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Title: De Profundis Author: Robert Coutts Armour * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1600811h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2016 Most recent update: July 2016 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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About the junction years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, writers of popular fiction were seized by a prophetic fervour of destruction. I think the scientists pointed the way with interesting speculations about such matters as the heat-life of the sun; an eminent French astronomer amused his leisure with a romantic, dithyrambic story of the human race's end; various cheery people of varying authority decreed the speedy exhaustion of the world's coal-fields; and a host of sprightly authors made haste to entertain us with accounts of great cities overwhelmed, and our painful built-up civilisation obliterated by dire and diverse means. Man warred with Terra, Ocean sent forth her devouring monsters, nation hurtled against nation, the Yellow Peril loomed terribly, new diseases devastated the whole world, leaving only a few choice spirits to the task of re-peopling it—and whilst we enjoyed this feast of speculation, the forces prepared for our undoing were already marshalling. Whether any one of those ingenious scribes anticipated what came to pass I am unable to say, though, for irony's sake, I trust it was so, and that he has had ample, opportunity to revise his theories in the face of facts.
It may seem strange, but the calamity came without any warning, the few isolated incidents that might have served being misunderstood or disregarded. I myself was witness, after the event, of one such, in this wise.
I had been making holiday in Cornwall, tramping the coastline or occasionally diving inland, in an irresponsible fashion that would have shocked the laborious writer of itineraries. The weather was unusually fine and warm, so, having a large waterproof poncho, a bag of provisions, and a little kettle, I gipsied very happily 'til the eve of the inevitable day when I must return to London. Being by then wise in the selection of a camping ground, I got me at sundown to the sheltered side of a little wood, ate my supper, and, wrapped in my poncho, lay down to enjoy a pipe before going to sleep.
It was my last camp in England, perhaps the last I shall ever make there. At the present time, of course, such a proceeding would be stark lunacy even in the most desolate place. In front of me, looking inland, the ground rose with a gentle swell, dipped and rose again to the horizon quite bare of cover, there being no trees of any growth in that part of the West Country. They were all cut down long ago, I have been told, at the time when every Cornishman turned mole and burrowed after tin, and certainly they must have needed forests to prop the workings with which the country is honeycombed. In the field before me was the shaft of one, ringed by a high stone wall and, with it for text, I speculated drowsily whether, in the far future, the wood underground would have rotted or turned to coal. Then an old horse came and looked over the hedge at me in a friendly way, and the tips of his ears twitching against the sky were my last waking memory.
I awoke once in the dark with a confused sound of hoofs and a long, wailing cry ringing in my cars, but all was quiet. I attributed the noise to a trick of dream, sniffed distastefully a faint, acrid odour drifting on the slow night breeze and, turning over, slept without stir 'til the sunlight crept into my eyes. Within half an hour I had sluiced myself at a runnel, eaten breakfast, and was ready to face the road, the rail, and the Big Smoke.
My direct route lay through the field in front and,climbing on the gate, I stood at gaze, seeing that close beside the walled shaft-mouth lay something which, I was absolutely certain, had not been there overnight—a large skeleton.
I noticed, too, that my friendly horse was nowhere in view, though the boundaries of the field were all in sight and, exceedingly puzzled, approached the bones. They were fresh, raw, though not a particle of meat adhered to them, and unmistakably equine. I went back to the gate, the only exit, examined the ground beyond it, which was soft enough to show a track, and made sure that the beast had not gone out that way.
The conclusion was obvious. Within a few hours a big, strong animal had been done to death, and clean picked! It was incredible, yet there was the skeleton, without a toothmark, still held together by its ligaments, and perfect as an anatomist could desire. I began to be a little afraid but, being of a fairly practical turn, set about searching after further facts, and ran against more incomprehensibility.
From the gory patch about the skeleton, to the wall around the shaft, ran two tracks, worn through the turf to bare earth, about four or five inches wide and as much apart, one of which continued in a red stain up the perpendicular face of the stones.
Now, I offer no excuse for my conduct in the face of the mystery. Certainly the wall was high, and had been effectively pointed no great while before, but I could easily have climbed it. Only—I didn't want to climb. Without weighing matters I concluded instantly that the power which could so deal with a horse might very easily treat me in like fashion, left the unhealthy precinct on tiptoe, and ran 'til I came to a cart-road. Decidedly the spirit of research was not in me that morning.
At the time I felt I was doing shamefully, but looking back I see that I acted with common-sense. Had I searched further I should have lost my life as vainly as one who throws himself to a school of sharks; yet my self-esteem barometer went down and down, so I mentioned the phenomenon to no one, but got to town and to work once again, determined to forget an inexplicable incident.
In those days I had just entered on a series of experiments having for object the discovery of some volatile fuel to replace petrol, and my little laboratory contained so many samples of oils, tars, and essences that, despite ventilation, it usually smelt like the interior of a submarine. I suppose, strictly speaking, mine was a dangerous trade, and certainly the top floor of an old-fashioned office building in Fleet Street was scarcely a fitting place in which to distil inflammable liquids. But it happened that the den was my own, the property having belonged to my people for near a century and, with the near prospect of eviction when the ground lease expired, I didn't wish to squander money on other premises.
I had but few visitors and only one intimate friend, Henry Mayence, a short, broad, immensely strong man, devoted to motoring, and consequently keenly interested in my attempts to cheapen his pastime. He used to bring all kinds of absurdly unsuitable material, ranging from camphor to burgundy-pitch and palm oil, though apart from this foible he was entirely level-headed. I returned from Cornwall at the beginning of June; twelve days later—on Friday, the 13th, to be precise—I heard his familiar step on the landing, the heavy thump of something weighty banged on the floor, and opened to find him in the act of upending a large iron oil-drum which smelt vilely of crude petroleum.
"So you're back," he grunted. "That's a good job. Didn't want to lug this thing home again. Out of the way!"
He pushed past unceremoniously with the thing in his arms and, depositing it within with another crash, condescended to explain.
"Right stuff at last," he said. "Wales. They've struck it—regular lake. I've got an option. You try it. It's heavy, but—"
"But, confound you, I don't want a hogshead!" I objected. "It'll stink the place out. Phuff!" I had been at work all night, and so was irritable. "Why on earth couldn't you bring a little? A bottleful would have been enough."
He grinned placidly.
"Because this is going to be a big thing, sonny, and you'll need it all. Besides, what does another flavour matter among so many? Open the windows."
"And kill the sparrows? You'll jolly well have to take it away again! Hang it, man, I'll be run in for causing a nuisance!"
"All right," said he soothingly; "perhaps it is a bit too thick. Didn't notice it on the car. Horrid business, that of the policeman, Kingston way!"
"What business?" I asked. "I haven't been out yet."
"Devilish rummy! Found the poor beggar behind a hedge, uniform on—helmet, too. Beastly! And I may have spoken to him—been held up thereabouts more than once. Poor chap!"
"What are you gibbering about? Was he murdered?" I demanded irritably.
"Ghastly, I tell you! Nothing but his clothes, only bones left inside 'em. Ugh!"
"What?" I shouted. "D'you mean to say—Why, down in Cornwall—"
And forthwith I told him briefly what I had seen.
"Same thing," he said, nodding emphatically. "A horse don't matter, but a man! And a lot of other people are missing, too. Wonder you didn't hear the boys yelling the specials outside."
"I did," said I. "But I'm so used to that, I didn't take notice. Hallo! There's another edition, or—"
We sprang together to the window opening streetwards and craned our necks.
Right opposite, building operations were in progress, and a great hole had been dug in the earth, from which, as we looked, the workmen came crowding and jostling, howling gigantically, in a frenzied hurry to reach the narrow door in the hoarding along the street front.
"Lord!" ejaculated Mayence. "What in thunder's up! Look at that chap!"
A man, who had, I suppose, been in the deepest part of the excavation, came clawing frantically up a ladder, reached the level, put his hands to his head with the gesture of one suddenly smitten to death, reeled, and fell backwards into the pit.
A cloud of dust flew up and hid everything for an instant; then something which looked exactly like a wave of treacle—a brownish-black, shiny, wet-looking, lapping tide—flooded up over the edge of the hole, and flowed out towards the men jammed in the doorway.
They must have felt its coming and redoubled their efforts. A section of the hoarding gave way, falling outwards on the front ranks of the swaying crowd that had collected instantaneously and, as they gave back, the fear-minded workmen charged forth, tripping, stumbling, and striking out fiercely at everything in their path, driven by blind, panic terror. Close on their heels through the gap, over the hoarding's top and through every crevice of the boards, came that amazing fluid mass.
Everybody shouted, abruptly everybody faced about, turning to fly, and I had an impression of the crowd as a heaving, whirling maelstrom, with pinky-red faces for bubbles and a tossing spray of straw hats adrift for foam. I saw a tall man—a Press photographer, I presume—struggle free and present his camera at the oncoming treacly tide, stagger, fall, and lie motionless.
Subconsciously I wondered if he had got his picture, and whether I should see it in the morrow's papers. The treacle swept on and over him—ay, and over many another. Men faltered and fell in rows, even as they fled. A tubby man, with flashing glasses that stayed miraculously firm on his nose, swarmed halfway up a lamp-standard, lost his hold for no apparent reason, and fell, limp and lifeless.
The street within our view cleared, the din retreated a little, and I could hear Mayence.
"Alive!" he shouted "Alive! The stuff's alive, I tell you—alive!" He used language quite unprintable. "And deadly—look at that 'bus!"
It had been at a standstill, unable to move through the swift-gathered throng. Its top was crowded. The driver stretched a hand to put in the clutch, drew it back sharply, lifted it to his mouth, and sagged forward over his wheel.
"What is it? Great heavens, what is—"
Somebody sprang into the room behind us, and banged the door. It was Vidal, a quiet, little, oldish man who, in an office on the floor beneath, practised the nearly extinct art of wood-engraving for such scientific journals as needed clearly detailed pictures, instead of the cheaper dot and smudge variety. Usually he was staid and self-contained, but now, and little wonder, he was livid and shaking with terror.
"They're coming up!" he screamed. "Shut that window! We're done for! I saw 'em once before, but nothing like this!"
Mayence grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him roughly.
"What?" he shouted. "What the blazes is it?"
"Ants!" quavered Vidal. "Millions of trillions! They're stinging everyone to death; keep 'em out!"
It was well for us then that Mayence had piloted racing automobiles; a practice that breeds quick thinking. He didn't stop to question the truth of the statement, but shook his man a trifle harder.
"Will paraffin keep them off?" he demanded.
"Perhaps," he said hoarsely.
"Lucky I brought a big 'un, then!" growled Mayence, and leapt at his oil-drum. "Rags, Tom, a brush, paper—anything! Bathe in it!"
In a twinkling he had the bung out and tipped a pool of thick, yellow, evil smelling, crude petroleum on the floor by the door, spreading it with his handkerchief over every crevice.
"Mother Partington, Atlantic Ocean!" he grunted, snatched a towel, and stuffed a soaked strip beneath the door. "Window, you cripples! Buck up!"
We worked like demons. As a motive-power there is nothing to excel fear; and yet though we wrought swiftly, smearing the sashes and every visible joint in our defences, the ants were already darkening the panes ere we had finished.
"Kill them! Quick!" shrieked Vidal suddenly, pointing. "There!"
From under the skirting-board a score of large ants, near an inch and a half long, came boldly at us, travelling rapidly, halted at the edge of the puddle in which we stood, and sped swiftly back again.
"Don't like it, by jingo!" Mayence shouted exultantly. "Magic circle, spread it out!"
It was done. Panting, soaked with oil and sweat, hardly able to breathe because of the stink, we stood up, saved; perhaps the sole surviving witnesses of that first outburst, since it would appear that parties of the ants invaded every building, slaying relentlessly every human being they encountered. Us they let alone after the first trial; and presently, when the panes cleared, being nearly suffocated, we ventured to open the window.
Speech became possible.
"Don't lean out!" Mayence warned me. "Some of the brutes might drop on you!"
Standing on a chair well withdrawn from the casement, I looked forth. Within my circumscribed view I could see the dead photographer and several of the others on the further side, the top of the 'bus with its lifeless load, and a taxicab wedged into a shop window, its engine still running, the driving wheels slithering and grinding on the pavement. At several open windows men hung or sprawled. The air reverberated with a vast noise; the voices of fearful thousands roaring from every point of the compass beat painfully on the ears; but silently, the cause of it, the river of ants, still flowed from the excavation, each yard of it an army, dividing into streams, which went their way west and east without pause.
"Jumping Jupiter!" exclaimed Mayence, mounting behind me. "It's unbelievable! It's—it's a hallucination."
"It isn't," said Vidal. "I saw something like it in Venezuela once, when I went with a collecting expedition. They kept on for a day and a night, and though they weren't so poisonous as these, everything had to get out of their way or perish. Perhaps they've come out in other places, too."
A duty we had neglected came to my mind, and I jumped from my chair and rushed to the phone.
"Exchange!" I yelled. "Are you there? Are you there?"
There was no answer, though I called again and again. My belated attempt at warning was useless.
"Death everywhere," murmured Vidal.
"Or else the gels have scooted," suggested Mayence. "Don't be too infernally gloomy."
"Perhaps it's the beginning of the end for the human race," persisted the little man.
"Rot!" cried Mayence. "It's horribly bad, of course, but that couldn't happen. A lot of damned insects!"
"And they'll soon be settled," said I. "Squirt acids or poisons on them, or—"
"Or set a dog at them," sneered Vidal. "D'you think they'd stand still and let you do it? Look at the pace they can go. And they've got brains, I'm certain. What if this has all been arranged? Why, I'll bet they're all over the town—other towns, too; perhaps other countries."
We cried out at this monstrous suggestion, yet—though, of course, we didn't know it at the time—he wasn't far out in his estimate of the abominations. He warmed to his dismal theme.
"Even if they're driven back underground for the moment, how are you going to keep them there. Nice job it'll be to make every house antproof. And walking about in armoured clothes, or soaked with anticide, will be pleasant, won't it?"
"But they die off or go to sleep in the winter, don't they?" I suggested.
"How d'you know this kind will? Anyhow, they've got lots of time before them. How many of us will live 'til the first frost? How about harvesting, and tending sheep and cattle? We'll all starve if we're not killed. It's a conquest, an arranged business, I tell you. Perhaps some of us will be kept as slaves. There are species who have others to wait on them—"
"Will you shut up?" roared Mayence. "We're in the devil's own pickle, without being driven daft by your maunderings! What d'you reckon we'd better do, Tom? Stay here 'til the siege is raised?"
"How about the river?" I asked hopefully. "The oil keeps the beasts off. If we soaked ourselves, we might get there all right and find a boat."
"Probably a few thousand others have found it already," he chuckled grimly; "and a few billions of our little friends appear to have gone in the same direction. It's risky every way."
We all stared gloomily at that ceaseless torrent of venomous life, pouring, pouring silently, swiftly, with an ordered purpose. Against uncountable myriads so devilishly endowed, what had man to oppose? I could think of no adequate defence.
"Perhaps you're right, Vidal," I said. "One hopes of course. But—"
"Have you got anything to eat or drink?" Mayence interrupted. "We must keep our pecker up."
"Biscuits, whisky, soda—that's all," said I, producing them. And we ate and drank unpleasantly, each mouthful being tainted with the all-pervading petroleum, then stared out of the window again.
"The noise is dying down, I think," said Vidal at length. "But what's that racket overhead?"
"Somebody breaking the law. An aeroplane coming—over there, see? By jove! It's the old training 'bus, the biplane at Hendon. What the dickens are they after?"
Moving quite slowly, the 'plane hove in sight, skimming dangerously near the housetops, one of the two men in her apparently searching the ground with field-glasses. Mayence snatched up the linen overall I wore when working, tied a sleeve to a walking stick, and thrust it outside, waving 'til the airman saw it, and, putting a big megaphone to his head, shouted something which was drowned by the rattle of the engine. Slowly the machine swung about over the pit, a small, dark object fell from it, and—"crash!" a mighty spout of dust flew up, concrete foundation walls and scaffold-poles crumbled and rocked, tinkling glass fell in showers. The man in the plane had dropped a bomb into the ants' portal.
With the explosion their columns broke, thinned, and vanished into doorways, the drains and crevices; in twenty seconds they were all under cover. The 'plane circled out of sight, returned, and this time we caught something of what the megaphone bawled to us: "...in a dozen places...going to shut 'em down...all right soon." We waved an answer, they shot away, and in a few minutes we heard the smack of another bomb, followed at intervals by others, each more distant.
"A dozen places!" exclaimed Vidal. "What did I say? It's an organised invasion. A fat lot of good those chaps have done. See!"
The side of the crater made by the explosion began to heave and crumble, a dark spot appeared and grew larger, and long before the sound of the last detonation came to us the ant river was flowing again, steadily as though it had never been so rudely interrupted.
Mayence mumbled disgustedly, and faced about. "Question is, what are we going to do? Stay and starve, or take the risk of going out?"
"They won't touch us," said I confidently.
"Don't be too sure. Some of them, maybe, will sacrifice themselves on the off-chance of getting a bite home. At all events, I'll go out first and reconnoitre." But at this Vidal and I protested, and in the end we drew lots. The short match fell to me, and I confess to feeling horribly uncomfortable, but I managed to conceal my feelings whilst I was smeared anew with the abominably smelling oil; my boots were soaked 'til they squelched at every step; face, hair, cap, and gloves, all were saturated, and Mayence finished me off by tying a dripping duster around my neck. "In case they drop on you from aloft," he explained. "Now you're all right. We'll get ready while you're gone."
I opened the door gingerly. At the edge of the landing was a group of ants, several score, big fellows, with their heads turned towards me; simultaneously, they darted forward, came almost to my feet—and retreated. Instinctively I squashed the hindmost. "All serene!" I cried. "They won't face it," and slithered down the first flight to find another and larger vidette, which behaved exactly like the others. I had no more fear after that, but went on confidently as a medieval knight in armour of proof hewing his way through a mob of peasants.
On the first floor I peeped into the office of Wardell, an advertising agent, and saw what was left of him lying back in his chair, a half-open sample tin of insect killer on the floor beside him; evidently he had bethought him of this defence at the last moment. The ants were swarming all over him, and I turned away hastily, feeling very sick; it is a shocking thing to see a man you have known and swapped drinks with in process of disintegration. Yet the sight served to diminish the shock I received when I found the entry and the lower stairs completely choked with bodies. I went back and reported, and, since there was no other way, we at last let ourselves down by a rope from the window of Wardell's room, after lowering the precious oil-drum, now half empty, and set foot in a Fleet Street transmogrified to the semblance of a battlefield.
Perhaps a soldier hardened to slaughter could have supported the spectacle, but to us it was near overwhelming. Remember that the view from my office was circumscribed by projecting buildings on either side, and that the portion of street it commanded was abandoned at the first outrush, so that what we had seen before was as nothing compared with what confronted us.
Looking westward, the street was filled from side to side with a horrible barricade, vehicles of all sorts piled and wedged together in inextricable confusion, for a base; and over, under, between, shaken together and trembling to the throb of the engines still working beneath, were piled the dead.
From the accounts since collected it would seem that on this fatal day the ants emerged from the earth, not in a dozen, but in scores of places, from each of which they diverged on either hand, killing as they went, 'til they met the columns of their fellows, and so ringed Central London in a cordon of poison, whilst from other points within the circle other hordes spread devastatingly 'til hardly a nook or corner remained unvisited.
Of the millions of folks so surrounded, comparatively few escaped, and those, curiously enough, mainly by the underground railways, which were let alone for some time; but the majority of the people fled panic-stricken from one army only to encounter another, and most often met their fate struggling amidst maddened crowds.
Horror left us dumb for a little, then Mayence, hugging his oil-drum, turned towards Ludgate Circus, and we followed in silence. With us, on either hand, marched thousands of ants at a respectful distance, and so we came to Bridge Street, and the first survivor, a telephone linesman, slung in a travelling cradle from the cables crossing the road. Intent upon our steps, we were startled by his hoarse cry from aloft: "Hi mates!" he called.
"Can you let yourself down?" answered Mayence. "We've got stuff to keep them off. Come along."
The man became frantically busy with a coil of wire.
"Righto!" he yelled. "Just a minute."
There was a sudden commotion amongst our escort, a thin brown thread shot up the fašade of the building directly below the poles supporting the telephone wires.
"They know!" exclaimed Vidal. "They're after him. Quick, man, or they'll get you yet."
Mayence stood ready with his oil, the linesman dropped the end of his cable almost to out feet, unbuckled the strap which held him in the cradle, wound his cap about the wire, gave one unearthly scream, and fell smashing to the pavement. I think he was dead before he reached the ground.
We trudged on towards the river without a word; pity, horror, terror, all capacity for emotion seemed numbed to exhaustion, and we moved mechanically. Blackfriars Bridge was choked by another dreadful barricade, the approaches to the stations were impassable. The river was dotted with people swimming or clinging to lifebuoys or fragments of wood, the barges anchored on the further side were hidden by men clustering like swarming bees, the outermost continually dragged down by others who struggled up from the water; the "President," the old Naval Volunteer training ship, lay low in the water, weighed down by the numbers aboard her, and dozens clung to her cables fore and aft. I saw one man maintaining possession of a packing-case, which barely supported him, with bloody knife; a dinghy drifted by, laden with women and one man, who threatened any who approached it with a revolver. As they neared the bridge the arch under which they must pass grew black, and though we shouted, the warning was unheard, or unheeded, the insect death rained down, the boat capsized, and we saw no more.
Nearly half an hour we stood there, hypnotised, the petroleum escaping from our saturated clothes and gathering in little pools around our feet, whilst the ants clustered thick in a semicircle behind and darted continually to and fro along the parapet in front, angry perhaps because we had so long escaped them. Then a river steamer without a living soul aboard, though her deck was piled, came in sight, her paddles revolving slowly, swinging uncertainly from side to side of the river, 'til she brought up with a crash on the piles of a wharf and began to settle down.
With the noise we awoke to a realisation of a new peril; London town was on fire. Heavy smoke clouds were drawing across the sun, rolling south-eastward before a rising breeze.
"Nobody to stop it," said I. "But at least some of those infernal things'll get roasted."
"They'll go underground 'til it's over," Vidal said.
"We'll go up with the first spark," said Mayence. "Can you swim?"
He shook his head.
"Not a stroke."
"And Tom is equal to about a hundred yards. We'll have to make a float of some kind and keep under water going through the bridges; we'll get below these for a start, anyhow. Come on."
With our abominable guard still in attendance we turned our backs on the river, and by great good fortune found the roadway underneath the railway viaduct passable, though we had to climb over many vehicles. The smoke grew even thicker, and we could scarce see our way, but it appeared noxious to the ants, who thinned away and had quite disappeared ere luck brought us to the end of a short street and a little wharf.
"Here we are," said Mayence. "And there are planks and rope. We'll make a raft of sorts. Hurry!"
Somehow, in no very workmanlike fashion to be sure, since we groped in pungent semi-darkness, we got our raft together and launched. It was high time; we were half suffocated, and the flames, spreading unchecked with frightful rapidity, roared near at hand as, sitting awash, we started on our voyage, Mayence, sitting aft, paddling with a short board 'til the mid stream caught us, and we were swept swiftly forward, unable to see more than a yard or two ahead.
Soon a dark mass loomed above us, the raft swerved, we shot through a bridge—Southwark—and never an ant materialised. Either we passed unseen or they had gone before the smother.
"Three more to pass, and we're all right," grunted Mayence.
"Look out! Shove off!" A barge drifting beam-on lay in our path. Vidal howled, thrust out a leg pushing with all his might. We bumped once, and went clear without receiving boarders. I needn't describe what we glimpsed in passing, nor what we presently saw as we circled in the swirl of the Cannon Street railway bridge; suffice it to say that many had sought refuge upon its floating fenders—in vain.
Below was a red flare of flaming warehouses belching showers of sparks, yet none reached us, and we whirled blindly on in the black, smothering smoke blanket, passed beneath London Bridge without seeing it, and narrowly missed running full tilt into an anchored boat, perilously laden with folks, who yelled in chorus as we rasped across their cable; two men with oars out tugged dementedly, another fool struck wildly with a boathook, smote his iron deep into one of our planks and nearly capsized the lot.
"Let go, you idiot!" roared Mayence, whilst the water licked their gunwale, and, fortunately for them, he obeyed, and we parted company, losing sight of them instantly.
Vidal levered the hook clear and crouched ready to fend off from what might come next. With ebb and current together the stream was a race, and we should have fared badly had we encountered anything moored; but our amazing good fortune held, and though we caught sight of many craft, and heard voices all about us, we kept clear of everything 'til, about the neighbourhood of Deptford, the smoke thinned and we could see our fellow-men once more.
Either margin of the river was lined with people standing in the water, knee-deep, waist-deep, up to the neck; beyond these a floating fringe, then boats and rafts, all loaded nearly to sinking; and the voice of their misery was a continuous giant groan, a deep, plaintive note of despair, such as I hope never to hear again. Of the people in boats around, none heeded us, except to curse when we fouled them; but after I had picked up the blade of a broken oar, we kept a better course, and had no more collisions.
"We must get as far down as we can before the tide turns," Mayence explained; and we paddled our best 'til in the broad reach a little below Greenwich, we met a flotilla of torpedo boats. Half dead with fatigue, blistered all over by the oil which had saved our lives at the expense of our skins, we were hauled aboard the first, and stowed in the narrow quarters below, already crowded with refugees, whilst the boats steamed into the smoky pall to rescue all they might, and when they were loaded, dropped down river and decanted us into the cruisers, battleships, and liners anchored about Tilbury.
All night the work went on, and all night and for many days thereafter London blazed unchecked. Of a forlorn hope of bluejackets who went ashore with the intention of blowing up buildings to stop its progress, only two returned, and by the end of a week a great part of the Empire city lay in ruins.
On the night of our rescue, our cruiser set out in company with a fleet of all kinds of vessels, and in the early morning we were landed at Yarmouth, which for the moment was out of the danger zone, and thence we went by train to Glasgow, where I had some friends. The journey took over two days, so you may guess the congestion and confusion that reigned everywhere. I believe that the Norfolk Broads, the Fen country, and many sheltered bays and estuaries grew populous, thousands of people returning to the primitive style of lake dwellings, and building themselves huts upon piles or rafts.
But the most part believed only in flight, and the roads were black with fugitive multitudes who could find no place on the overburdened railroads; if the ants had followed up their first onslaught with the speed of which they were capable, I think it probable that the whole island would have been depopulated.
Perhaps the burning of London disconcerted them, or they had the strategical sense to reduce the country in their rear before going further; at all events, they made no move northward for over a week, but during that time overran the country to the south of a line between the Thames and the Severn estuary, methodically slaughtering flocks, herds, and those unfortunates who had not escaped over the Channel or fortified themselves in some such fashion as we had done.
Then they flooded northward, but by that the country had been cleared before them, and at the Avon-Welland line they were brought to a full stop for a while. Every bridge was defended, and along the banks and in the gap about Naseby, where once a very different battle had been fought, hundreds of fire-engines pumping blazing petroleum went into action, and thousands of men fought right gallantly with hand-pumps and squirts. Surely it was the strangest battle that the world had seen, bloodless but deadly, so potent being the poison, that to be stung meant death before cautery or antidote could be used. For days it continued, the ants tunnelling beneath the rivers' beds at many points, emerging oftentimes amongst thickets or coverts far in the rear of the firing line, and there, ringed about by the reserves, to be driven to earth again.
Across the country from sea to sea was stretched a broad band of fire-scoured earth, miles wide, and by this frontier the invasion is for the moment stayed, at the price of constant, unremitting vigilance, though none knows what the future has in store. Even the most optimistic of our experts, Professor Guy Durham, is gloomy.
"Our real knowledge of the earth's crust is small," he remarks in his report "and a poor mile the limit of our shafts. What fissures, crevices, caverns, lie beneath us we know not at all, but it may very well be that, in the four thousand miles from surface to centre, many such occur. London, it is surmised, lies in part above a great subterranean lake, and it requires but a small effort to imagine such regions inhabited."
He goes on to details of our enemy's anatomy: F. Horribilis, as it has been dubbed, is in many respects entirely different from and vastly superior to its sun-loving brother, having a marvellously complex brain, excellent smelling apparatus, and, a somewhat unusual endowment for a subterranean creature, well developed eyes. In fact, the thing is altogether a super-ant, and he comes to a conclusion not hard to credit under the circumstances.
"I have no hesitation in announcing my conviction that Horribilis is an intellectual, a rational creature, able to plan, to reason, and, as we have so terribly experienced, to act in combination. I am of opinion that their aggression is a deliberate attack upon human supremacy, intolerable though such a suggestion may be to our self-satisfaction; but, taking into consideration their means of offence, their proved skill as miners, and the immense fecundity of such allied species as we know, I am forced to the forlorn conclusion that mankind may, at no very distant date, be compelled to struggle hard for very existence. And, lest we grow over-confident in our present defences, I am bound to point out that, if analogy holds good, our feeble barriers of fire and water may presently be passed, if not underground, then by the path of the air. Both the male and female of the ant, at one period of their lives, are winged!"
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