Previous chapterContentsNext chapter

Chapter IV


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous chapterContentsNext chapter