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H. G. Wells
The War of the Worlds 17
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CHAPTER XVII
THE "THUNDER CHILD"


Had the Martians aimed only at destruction, they might on Monday
have annihilated the entire population of London, as it spread itself
slowly through the home counties. Not only along the road through
Barnet, but also through Edgware and Waltham Abbey, and along the
roads eastward to Southend and Shoeburyness, and south of the
Thames to Deal and Broadstairs, poured the same frantic rout. If one
could have hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue above
London every northward and eastward road running out of the tangled
maze of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streaming
fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress. I
have set forth at length in the last chapter my brother's account of
the road through Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realise
how that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned.
Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human
beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and
Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop
in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede--
a stampede gigantic and terrible-- without order and without
a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving
headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the
massacre of mankind.

Directly below him the balloonist would have seen the network of
streets far and wide, houses, churches, squares, crescents,
gardens-- already derelict-- spread out like a huge map, and in the
southward BLOTTED. Over Ealing, Richmond, Wimbledon, it would
have seemed as if some monstrous pen had flung ink upon the chart.
Steadily, incessantly, each black splash grew and spread, shooting out
ramifications this way and that, now banking itself against rising
ground, 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 methodically
spreading their poison cloud over this patch of country and then over
that, laying it again with their steam jets when it had served its
purpose, and taking possession of the conquered country. They do not
seem to have aimed at extermination so much as at complete
demoralisation and the destruction of any opposition. They exploded
any stores of powder they came upon, cut every telegraph, and wrecked
the railways here and there. They were hamstringing mankind. They
seemed in no hurry to extend the field of their operations, and did
not come beyond the central part of London all that day. It is
possible that a very considerable number of people in London stuck to
their houses through Monday morning. Certain it is that many died at
home suffocated by the Black Smoke.

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

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

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

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

He was also told that the Midland Railway Company had replaced the
desertions of the first day's panic, had resumed traffic, and was
running northward trains from St. Albans to relieve the congestion of
the home counties. There was also a placard in Chipping Ongar
announcing that large stores of flour were available in the northern
towns and that within twenty-four hours bread would be distributed
among the starving people in the neighbourhood. But this intelligence
did not deter him from the plan of escape he had formed, and the three
pressed eastward all day, and heard no more of the bread distribution
than this promise. Nor, as a matter of fact, did anyone else hear
more of it. That night fell the seventh star, falling upon Primrose
Hill. It fell while Miss Elphinstone was watching, for she took that
duty alternately with my brother. She saw it.

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

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

For after the sailors could no longer come up the Thames, they came
on to the Essex coast, to Harwich and Walton and Clacton, and
afterwards to Foulness and Shoebury, to bring off the people. They
lay in a huge sickle-shaped curve that vanished into mist at last
towards the Naze. Close inshore was a multitude of fishing
smacks-- English, Scotch, French, Dutch, and Swedish; steam launches
from the Thames, yachts, electric boats; and beyond were ships of large
burden, a multitude of filthy colliers, trim merchantmen, cattle ships,
passenger boats, petroleum tanks, ocean tramps, an old white transport
even, neat white and grey liners from Southampton and Hamburg; and
along the blue coast across the Blackwater my brother could make out
dimly 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. This
was the ram THUNDER CHILD. It was the only warship in sight, but far
away to the right over the smooth surface of the sea-- for that day
there was a dead calm-- lay a serpent of black smoke to mark the next
ironclads of the Channel Fleet, which hovered in an extended line,
steam up and ready for action, across the Thames estuary during the
course of the Martian conquest, vigilant and yet powerless to prevent
it.

At the sight of the sea, Mrs. Elphinstone, in spite of the
assurances of her sister-in-law, gave way to panic. She had never
been out of England before, she would rather die than trust herself
friendless in a foreign country, 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 depressed
during the two days' journeyings. Her great idea was to return to
Stanmore. Things had been always well and safe at Stanmore.
They would find George at Stanmore.

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

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

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

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

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

It was the first Martian my brother had seen, and he stood, more
amazed than terrified, watching this Titan advancing deliberately
towards the shipping, wading farther and farther into the water as the
coast fell away. Then, far away beyond the Crouch, came another,
striding over some stunted trees, and then yet another, still farther
off, wading deeply through a shiny mudflat that seemed to hang halfway
up between sea and sky. They were all stalking seaward, as if to
intercept the escape of the multitudinous vessels that were crowded
between Foulness and the Naze. In spite of the throbbing exertions of
the engines of the little paddle-boat, and the pouring foam that her
wheels flung behind her, she receded with terrifying slowness from
this ominous advance.

Glancing northwestward, my brother saw the large crescent of
shipping already writhing with the approaching terror; one ship
passing behind another, another coming round from broadside to end
on, steamships whistling and giving off volumes of steam, sails being let
out, launches rushing hither and thither. He was so fascinated by
this and by the creeping danger away to the left that he had no eyes
for anything seaward. And then a swift movement of the steamboat (she
had suddenly come round to avoid being run down) flung him headlong
from the seat upon which he was standing. There was a shouting all
about him, a trampling of feet, and a cheer that seemed to be answered
faintly. The steamboat lurched and rolled him over upon his hands.

He sprang to his feet and saw to starboard, and not a hundred yards
from their heeling, pitching boat, a vast iron bulk like the blade of
a plough tearing through the water, tossing it on either side in huge
waves of foam that leaped towards the steamer, flinging her paddles
helplessly in the air, and then sucking her deck down almost to the
waterline.

A douche of spray blinded my brother for a moment. When his eyes
were clear again he saw the monster had passed and was rushing
landward. Big iron upperworks rose out of this headlong structure,
and from that twin funnels projected and spat a smoking blast shot
with 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 far
out to sea that their tripod supports were almost entirely submerged.
Thus sunken, and seen in remote perspective, they appeared far less
formidable than the huge iron bulk in whose wake the steamer was
pitching so helplessly. It would seem they were regarding this new
antagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence, it may be, the
giant was even such another as themselves. The THUNDER CHILD fired
no gun, but simply drove full speed towards them. It was probably her
not firing that enabled her to get so near the enemy as she did. They
did not know what to make of her. One shell, and they would have sent
her to the bottom forthwith with the Heat-Ray.

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

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

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

A flicker of flame went up through the rising steam, and then the
Martian reeled and staggered. In another moment he was cut down,
and a 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, ricocheted towards the other flying ships to the north, and
smashed a smack to matchwood.

But no one heeded that very much. At the sight of the Martian's
collapse the captain on the bridge yelled inarticulately, and all the
crowding passengers on the steamer's stern shouted together.
And then they yelled again. For, surging out beyond the white
tumult, drove something 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 and
her engines working. She headed straight for a second Martian, and
was within a hundred yards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear.
Then with a violent thud, a blinding flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped
upward. The Martian staggered with the violence of her explosion, and
in another moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with the
impetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up like a thing
of cardboard. My brother shouted involuntarily. A boiling tumult of
steam hid everything again.

"Two!" yelled the captain.

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

The steam hung upon the water for many minutes, hiding the third
Martian and the coast altogether. And all this time the boat was
paddling steadily out to sea and away from the fight; and when at last
the confusion cleared, the drifting bank of black vapour intervened,
and nothing of the THUNDER CHILD could be made out, nor could the
third Martian be seen. But the ironclads to seaward were now quite
close and standing in towards shore past the steamboat.

The little vessel continued to beat its way seaward, and the
ironclads receded slowly towards the coast, which was hidden still by
a marbled bank of vapour, part steam, part black gas, eddying and
combining in the strangest way. The fleet of refugees was scattering
to the northeast; several smacks were sailing between the ironclads
and the steamboat. After a time, and before they reached the sinking
cloud bank, the warships turned northward, and then abruptly went
about and passed into the thickening haze of evening southward. The
coast grew faint, and at last indistinguishable amid the low banks of
clouds that were gathering about the sinking sun.

Then suddenly out of the golden haze of the sunset came the
vibration of guns, and a form of black shadows moving. Everyone
struggled to the rail of the steamer and peered into the blinding
furnace of the west, but nothing was to be distinguished clearly. A
mass of smoke rose slanting and barred the face of the sun. The
steamboat throbbed on its way through an interminable suspense.

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



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