The war of the worlds, p.15
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       The War of the Worlds, p.15

           H. G. Wells
 
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  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  WHAT HAD HAPPENED IN SURREY

  It was while the curate had sat and talked so wildly to me underthe hedge in the flat meadows near Halliford, and while my brother waswatching the fugitives stream over Westminster Bridge, that theMartians had resumed the offensive. So far as one can ascertain fromthe conflicting accounts that have been put forth, the majority ofthem remained busied with preparations in the Horsell pit until ninethat night, hurrying on some operation that disengaged huge volumes ofgreen smoke.

  But three certainly came out about eight o'clock and, advancingslowly and cautiously, made their way through Byfleet and Pyrfordtowards Ripley and Weybridge, and so came in sight of the expectantbatteries against the setting sun. These Martians did not advance ina body, but in a line, each perhaps a mile and a half from his nearestfellow. They communicated with one another by means of sirenlikehowls, running up and down the scale from one note to another.

  It was this howling and firing of the guns at Ripley and St.George's Hill that we had heard at Upper Halliford. The Ripleygunners, unseasoned artillery volunteers who ought never to have beenplaced in such a position, fired one wild, premature, ineffectualvolley, and bolted on horse and foot through the deserted village,while the Martian, without using his Heat-Ray, walked serenely overtheir guns, stepped gingerly among them, passed in front of them, andso came unexpectedly upon the guns in Painshill Park, which hedestroyed.

  The St. George's Hill men, however, were better led or of a bettermettle. Hidden by a pine wood as they were, they seem to have beenquite unsuspected by the Martian nearest to them. They laid theirguns as deliberately as if they had been on parade, and fired at abouta thousand yards' range.

  The shells flashed all round him, and he was seen to advance a fewpaces, stagger, and go down. Everybody yelled together, and the gunswere reloaded in frantic haste. The overthrown Martian set up aprolonged ululation, and immediately a second glittering giant,answering him, appeared over the trees to the south. It would seemthat a leg of the tripod had been smashed by one of the shells. Thewhole of the second volley flew wide of the Martian on the ground,and, simultaneously, both his companions brought their Heat-Rays tobear on the battery. The ammunition blew up, the pine trees all aboutthe guns flashed into fire, and only one or two of the men who werealready running over the crest of the hill escaped.

  After this it would seem that the three took counsel together andhalted, and the scouts who were watching them report that theyremained absolutely stationary for the next half hour. The Martianwho had been overthrown crawled tediously out of his hood, a smallbrown figure, oddly suggestive from that distance of a speck ofblight, and apparently engaged in the repair of his support. Aboutnine he had finished, for his cowl was then seen above the treesagain.

  It was a few minutes past nine that night when these threesentinels were joined by four other Martians, each carrying a thickblack tube. A similar tube was handed to each of the three, and theseven proceeded to distribute themselves at equal distances along acurved line between St. George's Hill, Weybridge, and the village ofSend, southwest of Ripley.

  A dozen rockets sprang out of the hills before them so soon as theybegan to move, and warned the waiting batteries about Ditton andEsher. At the same time four of their fighting machines, similarlyarmed with tubes, crossed the river, and two of them, black againstthe western sky, came into sight of myself and the curate as wehurried wearily and painfully along the road that runs northward outof Halliford. They moved, as it seemed to us, upon a cloud, for amilky mist covered the fields and rose to a third of their height.

  At this sight the curate cried faintly in his throat, and beganrunning; but I knew it was no good running from a Martian, and Iturned aside and crawled through dewy nettles and brambles into thebroad ditch by the side of the road. He looked back, saw what I wasdoing, and turned to join me.

  The two halted, the nearer to us standing and facing Sunbury, theremoter being a grey indistinctness towards the evening star, awaytowards Staines.

  The occasional howling of the Martians had ceased; they took uptheir positions in the huge crescent about their cylinders in absolutesilence. It was a crescent with twelve miles between its horns. Neversince the devising of gunpowder was the beginning of a battle sostill. To us and to an observer about Ripley it would have hadprecisely the same effect--the Martians seemed in solitary possessionof the darkling night, lit only as it was by the slender moon, thestars, the afterglow of the daylight, and the ruddy glare from St.George's Hill and the woods of Painshill.

  But facing that crescent everywhere--at Staines, Hounslow, Ditton,Esher, Ockham, behind hills and woods south of the river, and acrossthe flat grass meadows to the north of it, wherever a cluster of treesor village houses gave sufficient cover--the guns were waiting. Thesignal rockets burst and rained their sparks through the night andvanished, and the spirit of all those watching batteries rose to atense expectation. The Martians had but to advance into the line offire, and instantly those motionless black forms of men, those gunsglittering so darkly in the early night, would explode into athunderous fury of battle.

  No doubt the thought that was uppermost in a thousand of thosevigilant minds, even as it was uppermost in mine, was the riddle--howmuch they understood of us. Did they grasp that we in our millionswere organized, disciplined, working together? Or did they interpretour spurts of fire, the sudden stinging of our shells, our steadyinvestment of their encampment, as we should the furious unanimity ofonslaught in a disturbed hive of bees? Did they dream they mightexterminate us? (At that time no one knew what food they needed.) Ahundred such questions struggled together in my mind as I watched thatvast sentinel shape. And in the back of my mind was the sense of allthe huge unknown and hidden forces Londonward. Had they preparedpitfalls? Were the powder mills at Hounslow ready as a snare? Wouldthe Londoners have the heart and courage to make a greater Moscow oftheir mighty province of houses?

  Then, after an interminable time, as it seemed to us, crouching andpeering through the hedge, came a sound like the distant concussion ofa gun. Another nearer, and then another. And then the Martian besideus raised his tube on high and discharged it, gunwise, with a heavyreport that made the ground heave. The one towards Staines answeredhim. There was no flash, no smoke, simply that loaded detonation.

  I was so excited by these heavy minute-guns following one anotherthat I so far forgot my personal safety and my scalded hands as toclamber up into the hedge and stare towards Sunbury. As I did so asecond report followed, and a big projectile hurtled overhead towardsHounslow. I expected at least to see smoke or fire, or some suchevidence of its work. But all I saw was the deep blue sky above, withone solitary star, and the white mist spreading wide and low beneath.And there had been no crash, no answering explosion. The silence wasrestored; the minute lengthened to three.

  "What has happened?" said the curate, standing up beside me.

  "Heaven knows!" said I.

  A bat flickered by and vanished. A distant tumult of shoutingbegan and ceased. I looked again at the Martian, and saw he was nowmoving eastward along the riverbank, with a swift, rolling motion.

  Every moment I expected the fire of some hidden battery to springupon him; but the evening calm was unbroken. The figure of the Martiangrew smaller as he receded, and presently the mist and the gatheringnight had swallowed him up. By a common impulse we clambered higher.Towards Sunbury was a dark appearance, as though a conical hill hadsuddenly come into being there, hiding our view of the farthercountry; and then, remoter across the river, over Walton, we sawanother such summit. These hill-like forms grew lower and broadereven as we stared.

  Moved by a sudden thought, I looked northward, and there Iperceived a third of these cloudy black kopjes had risen.

  Everything had suddenly become very still. Far away to thesoutheast, marking the quiet, we heard the Martians hooting to oneanother, and then the air quivered again with the distant thud ofthei
r guns. But the earthly artillery made no reply.

  Now at the time we could not understand these things, but later Iwas to learn the meaning of these ominous kopjes that gathered in thetwilight. Each of the Martians, standing in the great crescent I havedescribed, had discharged, by means of the gunlike tube he carried, ahuge canister over whatever hill, copse, cluster of houses, or otherpossible cover for guns, chanced to be in front of him. Some firedonly one of these, some two--as in the case of the one we had seen;the one at Ripley is said to have discharged no fewer than five atthat time. These canisters smashed on striking the ground--they didnot explode--and incontinently disengaged an enormous volume of heavy,inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumuluscloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over thesurrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling ofits pungent wisps, was death to all that breathes.

  It was heavy, this vapour, heavier than the densest smoke, so that,after the first tumultuous uprush and outflow of its impact, it sankdown through the air and poured over the ground in a manner ratherliquid than gaseous, abandoning the hills, and streaming into thevalleys and ditches and watercourses even as I have heard thecarbonic-acid gas that pours from volcanic clefts is wont to do. Andwhere it came upon water some chemical action occurred, and thesurface would be instantly covered with a powdery scum that sankslowly and made way for more. The scum was absolutely insoluble, andit is a strange thing, seeing the instant effect of the gas, that onecould drink without hurt the water from which it had been strained.The vapour did not diffuse as a true gas would do. It hung togetherin banks, flowing sluggishly down the slope of the land and drivingreluctantly before the wind, and very slowly it combined with the mistand moisture of the air, and sank to the earth in the form of dust.Save that an unknown element giving a group of four lines in the blueof the spectrum is concerned, we are still entirely ignorant of thenature of this substance.

  Once the tumultuous upheaval of its dispersion was over, the blacksmoke clung so closely to the ground, even before its precipitation,that fifty feet up in the air, on the roofs and upper stories of highhouses and on great trees, there was a chance of escaping its poisonaltogether, as was proved even that night at Street Cobham and Ditton.

  The man who escaped at the former place tells a wonderful story ofthe strangeness of its coiling flow, and how he looked down from thechurch spire and saw the houses of the village rising like ghosts outof its inky nothingness. For a day and a half he remained there,weary, starving and sun-scorched, the earth under the blue sky andagainst the prospect of the distant hills a velvet-black expanse, withred roofs, green trees, and, later, black-veiled shrubs and gates,barns, outhouses, and walls, rising here and there into the sunlight.

  But that was at Street Cobham, where the black vapour was allowedto remain until it sank of its own accord into the ground. As a rulethe Martians, when it had served its purpose, cleared the air of itagain by wading into it and directing a jet of steam upon it.

  This they did with the vapour banks near us, as we saw in thestarlight from the window of a deserted house at Upper Halliford,whither we had returned. From there we could see the searchlights onRichmond Hill and Kingston Hill going to and fro, and about eleven thewindows rattled, and we heard the sound of the huge siege guns thathad been put in position there. These continued intermittently forthe space of a quarter of an hour, sending chance shots at theinvisible Martians at Hampton and Ditton, and then the pale beams ofthe electric light vanished, and were replaced by a bright red glow.

  Then the fourth cylinder fell--a brilliant green meteor--as Ilearned afterwards, in Bushey Park. Before the guns on the Richmondand Kingston line of hills began, there was a fitful cannonade faraway in the southwest, due, I believe, to guns being fired haphazardbefore the black vapour could overwhelm the gunners.

  So, setting about it as methodically as men might smoke out awasps' nest, the Martians spread this strange stifling vapour over theLondonward country. The horns of the crescent slowly moved apart,until at last they formed a line from Hanwell to Coombe and Malden.All night through their destructive tubes advanced. Never once, afterthe Martian at St. George's Hill was brought down, did they give theartillery the ghost of a chance against them. Wherever there was apossibility of guns being laid for them unseen, a fresh canister ofthe black vapour was discharged, and where the guns were openlydisplayed the Heat-Ray was brought to bear.

  By midnight the blazing trees along the slopes of Richmond Park andthe glare of Kingston Hill threw their light upon a network of blacksmoke, blotting out the whole valley of the Thames and extending asfar as the eye could reach. And through this two Martians slowlywaded, and turned their hissing steam jets this way and that.

  They were sparing of the Heat-Ray that night, either because theyhad but a limited supply of material for its production or becausethey did not wish to destroy the country but only to crush and overawethe opposition they had aroused. In the latter aim they certainlysucceeded. Sunday night was the end of the organised opposition totheir movements. After that no body of men would stand against them,so hopeless was the enterprise. Even the crews of the torpedo-boatsand destroyers that had brought their quick-firers up the Thamesrefused to stop, mutinied, and went down again. The only offensiveoperation men ventured upon after that night was the preparation ofmines and pitfalls, and even in that their energies were frantic andspasmodic.

  One has to imagine, as well as one may, the fate of those batteriestowards Esher, waiting so tensely in the twilight. Survivors therewere none. One may picture the orderly expectation, the officersalert and watchful, the gunners ready, the ammunition piled to hand,the limber gunners with their horses and waggons, the groups ofcivilian spectators standing as near as they were permitted, theevening stillness, the ambulances and hospital tents with the burnedand wounded from Weybridge; then the dull resonance of the shots theMartians fired, and the clumsy projectile whirling over the trees andhouses and smashing amid the neighbouring fields.

  One may picture, too, the sudden shifting of the attention, theswiftly spreading coils and bellyings of that blackness advancingheadlong, towering heavenward, turning the twilight to a palpabledarkness, a strange and horrible antagonist of vapour striding uponits victims, men and horses near it seen dimly, running, shrieking,falling headlong, shouts of dismay, the guns suddenly abandoned, menchoking and writhing on the ground, and the swift broadening-out ofthe opaque cone of smoke. And then night and extinction--nothing buta silent mass of impenetrable vapour hiding its dead.

  Before dawn the black vapour was pouring through the streets ofRichmond, and the disintegrating organism of government was, with alast expiring effort, rousing the population of London to thenecessity of flight.

 
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