The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Viii Part 44
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When I woke I found myself thinking consecutively, a thing I do not remember to have done since I killed the curate in the other book. In the interim my mental condition had been chaotic, asymptotic. But during slumber my brain, incredible as it may seem, stimulated and clarified by the condiments of which I had partaken, had resumed its normal activity. I determined to go home.
Resolving at any cost to reach Campden Hill Gardens by a sufficiently circuitous route, I traversed Kennington Park Road, Newington b.u.t.ts, Newington Causeway, Blackman Street, and the Borough High Street, to London Bridge. Crossing the bridge, I met a newspaper boy with a bundle of papers, still wet from the press. They were halfpenny copies of the Star, but he charged me a penny for mine. The imposition still rankles.
From it I learned that a huge cordon of police, which had been drawn round the Crinoline, had been mashed beyond recognition, and two regiments of Life Guards razed to the ground, by the devastating Glance of the Wenuses. I pa.s.sed along King William Street and Prince's Street to Moorgate Street. Here I met another newspaper boy, carrying the Pall Mall Gazette. I handed him a threepenny bit; but though I waited for twenty minutes, he offered me no change. This will give some idea of the excitement then beginning to prevail. The Pall Mall had an article on the situation, which I read as I climbed the City Road to Islington. It stated that Mrs. Pozzuoli, my wife, had const.i.tuted herself Commander-in-Chief, and was busy marshalling her forces. I was relieved by the news, for it suggested that my wife was fully occupied. Already a good bulk of nursemaids and cooks, enraged at the destruction of the Scotland Yard and Knightsbridge heroes by the Wenuses' Mash-Glance, had joined her flag. It was, said the Pall Mall, high time that such an attack was undertaken, and since women had been proved to be immune to the Mash-Glance, it was clearly their business to undertake it.
Meanwhile, said the Pall Mall, nothing could check the folly of the men. Like moths to a candle, so were they hastening to Kensington Gardens, only to be added to the heap of mashed that already had acc.u.mulated there.
So far, the P.M.G. But my mother, who was in the thick of events at the time, has since given me fuller particulars. Notwithstanding, my mother tells me, the fate of their companions, the remainder of the constabulary and military forces stationed in London hastened to the Park, impelled by the fearful fascination, and were added to the piles of mashed.
Afterwards came the Volunteers, to a man, and then the Cloth. The haste of most of the curates, and a few bishops whose names have escaped me, was, said my mother, cataclysmic. Old dandies with creaking joints tottered along Piccadilly to their certain doom; young clerks in the city, explaining that they wished to attend their aunt's funeral, crowded the omnibuses for Kensington and were seen no more; while my mother tells me that excursion trains from the country were arriving at the princ.i.p.al stations throughout the day, bearing huge loads of provincial inamorati.
A constant stream of infatuated men, flowing from east to west, set in, and though bands of devoted women formed barriers across the princ.i.p.al thoroughfares for the purpose of barring their progress, no perceptible check was effected. Once, a Judge of notable austerity was observed to take to a lamp-post to avoid detention by his wife: once, a well-known tenor turned down by a by-street, says my mother, pursued by no fewer than fifty-seven admirers burning to avert his elimination. Members of Parliament surged across St. James' Park and up Const.i.tution Hill.
Yet in every walk of life, says my mother, there were a few survivors in the shape of stolid, adamantine misogynists.
Continuing my journey homewards, I traversed Upper Street, Islington, and the Holloway Road to Highgate Hill, which I ascended at a sharp run. At the summit I met another newspaper boy carrying a bundle of Globes, one of which I purchased, after a hard-driven bargain, for two s.h.i.+llings and a stud from the s.h.i.+rt-front of my evening dress, which was beginning to show signs of ennui. I leaned against the wall of the Highgate Literary and Scientific Inst.i.tute, to read it. The news was catastrophic. Commander Wells of the Fire Brigade had, it stated, visited Kensington Gardens with two manuals, one steam engine, and a mile of hose, in order to play upon the Crinoline and its occupants. Presuming on the immunity of persons bearing his name during the Martian invasion, the gallant Commander had approached too near and was in a moment reduced to salvage.
Pondering on this news, I made for Parliament Hill, by way of West Hill and Milfield Lane. On the top I paused to survey London at my feet, and, to get the fullest benefit of the invigorating breeze, removed my hat. But the instant I did so, I was aware of a sharp pain on my scalp and the aroma of singed hair. Lifting my hand to the wounded place, I discovered that I had been shaved perfectly clean, as with a Heat Razor. The truth rushed upon me: I had come within the range of the Mash-Glance, and had been saved from total dissolution only by intervening masonry protecting my face and body.
To leave the Hill was the work of an instant. I pa.s.sed through John Street to Hampstead Road, along Belsize Avenue and Buckland Crescent to Belsize Road, and so to Canterbury Road and Kilburn Lane. Here I met a fourth newspaper boy loaded with copies of the St. James' Gazette. He offered me one for seven-and-sixpence, or two for half a sovereign, but it seemed to me I had read enough.
Turning into Ladbroke Grove Road I quickly reached Notting Hill, and stealthily entered my house in Campden Hill Gardens ten minutes later.
London under the Wenuses.
THE DEATH OF THE EXAMINER.
My first act on entering my house, in order to guard against any sudden irruption on the part of my wife, was to bolt the door and put on the chain. My next was to visit the pantry, the cellar, and the larder, but they were all void of food and drink. My wife must have been there first. As I had drunk nothing since I burgled the Kennington chemist's, I was very thirsty, though my mind was still hydrostatic. I cannot account for it on scientific principles, but I felt very angry with my wife. Suddenly I was struck by a happy thought, and hurrying upstairs I found a bottle of methylated spirits on my wife's toilet-table. Strange as it may seem to the sober reader, I drank greedily of the unfamiliar beverage, and feeling refreshed and thoroughly kinetic, settled down once more to an exhaustive exposure of the dishonest off-handedness of the external Examiners at University College. I may add that I had taken the bread-knife (by Mappin) from the pantry, as it promised to be useful in the case of unforeseen Clerical emergencies. I should have preferred the meat-chopper with which the curate had been despatched in The War of the Worlds, but it was deposited in the South Kensington Museum along with other mementoes of the Martian invasion. Besides, my wife and I had both become Wegetarians.
The evening was still, and though distracted at times by recollections of the Wenuses, I made good progress with my indictment. Suddenly I was conscious of a pale pink glow which suffused my writing-pad, and I heard a soft but unmistakable thud as of a pinguid body falling in the immediate vicinity.
Taking off my boots, I stole gently down to the scullery and applied the spectroscope to the keyhole. To my mingled amazement and ecstasy, I perceived a large dome-shaped fabric blocking up the entire back garden. Roughly speaking, it seemed to be about the size of a full-grown sperm whale. A faint heaving was perceptible in the ma.s.s, and further evidences of vitality were forthcoming in a gentle but pathetic crooning, as of an immature chimaera booming in the void. The truth flashed upon me in a moment. The Second Crinoline had fallen in my back garden.
My mind was instantly made up. To expose myself unarmed to the fascination of the Wonderful Wisitors would have irreparably prejudiced the best interests of scientific research. My only hope lay in a complete disguise which should enable me to pursue my investigations of the Wenuses with the minimum amount of risk. A student of the humanities would have adopted a different method, but my standpoint has always been dispa.s.sionate, anti-sentimental. My feelings towards the Wenuses were, incredible as it may seem, purely Platonic. I recognised their transcendental attractions, but had no desire to succ.u.mb to them. Strange as it may seem, the man who succ.u.mbs rarely if ever is victorious in the long run. To disguise my s.e.x and ident.i.ty--for it was a priori almost impossible that the inhabitants of Wenus had never heard of Pozzuoli--would guard me from the jellifying Mash-Glance of the Wenuses. Arrayed in feminine garb I could remain immune to their malignant influences.
With me, to think is to act; so I hastily ran upstairs, shaved off my moustache, donned my wife's bicycle-skirt, threw her sortie de bal round my shoulders, borrowed the cook's Sunday bonnet from the servants' bedroom, and hastened back to my post of observation at the scullery door.
Inserting a pipette through the keyhole and cautiously applying my eye, I saw to my delight that the Crinoline had been elevated on a series of steel rods about six feet high, and that the five Wenuses who had descended in it were partaking of a light but sumptuous repast beneath its iridescent canopy. They were seated round a tripod imbibing a brown beverage from small vessels resembling the half of a hollow sphere, and eating with incredible velocity a quant.i.ty of tiny round coloured objects--closely related, as I subsequently had occasion to ascertain, to the Bellaria angelica,--which they raised to their mouths with astonis.h.i.+ng and unerring aim in the complex Handling-Machines, or Tenticklers, which form part of their wonderful organism.
Belonging as they undoubtedly do to the order of the Tunicates, their exquisitely appropriate and elegant costume may be safely allowed to speak for itself. It is enough, however, to note the curious fact that there are no b.u.t.tons in Wenus, and that their mechanical system is remarkable, incredible as it may seem, for having developed the eye to the rarest point of perfection while dispensing entirely with the hook. The bare idea of this is no doubt terribly repulsive to us, but at the same time I think we should remember how indescribably repulsive our sartorial habits must seem to an intelligent armadillo.
Of the peculiar coralline tint of the Wenuses' complexion, I think I have already spoken. That it was developed by their indulgence in the Red Weed has been, I think, satisfactorily proved by the researches of Dr. Moreau, who also shows that the visual range of their eyes was much the same as ours, except that blue and yellow were alike to them. Moreau established this by a very pretty experiment with a Yellow Book and a Blue Book, each of which elicited exactly the same remark, a curious hooting sound, strangely resembling the ut de poitrine of one of Professor Garner's gorillas.
After concluding their repast, the Wenuses, still unaware of my patient scrutiny, extracted, with the aid of their glittering tintackles, a large packet of Red Weed from a quasi-marsupial pouch in the roof of the Crinoline, and in an incredibly short s.p.a.ce of time had rolled its carmine tendrils into slim cylinders, and inserted them within their lips. The external ends suddenly ignited as though by spontaneous combustion; but in reality that result was effected by the simple process of deflecting the optic ray. Clouds of roseate vapour, ascending to the dome of the canopy, partially obscured the sumptuous contours of these celestial invaders; while a soft crooning sound, indicative of utter contentment, or as Professor Nestle of the Milky Ray has more prosaically explained it, due to expiration of air preparatory to the suctional operation involved in the use of the Red Weed, added an indescribable glamour to the enchantment of the scene.
Humiliating as it may seem to the scientific reader, I found it impossible to maintain a Platonic att.i.tude any longer; and applying my mouth to the embouchure of the pipette, warbled faintly in an exquisite falsetto: "Ulat ta.n.a.lareezul Savourneen Dheelish tradioun marexil Vi-Koko for the hair. I want yer, ma honey."
The effect was nothing short of magical. The rhythmic exhalations ceased instanteously, and the tallest and most fluorescent of the Wenuses, laying aside her Red Weed, replied in a low voice thrilling with kinetic emotion: "Phreata mou sas agapo!"
The sentiment of these remarks was unmistakable, though to my shame I confess I was unable to fathom their meaning, and I was on the point of opening the scullery door and rus.h.i.+ng out to declare myself, when I heard a loud banging from the front of the house.
I stumbled up the kitchen stairs, hampered considerably by my wife's skirt; and, by the time I had reached the hall, recognised the raucous accents of Professor Tibbles, the Cla.s.sical Examiner, shouting in excited tones: "Let me in, let me in!"
I opened the door as far as it would go without unfastening the chain, and the Professor at once thrust in his head, remaining jammed in the aperture.
"Let me in!" he shouted. "I'm the only man in London besides yourself that hasn't been pulped by the Mash-Glance."
He then began to jabber lines from the cla.s.sics, and examples from the Latin grammar.
A sudden thought occurred to me. Perhaps he might translate the observation of the Wenus. Should I use him as an interpreter? But a moment's reflection served to convince me of the danger of such a plan. The Professor, already exacerbated by the study of the humanities, was in a state of acute erethism. I thought of the curate, and, maddened by the recollection of all I had suffered, drew the bread-knife from my waist-belt, and shouting, "Go to join your dead languages!" stabbed him up to the maker's name in the semi-lunar ganglion. His head drooped, and he expired.
I stood petrified, staring at his glazing eyes; then, turning to make for the scullery, was confronted by the catastrophic apparition of the tallest Wenus gazing at me with reproachful eyes and extended tentacles. Disgust at my cruel act and horror at my extraordinary habiliments were written all too plainly in her seraphic lineaments. At least, so I thought. But it turned out to be otherwise; for the Wenus produced from behind her superlatively radiant form a lump of slate which she had extracted from the coal-box.
"Decepti estis, O Puteoli!" she said.
"I beg your pardon," I replied; "but I fail to grasp your meaning."
"She means," said the Examiner, raising himself for another last effort, "that it is time you changed your coal merchant," and so saying he died again.
I was thunderstruck: the Wenuses understood coals!
And then I ran; I could stand it no longer. The game was up, the cosmic game for which I had laboured so long and strenuously, and with one despairing yell of "Ulla! Ulla!" I unfastened the chain, and, leaping over the limp and prostrate form of the unhappy Tibbles, fled darkling down the deserted street.
THE MAN AT UXBRIDGE ROAD.
At the corner a happy thought struck me: the landlord of the "Dog and Measles" kept a motor car. I found him in his bar and killed him. Then I broke open the stable and let loose the motor car. It was very restive, and I had to pat it. "Goo' Tea Rose," I said soothingly, "goo' Rockefeller, then." It became quiet, and I struck a match and started the paraffinalia, and in a moment we were under weigh.
I am not an expert motist, although at school I was a fairly good hoop-driver, and the pedestrians I met and overtook had a bad time. One man said, as he bound up a punctured thigh, that the Heat Ray of the Martians was nothing compared with me. I was moting towards Leatherhead, where my cousin lived, when the streak of light caused by the Third Crinoline curdled the paraffin tank. Vain was it to throw water on the troubled oil; the mischief was done. Meanwhile a storm broke. The lightning flashed, the rain beat against my face, the night was exceptionally dark, and to add to my difficulties the motor took the wick between its teeth and fairly bolted.
No one who has never seen an automobile during a spasm of motor ataxy can have any idea of what I suffered. I held the middle of the way for a few yards, but just opposite Uxbridge Road Station I turned the wheel hard a-port, and the motor car overturned. Two men sprang from nowhere, as men will, and sat on its occiput, while I crawled into Uxbridge Road Station and painfully descended the stairs.
I found the platform empty save for a colony of st.u.r.dy little newsboys, whose stalwart determination to live filled me with admiration, which I was enjoying until a curious sibillation beneath the bookstall stirred me with panic.
Suddenly, from under a bundle of British Weeklies, there emerged a head, and gradually a man crawled out. It was the Artilleryman.
"I'm burning hot," he said; "it's a touch of--what is it?--erethism."
His voice was hoa.r.s.e, and his Remarks, like the Man of Kent's, were Rambling.
"Where do you come from?" he said.
"I come from Woking," I replied, "and my nature is Wobbly. I love my love with a W because she is Woluptuous. I took her to the sign of the Wombat and read her The War of the Worlds, and treated her to Winkles, Winolia and Wimbos. Her name is Wenus, and she comes from the Milky Way."
He looked at me doubtfully, then shot out a pointed tongue.
"It is you," he said, "the man from Woking. The Johnny what writes for Nature. By the way," he interjected, "don't you think some of your stuff is too--what is it?--esoteric? The man," he continued, "as killed the curate in the last book. By the way, it was you as killed the curate?"
"Artilleryman," I replied, "I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little meat-chopper. And you, I presume, are the Artilleryman who attended my lectures on the Eroticism of the Elasmobranch?"
"That's me," he said; "but Lord, how you've changed. Only a fortnight ago, and now you're stone-bald!"
I stared, marvelling at his gift of perception.
"What have you been living on?" I asked.
"Oh," he said, "immature potatoes and Burgundy" (I give the catalogue so precisely because it has nothing to do with the story), "uncooked steak and limp lettuces, precocious carrots and Bartlett pears, and thirteen varieties of fluid beef, which I cannot name except at the usual advertis.e.m.e.nt rates."
"But can you sleep after it?" said I.
"Blimy! yes," he replied; "I'm fairly--what is it?--eupeptic."
"It's all over with mankind," I muttered.
"It is all over," he replied. "The Wenuses 'ave only lost one Crinoline, just one, and they keep on coming; they're falling somewhere every night. Nothing's to be done. We're beat!"
I made no answer. I sat staring, pulverised by the colossal intellectuality of this untutored private. He had attended only three of my lectures, and had never taken any notes.
"This isn't a war," he resumed; "it never was a war. These 'ere Wenuses they wants to be Mas, that's the long and the short of it. Only----"
"Yes?" I said, more than ever impressed by the man's pyramidal intuition.
"They can't stand the climate. They're too--what is it?--exotic."
We sat staring at each other.
"And what will they do?" I humbly asked, grovelling unscientifically at his feet.
"That's what I've been thinking," said the gunner. "I ain't an ornamental soldier, but I've a good deal of cosmic kinetic optimism, and it's the cosmic kinetic optimist what comes through. Now these Wenuses don't want to wipe us all out. It's the women they want to exterminate. They want to collar the men, and you'll see that after a bit they'll begin catching us, picking the best, and feeding us up in cages and men-coops."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed; "but you are a man of genius indeed," and I flung my arms around his neck.
"Steady on!" he said; "don't be so--what is it?--ebullient."
"And what then?" I asked, when my emotion had somewhat subsided.
"Then," said he, "the others must be wary. You and I are mean little cusses: we shall get off. They won't want us. And what do we do? Take to the drains!" He looked at me triumphantly.
Quailing before his glory of intellect, I fainted.
"Are you sure?" I managed to gasp, on recovering consciousness.
"Yes," he said, "sewer. The drains are the places for you and me. Then we shall play cricket--a narrow drain makes a wonderful pitch--and read the good books--not poetry swipes, and stuff like that, but good books. That's where men like you come in. Your books are the sort: The Time Machine, and Round the World in Eighty Days, The Wonderful Wisit, and From the Earth to the Moon, and----"
"Stop!" I cried, nettled at his stupidity. "You are confusing another author and myself."
"Was I?" he said, "that's rum, but I always mix you up with the man you admire so much--Jools Werne. And," he added with a sly look, "you do admire him, don't you?"
In a flash I saw the man plain. He was a critic. I knew my duty at once: I must kill him. I did not want to kill him, because I had already killed enough--the curate in the last book, and the Examiner and the landlord of the "Dog and Measles" in this,--but an author alone with a critic in deserted London! What else could I do?
He seemed to divine my thought.
"There's some immature champagne in the cellar," he said.
"No," I replied, thinking aloud; "too slow, too slow."
He endeavoured to pacify me.
"Let me teach you a game," he said.
He taught me one--he taught me several. We began with "Spadille," we ended with "Halma" and "Snap," for parliament points. That is to say, instead of counters we used M.Ps. Grotesque and foolish as this will seem to the sober reader, it is absolutely true. Strange mind of man! that, with our species being mashed all around, we could sit following the chance of this painted pasteboard.
Afterwards we tried "Tiddleywinks" and "Squails," and I beat him so persistently that both sides of the House were mine and my geniality entirely returned. He might have been living to this hour had he not mentioned something about the brutality of The Island of Dr. Moreau. That settled it. I had heard that absurd charge once too often, and raising my Blaisdell binaural stethoscope I leaped upon him. With one last touch of humanity, I turned the orbicular ivory plate towards him and struck him to the earth.
At that moment fell the Fourth Crinoline.
THE TEA-TRAY IN WESTBOURNE GROVE.
My wife's plan of campaign was simple but masterly. She would enlist an army of enormous bulk, march on the Wenuses in Westbourne Grove, and wipe them from the face of the earth.
Such was my wife's project. My wife's first step was to obtain, as the nucleus of attack, those women to whom the total loss of men would be most disastrous. They flocked to my wife's banner, which was raised in Regent's Park, in front of the pavilion where tea is provided by a maternal County Council.
My mother, who joined the forces and therefore witnessed the muster, tells me it was a most impressive sight. My wife, in a nickel-plated Russian blouse, trimmed with celluloid pom-pons, aluminium pantaloons, and a pair of Norwegian Skis, looked magnificent.
An old Guard, primed with recent articles from the Queen by Mrs. Lynn Linton, marched in a place of honour; and a small squadron of confirmed misogynists, recruited from the Athenaeum, the Travellers' and the Senior United Service Clubs, who professed themselves to be completely Mash-proof, were in charge of the ambulance. The members of the Ladies' Kennel Club, attended by a choice selection of carefully-trained Chows, Schipperkes, Whippets and Griffons, garrisoned various outposts.
The Pioneers joined my wife's ranks with some hesitation. The prospects of a world depleted of men did not seem (says my mother) to fill them with that consternation which was evident in my wife and her more zealous lieutenants. But after a heated discussion at the Club-house, which was marked by several resignations, it was decided to join in the attack. A regiment of Pioneers therefore, marching to the battle-chant of Walt Whitman's "Pioneers, O Pioneers!" brought up (says my mother) the rear.
The march of my wife's troops was a most impressive sight. Leaving Regent's Park by the Clarence Gate, they pa.s.sed down Upper Baker Street, along Marylebone Road into Edgware Road. Here the troops divided. One detachment hastened to Queen's Road, by way of Praed Street, Craven Road, Craven Hill, Leinster Terrace and the Bayswater Road, with the purpose of approaching Whiteley's from the South; the other half marched direct to Westbourne Grove, along Paddington Green Road to Bishop's Road.
Thus, according to my wife's plan, the Wenuses would be between the two wings of the army and escape would be impossible.
Everything was done as my wife had planned. The two detachments reached their destination almost simultaneously. My wife, with the northern wing, was encamped in Bishop's Road, Westbourne Grove and Pickering Place. My mother, with the southern wing (my wife shrewdly kept the command in the family), filled Queen's Road from Whiteley's to Moscow Road. My mother, who has exquisite taste in armour, had donned a superb Cinque-Cento cuira.s.s, a short Zouave jacket embroidered with sequins, accordion-pleated bloomers, luminous leggings, brown Botticelli boots and one tiger-skin spat.
Between the two hosts was the empty road before the Universal Provider's Emporium. The Wenuses were within the building. By the time my wife's warriors were settled and had completed the renovation of their toilets it was high noon.
My wife had never imagined that any delay would occur: she had expected to engage with the enemy at once and have done with it, and consequently brought no provisions and no protection from the sun, which poured down a great bulk of pitiless beams.
The absence of Wenuses and of any sound betokening their activity was disconcerting. However, my wife thought it best to lay siege to Whiteley's rather than to enter the establishment.
The army therefore waited.
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Viii Part 44
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