading his way along such roads to have time or inclination
for conversation. One phrase he used with such wearisome
iteration that it stuck in my memory and at last almost 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 and disaster displayed itself before us. "Pretty doin's!
What!" he cried, as we descended 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 Street
of Lewisham and the Old Kent Road.
It was here that we received a sudden and amazing shock. Out of
the window of a humble corner house there appeared a fluttering
handkerchief waving at the end of a long, thin human arm. Never
had the sight of unexpected death caused our hearts to stop and
then throb so wildly as did this amazing indication of life.
Lord John ran the motor to the curb, and in an instant we had
rushed through the open door of the house and up the staircase
to the second-floor front room from which the signal proceeded.
A very old lady sat in a chair by the open window, and close to
her, laid across a second chair, was a cylinder of oxygen,
smaller but of the same shape as 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
am an invalid and cannot stir."
"Well, madam," Challenger answered, "it is a lucky chance
we happened to pass."
"I have one all-important question to ask you," said she.
"Gentlemen, I beg that you will be frank with me. What effect
these events have upon London and North-Western Railway shares?"
We should have laughed had it not been for the tragic eagerness
with which she listened for our answer. Mrs. Burston, for that
was her name, was an aged widow, whose whole income depended
upon a small holding of this stock. Her life had been regulated
by the rise and fall of the dividend, and she could form no
conception of existence save as it was affected by the quotation
of her shares. In vain we pointed out to her that all the money
in the world was hers for the taking and was useless when taken.
Her old mind would not adapt itself to the new idea, and she
wept loudly over her vanished stock. "It was all 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 where the whole great forest had fallen. She was a
confirmed invalid and an asthmatic. Oxygen had been prescribed
for her malady, and a tube was in her room at the moment of the
crisis. She had naturally inhaled some as had been her habit
when there was a difficulty with her breathing. It had given her
relief, 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 all necessaries of life and promised
to communicate with her in a couple of days at 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 the obstacles more bewildering. It was with
difficulty that we made our way across London Bridge. The
approaches to it upon the Middlesex side were choked from end to
end with frozen traffic which made all further advance in that
direction impossible. A ship was blazing brightly alongside one
of the wharves near the bridge, and the air was full of drifting
smuts and of a heavy acrid smell of burning. There was a cloud
of dense smoke somewhere near the Houses of Parliament, but it
was impossible from where we were to see what was on fire.
"I don't know how it strikes you," Lord John remarked as he
brought his engine to a standstill, "but it seems to me the
country is more cheerful than the town. Dead London is gettin'
on my nerves. I'm for a cast round and then gettin' back to
"I confess that I do not see what we can hope for here," said
"At the same time," said Challenger, his great voice booming
strangely amid the silence, "it is difficult for us to conceive
that out of seven millions of people there is only this one old
woman who by some peculiarity of constitution or some accident
of occupation has managed to survive this catastrophe."
"If there should be others, how can we hope to find them,
George?" asked the lady. "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 some difficulty along the crowded pavement of King William
Street and entered the open door of a large insurance office. It
was a corner house, and we chose it as commanding a view in
every direction. Ascending the stair, we passed through what I
suppose to have been the board-room, for eight elderly men were
seated round a long table in the centre of it. The high window
was open and we all stepped out upon the balcony. From it we
could see the crowded city streets radiating in every direction,
while below us the road was black from side to side with the
tops of the motionless taxis. All, or nearly all, had their
heads pointed outwards, showing how the terrified men of the
city had at the last moment made a vain endeavor to rejoin their
families in the suburbs or the country. Here and there amid the
humbler cabs towered the great brass-spangled motor-car of some
wealthy magnate, wedged hopelessly among the dammed stream of
arrested traffic. Just beneath us there was such a one of great
size and luxurious appearance, with its owner, a fat old man,
leaning out, half his gross body through the window, and his
podgy hand, gleaming with diamonds, outstretched as he urged his
chauffeur to make a last effort to break through the press.
A dozen motor-buses towered up like islands in this flood, the
passengers who crowded the roofs lying all huddled together and
across eash others' laps like a child's toys in a nursery. On a
broad lamp pedestal in the centre of the roadway, a burly
policeman was standing, leaning his back against the post in so
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 the ground beside him. A paper-cart had got
blocked in the crowd, and we could read in large letters, black
upon yellow, "Scene at Lord's. County Match Interrupted." This
must have been the earliest edition, for there were other
placards bearing the legend, "Is It the End? Great Scientist's
Warning." And another, "Is Challenger Justified? Ominous
Challenger pointed the latter placard out to his wife, as it
thrust itself like a banner above the throng. I could see him
throw out his chest and stroke his beard as he looked at it. It
pleased and flattered that complex mind to think that London had
died with his name and his words still present in their
thoughts. His feelings were so evident that they aroused the
sardonic comment of his colleague.
"In the limelight to the last, Challenger," he remarked.
"So it would appear," he answered complacently. "Well,"
as he looked down the long vista of the radiating streets, all
silent and all choked up with death, "I really see no purpose to
be served by our staying any longer in London. I suggest that we
return at once to Rotherfield and then take counsel as 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 our memories from the dead city. It is a glimpse
which we had of the interior of the old church of St. Mary's,
which is at the very point where our car was awaiting us.
Picking our way among the prostrate figures upon the steps, we
pushed open the swing door and entered. It was a wonderful
sight. The church was crammed from end to end with kneeling
figures in every posture of supplication and abasement. At the
last dreadful moment, brought suddenly face to face with the
realities of life, those terrific realities which hang over us
even while we follow the shadows, the terrified people had
rushed into those old city churches which for generations had
hardly ever held a congregation. There they huddled as close as
they could kneel, many of them in their agitation still wearing
their hats, while above them in the pulpit a young man in lay
dress had apparently been addressing them when he and they had
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 a nightmare, the grey, dusty church, the rows
of agonized figures, the dimness and silence of it all. We moved
about with hushed whispers, walking upon our tip-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 the ropes for the bell-ringers. Why
should we not send a message out over London which would attract
to us anyone who might still be alive? I ran across, and pulling
at the list-covered rope, I was surprised to find how difficult
it was to swing the bell. Lord John had followed me.
"By George, young fellah!" said he, pulling off his coat.
hit on a dooced 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 and Summerlee had added their weight to ours that we
heard the roaring and clanging above our heads which told us
that the great clapper was ringing out its music. Far over dead
London resounded our message of comradeship and hope to any
fellow-man surviving. It cheered our own hearts, that strong,
metallic call, and we turned the more earnestly to our work,
dragged two feet off the earth with each upward jerk of the
rope, but all straining together on the downward heave,
Challenger the lowest of all, bending all his great strength to
the task and flopping up and down like a monstrous bull-frog,
croaking with every pull. It was at that moment that an artist
might have taken a picture of the four adventurers, the comrades
of many strange perils in the past, whom fate 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 the
exertion. Then we went out into the portico of the church and
looked eagerly up and down the silent, crowded streets. Not a
sound, not a motion, in answer to our summons.
"It's no use. No one is left," I cried.
"We can do nothing more," said Mrs. Challenger. "For
George, let us get back to Rotherfield. Another hour of this
dreadful, silent city would drive me mad."
We got into the car without another word. Lord John backed her
round and turned her to the south. To us the chapter seemed
closed. Little did we foresee the strange new chapter which was
THE GREAT AWAKENING
And now I come to the end of this extraordinary incident, so
overshadowing in its importance, not only in our own small,
individual lives, but in the general history of the human race.
As I said when I began my narrative, when that history comes to
be written, this occurrence will surely stand out among all other
events like a mountain towering among its foothills. Our
has been reserved for a very special fate since it has been
to experience so wonderful a thing. How long its effect may
last--how long mankind may preserve the humility and reverence
which this great shock has taught it--can only be shown by the
future. I think it is safe to say that things can never be quite
the same again. Never can one realize how powerless and ignorant
one is, and how one is upheld by an unseen hand, until for an
instant that hand has seemed to close and to crush. Death has
been imminent upon us. We know that at any moment it may be
again. That grim presence shadows our lives, but who can deny
that in that shadow the sense of duty, the feeling of sobriety
and responsibility, the appreciation of the gravity and of the
objects of life, the earnest desire to develop and improve, have
grown and become real with us to a degree that has leavened our
whole society from end to end? It is something beyond sects and
beyond dogmas. It is rather an alteration of perspective, a
shifting of our sense of proportion, a vivid realization that we
are insignificant and evanescent creatures, existing on
and at the mercy of the first chill wind from the unknown. But
the world has grown graver with this knowledge it is not, I
a sadder place in consequence. Surely we are agreed that the
more sober and restrained pleasures of the present are deeper as
well as wiser than the noisy, foolish hustle which passed so
often for enjoyment in the days of old--days so recent and yet
already so inconceivable. Those empty lives which were wasted in
aimless visiting and being visited, in the worry of great and
unnecessary households, in the arranging and eating of elaborate
and tedious meals, have now found rest and health in the reading,
the music, the gentle family communion which comes from a simpler
and saner division of their time. With greater health and
pleasure they are richer than before, even after they have paid
those increased contributions to the common fund which have so
raised the standard of life in these islands.
There is some clash of opinion as to the exact hour of the great
awakening. It is generally agreed that, apart from the
of clocks, there may have been local causes which influenced the
action of the poison. Certainly, in each separate district the
resurrection was practically simultaneous. There are numerous
witnesses that Big Ben pointed to ten minutes past six at the
moment. The Astronomer Royal has fixed the Greenwich time at
twelve past six. On the other hand, Laird Johnson, a very
capable East Anglia observer, has recorded six-twenty as the
hour. In the Hebrides it was as late as seven. In our own case
there can be no doubt whatever, for I was seated in Challenger's
study with his carefully tested chronometer in front of me at
the moment. The hour was a quarter-past six.
An enormous depression was weighing upon my spirits. The
effect of all the dreadful sights which we had seen upon our
journey was heavy upon my soul. With my abounding animal health
and great physical energy any kind of mental clouding was a rare
event. I had the Irish faculty of seeing some gleam of humor in
every darkness. But now the obscurity was appalling and
unrelieved. The others were downstairs making their plans for
the future. I sat by the open window, my chin resting upon my
and my mind absorbed in the misery of our situation. Could we
continue to live? That was the question which I had begun to ask
myself. Was it possible to exist upon a dead world? Just as in
physics the greater body draws to itself the lesser, would we not
feel an overpowering attraction from that vast body of humanity
which had passed into the unknown? How would the end come?
it be from a return of the poison? Or would the earth be
uninhabitable from the mephitic products of universal decay? Or,
finally, might our awful situation prey upon and unbalance our
minds? A group of insane folk upon a dead world! My mind was
brooding upon this last dreadful idea when some slight noise
caused me to look down upon the road beneath me. The old cab
horse was coming up the hill!
I was conscious at the same instant of the twittering of birds,
of someone coughing in the yard below, and of a background of
movement in the landscape. And yet I remember that it was that
absurd, emaciated, superannuated cab-horse which held my gaze.
Slowly and wheezily it was climbing the slope. Then my eye
traveled to the driver sitting hunched up upon the box and
finally to the young man who was leaning out of the window
in some excitement and shouting a direction. They were all
indubitably, aggressively alive!
Everybody was alive once more! Had it all been a delusion? Was
it conceivable that this whole poison belt incident had been an
elaborate dream? For an instant my startled brain was really
ready to believe it. Then I looked down, and there was the
rising blister on my hand where it was frayed by the rope of
the city bell. It had really been so, then. And yet here was
the world resuscitated--here was life come back in an instant
full tide to the planet. Now, as my eyes wandered all over the
great landscape, I saw it in every direction--and moving, to my
amazement, in the very same groove in which it had halted. There
were the golfers. Was it possible that they were going on with
their game? Yes, there was a fellow driving off from a tee, and
that other group upon the green were surely putting for the hole.
The reapers were slowly trooping back to their work. The
nurse-girl slapped one of her charges and then began to push
the perambulator up the hill. Everyone had unconcernedly taken
up the thread at the very point where they had dropped it.
I rushed downstairs, but the hall door was open, and I heard the
voices of my companions, loud in astonishment and congratulation,
in the yard. How we all shook hands and laughed as we came
together, and how Mrs. Challenger kissed us all in her emotion,
before she finally threw herself into the bear-hug of her
"But they could not have been asleep!" cried Lord John. "Dash
it all, Challenger, you don't mean to believe that those folk
were asleep with their staring eyes and stiff limbs and that
awful death grin on their faces!"
"It can only have been the condition that is called catalepsy,"
said Challenger. "It has been a rare phenomenon in the past and
has constantly been mistaken for death. While it endures, the
temperature falls, the respiration disappears, the heartbeat
is indistinguishable--in fact, it IS death, save that it is
evanescent. Even the most comprehensive mind"--here he closed
his eyes and simpered--"could hardly conceive a universal
outbreak of it in this fashion."
"You may label it catalepsy," remarked Summerlee, "but,
all, that is only a name, and we know as little of the result
as we do of the poison which has caused it. The most we can say
is that the vitiated ether has produced a temporary death."
Austin was seated all in a heap on the step of the car. It was
his coughing which I had heard from above. He had been holding
his head in silence, but now he was muttering to himself and
running his eyes over the car.
"Young fat-head!" he grumbled. "Can't leave things alone!"
"What's the matter, Austin?"
"Lubricators left running, sir. Someone has been fooling with
the car. I expect it's that young garden boy, sir."
Lord John looked guilty.
"I don't know what's amiss with me," continued Austin, staggering
to his feet. "I expect I came over queer when I was hosing her
down. I seem to remember flopping over by the step. But I'll
swear I never left those lubricator taps on."
In a condensed narrative the astonished Austin was told what
had happened to himself and the world. The mystery of the
dripping lubricators was also explained to him. He listened with
an air of deep distrust when told how an amateur had driven his
car and with absorbed interest to the few sentences in which
our experiences of the sleeping city were recorded. I can
remember his comment when the story was concluded.
"Was you outside the Bank of England, sir?"
"With all them millions inside and everybody asleep?"
"That was so."
"And I not there!" he groaned, and turned dismally once more
to the hosing of his car.
There was a sudden grinding of wheels upon gravel. The old cab
had actually pulled up at Challenger's door. I saw the young
occupant step out from it. An instant later the maid, who looked
as tousled and bewildered as if she had that instant been aroused
from the deepest sleep, appeared with a card upon a tray.
Challenger snorted ferociously as he looked at it, and his
thick black hair seemed to bristle up in his wrath.
"A pressman!" he growled. Then with a deprecating smile: "After
all, it is natural that the whole world should hasten to know
what I think of such an episode."
"That can hardly be his errand," said Summerlee, "for
he was on
the road in his cab before ever the crisis came."
I looked at the card: "James Baxter, London Correspondent,
New York Monitor."
"You'll see him?" said I.
"Oh, George! You should be kinder and more considerate to
others. Surely you have learned something from what we
He tut-tutted and shook his big, obstinate head.
"A poisonous breed! Eh, Malone? The worst weed in modern
civilization, the ready tool of the quack and the hindrance
of the self-respecting man! When did they ever say a good
word for me?"
"When did you ever say a good word to them?" I answered. "Come,
sir, this is a stranger who has made a journey to see you. I am
sure that you won't be rude to him."
"Well, well," he grumbled, "you come with me and do the
I protest in advance against any such outrageous invasion of my
private life." Muttering and mumbling, he came rolling after me
like an angry and rather ill-conditioned mastiff.
The dapper young American pulled out his notebook and plunged
instantly into his subject.
"I came down, sir," said he, "because our people in America
very much like to hear more about this danger which is, in your
opinion, pressing upon the world."
"I know of no danger which is now pressing upon the world,"
Challenger answered gruffly.
The pressman looked at him in mild surprise.
"I meant, sir, the chances that the world might run into a belt
"I do not now apprehend any such danger," said Challenger.
The pressman looked even more perplexed.
"You are Professor Challenger, are you not?" he asked.
"Yes, sir; that is my name."
"I cannot understand, then, how you can say that there is no such
danger. I am alluding to your own letter, published above your
name in the London Times of this morning."
It was Challenger's turn to look surprised.
"This morning?" said he. "No London Times was published
"Surely, sir," said the American in mild remonstrance, "you
admit that the London Times is a daily paper." He drew out a
copy from his inside pocket. "Here is the letter to which I
Challenger chuckled and rubbed his hands.
"I begin to understand," said he. "So you read this letter
"And came at once to interview me?"
"Did you observe anything unusual upon the journey down?"
"Well, to tell the truth, your people seemed more lively and
generally human than I have ever seen them. The baggage man
set out to tell me a funny story, and that's a new experience
for me in this country."
"Why, no, sir, not that I can recall."
"Well, now, what hour did you leave Victoria?"
The American smiled.
"I came here to interview you, Professor, but it seems to be a
case of `Is this nigger fishing, or is this fish niggering?'
You're doing most of the work."
"It happens to interest me. Do you recall the hour?"
"Sure. It was half-past twelve."
"And you arrived?"
"At a quarter-past two."
"And you hired a cab?"
"That was so."
"How far do you suppose it is to the station?"
"Well, I should reckon the best part of two miles."
"So how long do you think it took you?"
"Well, half an hour, maybe, with that asthmatic in front."
"So it should be three o'clock?"
"Yes, or a trifle after it."
"Look at your watch."
The American did so and then stared at us in astonishment.
"Say!" he cried. "It's run down. That horse has broken
record, sure. The sun is pretty low, now that I come to look at
it. Well, there's something here I don't understand."
"Have you no remembrance of anything remarkable as you came up
"Well, I seem to recollect that I was mighty sleepy once.
It comes back to me that I wanted to say something to the driver
and that I couldn't make him heed me. I guess it was the heat,
but I felt swimmy for a moment. That's all."
"So it is with the whole human race," said Challenger to me.
"They have all felt swimmy for a moment. None of them have as
yet any comprehension of what has occurred. Each will go on with
his interrupted job as Austin has snatched up his hose-pipe or
the golfer continued his game. Your editor, Malone, will
continue the issue of his papers, and very much amazed he will
be at finding that an issue is missing. Yes, my young friend,"
he added to the American reporter, with a sudden mood of amused
geniality, "it may interest you to know that the world has swum
through the poisonous current which swirls like the Gulf Stream
through the ocean of ether. You will also kindly note for your
own future convenience that to-day is not Friday, August the
twenty-seventh, but Saturday, August the twenty-eighth, and that
you sat senseless in your cab for twenty-eight hours upon the
And "right here," as my American colleague would say, I may
bring this narrative to an end. It is, as you are probably
aware, only a fuller and more detailed version of the account
which appeared in the Monday edition of the Daily Gazette--an
account which has been universally admitted to be the greatest
journalistic scoop of all time, which sold no fewer than
three-and-a-half million copies of the paper. Framed upon the
wall of my sanctum I retain those magnificent headlines:--
TWENTY-EIGHT HOURS' WORLD COMA
OUR CORRESPONDENT ESCAPES
THE OXYGEN ROOM
WEIRD MOTOR DRIVE
REPLACING THE MISSING PAGE
GREAT FIRES AND LOSS OF LIFE
WILL IT RECUR?
Underneath this glorious scroll came nine and a half columns of
narrative, in which appeared the first, last, and only account
of the history of the planet, so far as one observer could draw
it, during one long day of its existence. Challenger and
Summerlee have treated the matter in a joint scientific paper,
but to me alone was left the popular account. Surely I can sing
"Nunc dimittis." What is left but anti-climax in the life of a
journalist after that!
But let me not end on sensational headlines and a merely
personal triumph. Rather let me quote the sonorous passages in
which the greatest of daily papers ended its admirable leader
upon the subject--a leader which might well be filed for
reference by every thoughtful man.
"It has been a well-worn truism," said the Times, "that
human race are a feeble folk before the infinite latent forces
which surround us. From the prophets of old and from the
philosophers of our own time the same message and warning have
reached us. But, like all oft-repeated truths, it has in time
lost something of its actuality and cogency. A lesson, an actual
experience, was needed to bring it home. It is from that
salutory but terrible ordeal that we have just emerged, with
minds which are still stunned by the suddenness of the blow and
with spirits which are chastened by the realization of our own
limitations and impotence. The world has paid a fearful price
for its schooling. Hardly yet have we learned the full tale of
disaster, but the destruction by fire of New York, of Orleans,
and of Brighton constitutes in itself one of the greatest
tragedies in the history of our race. When the account of the
railway and shipping accidents has been completed, it will
furnish grim reading, although there is evidence to show that in
the vast majority of cases the drivers of trains and engineers
of steamers succeeded in shutting off their motive power before
succumbing to the poison. But the material damage, enormous as
it is both in life and in property, is not the consideration
which will be uppermost in our minds to-day. All this may in
be forgotten. But what will not be forgotten, and what will and
should continue to obsess our imaginations, is this revelation
of the possibilities of the universe, this destruction of our
ignorant self-complacency, and this demonstration of how narrow
is the path of our material existence and what abysses may lie
upon either side of it. Solemnity and humility are at the base
of all our emotions to-day. May they be the foundations upon
a more earnest and reverent race may build a more worthy temple."