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H. G. Wells
The War of the Worlds 05
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CHAPTER V
THE HEAT-RAY


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

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and was immediately withdrawn, and afterwards a thin rod rose up,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

Most of the spectators had gathered in one or two groups-- one
a little crowd towards Woking, the other a knot of people in the
direction 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!" He
repeated this over and over again.

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

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

It was this, as much as anything, that gave people courage, and I
suppose the new arrivals from Woking also helped to restore
confidence. At any rate, as the dusk came on a slow, intermittent
movement upon the sand pits began, a movement that seemed to
gather force as the stillness of the evening about the cylinder remained
unbroken. Vertical black figures in twos and threes would advance,
stop, watch, and advance again, spreading out as they did so in a thin
irregular crescent that promised to enclose the pit in its attenuated
horns. I, too, on my side began to move towards the pit.

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

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

Flutter, flutter, went the flag, first to the right, then to the
left. It was too far for me to recognise anyone there, but afterwards
I learned that Ogilvy, Stent, and Henderson were with others in this
attempt at communication. This little group had in its advance
dragged inward, so to speak, the circumference of the now almost
complete circle of people, and a number of dim black figures
followed it at discreet distances.

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

This smoke (or flame, perhaps, would be the better word for it) was
so bright that the deep blue sky overhead and the hazy stretches of
brown common towards Chertsey, set with black pine trees, seemed
to darken abruptly as these puffs arose, and to remain the darker
after their dispersal. At the same time a faint hissing sound became
audible.

Beyond the pit stood the little wedge of people with the white flag
at its apex, arrested by these phenomena, a little knot of small
vertical 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 the
ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it.

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

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

I stood staring, not as yet realising that this was death leaping
from man to man in that little distant crowd. All I felt was that it
was something very strange. An almost noiseless and blinding flash
of light, and a man fell headlong and lay still; and as the unseen shaft
of heat passed over them, pine trees burst into fire, and every dry
furze bush became with one dull thud a mass of flames. And far away
towards Knaphill I saw the flashes of trees and hedges and wooden
buildings suddenly set alight.

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

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

The undulating common seemed now dark almost to blackness, except
where its roadways lay grey and pale under the deep blue sky of the
early night. It was dark, and suddenly void of men. Overhead the
stars were mustering, and in the west the sky was still a pale,
bright, almost greenish blue. The tops of the pine trees and the
roofs of Horsell came out sharp and black against the western
afterglow. The Martians and their appliances were altogether
invisible, save for that thin mast upon which their restless mirror
wobbled. Patches of bush and isolated trees here and there smoked
and glowed still, and the houses towards Woking station were sending
up spires of flame into the stillness of the evening air.

Nothing was changed save for that and a terrible astonishment. The
little group of black specks with the flag of white had been swept out
of 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 from
without, came-- fear.

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

The fear I felt was no rational fear, but a panic terror not only
of the Martians, but of the dusk and stillness all about me. Such an
extraordinary effect in unmanning me it had that I ran weeping
silently as a child might do. Once I had turned, I did not dare to
look back.

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


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