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The Shadow Of The Terror







From: The World Peril Of 1910

By a curious coincidence which, as events proved, was to have some
serious consequences, almost at the same moment that Commander Erskine
began to write his report on the strange vision which he and his
Lieutenant had seen, Gilbert Lennard came out of the Observatory which
Mr Ratliffe Parmenter had built on the south of the Whernside Hills in
Yorkshire.

Mr Ratliffe Parmenter had two ambitions in life, one of which he had
fulfilled. This was to pile millions upon millions by any possible
means. As he used to say to his associates in his poorer days, "You've
got to get there somehow, so get there"--and he had "got there." It is
not necessary for the purpose of the present narrative to say how he did
it. He had done it, and that is why he bought the Hill of Whernside and
about a thousand acres around it and built an Observatory on the top
with which, to use his own words, he meant to lick Creation by seeing
further into Creation than anyone else had done, and that is just what
his great reflector had enabled his astronomer to do.

When he had locked the door Lennard looked up to the eastward where the
morning star hung flashing like a huge diamond in splendid solitude
against the brightening background of the sky. His face was the face of
a man who had seen something that he would not like to describe to any
other man. His features were hard set, and there were lines in his face
which time might have drawn twenty or thirty years later. His lips made
a straight line, and his eyes, although he had hardly slept three hours
a night for as many nights, had a look in them that was not to be
accounted for by ordinary insomnia.

His work was over for the night, and, if he chose, he could go down to
the house three-quarters of a mile away and sleep for the rest of the
day, or, at any rate, until lunch time; and yet he looked another long
look at the morning star, thrust his hands down into his trousers
pockets and turned up a side path that led through the heather, and
spent the rest of the morning walking and thinking--walking slowly, and
thinking very quickly.

When he came in to breakfast at nine the next morning, after he had had
a shave and a bath, Mr Parmenter said to him:

"Look here, young man, I'm old enough to be your father, and so you'll
excuse me putting it that way; if you're going along like this I reckon
I'll have to shut that Observatory down for the time being and take you
on a trip to the States to see how they're getting on with their
telescopes in the Alleghanies and the Rockies, and maybe down South too
in Peru, to that Harvard Observatory above Arequipa on the Misti, as a
sort of holiday. I asked you to come here to work, not to wear yourself
out. As I've told you before, we've got plenty of men in the States who
can sign their cheques for millions of dollars and can't eat a dinner,
to say nothing of a breakfast, and you're too young for that.

"What's the matter? More trouble about that new comet of yours. You've
been up all night looking at it, haven't you? Of course it's all right
that you got hold of it before anybody else, but all the same I don't
want you to be worrying yourself for nothing and get laid up before the
time comes to take the glory of the discovery."

While he was speaking the door of the breakfast-room opened and Auriole
came in. She looked with a just perceptible admiration at the man who,
as it seemed to her, was beginning to show a slight stoop in the broad
shoulders and a little falling forward of the head which she had first
seen driving through the water to her rescue in the Bay of Connemara.
Her eyelids lifted a shade as she looked at him, and she said with a
half smile:

"Good morning, Mr Lennard; I am afraid you've been sacrificing yourself
a little bit too much to science. You don't seem to have had a sleep for
the last two or three nights. You've been blinding your eyes over those
tangles of figures and equations, parallaxes and cube roots and that
sort of thing. I know something about them because I had some struggles
with them myself at Vassar."

"That's about it, Auriole," said her father. "Just what I've been
saying; and I hope our friend is not going on with this kind of business
too long. Now, really, Mr Lennard, you know you must not, and that's all
there is to it."

"Oh, no, I don't think you need be frightened of anything of that sort,"
said Lennard, who had considerably brightened up as Auriole entered the
room; "perhaps I may have been going a little too long without sleep;
but, you see, a man who has the great luck to discover a new comet is
something like one of the old navigators who discovered new islands and
continents. Of course you remember the story of Columbus. When he
thought he was going to find what is now the country which has had the
honour--"

"I know you're going to say something nice, Mr Lennard," interrupted
Auriole, "but breakfast is ready; here it comes. If you take my advice
you will have your coffee and something to eat and tell us the rest of
it while you're getting something that will do you good. What do you
think, Poppa?"

"Hard sense, Auriole, hard sense. Your mother used to talk just like
that, and I reckon you've got it from her. Well now, here's the food,
let's begin. I've got a hunger on me that I'd have wanted five dollars
to stop at the time when I couldn't buy a breakfast."

They sat down, Miss Auriole at the head of the table and her father and
Lennard facing each other, and for the next few minutes there was a
semi-silence which was very well employed in the commencement of one of
the most important functions of the human day.

When Mr Parmenter had got through his first cup of coffee, his two
poached eggs on toast, and was beginning on the fish, he looked across
the table and said:

"Well now, Mr Lennard, I guess you're feeling a bit better, as I do, and
so, maybe, you can tell us something new about comets."

"I certainly am feeling better," said Lennard with a glance at Auriole,
"but, you see, I've got into a state of mind which is not unlike the
physical state of the Red Indian who starves for a few days and then
takes his meals, I mean the arrears of meals, all at once. When I have
had a good long sleep, as I am going to have until to-night, I might--in
fact, I hope I shall be able to tell you something definite about the
question of the comet."

"What--the question?" echoed Mr Parmenter. "About the comet? I didn't
understand that there was any question. You have discovered it, haven't
you?"

"I have made a certain discovery, Mr Parmenter," said Lennard, with a
gravity which made Auriole raise her eyelids quickly, "but whether I
have found a comet so far unknown to astronomy or not, is quite another
matter. Thanks to that splendid instrument of yours, I have found a
something in a part of the heavens where no comet, not even a star, has
even been seen yet, and, speaking in all seriousness, I may say that
this discovery contradicts all calculations as to the orbits and
velocities of any known comet. That is what I have been thinking about
all night."

"What?" said Auriole, looking up again. "Really something quite
unknown?"

"Unknown except to the three people sitting at this table, unless
another miracle has happened--I mean such a one as happened in the case
of the discovery of Neptune which, as of course you know, Adams at
Cambridge and Le Verrier at Paris--"

"Yes, yes," said Auriole, "two men who didn't know each other; both
looked for something that couldn't be seen, and found it. If you've done
anything like that, Mr Lennard, I reckon Poppa will have good cause to
be proud of his reflector--"

"And of the man behind it," added her father. "A telescope's like a gun;
no use without a good man behind it. Well, if that's so, Mr Lennard,
this discovery of yours ought to shake the world up a bit."

"From what I have seen so far," replied Lennard, "I have not the
slightest doubt that it will."

"And when may I see this wonderful discovery of yours, Mr Lennard," said
Auriole, "this something which is going to be so important, this
something that no one else's eyes have seen except yours. Really, you
know, you've made me quite longing to get a sight of this stranger from
the outer wilderness of space."

"If the night is clear enough, I may hope to be able to introduce you to
the new celestial visitor about a quarter-past eleven to-night, or to be
quite accurate eleven hours, sixteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds
p.m."

"I think that's good enough, Auriole," said her father. "If the heavens
are only kind enough, we'll go up to the observatory and, as Mr Lennard
says, see something that no one else has ever seen."

"And then," laughed Auriole, "I suppose you will have achieved the
second ambition of your life. You have already piled up a bigger heap of
dollars than anybody else in the world, and by midnight you will have
seen farther into Creation than anybody else. But you will let me have
the first look, won't you?"

"Why, certainly," he replied. "As soon as Mr Lennard has got the
telescope fixed, you go first, and I reckon that won't take very long."

"No," replied Lennard, "I've worked out the position for to-night, and
it's only a matter of winding up the clockwork and setting the
telescope. And now," he continued, rising, "if you will allow me, I will
say--well, I was going to say good-night, but of course it's
good-morning--I'm going to bed."

"Will you come down to lunch, or shall I have some sent up to you?"
said Auriole.

"No, thanks. I don't think there will be any need to trouble you about
that. When I once get to sleep, I hope I shall forget all things
earthly, and heavenly too for the matter of that, until about six
o'clock, and if you will have me called then, I will be ready for
dinner."

"Certainly," replied Auriole, "and I hope you will sleep as well as you
deserve to do, after all these nights of watching."

He did sleep. He slept the sleep of a man physically and mentally tired,
in spite of the load of unspeakable anxiety which was weighing upon his
mind. For during his last night's work, he had learnt what no other man
in the world knew. He had learnt that, unless a miracle happened, or
some almost superhuman feat of ingenuity and daring was accomplished,
that day thirteen months hence would see the annihilation of every
living thing on earth, and the planet Terra converted into a dark and
lifeless orb, a wilderness drifting through space, the blackened and
desolated sepulchre of the countless millions of living beings which now
inhabited it.





Next: A Glimpse Of The Doom

Previous: Seen Under The Moon



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