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WAITING FOR DOOM
THIS was the all-important news which the inhabitants of every town which possessed a well-informed newspaper read the next morning. It was, in the more important of them, followed by digests of the calculations which had made this terrific result a practical certainty. These, again, were followed by speculations, some deliberately scientific, and some wild beyond the dreams of the most hopeless hysteria.
Men and women who for a generation or so had been making large incomes by prophesying the end of the world as a certainty about every seven years and had bought up long leaseholds meanwhile now gambled with absolute certainty on the shortness of the public memory, revised their figures, and proved to demonstration that this was the very thing they had been foretelling all along.
First outside scientific circles came blank incredulity. The ordinary man and woman in the street had not room in their brains for such a tremendous idea as this fact or no fact. They were already filled with a crowd of much smaller and, to them, much more pressing concerns, than a collision with a comet which you couldn't even see except through a big telescope: and then that sort of thing had been talked and written about hundreds of times before and had never come to anything, so why should this?
But when the morning papers dated somewhat ominously the twenty-fifth of March, quarter day, informed their readers that, granted fine weather, the comet would be visible to the naked eye from sunset to sunrise according to longitude that night, the views of the man and the woman who had taken the matter so lightly underwent a very considerable change.
While the comet could only be seen, save by astronomers, in the photographs that could be bought in any form from a picture postcard to a five-guinea reproduction of the actual thing, there was still an air of unconvincing unreality about. Of course it might be coming, but it was still very far away, and it might not arrive after all. Yet when that fateful night had passed and millions of sleepless eyes had seen the south-western stars shining through a pale luminous mist extended in the shape of two vast filmy wings with a brighter spot of yellow flame between them, the whole matter seemed to take on a very different and a much more serious aspect.
The fighting had come to a sudden stop, as though by a mutually tacit agreement. Not even the German Emperor could now deny that Lennard had made no idle threat at Canterbury when he had given him the destruction of the world as an alternative to the conquest of Britain. Still, he did not quite believe in the possibility of that destruction even yet, in spite of what the Tsar had told him and what he had learned from other sources. He still wanted to fight to a finish, and, as Deputy European Providence, he had a very real objection to the interference of apparently irresponsible celestial bodies with his carefully-thought-out plans for the ordering of mundane civilisation on German commercial lines. Whether they liked it or not, it must be the best thing in the end for them: otherwise how could He have come to think it all out?
Meanwhile, to make matters worse from his point of view, John Castellan had refused absolutely to accept any modification of the original terms, and he had replied to an order from headquarters to report himself and the ships still left under his control by loading the said ships with ammunition and motive power and then disappearing from the field of action without leaving a trace as to his present or future whereabouts behind him, and so, as far as matters went, entirely fulfilling the Tsar's almost prophetic fears.
And then, precisely at the hour, minute and second predicted, five hours, thirty minutes and twenty-five seconds, a.m., on the 31st of March, the comet became visible in daylight about two and a half degrees southwestward of the Morning Star. Twenty-four hours later the two wings came into view, and the next evening the Invader looked like some gigantic bird of prey swooping down from its eyrie somewhere in the heights of Space upon the trembling and terrified world. The professional prophets said, with an excellent assumption of absolute conviction, that it was nothing less awful than the Destroying Angel himself in propria persona.
At length, when excitement had developed into frenzy, and frenzy into an almost universal delirium, two cablegrams crossed each other along the bed of the Atlantic Ocean. One was to say that the Pittsburg gun was ready, and the other that the loading of the Bolton Baby feeding, some callous humorist of the day called it was to begin the next morning. This meant that there was just a week an ordinary working week, between the human race and something very like the Day of Judgment.
The next day Lennard set all the existing wires of the world thrilling with the news that the huge projectile, charged with its thirty hundred-weight of explosives, was resting quietly in its place on the top of a potential volcano which, loosened by the touch of a woman's hand, was to hurl it through space and into the heart of the swiftly-advancing Invader from the outmost realms of Space.
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