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H. G. Wells
The War of the Worlds 15
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CHAPTER XV
WHAT HAD HAPPENED IN SURREY


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

But three certainly came out about eight o'clock and, advancing
slowly and cautiously, made their way through Byfleet and Pyrford
towards Ripley and Weybridge, and so came in sight of the expectant
batteries against the setting sun. These Martians did not advance in
a body, but in a line, each perhaps a mile and a half from his nearest
fellow. They communicated with one another by means of sirenlike
howls, 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 Ripley
gunners, unseasoned artillery volunteers who ought never to have
been placed in such a position, fired one wild, premature, ineffectual
volley, and bolted on horse and foot through the deserted village,
while the Martian, without using his Heat-Ray, walked serenely over
their guns, stepped gingerly among them, passed in front of them,
and so came unexpectedly upon the guns in Painshill Park, which
he destroyed.

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

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

After this it would seem that the three took counsel together and
halted, and the scouts who were watching them report that they
remained absolutely stationary for the next half hour. The Martian
who had been overthrown crawled tediously out of his hood, a small
brown figure, oddly suggestive from that distance of a speck of
blight, and apparently engaged in the repair of his support. About
nine he had finished, for his cowl was then seen above the trees
again.

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

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

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

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

The occasional howling of the Martians had ceased; they took up
their positions in the huge crescent about their cylinders in absolute
silence. It was a crescent with twelve miles between its horns. Never
since the devising of gunpowder was the beginning of a battle so
still. To us and to an observer about Ripley it would have had
precisely the same effect-- the Martians seemed in solitary possession
of the darkling night, lit only as it was by the slender moon, the
stars, 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 across
the flat grass meadows to the north of it, wherever a cluster of trees
or village houses gave sufficient cover-- the guns were waiting. The
signal rockets burst and rained their sparks through the night and
vanished, and the spirit of all those watching batteries rose to a
tense expectation. The Martians had but to advance into the line of
fire, and instantly those motionless black forms of men, those guns
glittering so darkly in the early night, would explode into a
thunderous fury of battle.

No doubt the thought that was uppermost in a thousand of those
vigilant minds, even as it was uppermost in mine, was the riddle--
how much they understood of us. Did they grasp that we in our
millions were organized, disciplined, working together? Or did they
interpret our spurts of fire, the sudden stinging of our shells, our
steady investment of their encampment, as we should the furious
unanimity of onslaught in a disturbed hive of bees? Did they dream
they might exterminate us? (At that time no one knew what food
they needed.) A hundred such questions struggled together in my
mind as I watched that vast sentinel shape. And in the back of
my mind was the sense of all the huge unknown and hidden forces
Londonward. Had they prepared pitfalls? Were the powder mills at
Hounslow ready as a snare? Would the Londoners have the heart
and courage to make a greater Moscow of their mighty province of
houses?

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

I was so excited by these heavy minute-guns following one another
that I so far forgot my personal safety and my scalded hands as to
clamber up into the hedge and stare towards Sunbury. As I did so a
second report followed, and a big projectile hurtled overhead towards
Hounslow. I expected at least to see smoke or fire, or some such
evidence of its work. But all I saw was the deep blue sky above, with
one solitary star, and the white mist spreading wide and low beneath.
And there had been no crash, no answering explosion. The silence
was restored; 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 shouting
began and ceased. I looked again at the Martian, and saw he was
now moving eastward along the riverbank, with a swift, rolling
motion.

Every moment I expected the fire of some hidden battery to spring
upon him; but the evening calm was unbroken. The figure of the
Martian grew smaller as he receded, and presently the mist and
the gathering night had swallowed him up. By a common impulse
we clambered higher. Towards Sunbury was a dark appearance,
as though a conical hill had suddenly come into being there, hiding
our view of the farther country; and then, remoter across the river,
over Walton, we saw another such summit. These hill-like forms
grew lower and broader even as we stared.

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

Everything had suddenly become very still. Far away to the
southeast, marking the quiet, we heard the Martians hooting to one
another, and then the air quivered again with the distant thud of
their guns. But the earthly artillery made no reply.

Now at the time we could not understand these things, but later I
was to learn the meaning of these ominous kopjes that gathered in
the twilight. Each of the Martians, standing in the great crescent I
have described, had discharged, by means of the gunlike tube he
carried, a huge canister over whatever hill, copse, cluster of houses,
or other possible cover for guns, chanced to be in front of him. Some
fired only 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
at that time. These canisters smashed on striking the ground-- they
did not explode-- and incontinently disengaged an enormous volume
of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and
ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself
slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour,
the inhaling of its 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 sank
down through the air and poured over the ground in a manner rather
liquid than gaseous, abandoning the hills, and streaming into the
valleys and ditches and watercourses even as I have heard the
carbonic-acid gas that pours from volcanic clefts is wont to do. And
where it came upon water some chemical action occurred, and the
surface would be instantly covered with a powdery scum that sank
slowly and made way for more. The scum was absolutely insoluble,
and it is a strange thing, seeing the instant effect of the gas, that one
could drink without hurt the water from which it had been strained.
The vapour did not diffuse as a true gas would do. It hung together
in banks, flowing sluggishly down the slope of the land and driving
reluctantly before the wind, and very slowly it combined with the mist
and 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 blue
of the spectrum is concerned, we are still entirely ignorant of the
nature of this substance.

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

The man who escaped at the former place tells a wonderful story of
the strangeness of its coiling flow, and how he looked down from the
church spire and saw the houses of the village rising like ghosts out
of its inky nothingness. For a day and a half he remained there,
weary, starving and sun-scorched, the earth under the blue sky and
against the prospect of the distant hills a velvet-black expanse, with
red 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 allowed
to remain until it sank of its own accord into the ground. As a rule
the Martians, when it had served its purpose, cleared the air of it
again 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 the
starlight from the window of a deserted house at Upper Halliford,
whither we had returned. From there we could see the searchlights on
Richmond Hill and Kingston Hill going to and fro, and about eleven the
windows rattled, and we heard the sound of the huge siege guns that
had been put in position there. These continued intermittently for
the space of a quarter of an hour, sending chance shots at the
invisible Martians at Hampton and Ditton, and then the pale beams of
the electric light vanished, and were replaced by a bright red glow.

Then the fourth cylinder fell-- a brilliant green meteor-- as I
learned afterwards, in Bushey Park. Before the guns on the Richmond
and Kingston line of hills began, there was a fitful cannonade far
away in the southwest, due, I believe, to guns being fired haphazard
before the black vapour could overwhelm the gunners.

So, setting about it as methodically as men might smoke out a
wasps' nest, the Martians spread this strange stifling vapour over the
Londonward 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, after
the Martian at St. George's Hill was brought down, did they give the
artillery the ghost of a chance against them. Wherever there was a
possibility of guns being laid for them unseen, a fresh canister of
the black vapour was discharged, and where the guns were openly
displayed the Heat-Ray was brought to bear.

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

They were sparing of the Heat-Ray that night, either because they
had but a limited supply of material for its production or because
they did not wish to destroy the country but only to crush and overawe
the opposition they had aroused. In the latter aim they certainly
succeeded. Sunday night was the end of the organised opposition to
their movements. After that no body of men would stand against them,
so hopeless was the enterprise. Even the crews of the torpedo-boats
and destroyers that had brought their quick-firers up the Thames
refused to stop, mutinied, and went down again. The only offensive
operation men ventured upon after that night was the preparation of
mines and pitfalls, and even in that their energies were frantic and
spasmodic.

One has to imagine, as well as one may, the fate of those batteries
towards Esher, waiting so tensely in the twilight. Survivors there
were none. One may picture the orderly expectation, the officers
alert and watchful, the gunners ready, the ammunition piled to hand,
the limber gunners with their horses and waggons, the groups of
civilian spectators standing as near as they were permitted, the
evening stillness, the ambulances and hospital tents with the burned
and wounded from Weybridge; then the dull resonance of the shots
the Martians fired, and the clumsy projectile whirling over the trees
and houses and smashing amid the neighbouring fields.

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

Before dawn the black vapour was pouring through the streets of
Richmond, and the disintegrating organism of government was,
with a last expiring effort, rousing the population of London to the
necessity of flight.



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