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John Castellan's Threat

From: The World Peril Of 1910

Lennard's first feelings after the receipt of Mr Parmenter's cablegram,
and the casting of the vast mass of metal which was to form the body of
the great cannon, were those of doubt and hesitation, mingled, possibly,
with that sense of semi-irresponsibility which will for a time overcome
the most highly-disciplined mind when some great task has been completed
for the time being.

For a full month nothing could be done to the cannon, since it would
take quite that time for the metal to cool. Everything else had been
done or made ready. The huge projectile which was to wing its way into
Space to do battle for the life of humanity was completed. The boring
and rifling tools were finished, and all the materials for the driving
and the bursting charges were ready at hand for putting into their final
form when the work of loading up began. There was literally nothing more
to be done. All that human labour, skill and foresight could achieve for
the present had been accomplished.

Dearly would he have loved to go south and join the ranks of the
fighters; but a higher sense of duty than personal courage forbade that.
He was the only man who could perform the task he had undertaken, and a
chance bullet fragment of a shell to say nothing of the hundred minor
chances of the battlefield, might make the doing of that work

No, his time would come in the awful moment when the fate of humanity
would hang in the balance, and his place alike of honour and of duty
was now in the equatorial room of the observatory at Whernside, watching
through every waking hour of his life the movements of the Invader, that
he might note the slightest deviation from its course, or the most
trifling change in its velocity. For on such seemingly small matters as
these depended, not only the fate of the world, but of the only woman
who could make the world at least worth living in for him--and so he
went to Whernside by the morning train after a long day's talk with Tom
Bowcock over things in general.

"Yo' may be sure that everything will be all right, Mr Lennard," said
Tom, as they shook hands on the platform. "I'll take t' temperatures,
top, bottom and middle, every night and morning and post them to yo',
and if there's any change that we don't expect, I'll wire yo' at once;
and now I've a great favour to ask you, Mr Lennard. I haven't asked it
before because there's been too much work to do--"

"You needn't ask it, Tom," laughed Lennard, as he returned his grip,
"but I'm not going to invite you to Whernside just yet, for two reasons.
In the first place, I can't trust that metal to anyone else but you for
at least a week; and in the second place, when I do send you an
invitation from Mr Parmenter I shall not only be able to show you the
comet a bit brighter than it is just now, but something else that you
may have thought about or read about but never seen yet, and I am going
to give you an experience that no man born in England has ever had--but
I'm not going to spoil sport by telling you now."

"Yo've thought it all out afore me, Mr Lennard, as yo' always do
everything," replied Tom. "I'm not much given to compliments, as yo'
know, but yo're a wonderful man, and if yo've got something to show me,
it's bound to be wonderful too, and if it's anything as wonderful as t'
lies I've b'n telling those newspaper chaps about t' cannon, I reckon
it'll make me open my eyes as wide as they've ever been, for sure.

During the journey to Settle, Lennard began to debate once more with
himself a question which had troubled him considerably since he had
received Mr Parmenter's cablegram. Should he publish his calculations to
the world at once, give the exact position of the Invader at a given
moment in a given part of the sky, and so turn every telescope in the
civilised world upon it--or should he wait until some astronomer made
the independent discovery which must come within a short time now?

There were reasons both for and against. To do so might perhaps stop the
war, and that would, at first sight, be conferring a great blessing upon
humanity; but, on the other hand, it might have the very reverse effect
upon the millions of men whose blood was now inflamed with the lust of
battle. Again it was one thing to convince the rulers of the nations and
the scientists of the world that the coming catastrophe was inevitable;
but to convince the people who made up those nations would be a very
different matter.

The end of the world had been predicted hundreds of times already,
mostly by charlatans, who made a good living out of it, but sometimes by
the most august authorities. He had read his history, and he had not
forgotten the awful conditions in which the people of Europe fell during
the last months of the year 1000, when the Infallible Church had
solemnly proclaimed that at twelve o'clock on the night of the 31st of
December Satan, chained for a thousand years, would be let loose; that
on the morning of the 1st of January 1001 the order of Nature would be
reversed, the sun would rise in the west and the reign of Anti-Christ
begin. Then the remnants of the European nations had gradually awakened
to the fact that Holy Church was wrong, since nothing happened save the
results of the madness which her prophesies had produced.

But the catastrophe of which he would have to be the prophet would be
worse even than this, and, moreover, as far as human science could tell,
it was a mathematical certainty. There would be no miracle, nothing of
the supernatural about it--it would happen just as certainly as the
earth would revolve on its axis; and yet how many millions of the
earth's inhabitants would believe it until with their own eyes they saw
the approaching Fate?

In time of peace perhaps he might have obtained a hearing, but who would
pause amidst the rush of the armed battalions to listen to him? How
could the calm voice of Science make itself heard among the clash and
clangour of war? The German Emperor had already laughed in his face, and
accepted his challenge with contemptuous incredulity. No doubt his staff
and all his officers would do the same. What possibility then would
there be to convince the millions who were fighting blindly under their
orders? No; it was hopeless. The war must go on. He could only hope that
the Aerial Fleet which Mr Parmenter was bringing across the Atlantic
would turn the tide of battle in favour of the defenders of Britain.

But there was another matter to be considered. Thanks to the control
possessed by the Parmenter Syndicate over the Atlantic cables and the
aerograph system of the world, he was kept daily, sometimes hourly,
acquainted with everything that was happening. He knew that the Eastern
forces of Russia were concentrating upon India in the hope that the
disasters in England and the destruction of the Fleet would realise the
old Muscovite dream of detaching the natives from their loyalty to the
British Crown and so making the work of conquest easy. In the Far East,
Japan was recovering from the exhaustion consequent upon her costly
victories over Russia, and had formed an ominous alliance with China.

On the other hand Italy, England's sole remaining ally in Europe, had
blockaded the French Mediterranean ports, and while the French legions
were being drawn northward to the conquest of Britain, the Italian
armies had seized the Alpine passes and were preparing an invasion which
should avenge the humiliations which Italy had suffered under the first

In a word, everything pointed to universal war. Only the United States
preserved an inscrutable silence, which had been broken only by four
words: "Hands off our commerce." And to these the Leagued Nations had
listened, if rather by compulsion than respect.

Who was he, then, that he should, as it were, sound the trump of
approaching doom in the ears of a world round which from east to west
and from west again to east the battledrums might any day be sounding
and the roar of artillery thundering its answering echo.

But a somewhat different aspect was given to these reflections by a
letter which he found waiting for him in the library at Whernside House.
It ran thus:

"SIR,--You will not, I suppose, have forgotten a certain incident
which happened towards the end of June 1907 in the Bay of Clifden,
Connemara. You won that little swimming race by a yard or so, and
since then it appears to me that, although you may not be aware of
it, you and I have been running a race of a very different sort,
although possibly for the same prize.

"You will understand what prize I mean, and by this time you ought
to know that I have the power of taking it by force, if I cannot
win it in the ordinary way of sport or battle. I am in command of
the only really irresistible force in the world. I created that
force, and, by doing so, made the invasion of England and the
present war possible. I have done so because I hate England, and
desire to release my own country from her tyranny and oppression;
but I can love as well as I can hate, and whether you understood it
or not, I, who had never loved a woman before, loved Auriole
Parmenter from the moment that you and I lifted her out of the
water, and she smiled on us, and thanked us for saving her life.

"Before we parted that day I could see love in your eyes when you
looked at her, if you could not see it in mine. You are her
father's private astronomer, and until lately you have lived in
almost daily intercourse with her, in which, of course, you have
had a great advantage over myself, who have not from that time till
now been blessed by even the sight of her.

"But during that time it seems that you have discovered a comet,
which is to run into the earth and destroy all human life, unless
you prevent it. I know this because I know of the challenge you
gave to the German Emperor in Canterbury. I know also of what you
have been doing in Bolton. You are turning a coal pit into a
cannon, with which you believe that you can blow this comet into
thin air or gas before it meets the earth, and you threatened His
Majesty that if the war was not stopped the human race should be

"That, if you will pardon the expression, was a piece of bluff. You
love Miss Parmenter perhaps as much as, though not possibly more
than, I do, and therefore you would certainly not destroy the world
as long as she was alive in it. You would be more or less than man
if you did, and I don't believe you are either, and therefore I
think you will understand the proposition I am going to make to

"Granted hypothesis that the world will come to an end by means of
this comet on a certain day, and granted also that you are able to
save it with this cannon of yours, I write now to tell you that,
whether the war stops or not in obedience to your threat, I will
not allow you to save the world unless Miss Parmenter consents to
marry me within two months from now. If she does, the war shall
stop, or at anyrate I will allow the British forces to conquer the
whole of Europe on the sole condition of giving independence to
Ireland. They cannot win without my fleet of Flying Fishes, and
if I turn that fleet against them they will not only be defeated
but annihilated. In other words, with the sole exception of my own
country, I offer England the conquest of Europe in exchange for the
hand of one woman.

"In the other alternative, that is to say, if Miss Parmenter, her
father and yourself do not consent to this proposal, I will not
allow you to save the world. I can destroy your cannon works at
Bolton as easily as I destroyed the forts at Portsmouth and Dover,
and as easily as I can and will kill you, and wreck your
observatory. When I have done this I will take possession of Miss
Parmenter by force, and then your comet can come along and destroy
the world as soon as it likes.

"I shall expect a definite answer to this letter, signed by Mr
Parmenter and yourself, within seven days. If you address your
letter to Mr James Summers, 28a Carlos Street, Sheerness, it will
reach me; but I must warn you that any attempt to discover why it
will reach me from that address will be punished by the bombardment
and destruction of the town.

"I hope you will see the reasonableness and moderation of my
conditions, and remain, yours faithfully,

Next: A Vigil In The Night

Previous: Mr Parmenter Says

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