The war of the worlds, p.17
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       The War of the Worlds, p.17

           H. G. Wells
 
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  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  THE "THUNDER CHILD"

  Had the Martians aimed only at destruction, they might on Mondayhave annihilated the entire population of London, as it spread itselfslowly through the home counties. Not only along the road throughBarnet, but also through Edgware and Waltham Abbey, and along theroads eastward to Southend and Shoeburyness, and south of the Thamesto Deal and Broadstairs, poured the same frantic rout. If one couldhave hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue aboveLondon every northward and eastward road running out of the tangledmaze of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streamingfugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress. Ihave set forth at length in the last chapter my brother's account ofthe road through Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realisehow that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned.Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of humanbeings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths andHuns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a dropin that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was astampede--a stampede gigantic and terrible--without order and withouta goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, drivingheadlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of themassacre of mankind.

  Directly below him the balloonist would have seen the network ofstreets far and wide, houses, churches, squares, crescents,gardens--already derelict--spread out like a huge map, and in thesouthward _blotted_. Over Ealing, Richmond, Wimbledon, it wouldhave seemed as if some monstrous pen had flung ink upon the chart.Steadily, incessantly, each black splash grew and spread, shooting outramifications this way and that, now banking itself against risingground, now pouring swiftly over a crest into a new-found valley,exactly as a gout of ink would spread itself upon blotting paper.

  And beyond, over the blue hills that rise southward of the river,the glittering Martians went to and fro, calmly and methodicallyspreading their poison cloud over this patch of country and then overthat, laying it again with their steam jets when it had served itspurpose, and taking possession of the conquered country. They do notseem to have aimed at extermination so much as at completedemoralisation and the destruction of any opposition. They explodedany stores of powder they came upon, cut every telegraph, and wreckedthe railways here and there. They were hamstringing mankind. Theyseemed in no hurry to extend the field of their operations, and didnot come beyond the central part of London all that day. It ispossible that a very considerable number of people in London stuck totheir houses through Monday morning. Certain it is that many died athome suffocated by the Black Smoke.

  Until about midday the Pool of London was an astonishing scene.Steamboats and shipping of all sorts lay there, tempted by theenormous sums of money offered by fugitives, and it is said that manywho swam out to these vessels were thrust off with boathooks anddrowned. About one o'clock in the afternoon the thinning remnant of acloud of the black vapour appeared between the arches of BlackfriarsBridge. At that the Pool became a scene of mad confusion, fighting,and collision, and for some time a multitude of boats and bargesjammed in the northern arch of the Tower Bridge, and the sailors andlightermen had to fight savagely against the people who swarmed uponthem from the riverfront. People were actually clambering down thepiers of the bridge from above.

  When, an hour later, a Martian appeared beyond the Clock Tower andwaded down the river, nothing but wreckage floated above Limehouse.

  Of the falling of the fifth cylinder I have presently to tell. Thesixth star fell at Wimbledon. My brother, keeping watch beside thewomen in the chaise in a meadow, saw the green flash of it far beyondthe hills. On Tuesday the little party, still set upon getting acrossthe sea, made its way through the swarming country towards Colchester.The news that the Martians were now in possession of the whole ofLondon was confirmed. They had been seen at Highgate, and even, itwas said, at Neasden. But they did not come into my brother's viewuntil the morrow.

  That day the scattered multitudes began to realise the urgent needof provisions. As they grew hungry the rights of property ceased tobe regarded. Farmers were out to defend their cattle-sheds,granaries, and ripening root crops with arms in their hands. A numberof people now, like my brother, had their faces eastward, and therewere some desperate souls even going back towards London to get food.These were chiefly people from the northern suburbs, whose knowledgeof the Black Smoke came by hearsay. He heard that about half themembers of the government had gathered at Birmingham, and thatenormous quantities of high explosives were being prepared to be usedin automatic mines across the Midland counties.

  He was also told that the Midland Railway Company had replaced thedesertions of the first day's panic, had resumed traffic, and wasrunning northward trains from St. Albans to relieve the congestion ofthe home counties. There was also a placard in Chipping Ongarannouncing that large stores of flour were available in the northerntowns and that within twenty-four hours bread would be distributedamong the starving people in the neighbourhood. But this intelligencedid not deter him from the plan of escape he had formed, and the threepressed eastward all day, and heard no more of the bread distributionthan this promise. Nor, as a matter of fact, did anyone else hearmore of it. That night fell the seventh star, falling upon PrimroseHill. It fell while Miss Elphinstone was watching, for she took thatduty alternately with my brother. She saw it.

  On Wednesday the three fugitives--they had passed the night in afield of unripe wheat--reached Chelmsford, and there a body of theinhabitants, calling itself the Committee of Public Supply, seized thepony as provisions, and would give nothing in exchange for it but thepromise of a share in it the next day. Here there were rumours ofMartians at Epping, and news of the destruction of Waltham AbbeyPowder Mills in a vain attempt to blow up one of the invaders.

  People were watching for Martians here from the church towers. Mybrother, very luckily for him as it chanced, preferred to push on atonce to the coast rather than wait for food, although all three ofthem were very hungry. By midday they passed through Tillingham,which, strangely enough, seemed to be quite silent and deserted, savefor a few furtive plunderers hunting for food. Near Tillingham theysuddenly came in sight of the sea, and the most amazing crowd ofshipping of all sorts that it is possible to imagine.

  For after the sailors could no longer come up the Thames, they cameon to the Essex coast, to Harwich and Walton and Clacton, andafterwards to Foulness and Shoebury, to bring off the people. Theylay in a huge sickle-shaped curve that vanished into mist at lasttowards the Naze. Close inshore was a multitude of fishingsmacks--English, Scotch, French, Dutch, and Swedish; steam launchesfrom the Thames, yachts, electric boats; and beyond were ships of largeburden, a multitude of filthy colliers, trim merchantmen, cattle ships,passenger boats, petroleum tanks, ocean tramps, an old white transporteven, neat white and grey liners from Southampton and Hamburg; andalong the blue coast across the Blackwater my brother could make outdimly a dense swarm of boats chaffering with the people on the beach,a swarm which also extended up the Blackwater almost to Maldon.

  About a couple of miles out lay an ironclad, very low in the water,almost, to my brother's perception, like a water-logged ship. Thiswas the ram _Thunder Child_. It was the only warship in sight, but faraway to the right over the smooth surface of the sea--for that daythere was a dead calm--lay a serpent of black smoke to mark the nextironclads of the Channel Fleet, which hovered in an extended line,steam up and ready for action, across the Thames estuary during thecourse of the Martian conquest, vigilant and yet powerless to preventit.

  At the sight of the sea, Mrs. Elphinstone, in spite of theassurances of her sister-in-law, gave way to panic. She had neverbeen out of England before, she would rather die than trust herselffriendless in a foreign country, and so forth. She seemed, poor woman,to imagine that the French and the Martians might prove very similar.She had been growing increasingly hysterical, fearful, and depressedduring the two days'
journeyings. Her great idea was to return toStanmore. Things had been always well and safe at Stanmore. Theywould find George at Stanmore.

  It was with the greatest difficulty they could get her down to thebeach, where presently my brother succeeded in attracting theattention of some men on a paddle steamer from the Thames. They senta boat and drove a bargain for thirty-six pounds for the three. Thesteamer was going, these men said, to Ostend.

  It was about two o'clock when my brother, having paid their faresat the gangway, found himself safely aboard the steamboat with hischarges. There was food aboard, albeit at exorbitant prices, and thethree of them contrived to eat a meal on one of the seats forward.

  There were already a couple of score of passengers aboard, some ofwhom had expended their last money in securing a passage, but thecaptain lay off the Blackwater until five in the afternoon, picking uppassengers until the seated decks were even dangerously crowded. Hewould probably have remained longer had it not been for the sound ofguns that began about that hour in the south. As if in answer, theironclad seaward fired a small gun and hoisted a string of flags. Ajet of smoke sprang out of her funnels.

  Some of the passengers were of opinion that this firing came fromShoeburyness, until it was noticed that it was growing louder. At thesame time, far away in the southeast the masts and upperworks of threeironclads rose one after the other out of the sea, beneath clouds ofblack smoke. But my brother's attention speedily reverted to thedistant firing in the south. He fancied he saw a column of smokerising out of the distant grey haze.

  The little steamer was already flapping her way eastward of the bigcrescent of shipping, and the low Essex coast was growing blue andhazy, when a Martian appeared, small and faint in the remote distance,advancing along the muddy coast from the direction of Foulness. Atthat the captain on the bridge swore at the top of his voice with fearand anger at his own delay, and the paddles seemed infected with histerror. Every soul aboard stood at the bulwarks or on the seats ofthe steamer and stared at that distant shape, higher than the trees orchurch towers inland, and advancing with a leisurely parody of a humanstride.

  It was the first Martian my brother had seen, and he stood, moreamazed than terrified, watching this Titan advancing deliberatelytowards the shipping, wading farther and farther into the water as thecoast fell away. Then, far away beyond the Crouch, came another,striding over some stunted trees, and then yet another, still fartheroff, wading deeply through a shiny mudflat that seemed to hang halfwayup between sea and sky. They were all stalking seaward, as if tointercept the escape of the multitudinous vessels that were crowdedbetween Foulness and the Naze. In spite of the throbbing exertions ofthe engines of the little paddle-boat, and the pouring foam that herwheels flung behind her, she receded with terrifying slowness fromthis ominous advance.

  Glancing northwestward, my brother saw the large crescent ofshipping already writhing with the approaching terror; one shippassing behind another, another coming round from broadside to end on,steamships whistling and giving off volumes of steam, sails being letout, launches rushing hither and thither. He was so fascinated bythis and by the creeping danger away to the left that he had no eyesfor anything seaward. And then a swift movement of the steamboat (shehad suddenly come round to avoid being run down) flung him headlongfrom the seat upon which he was standing. There was a shouting allabout him, a trampling of feet, and a cheer that seemed to be answeredfaintly. The steamboat lurched and rolled him over upon his hands.

  He sprang to his feet and saw to starboard, and not a hundred yardsfrom their heeling, pitching boat, a vast iron bulk like the blade ofa plough tearing through the water, tossing it on either side in hugewaves of foam that leaped towards the steamer, flinging her paddleshelplessly in the air, and then sucking her deck down almost to thewaterline.

  A douche of spray blinded my brother for a moment. When his eyeswere clear again he saw the monster had passed and was rushinglandward. Big iron upperworks rose out of this headlong structure,and from that twin funnels projected and spat a smoking blast shotwith fire. It was the torpedo ram, _Thunder Child_, steaming headlong,coming to the rescue of the threatened shipping.

  Keeping his footing on the heaving deck by clutching the bulwarks,my brother looked past this charging leviathan at the Martians again,and he saw the three of them now close together, and standing so farout to sea that their tripod supports were almost entirely submerged.Thus sunken, and seen in remote perspective, they appeared far lessformidable than the huge iron bulk in whose wake the steamer waspitching so helplessly. It would seem they were regarding this newantagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence, it may be, thegiant was even such another as themselves. The _Thunder Child_ fired nogun, but simply drove full speed towards them. It was probably hernot firing that enabled her to get so near the enemy as she did. Theydid not know what to make of her. One shell, and they would have senther to the bottom forthwith with the Heat-Ray.

  She was steaming at such a pace that in a minute she seemed halfwaybetween the steamboat and the Martians--a diminishing black bulkagainst the receding horizontal expanse of the Essex coast.

  Suddenly the foremost Martian lowered his tube and discharged acanister of the black gas at the ironclad. It hit her larboard sideand glanced off in an inky jet that rolled away to seaward, anunfolding torrent of Black Smoke, from which the ironclad drove clear.To the watchers from the steamer, low in the water and with the sun intheir eyes, it seemed as though she were already among the Martians.

  They saw the gaunt figures separating and rising out of the wateras they retreated shoreward, and one of them raised the camera-likegenerator of the Heat-Ray. He held it pointing obliquely downward,and a bank of steam sprang from the water at its touch. It must havedriven through the iron of the ship's side like a white-hot iron rodthrough paper.

  A flicker of flame went up through the rising steam, and then theMartian reeled and staggered. In another moment he was cut down, anda great body of water and steam shot high in the air. The guns of the_Thunder Child_ sounded through the reek, going off one after the other,and one shot splashed the water high close by the steamer, ricochetedtowards the other flying ships to the north, and smashed a smack tomatchwood.

  But no one heeded that very much. At the sight of the Martian'scollapse the captain on the bridge yelled inarticulately, and all thecrowding passengers on the steamer's stern shouted together. And thenthey yelled again. For, surging out beyond the white tumult, drovesomething long and black, the flames streaming from its middle parts,its ventilators and funnels spouting fire.

  She was alive still; the steering gear, it seems, was intact andher engines working. She headed straight for a second Martian, andwas within a hundred yards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear. Thenwith a violent thud, a blinding flash, her decks, her funnels, leapedupward. The Martian staggered with the violence of her explosion, andin another moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with theimpetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up like a thingof cardboard. My brother shouted involuntarily. A boiling tumult ofsteam hid everything again.

  "Two!" yelled the captain.

  Everyone was shouting. The whole steamer from end to end rang withfrantic cheering that was taken up first by one and then by all in thecrowding multitude of ships and boats that was driving out to sea.

  The steam hung upon the water for many minutes, hiding the thirdMartian and the coast altogether. And all this time the boat waspaddling steadily out to sea and away from the fight; and when at lastthe confusion cleared, the drifting bank of black vapour intervened,and nothing of the _Thunder Child_ could be made out, nor could thethird Martian be seen. But the ironclads to seaward were now quiteclose and standing in towards shore past the steamboat.

  The little vessel continued to beat its way seaward, and theironclads receded slowly towards the coast, which was hidden still bya marbled bank of vapour, part steam, part black gas, eddying andcombining in the stranges
t way. The fleet of refugees was scatteringto the northeast; several smacks were sailing between the ironcladsand the steamboat. After a time, and before they reached the sinkingcloud bank, the warships turned northward, and then abruptly wentabout and passed into the thickening haze of evening southward. Thecoast grew faint, and at last indistinguishable amid the low banks ofclouds that were gathering about the sinking sun.

  Then suddenly out of the golden haze of the sunset came thevibration of guns, and a form of black shadows moving. Everyonestruggled to the rail of the steamer and peered into the blindingfurnace of the west, but nothing was to be distinguished clearly. Amass of smoke rose slanting and barred the face of the sun. Thesteamboat throbbed on its way through an interminable suspense.

  The sun sank into grey clouds, the sky flushed and darkened, theevening star trembled into sight. It was deep twilight when thecaptain cried out and pointed. My brother strained his eyes.Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness--rushedslantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness abovethe clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and verylarge, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly,and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flewit rained down darkness upon the land.

 
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