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Title: The New Sun
Author: J.S. Fletcher (1863-1935)
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
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Language:  English
Date first posted: September 2006
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Title: The New Sun
Author: J.S. Fletcher (1863-1935)



I.


From the time that he had taken up the study of astronomy as a pleasant
means of spending his newly acquired leisure, and had built himself a
small but well-equipped observatory as an adjunct to his house, which
stood on one of the highest slopes of Leith Hill, Mequillen had formed
the habit of rising from his bed every two or three hours of a cloudy
night to see if the sky had cleared. To some men such a habit would have
been highly inconvenient, for many obvious reasons. But Mequillen was in
a lucky position. He was unmarried; he possessed much more than ample
means; he had therefore no business or profession to attend to, and
accordingly no train to catch of a morning in order to keep office
hours. He could sleep at any time of the day he chose; and if he did
jump out of bed at two o'clock in the morning, to find that the sky was
still cloudy, he could jump back and go to sleep again on the instant.
And he was, moreover, an enthusiast of the first order.

On a certain night in the February of 19--, Mequillen, who had gone to
bed at ten o'clock, suddenly awoke, switched on the electric light at
the side of his bed, and, seeing that it was then ten minutes past
twelve, sprang out, shuffled himself into his thickly padded
dressing-gown, and hurried up the winding stair which led to the
observatory. One glance into the night showed him a perfectly clear sky.
From the vast dome of heaven, wondrously blue, the stars shone out like
points of fire. And Mequillen, with a sigh of satisfaction, began his
work at the telescope, comparing the sky, field by field, with his star
chart, on the chance of finding new variable stars. After his usual
fashion, he was immediately absorbed, and the sky remaining clear, he
went on working, unconscious of time, until a deep-toned clock in the
room beneath struck the hour of three. Then Mequillen started, and
realised that he had been so absorbed that he had not noticed the
striking of one or two, and he leaned back from the telescope in a
suddenly assumed attitude of relaxation, stretching his arms, and
casting up his eyes to the still clear vault above him. The next instant
he became rigid; the next he began to tremble with excitement; the next
he could have shouted for joy. For there, in the constellation which
astronomers have named Andromeda, Mequillen detected a new star!

He knew as he gazed and gazed, intoxicated with the delight and wonder
of his discovery, that the burning and glittering object at which he was
looking had never shown its light to man before. There was no need to
turn to his star charts. Mequillen, being a rich man, was always
equipped with the latest information from all the great observatories of
the world. That star, burning with such magnificence, was on no chart.
Nay, he himself had taken a photograph of that particular field in the
heavens only twenty-four hours previously, wherein were stars to the
twelfth magnitude; but the star at which he gazed was not amongst them.
It had suddenly blazed up and as he watched he saw it visibly, plainly,
increase in brightness and magnitude.

"A new star!" he murmured mechanically. "A new star! I wonder who else
has seen it?"

Mequillen continued to watch until, as the February dawn drew near, the
clouds spread great curtains between him and the heavens, and sky and
stars were blotted out. Then he went to his bed, and, in spite of his
excitement, he slept soundly until ten o'clock in the morning.

When Mequillen woke and looked out across the Surrey hills and vales,
the entire landscape was being rapidly blotted out by a curious mist, or
fog, which seemed to come from nowhere. A vast, mighty blanket of yellow
seemed to be dropped between him and everything as he looked. At one
moment he saw the summit of a hill many miles away; the next he could
not even see his own garden beneath his windows. And when he went
downstairs, half an hour later, the fog had become of the colour of grey
ash, and the house was full of it, and the electric light was turned on
everywhere, and to little effect.

Mequillen's sister, Adela, who kept house for him--with the assistance
of a housekeeper and several female servants--came to him in his study,
looking scared.

"Dan," she said, "isn't there something queer about this fog? It's--it's
getting worse."

Mequillen laid down a bundle of letters which he had just taken up, and
walked out to the front door and into the garden. He looked all around
him, and he sniffed.

"H'm! It certainly does seem queer, Addie," he said. "We've certainly
never had a fog like this in these parts since we knew them."

The girl sniffed too.

"Dan," she said, "it's like as if it were the very finest dust.
And--look there!"

She had been wiping her hand with a tiny wisp of a handkerchief as she
spoke, and now she held the handkerchief out to Mequillen.

"Look!" she repeated.

Mequillen looked down, and saw a curious stain--a species of smudge or
smear of a faint grey colour. Without making any remark he ran the tip
of his finger along the nearest object, an espalier. The same smudge or
smear appeared on his finger.

"It's on everything," whispered the girl. "See, it's on my cheek! It is
some sort of dust, Dan. What's the matter?"

But Mequillen made no answer. He asked for breakfast, and they went in
together. By that time the interior of the house was as full of the fog
as the exterior was hidden by it, and everything that they
touched--plate, china, linen--gave off the grey smear. And by noon
everything was wrapped in an ashen-grey atmosphere, and the electrical
lights had no power beyond a very limited compass.

"This is vexatious," said Mequillen. "I was going to have the motor out
and take you across to Greenwich. I wanted to make an inquiry at the
Observatory. Do you know, Addie, I found a new star last night!"

"A new star!" she said wonderingly. "But you won't go, Dan?"

"Won't go?" he said, laughing. "I should like to see anybody go anywhere
in this, though it may be only local. By George! Weren't the Cockerlynes
coming out to dine and sleep to-night?"

Addie nodded.

"Well, I hope they won't run into this," continued Mequillen.

"Ah! I'll ring Dick Cockerlyne up, and ask him what the weather's like
in town. And then I'll ring up the Observatory."

He went off to the small room in which the telephone was placed. His
sister followed him, and as they passed close beneath the cluster of
lights in the hall Mequillen saw that the girl's face was drawn and
pallid. He stopped sharply.

"Why, Addie," he said; "frightened?"

She laid her hand on his arm, and he felt it trembling.

"Dan," she whispered. "I'm--I'm horribly frightened! What--what is this?
You know, there's never been anything like this before--in our time.
What's happened?"

Mequillen laughed, and patted the hand that lay on his arm.

"Come, come, Addie!" he said soothingly. "This isn't like you. I think
this fog is uncommon, and I can't account for it, but I've no doubt it
can be accounted for. Now, let me ring up Cockerlyne. I've a notion we
shall hear they've got a bright morning there in London."

The girl shook her head, made as if she would follow him to the
telephone, and then suddenly turned away. In the silence a woman's
shrill scream rang out.

"That's cook--in hysterics," said Addie. "I shall have to be brave for
the sake of the servants, Dan. They're all as frightened as--as I am."

Nearly an hour later Mequillen came out of the little room, and called
his sister into the study. He closed the door, and beckoned her into the
arc of the electric light.

"This is queer!" he said, in a whisper. "I've been talking to Cockerlyne
and to the Observatory. Dick says this fog struck London at ten o'clock.
It's just there as it is here, and everything's at a standstill. Dick
hasn't the remotest notion how he's going to get away from the city.
But--that's nothing. Addie, it's all over Europe."

The girl made a little inarticulate sound of horror in her throat, and
her face whitened.

"All over Europe, so they say at Greenwich," continued Mequillen. "From
Lisbon to Moscow, and from Inverness to Constantinople! Land and
sea--it's everywhere. It--well, it's something unexplainable. Such a
thing has never been known before. But it's no use getting frightened,
Addie; you must be brave. It's no doubt some natural phenomena that will
be accounted for. And--phew, how very hot this room is!"

The girl went close to her brother, and laid her hand on his arm.

"Dan," she said, "it isn't the room. See, the fire's very low, and the
ventilating fan's working. It's the same everywhere. Come into the
garden."

Mequilleri followed her out of the house, knitting his brows, and
snapping his fingers, after his wont when he was puzzled. For several
days the weather had been unusually cold for the time of year. Released
now from the preoccupation of the last few hours, he suddenly realised
that the day was as hot as a July day should be under normal conditions.
He turned to an outdoor thermometer.

"Why--why," he exclaimed, "it's over seventy now! Seventy in February!
Addie, something's happened to this old world of ours. That's certain.
Look there!"

As they watched the mercury rose one, two, three figures. The brother
and sister stared at each other. And Mequillen suddenly dropped his hand
with a gesture of helplessness.

"Well," he said, "there's nothing to be done but to wait. I--I don't
understand it."

They went back into the house together, and into Mequillen's study, only
to stand and stare at each other in silence. Then Addie made a sudden
effort at conversation.

"Tell me about the new star, Dan," she said.

Mequillen started.

"The new star!" he exclaimed. "The new star! My God, I wonder if that
has anything to do with this? If----"

The parlourmaid, white and scared, came noiselessly into the circle of
electric light within which the brother and sister were standing.

"You are wanted at the telephone, sir," she said.

Mequillen went off. In a few minutes he came back, shaking his head.

"That was the Observatory," he said quietly. "This fog, or whatever it
is, is all over the world--over South Africa, North and South America,
India, Australia, anyway. And the heat's increasing."

"And--the reason?" whispered Addie.

Mequillen sat down, and dropped his head in his hands.

"There's no man can tell the reason," he answered. "He can't even make a
guess at it. Something's happened, that's all. We must wait--wait."

And he took up the letters which had remained unopened on his desk and
began to sort them out and to read them.

"Let us go on with our ordinary routine," he said. "That will be best."

The girl left the room, jangling a bunch of keys. But within half an
hour she was back, accompanied by the housekeeper.

"Dan," she said quietly, "the servants want to go. They think the end of
the world's come, and they want to get to their own homes."

"How do they propose to reach them?" asked Mequillen. "They can't see a
yard before them."

"I told them that, Mr. Mequillen," said the housekeeper, "but it was of
no use. You see, sir, they all live pretty close to here, and they say
they can find their way blindfolded. They'd better go, sir, or we shall
have more hysterics."

"Give me some money for them, Dan," said Addie.

Mequillen rose, and, unlocking a drawer, handed a cash-box to his
sister.

"I don't see what good money can do them if the world's coming to an
end," he said, with a laugh. "Well, let them do what they like."

When the two women had left him, Mequillen went outside again, and
looked at the thermometer hanging on the wall.

"My God," he said, "eighty already! What can it mean?"

And then, standing there in the strange all-wrapping fog in his quiet
garden on the slope of the peaceful Surrey hills, Mequillen's thoughts
turned to the great city lying only a few miles away. What was happening
in London? He saw, with small exercise of imagination, the congested
traffic, the discomfort, the inconvenience, the upsetting of all
arrangement and order in an ordinary fog. What, then, must be the effect
of this extraordinary one? For Mequillen was sufficiently versed in
science to know that the world had never--never, at any rate, since
historical records of it began--known such a day as this. And supposing
it lasted, supposing----

And then he interrupted his train of thought to glance once more at the
thermometer.

"Yes, yes!" he, muttered to himself. "Yes, but supposing the heat goes
on increasing, increasing as it's increased during the last few hours?
My God, it's awful to contemplate!"

The house was very quiet when the frightened servants had left it.
Mequillen and his sister made some attempt to eat the lunch which the
housekeeper prepared; but the attempt was a farce, and presently they
found themselves pacing up and down, from room to room, from house to
garden, waiting for they knew not what. There was no change in the
atmosphere, so far as the fog was concerned, but the thermometer rose
steadily, until at six o'clock at night it was at ninety, and they were
feeling as if they must soon gasp for breath. And, unknown to Addie,
Mequillen went to the telephone, and eventually got into communication
with Dick Cockerlyne, who was still at his city office.

"Dick!" he said as steadily as he could. "Are you still there?"

"I am," came back the answer, in tones that Mequillen could scarcely
recognise.

"How is it with you there?"

One word came along. Mequillen felt it to be the only word that could
come.

"Hell!"

Mequillen shivered, and again spoke.

"Dick, what is happening? What----"

And then he was sharply rung off. From that moment he had no further
communication with the outer world. Once-twice--thrice he tried the
telephone again before midnight; no response was given. And all around
the house a silence reigned which was like the silence of a deserted
ocean. Nothing but the fog was there--not a voice, even of fear or
terror, came up from the valley. And the heat went on steadily
increasing.

There was no sleep for Mequillen or his sister or the housekeeper that
night. They had all changed into the lightest summer garments they could
find, by the middle of the night the two women were lying prostrate with
exhaustion, and the thermometer was a long way over one hundred degrees.
Mequillen did all that knowledge could suggest to him to obtain relief
and coolness for them, but there was no air--the atmosphere was still,
lifeless, leaden. And when the morning came the all-enveloping fog was
still there, and the heat was still increasing.

How they got through that second day Mequillen never knew. He had
visions of what might be going on in places where the water supply was
bad. He, fortunately, was in command of a splendid and probably
inexhaustible supply; he had, too, a well-stocked larder and a
well-provided cellar of good wine. Only just able to crawl about, he
looked to the two women--the housekeeper, a woman of full habit, was
more than once on the verge of collapse; Addie's wiriness and excellent
physique kept her going. But as it grew to the second midnight they were
all gasping for breath, and Mequillen, making brave efforts to keep the
women alive, knew that before many hours were over all would be over
with them too. And then, as he lay stretched out in a lounging-chair,
anxiously watching his sister who lay on a sofa close by, the door was
pushed open, and Dick Cockerlyne, reeling like a drunken man, staggered
in, and dropped headlong at Mequillen's side.





II.--The Refugee


Mequillen summoned up what strength remained in him, and set himself
with clenched teeth and fierce resolution to bring Cockerlyne round.
Cockerlyne was a big man, a fellow of brawn and muscle, that in ordinary
times would have thought nothing of walking fifty miles on end, if need
arose; now, looking at his great limbs, scarcely hidden by the thin silk
shirt and flannel trousers which clothed them, Mequillen saw that he was
wasted as if he had undergone starvation. His face had aged by ten
years, and there was a look of horror in its lines and in his half-open
eyes which told of human fear and terror. And once more Mequillen
wondered what was going on in London.

As he poured liquid--a weak mixture of brandy-and-seltzer--down the
fallen man's throat, Mequillen glanced at his sister. She had paid no
attention whatever to Cockerlyne's entrance; she lay motionless, her
hands clasped across her bosom, slowly and regularly gasping for breath.
But Mequillen knew what would rouse her, for she and Cockerlyne had been
engaged for the past six months, and were about to be married, and one
great source of her anxiety during the past two days had been in her
fears for his safety. And as he saw Cockerlyne returning to
consciousness, he turned to her.

"Addie!" he whispered. "Here is Dick!"

The girl slowly opened her eyes and turned her head, and a faint flush
came into her white cheeks. Mequillen reached across, and handed her a
glass out of which he had been giving her liquid food at intervals
during the past hour.

"Drink that, and then get up and help me with him," he said.

Cockerlyne opened his eyes to the full at last, and saw the brother and
sister, and he struggled up from the floor.

"I got through, anyway," he said. "I thought that if we--are all going
to--to die, eh?--I'd see Addie first. I--have I been fainting, Dan?"

"Lie down again, Addie, this instant!" commanded Mequillen sharply. "Now
then, Dick, drink the rest of that brandy-and-seltzer, and then you
shall have some of this concentrated meat extract. No nonsense, now.
What we've all got to do is to keep up strength till this--passes. I'm
off to our housekeeper. I forbid you two to move or to speak until I
come back."

When he returned Mequillen found his sister staring at Cockerlyne, and
Cockerlyne staring at her, as if they were looking their last at each
other.

"Come, come!" he said, with the best imitation of a laugh that he could
raise. "We're not at that stage yet. Now, then, obey your doctor."

And he fed them both as if they were children, and presently had the
gratification of seeing the colour come back to Gockerlyne's face, and a
new light into his eyes. The big man suddenly rose, and shook his limbs,
and smiled grimly. There were sandwiches on the table, and he reached
over and took one in each hand, and began to eat voraciously.

"Chuck the nursing, Dan," he growled. "I'm all right. I said I'd get it
done, and I've done it. I'm here!"

Mequillen saw with thankfulness that Cockerlyne was going to be
something to stand by. He nodded with assumed coolness.'

"All right, old chap," he said. "And--how did you get here?"

Cockerlyne moistened his tongue.

"Fought through it," he said grimly. "I've been thirty hours at
it--thirty hours!"

"Yes?" said Mequillen.

"You know," continued Cockerlyne, "you know when you telephoned to me at
six last night? After that I think I went mad for a while. Then I got
out of the office, and somehow got to the Bank station of the South
London--the Tube trains ran now and then. I don't know how I did it, but
I travelled that way as far as the train ran--Clapham, or somewhere. And
then--well, I just made along this way. Of course, I knew every bit of
the road. It was like sleep-walking."

Mequillen nodded, and, picking up a fan, resumed his occupation of
trying to agitate the air about his sister's face.

"Well, you're here, Dick," he said. "But--London?"

Cockerlyne shivered.

"London is--oh, I don't know what London is!" he answered. "I think half
the people are dead, and the other half mad. Once or twice I went out
into the streets. One man you met was on his knees, praying aloud; the
next was--oh, I don't know! It seemed that hell was let loose; and yet
the churches were crammed to the doors. And people were fighting for the
liquor in the dram-shops and the public-houses. I--I don't seem to
remember much; perhaps I'm mad myself now. How long will it be, Dan?"

"How long will what be?" asked Mequillen.

"The--the end? I expect this is the end, isn't it?" said Cockerlyne.
"What else can it be?"

"Don't talk rot!" said Mequillen sharply. "I thought' you'd come round
again. Here, pour some of the stuff out of that bottle into that glass,
and carry it to the housekeeper in the next room. Pull yourself
together, man!"

"Sorry," said Cockerlyne, and rose to carry out Mequillen's commands.
"I--I'm light-headed, perhaps. Don't ask me any more about what I saw.
It sends me off."

He went away to the housekeeper, and Mequillen heard him speaking to her
in the dry, croaking tones in which they all spoke. And presently
Cockerlyne came hurriedly back, and, standing at the open door, beckoned
to him with a shaking hand. Mequillen rose, and shambled across to him,
looking an interrogation.

"Come out to the garden!" whispered Cockerlyne, and led the way to the
front door. "Listen!" he said. "I caught the sound in there! Listen!"

Mequillen grasped one of the pillars of the porch and strained his ears.
And somewhere, so far off that it might have been thousands of miles
away, he heard what he knew to be the coming of a mighty wind, and
instinctively he tightened his grip on the pillar.

"It's a cyclone coming, Cockerlyne!" he shouted, though all around them
was still and quiet. "It'll sweep all before it--house, everything!
Quick--the two women!"

But before either man could turn to the open door the great fog was
swept away before their eyes as if it had been literally snatched from
them by some gigantic hand from heaven, and where it had been was a
burning and a dazzling light of such power that in an instant they were
grovelling on the ground before it with their eyes pressed instinctively
into the crooks of their quivering elbows.





III.--Out of the Illimitable


Of the two men, Mequillen was the first to comprehend what had happened,
and with his comprehension came coolness and resource. Never had he
thought so quickly in his life.

"Dick," he whispered, "keep your eyes shut tightly, and turn and creep
back into the hall. I'm doing the same thing. You know the little room
on the left? Don't open your eyes until you get in there. Now, then," he
continued, with a gasp, as the two men reached the room and stood
upright, "you can open them here, for the shutters are up. Ah! And yet,
you see, although this room should be quite dark, it's almost as light
as a normal winter morning."

Cockerlyne stared stupidly about him.

"For God's sake, Dan, what's happened?" he exclaimed.

Mequillen was fumbling in a drawer. He brought out two silk mufflers,
and passed one to his friend.

"I have a very good idea as to what's happened," he answered gravely.
"And I'll tell you in a few minutes. But first muffle your eyes--there,
you'll see through two thicknesses of the silk. Now for the women.
Fortunately, the curtains are closely drawn in both rooms, or I should
have feared for their eyesight in that sudden rush of light--light,
Dick, such as this globe has never seen before! Dick, we've got to
blindfold them, and then get them into the darkest place in this house.
There's an underground room--not a cellar--which I've sometimes used for
experiments. We must get them downstairs."

It was easy to see, in spite of the mufflers, that the light in the hall
was blinding, and in the curtained study as bright as on an open sea on
a cloudless day in summer. And Addie was lying on her sofa with her arms
crossed over her forehead and eyes, obviously surprised and distressed
by the sudden glare.

"Don't move your arms!" exclaimed Mequillen sharply. "Keep your eyes
shut as tight as you can."

"What is it?" she asked. "Has the fog gone, and the sun come?"

"The fog has gone, and a sun has come," replied Mequillen. "And its
light is unbearable--just yet. Now, Addie, I am going to blindfold you
and take you and Mrs. Jepson down to the underground room. We shall all
have to get used to the light by degrees, do just what I tell you, and
Dick and I will make you comfortable."

But when the two women were safely disposed of in a room into which
scarcely any light ever penetrated in an ordinary way, but which was
then as light as noontide, Mequillen drew Cockerlyne into the study,
and, groping his way to the windows, closed the shutters and drew the
curtains over them.

"Now you can take off your muffler," he said quietly. "There, you see
it's light enough even now, to read print and to see the time. And--you
perceive the time? Half-past twelve, midnight!"

Cockerlyne's face blanched. He swallowed something, and straightened
himself.

"What is this, Mequillen?" he asked quietly. "Do you know?"

Mequillen shook his head.

"Not with certainty," he answered. "But I think I know. Forty-eight
hours ago I discovered a new star, which increased in magnitude at a
surprising rate even while I watched it. Now I think that it is a new
sun."

"A--new--sun!" exclaimed Cockerlyne. "Impossible!" "Call it what you
will," said Mequillen. "It is, I am certain, at any rate, a vast
heavenly body of fire, which was travelling towards this part of space
at an inconceivable rate when I first saw it, and is probably at this
moment nearer to us than our sun is. Do you feel that the heat is
increasing?"

"Yes," replied Cockerlyne; "but it is different in character." "It is
different in character because the wrapping of infinitely fine dust
which has been round us has been drawn away," said Mequillen. "But it
will increase in intensity."

Cockerlyne gripped the table.

"And?" he whispered.

"In an hour or two we shall be shrivelled up, consumed, like shreds of
wool thrown into a furnace!" answered Mequillen. Cockerlyne straightened
himself.

"All right, Dan," he said quietly. "I'm glad I came here. What's to be
done now?"

Mequillen had turned to a nest of drawers in one of the recesses of his
study. He brought out some spectacles fitted with lenses of very dark
glass, and handed one to Cockerlyne.

"We will make an attempt to see this new sun," he said. "Put these
spectacles on, and for the present fold that muffler about your eyes
again once. You'll see through both muffler and spectacles. And now come
up to the observatory."

In the observatory, Cockerlyne understood little or nothing of the
preparations which Mequillen made. Conscious only of the terrible heat,
he stood waiting and thinking of the fate which was about to befall
them; and suddenly a terrible impatience seized upon him. If there was
but an hour or so to live, his place was with the woman he loved.

"Look here, Dan!" he exclaimed. "I'm going down! If the end's coming,
then----"

But Mequillen laid a hand on his arm and drew him forward, at the same
tune removing the muffler from his head. "We will go down soon,
Cockerlyne," he said. "We must, for we shall have to tell them. But
first--look! You can look with safety now."

And then Cockerlyne, following his friend's instructions, looked, and
saw widespread above him the dome of the heavens. But never had he so
seen it in all his life. From north to south, from east to west, it
glowed with the effulgence of shining brass; and in the north-east hung
a great globe of fiery red, vaster in dimension than the sun which the
world had known till then, and, even when seen through the protections
which Mequillen had prepared, coruscating and glittering with darting
and leaping flame.

"My God!" said Cockerlyne, in a hushed voice. "My God! Dan, is
that--It?"

"That is It," answered Mequillen quietly. "It is now nearly twice the
magnitude of our sun, and it is coming nearer. This is no time to make
calculations, or even speculations; but I believe it is, at any rate, as
near to us as our sun is. Come away, Cockerlyne; I want to look out on
the world. Hold my hand and follow me."

And he dragged Cockerlyne away through a trap-door and into a dark
passage, and then into a darker room.

"Keep your hands over your spectacles for a while, and get accustomed to
the light by degrees," he said. "I am going to open an observation
shutter here, through which we can see a vast stretch of country to the
north. It will be a surprise to me if much of it is not already in
flames. Now, if you are ready."

Cockerlyne covered his eyes as he heard the click of the observation
shutter. Even then, and through the thick black glasses which he was
wearing, he felt the extraordinary glare of the light which entered.
Presently Mequillen touched his arm.

"You can look now," he said. "See. it's just as I thought! The land's on
fire!"

Cockerlyne looked out upon the great sweep of hill and valley, wood and
common which stretches across the fairest part of Surrey from the
heights above Shere and Albury to those beyond Reigate. He saw the
little villages, with their spires and towers and red roofs and tall
grey gables; he saw the isolated farms, the stretches of wood, the
hillside coppices, the patches of heath and the expanses of green which
indicated land untouched by spade or plough.

It was a scene with which he had been familiar from boyhood. Of late he
had explored every nook and corner of it with Addie Mequillen, and at
all times of the year it had seemed beautiful to him. But under the
glare and brilliance of this extraordinai y light everything seemed
changed. All over that vast prospect great pillars of smoke and flame
were rising to the sky. From the valley beneath them came the shrieks
and cries of men and women, and as the two men watched they saw the
evergreens in Mequillen's garden suddenly turn to the whiteness of
paper, and shrivel and disappear in fine ashes.

"Look there!" whispered Mequillen, pointing a shaking finger.
"There--Dorking's on fire! And yonder, Reigate, too!"

Gockerlyne tried to speak, but his tongue rattled in his mouth like a
dry pea, in a drier pod. He touched Mequillen's arm and pointed
downward, and Mequillen nodded.

"Yes," he said. "We had better go down to them; they've got to know."

He took Cockerlyne by the hand and led him back to the observatory,
which, in spite of the fact that all its shutters were drawn, was full
of light. And as they stepped into it a spark of white flame suddenly
appeared in the woodwork, and ran like lightning round the rim of the
dome.

"On fire!" said Mequillen quietly. "It's no good, Cockerlyne; we can't
do anything. The end's come! We--oh, my God, what's this? What is
this? Cockerlyne--Cockerlyne, where are you?"

For just as suddenly as they had seen the greyness of the great fog
snatched away from the earth, so now they saw the extraordinary light
which had succeeded it snatched away. It was gone in the flash of an
eye, with the speed of lightning, and as it went they felt the earth
move and shudder, and all around them fell a blackness such as they had
never known. And as the two men gripped each other in their terror there
suddenly burst upon the dome of the observatory a storm of what seemed
to be bullets--fierce, insistent, incessant. The serpent-like trail of
fire in the woodwork quivered once and died out. And Mequillen,
trembling in every limb, released his hold on Cockerlyne, and staggered
against the nearest wall.

"Rain!" he said. "Rain!"

In the darkness, Mequillen heard Cockerlyne first stumble about, and
then fall heavily. Then he knew that Cockerlyne had fainted, and he made
his way to a switch and turned on the electric light, and got water to
bring him round. But when he came round, Cockerlyne for some minutes
croaked and gabbled incessantly, and it was not until Mequillen had
hurried down to the dining-room for brandy for him that he regained his
senses and was able to sit up, gasping and staring about him. He pointed
a shaking finger to the aperture in the dome, through which the rain was
pouring, unheeded by Mequillen, in a ceaseless cascade.

"Where is--It?" he gasped. "What--what's come of It?"

Mequillen shook him to his feet, and made him swallow more brandy.

"Pull yourself together, Cockerlyne!" he said. "This is no time to talk
science; this is a time to act. Come down, man; we must see to the
women! We've just escaped from fire; now we're likely to meet our deaths
by water. Listen to that rain, Here, help me to close that shutter. Now,
downstairs! It's lucky we're on a hillside, Cockerlyne! But the people
in the valleys! Come on!"

And, leaving Cockerlyne to follow him, Mequillen ran down through the
house, to find his sister and the housekeeper in the hall. As he saw
them, he knew that they had realised what he now had time to
realise--that the terrible heat was dying away, and that it was becoming
easier and easier to breathe. As he passed it he glanced at a hanging
thermometer, and saw the mercury falling in a steady, swift descent.

Mequillen caught his sister in his arms and pressed her to him. She
looked anxiously into his face.

"Dick?" she said.

"He's safe--he's coming," said Mequillen.

Addie suddenly collapsed, and hid her face in her hands. The housekeeper
was already in a heap in the nearest chair, sobbing and moaning. And as
Cockerlyne came slowly down the stairs, Mequillen saw that, strong man
as he was, his nerves had been shaken so much that he was trembling like
a leaf. Once more Mequillen had to summon all his energies together in
the task of bringing his companions round, and as he moved about from
one to the other his quick ear heard the never-ceasing rattle of the
rain, which was heavier than any tropical rain that ever fell. And
presently he caught the sound of newly forming cascades and waterfalls,
cutting new ways from the hilltops to the level lands of the valleys.
Now the normal coolness of middle winter was coming back. The women
picked up the wraps they had dirown aside; the men hurried into
greatcoats. And as the February dawn came grey and slow across the
hills, Mequillen and Cockerlyne went up to the observatory, and into the
little look-out turret from which they had seen the spirals of smoke and
flame rising from the land only a few hours before.

The rain was still falling, but with no more violence than that of a
tropical rainstorm. But the air was throbbing, pulsating, humming with
the noise of falling waters. A hundred yards away from the house a
churning and seething mass of yellow foam was tearing a path, wide and
deep, through a copse of young pine; down in the valley immediately
beneath them lay a newly formed lake. In the valleys on every side, as
far as the eye could reach, lay patches of silvery hue, which they knew
to be great sheets of water; and now the air was cool, and the hitherto
tortured lungs could breathe it in comfort.

"Mequillen," said Cockerlyne, after a long silence, "what happened?"

But Mequillen shook his head.

"I am as a child standing at the edge of a great ocean," he answered. "I
cannot say definitely. I think that the great star which we saw, rushing
upon us, was suddenly arrested, split into fragments, when that darkness
fell, and that we were saved. Once more, Cockerlyne, the old world, a
speck in space, will move on. For look there!"

And Cockerlyne turned as Mequillen pointed, and saw, slowly rising over
the Surrey hills, the kindly sun of a grey February morning.


THE END




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