The war of the worlds, p.5
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       The War of the Worlds, p.5

           H. G. Wells
 

  CHAPTER FIVE

  THE HEAT-RAY

  After the glimpse I had had of the Martians emerging from thecylinder in which they had come to the earth from their planet, a kindof fascination paralysed my actions. I remained standing knee-deep inthe heather, staring at the mound that hid them. I was a battlegroundof fear and curiosity.

  I did not dare to go back towards the pit, but I felt a passionatelonging to peer into it. I began walking, therefore, in a big curve,seeking some point of vantage and continually looking at the sandheaps that hid these new-comers to our earth. Once a leash of thinblack whips, like the arms of an octopus, flashed across the sunsetand was immediately withdrawn, and afterwards a thin rod rose up,joint by joint, bearing at its apex a circular disk that spun with awobbling motion. What could be going on there?

  Most of the spectators had gathered in one or two groups--one alittle crowd towards Woking, the other a knot of people in thedirection of Chobham. Evidently they shared my mental conflict.There were few near me. One man I approached--he was, I perceived,a neighbour of mine, though I did not know his name--and accosted.But it was scarcely a time for articulate conversation.

  "What ugly _brutes_!" he said. "Good God! What ugly brutes!" Herepeated this over and over again.

  "Did you see a man in the pit?" I said; but he made no answer tothat. We became silent, and stood watching for a time side by side,deriving, I fancy, a certain comfort in one another's company. Then Ishifted my position to a little knoll that gave me the advantage of ayard or more of elevation and when I looked for him presently he waswalking towards Woking.

  The sunset faded to twilight before anything further happened. Thecrowd far away on the left, towards Woking, seemed to grow, and Iheard now a faint murmur from it. The little knot of people towardsChobham dispersed. There was scarcely an intimation of movement fromthe pit.

  It was this, as much as anything, that gave people courage, and Isuppose the new arrivals from Woking also helped to restoreconfidence. At any rate, as the dusk came on a slow, intermittentmovement upon the sand pits began, a movement that seemed to gatherforce as the stillness of the evening about the cylinder remainedunbroken. Vertical black figures in twos and threes would advance,stop, watch, and advance again, spreading out as they did so in a thinirregular crescent that promised to enclose the pit in its attenuatedhorns. I, too, on my side began to move towards the pit.

  Then I saw some cabmen and others had walked boldly into the sandpits, and heard the clatter of hoofs and the gride of wheels. I saw alad trundling off the barrow of apples. And then, within thirty yardsof the pit, advancing from the direction of Horsell, I noted a littleblack knot of men, the foremost of whom was waving a white flag.

  This was the Deputation. There had been a hasty consultation, andsince the Martians were evidently, in spite of their repulsive forms,intelligent creatures, it had been resolved to show them, byapproaching them with signals, that we too were intelligent.

  Flutter, flutter, went the flag, first to the right, then to theleft. It was too far for me to recognise anyone there, but afterwardsI learned that Ogilvy, Stent, and Henderson were with others in thisattempt at communication. This little group had in its advancedragged inward, so to speak, the circumference of the now almostcomplete circle of people, and a number of dim black figures followedit at discreet distances.

  Suddenly there was a flash of light, and a quantity of luminousgreenish smoke came out of the pit in three distinct puffs, whichdrove up, one after the other, straight into the still air.

  This smoke (or flame, perhaps, would be the better word for it) wasso bright that the deep blue sky overhead and the hazy stretches ofbrown common towards Chertsey, set with black pine trees, seemed todarken abruptly as these puffs arose, and to remain the darker aftertheir dispersal. At the same time a faint hissing sound becameaudible.

  Beyond the pit stood the little wedge of people with the white flagat its apex, arrested by these phenomena, a little knot of smallvertical black shapes upon the black ground. As the green smoke arose,their faces flashed out pallid green, and faded again as it vanished.Then slowly the hissing passed into a humming, into a long, loud,droning noise. Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and theghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it.

  Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from oneto another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if someinvisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It wasas if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.

  Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggeringand falling, and their supporters turning to run.

  I stood staring, not as yet realising that this was death leapingfrom man to man in that little distant crowd. All I felt was that itwas something very strange. An almost noiseless and blinding flash oflight, and a man fell headlong and lay still; and as the unseen shaftof heat passed over them, pine trees burst into fire, and every dryfurze bush became with one dull thud a mass of flames. And far awaytowards Knaphill I saw the flashes of trees and hedges and woodenbuildings suddenly set alight.

  It was sweeping round swiftly and steadily, this flaming death,this invisible, inevitable sword of heat. I perceived it comingtowards me by the flashing bushes it touched, and was too astoundedand stupefied to stir. I heard the crackle of fire in the sand pitsand the sudden squeal of a horse that was as suddenly stilled. Thenit was as if an invisible yet intensely heated finger were drawnthrough the heather between me and the Martians, and all along acurving line beyond the sand pits the dark ground smoked and crackled.Something fell with a crash far away to the left where the road fromWoking station opens out on the common. Forth-with the hissing andhumming ceased, and the black, dome-like object sank slowly out ofsight into the pit.

  All this had happened with such swiftness that I had stoodmotionless, dumbfounded and dazzled by the flashes of light. Had thatdeath swept through a full circle, it must inevitably have slain me inmy surprise. But it passed and spared me, and left the night about mesuddenly dark and unfamiliar.

  The undulating common seemed now dark almost to blackness, exceptwhere its roadways lay grey and pale under the deep blue sky of theearly night. It was dark, and suddenly void of men. Overhead thestars were mustering, and in the west the sky was still a pale,bright, almost greenish blue. The tops of the pine trees and theroofs of Horsell came out sharp and black against the westernafterglow. The Martians and their appliances were altogetherinvisible, save for that thin mast upon which their restless mirrorwobbled. Patches of bush and isolated trees here and there smoked andglowed still, and the houses towards Woking station were sending upspires of flame into the stillness of the evening air.

  Nothing was changed save for that and a terrible astonishment. Thelittle group of black specks with the flag of white had been swept outof existence, and the stillness of the evening, so it seemed to me,had scarcely been broken.

  It came to me that I was upon this dark common, helpless,unprotected, and alone. Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me fromwithout, came--fear.

  With an effort I turned and began a stumbling run through theheather.

  The fear I felt was no rational fear, but a panic terror not onlyof the Martians, but of the dusk and stillness all about me. Such anextraordinary effect in unmanning me it had that I ran weepingsilently as a child might do. Once I had turned, I did not dare tolook back.

  I remember I felt an extraordinary persuasion that I was beingplayed with, that presently, when I was upon the very verge of safety,this mysterious death--as swift as the passage of light--would leapafter me from the pit about the cylinder and strike me down.

 
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