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H. G. Wells
The War of the Worlds 06
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CHAPTER VI
THE HEAT-RAY IN THE CHOBHAM ROAD


It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay
men so swiftly and so silently. Many think that in some way they
are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically
absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a
parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a
polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the
parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light. But
no one has absolutely proved these details. However it is done,
it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of the matter.
Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible
flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens
iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water,
incontinently that explodes into steam.

That night nearly forty people lay under the starlight about the
pit, charred and distorted beyond recognition, and all night long the
common from Horsell to Maybury was deserted and brightly ablaze.

The news of the massacre probably reached Chobham, Woking, and
Ottershaw about the same time. In Woking the shops had closed
when the tragedy happened, and a number of people, shop people
and so forth, attracted by the stories they had heard, were walking
over the Horsell Bridge and along the road between the hedges
that runs out at last upon the common. You may imagine the young
people brushed up after the labours of the day, and making this novelty,
as they would make any novelty, the excuse for walking together
and enjoying a trivial flirtation. You may figure to yourself the hum
of voices along the road in the gloaming. . . .

As yet, of course, few people in Woking even knew that the cylinder
had opened, though poor Henderson had sent a messenger on a
bicycle to the post office with a special wire to an evening paper.

As these folks came out by twos and threes upon the open, they
found little knots of people talking excitedly and peering at the
spinning mirror over the sand pits, and the newcomers were,
no doubt, soon infected by the excitement of the occasion.

By half past eight, when the Deputation was destroyed, there may
have been a crowd of three hundred people or more at this place,
besides those who had left the road to approach the Martians nearer.
There were three policemen too, one of whom was mounted, doing
their best, under instructions from Stent, to keep the people back
and deter them from approaching the cylinder. There was some
booing from those more thoughtless and excitable souls to whom
a crowd is always an occasion for noise and horse-play.

Stent and Ogilvy, anticipating some possibilities of a collision,
had telegraphed from Horsell to the barracks as soon as the Martians
emerged, for the help of a company of soldiers to protect these
strange creatures from violence. After that they returned to lead
that ill-fated advance. The description of their death, as it was seen
by the crowd, tallies very closely with my own impressions: the
three puffs of green smoke, the deep humming note, and the
flashes of flame.

But that crowd of people had a far narrower escape than mine. Only
the fact that a hummock of heathery sand intercepted the lower part
of the Heat-Ray saved them. Had the elevation of the parabolic mirror
been a few yards higher, none could have lived to tell the tale. They
saw the flashes and the men falling and an invisible hand, as it were,
lit the bushes as it hurried towards them through the twilight. Then,
with a whistling note that rose above the droning of the pit, the beam
swung close over their heads, lighting the tops of the beech trees
that line the road, and splitting the bricks, smashing the windows,
firing the window frames, and bringing down in crumbling ruin a
portion of the gable of the house nearest the corner.

In the sudden thud, hiss, and glare of the igniting trees, the
panic-stricken crowd seems to have swayed hesitatingly for some
moments. Sparks and burning twigs began to fall into the road, and
single leaves like puffs of flame. Hats and dresses caught fire. Then
came a crying from the common. There were shrieks and shouts, and
suddenly a mounted policeman came galloping through the confusion
with his hands clasped over his head, screaming.

"They're coming!" a woman shrieked, and incontinently everyone was
turning and pushing at those behind, in order to clear their way to
Woking again. They must have bolted as blindly as a flock of sheep.
Where the road grows narrow and black between the high banks the
crowd jammed, and a desperate struggle occurred. All that crowd
did not escape; three persons at least, two women and a little boy,
were crushed and trampled there, and left to die amid the terror
and the darkness.


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