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A Glimpse Of The Doom







From: The World Peril Of 1910

After dinner Lennard excused himself, saying that he wanted to make a
few more calculations; and then he got outside and lit his pipe, and
walked up the winding path towards the observatory.

"What am I to do?" he said between his teeth. "It's a ghastly position
for a man to be placed in. Fancy--just a poor, ordinary, human being
like myself having the power of losing or saving the world in his hands!
And then, of course, there's a woman in the question--the Eternal
Feminine--even in such a colossal problem as this!

"It's mean, and I know it; but, after all, I saved her life--though, if
I hadn't reached her first, that other chap might have got her. I love
her and he loves her; there's no doubt about that, and Papa Parmenter
wants to marry her to a coronet. There's one thing certain, Castellan
shall not have her, and I love her a lot too much to see her made My
Lady This, or the Marchioness of So-and-so, just because she's beautiful
and has millions, and the other fellow, whoever he may be, may have a
coronet that probably wants re-gilding; and yet, after all, it's only
the same old story in a rather more serious form--a woman against the
world. I suppose Papa Parmenter would show me the door to-morrow morning
if I, a poor explorer of the realm of Space, dared to tell him that I
want to marry his daughter.

"And yet how miserable and trivial all these wretched distinctions of
wealth and position look now; or would look if the world only knew and
believed what I could tell it--and that reminds me--shall I tell her, or
them? Of course, I must before long; simply because in a month or so
those American fellows will be on it, and they won't have any scruples
when it comes to a matter of scare head-lines. Yes, I think it may as
well be to-night as any other time. Still, it's a pretty awful thing for
a humble individual like myself to say, especially to a girl one happens
to be very much in love with--nothing less than the death-sentence of
Humanity. Ah, well, she's got to hear it some time and from some one,
and why shouldn't she hear it now and from me?"

When he got back to the house, there was a carriage at the door, and Mr
Parmenter was just coming down the avenue, followed by a man with a
small portmanteau in his hand.

"Sorry, Mr Lennard," he said, holding out his hand, "I've just had a
wire about a company tangle in London that I've got to go and shake out
at once, so I'll have to see what you have to show me later on. Still,
that needn't trouble anyone. It looks as if it were going to be a
splendid night for star-gazing, and I don't want Auriole disappointed,
so she can go up to the observatory with you at the proper time and see
what there is to be seen. See you later, I have only just about time to
get the connection for London."

Lennard was not altogether sorry that this accident had happened.
Naturally, the prospect of an hour or so with Auriole alone in his
temple of Science was very pleasant, and moreover, he felt that, as the
momentous tidings had to be told, he would prefer to tell them to her
first. And so it came about.

A little after half-past eleven that night Miss Auriole was looking
wonderingly into the eye-piece of the great Reflector, watching a tiny
little patch of mist, somewhat brighter towards one end than the other;
like a little wisp of white smoke rising from a very faint spark that
was apparently floating across an unfathomable sea of darkness.

She seemed to see this through black darkness, and behind it a swarm of
stars of all sizes and colours. They appeared very much more wonderful
and glorious and important than the little spray of white smoke, because
she hadn't yet the faintest conception of its true import to her and
every other human being on earth: but she was very soon to know now.

While she was watching it in breathless silence, in which the clicking
of the mechanism which kept the great telescope moving so as to exactly
counteract the motion of the machinery of the Universe, sounded like the
blows of a sledge-hammer on an anvil, Gilbert Lennard stood beside her,
wondering if he should begin to tell her, and what he should say.

At last she turned away from the eye-piece, and looked at him with
something like a scared expression in her eyes, and said:

"It's very wonderful, isn't it, that one should be able to see all that
just by looking into a little bit of a hole in a telescope? And you tell
me that all those great big bright stars around your comet are so far
away that if you look at them just with your own eyes you don't even see
them--and there they look almost as if you could put out your hand and
touch them. It's just a little bit awful, too!" she added, with a little
shiver.

"Yes," he said, speaking slowly and even more gravely that she thought
the subject warranted, "yes, it is both wonderful and, in a way, awful.
Do you know that some of those stars you have seen in there are so far
away that the light which you see them by may have left them when
Solomon was king in Jerusalem? They may be quite dead and dark now, or
reduced into fire-mist by collision with some other star. And then,
perhaps, there are others behind them again so far away that their light
has not even reached us yet, and may never do while there are human eyes
on earth to see it."

"Yes, I know," she said, smiling. "You don't forget that I have been to
college--and light travels about a hundred and eighty-six thousand miles
a second, doesn't it? But come, Mr Lennard, aren't you what they call
stretching the probabilities a little when you say that the light of
some of them will never get here, as far as we're concerned? I always
thought we had a few million years of life to look forward to before
this old world of ours gets worn out."

"There are other ends possible for this world besides wearing out, Miss
Parmenter," he answered, this time almost solemnly. "Other worlds have,
as I say, been reduced to fire-mist. Some have been shattered to tiny
fragments to make asteroids and meteorites--stars and worlds, in
comparison with which this bit of a planet of ours is nothing more than
a speck of sand, a mere atom of matter drifting over the wilderness of
immensity. In fact, such a trifle is it in the organism of the Universe,
that if some celestial body collided with it--say a comet with a
sufficiently solid nucleus--and the heat developed by the impact turned
it into a mass of blazing gas, an astronomer on Neptune, one of our own
planets, wouldn't even notice the accident, unless he happened to be
watching the earth through a powerful telescope at the time."

"And is such an accident, as you call it, possible, Mr Lennard?" she
asked, jumping womanlike, by a sort of unconscious intuition, to the
very point to which he was so clumsily trying to lead up.

"I thought you spoke rather queerly about this comet of yours at
breakfast this morning. I hope there isn't any chance of its getting on
to the same track as this terrestrial locomotive of ours. That would be
just awful, wouldn't it? Why, what's the matter? You are going to be
ill, I know. You had better get down to the house, and go to bed. It's
want of sleep, isn't it? You'll be driving yourself mad that way."

A sudden and terrible change had come over him while she was speaking.
It was only for the moment, and yet to him it was an eternity. It might,
as she said, have been the want of sleep, for insomnia plays strange
tricks sometimes with the strongest of intellects.

More probably, it might have been the horror of his secret working on
the great love that he had for this girl who was sitting there alone
with him in the silence of that dim room and in the midst of the glories
and the mysteries of the Universe.

His eyes had grown fixed and staring, and looked sightlessly at her, and
his face shone ghastly pale in the dim light of the solitary shaded
lamp. Certainly, one of those mysterious crises which are among the
unsolved secrets of psychology had come upon him like some swift access
of delirium.

He no longer saw her sitting there by the telescope, calm, gracious, and
beautiful. He saw her as, by his pitiless calculations, he must do that
day thirteen months to come--with her soft grey eyes, starting,
horror-driven from their orbits, staring blank and wide and hideous at
the overwhelming hell that would be falling down from heaven upon the
devoted earth. He saw her fresh young face withered and horror-lined and
old, and the bright-brown hair grown grey with the years that would pass
in those few final moments. He saw the sweet red lips which had tempted
him so often to wild thoughts parched and black, wide open and gasping
vainly for the breath of life in a hot, burnt-out atmosphere.

Then he saw--no, it was only a glimpse; and with that the strange
trance-vision ended. What must have come after that would in all
certainty have driven him mad there and then, before his work had even
begun; but at that moment, swiftly severing the darkness that was
falling over his soul, there came to him an idea, bright, luminous, and
lovely as an inspiration from Heaven itself, and with it came back the
calm sanity of the sternly-disciplined intellect, prepared to
contemplate, not only the destruction of the world he lived in, but even
the loss of the woman he loved--the only human being who could make the
world beautiful or even tolerable for him.

The vision was blotted out from the sight of his soul; the darkness
cleared away from his eyes, and he saw her again as she still was. It
had all passed in a few moments and yet in them he had been down into
hell--and he had come back to earth, and into her presence.

Almost by the time she had uttered her last word, he had regained
command of his voice, and he began clearly and quietly to answer the
question which was still echoing through the chambers of his brain.

"It was only a little passing faintness, thank you; and something else
which you will understand when I have done, if you have patience to hear
me to the end," he said, looking straight at her for a moment, and then
beginning to walk slowly up and down the room past her chair.

"I am going to surprise you, perhaps to frighten you, and very probably
to offend you deeply," he began again in a quiet, dry sort of tone,
which somehow impressed her against all her convictions that he didn't
much care whether or not he did any or all of these things: but there
was something else in his tone and manner which held her to her seat,
silent and attentive, although she was conscious of a distinct desire to
get up and run away.

"Your guess about the comet, or whatever it may prove to be, is quite
correct. I don't think it is a new one. From what I have seen of it so
far, I have every reason to believe that it is Gambert's comet, which
was discovered in 1826, and became visible to the naked eye in the
autumn of 1833. It then crossed the orbit of the earth one month after
the earth had passed the point of intersection. After that, some force
divided it, and in '46 and '52 it reappeared as twin comets constantly
separating. Now it would seem that the two masses have come together
again: and as they are both larger in bulk and greater in density it
would appear that, somewhere in the distant fields of Space, they have
united with some other and denser body. The result is, that what is
practically a new comet, with a much denser nucleus than any so far
seen, is approaching our system. Unless a miracle happens, or there is a
practically impossible error in my calculations, it will cross the orbit
of the earth thirteen months from to-day, at the moment that the earth
itself arrives at the point of intersection."

So far Auriole had listened to the stiff scientific phraseology with
more interest than alarm; but now she took advantage of a little pause,
and said:

"And the consequences, Mr Lennard? I mean the consequences to us as
living beings. You may as well tell me everything now that you've gone
so far."

"I am going to," he said, stopping for a moment in his walk, "and I am
going to tell you something more than that. Granted that what I have
said happens, one of two things must follow. If the nucleus of the comet
is solid enough to pass through our atmosphere without being dissipated,
it will strike the surface with so much force that both it and the earth
will probably be transformed into fiery vapour by the conversion of the
motion of the two bodies into heat. If not, its contact with the oxygen
of the earth's atmosphere will produce an aerial conflagration which, if
it does not roast alive every living thing on earth, will convert the
oxygen, by combustion, into an irrespirable and poisonous gas, and so
kill us by a slower, but no less fatal, process."

"Horrible!" she said, shivering this time. "You speak like a judge
pronouncing sentence of death on the whole human race! I suppose there
is no possibility of reprieve? Well, go on!"

"Yes," he said, "there is something else. Those are the scientific
facts, as far as they go. I am going to tell you the chances now--and
something more. There is just one chance--one possible way of averting
universal ruin from the earth, and substituting for it nothing more
serious than an unparalleled display of celestial fireworks. All that
will be necessary is perfect calculation and illimitable expenditure of
money."

"Well," she said, "can't you do the calculations, Mr Lennard, and hasn't
dad got millions enough? How could he spend them better than in saving
the human race from being burnt alive? There isn't anything else, is
there?"

"There was something else," he said, stopping in front of her again. She
had risen to her feet as she said the last words, and the two stood
facing each other in the dim light, while the mechanism of the telescope
kept on clicking away in its heedless, mechanical fashion.

"Yes, there was something else, and I may as well tell you after all;
for, even if you never see or speak to me again, it won't stop the work
being done now. I could have kept this discovery to myself till it would
have been too late to do anything: for no other telescope without my
help would even find the comet for four months to come, and even now
there is hardly a day to be lost if the work is to be done in time. And
then--well, I suppose I must have gone mad for the time being, for I
thought--you will hardly believe me, I suppose--that I could make you
the price of the world's safety.

"From that, you will see how much I have loved you, however mad I may
have been. Losing you, I would have lost the world with you. If my love
lives, I thought, the world shall live: if not, if you die, the world
shall die. But just now, when you thought I was taken ill, I had a sort
of vision, and I saw you,--yes, you, Auriole as, if my one chance fails,
you must infallibly be this night thirteen months hence. I didn't see
any of the other millions who would be choking and gasping for breath
and writhing in the torture of the universal fire--I only saw you and my
own baseness in thinking, even for a moment, that such a bargain would
be possible.

"And then," he went on, more slowly, and with a different ring in his
voice, "there are the other men."

"Which other men?" she asked, looking up at him with a flush on her
cheeks and a gleam in her eyes.

"To be quite frank, and in such a situation as this, I don't see that
anything but complete candour is of any use," he replied slowly. "I need
hardly tell you that they are John Castellan and the Marquis of
Westerham. Castellan, I know, has loved you just as I have done, from
the moment we had the good luck to pick you out of the bay at Clifden.
Lord Westerham also wants you, so do I. That, put plainly, brutally, if
you like, is the situation. Of your own feelings, of course, I do not
pretend to have the remotest idea; but I confess that when this
knowledge came to me, the first thought that crossed my mind was the
thought of you as another man's wife--and then came the vision of the
world in flames. At first I chose the world in flames. I see that I was

wrong. That is all."

She had not interrupted even by a gesture, but as she listened, a
thousand signs and trifles which alone had meant nothing to her, now
seemed to come together and make one clear and definite revelation. This
strong, reserved, silent man had all the time loved her so desperately
that he was going mad about her--so mad that, as he had said, he had
even dreamed of weighing the possession of her single, insignificant
self against the safety of the whole world, with all its innumerable
millions of people--mostly as good in their way as she was.

Well--it might be that the love of such a man was a thing worth to weigh
even against a coronet--not in her eyes, for there was no question of
that now, but in her father's. But that was a matter for future
consideration. She drew herself up a little stiffly, and said, in just
such a tone as she might have used if what he had just been saying had
had no personal interest for her--had, in fact, been about some other
girl:

"I think it's about time to be going down to the house, Mr Lennard,
isn't it? I am quite sure a night's rest won't do you any harm. No, I'm
not offended, and I don't think I'm even frightened yet. It somehow
seems too big and too awful a thing to be only frightened at--too much
like the Day of Judgment, you know. I am glad you've told me--yes,
everything--and I'm glad that what you call your madness is over. You
will be able to do your work in saving the world all the better. Only
don't tell dad anything except--well--just the scientific and necessary
part of it. You know, saving a world is a very much greater matter than
winning a woman--at least it is in one particular woman's eyes--and
I've learnt somewhere in mathematics something about the greater
including the less. And now, don't you think we had better be going down
into the house? It's getting quite late."





Next: The Note Of War

Previous: The Shadow Of The Terror



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