"AND ON EARTH, PEACE!"
ON the morning of the thirtieth of April, the interest of the whole world was centred generally upon Bolton, and particularly upon the little spot of black earth enclosed by a ring of Bessemer furnaces in the midst of which lay another ring, a ring of metal, the mouth of the great cannon, whose one and only shot was to save or lose the world. At a height of two thousand feet, twenty airships circled at varying distances round the mouth of the gun, watching for the one Flying Fish which had not been accounted for in the final fight.
The good town of Bolton itself was depopulated. For days past the comet had been blazing brighter and brighter, even in the broad daylight, and the reports which came pouring in every day from the observatories of the world made it perfectly clear that Lennard's calculations would be verified at midnight.
Mr Parmenter and his brother capitalists had guaranteed two millions sterling as compensation for such destruction of property as might be brought about by the discharge of the cannon, and, coupled with this guarantee, was a request that everyone living within five miles of what had been the Great Lever pit should leave, and this was authorised by a Royal Proclamation. There was no confusion, because, when faced with great issues, the Lancashire intellect does not become confused. It just gets down to business and does it. So it came about that the people of Bolton, rich and poor, millionaire and artisan, made during that momentous week a general flitting, taking with them just such of their possessions as would be most precious to them if the Fates permitted them to witness the dawn of the first of May.
The weather, strangely enough, had been warm and sunny for the last fortnight, despite the fact that the ever-brightening Invader from Space gradually outshone the sun itself, and so on all the moors round Bolton there sprang up a vast town of tents and ready-made bungalows from Chorley round by Darwen to Bury. Thousands of people had come from all parts of the kingdom to see the fate of the world decided. What was left of the armies of the Allies were also brought up by train, and all the British forces were there as well. They were all friends now for there was no more need for fighting, since the events of the next few hours would decide the fate of the human race.
As the sun set over the western moors a vast concourse of men and women, representing almost every nationality on earth, watched the coming of the Invader, brightening now with every second and over-arching the firmament with its wide-spreading wings. There were no sceptics now. No one could look upon that appalling Shape and not believe, and if absolute confirmation of Lennard's prophecy had been wanted it would have been found in the fact that the temperature began to rise after sunset. That had never happened before within the memory of man.
The crowning height of the moors which make a semicircle to the north-west of Bolton is Winter Hill, which stands about half-way between Bolton and Chorley, and, roughly speaking, would make the centre of a circle including Bolton, Wigan, Chorley and Blackburn. It rises to a height of nearly fifteen hundred feet and dominates the surrounding country for fully fifteen miles, and on the summit of this rugged, heather-clad moor was pitched what might be called without exaggeration the headquarters of the forces which were to do battle for humanity. A huge marquee had been erected in an ancient quarry just below the summit; from the centre pole of this flew the Royal Standard of England, and from the other poles the standards of every civilised nation in the world.
The front of the marquee opened to the south eastward, and by the unearthly light of the comet the mill chimneys of Bolton, dominated by the great stack of Dobson & Barlow's, could be seen pointing like black fingers up to the approaching terror. In the centre of the opening were two plain deal tables. There was an instrument on each of them, and from these separate wires ran on two series of poles and buried themselves at last in the heart of the charge of the great cannon. Beside the instruments were two chronometers synchronised from Greenwich and beating time together to the thousandth part of a second, counting out what might perhaps be the last seconds of human life on earth.
Grouped about the two tables were the five sovereigns of Europe and the President of the French Republic, and with them stood the greatest soldiers, sailors and scientists, statesmen and diplomatists between east and west.
On a long deck chair beside one of the tables lay Lord Westerham with his left arm bound across his breast and looking little better than the ghost of the man he had been a month ago. Beside him stood Lady Margaret and Norah Castellan, and with them were the two men who had done so much to change defeat into victory; the captain and lieutenant of the ever-famous Ithuriel.
Never before had there been such a gathering of all sorts and conditions of men on one spot of earth; but as the hours went on and dwindled into minutes, all differences of rank and position became things of the past. In the presence of that awful Shape which was now flaming across the heavens, all men and women were equal, since by midnight all might be reduced at the same instant to the same dust and ashes. The ghastly orange-green glare shone down alike on the upturned face of monarch and statesman, soldier and peasant, millionaire and pauper, the good and the bad, the noble and the base, and tinged every face with its own ghastly hue.
Five minutes to twelve!
There was a shaking of hands, but no words were spoken. Norah Castellan stooped and kissed her wounded lover's brow, and then stood up and clasped her hands behind her. Lennard went to one of the tables and Auriole to the other.
Lennard had honestly kept the unspoken pact that had been made between them in the observatory at Whernside. Neither word nor look of love had passed his lips or lightened his eyes; and even now, as he stood beside her, looking at her face, beautiful still even in that ghastly light, his glance was as steady as if he had been looking through the eye-piece of his telescope.
Auriole had her right forefinger already resting on a little white button, ready at a touch to send the kindling spark into the mighty mass of explosives which lay buried at the bottom of what had been the Great Lever pit. Lennard also had his right forefinger on another button, but his left hand was in his coat pocket and the other forefinger was on the trigger of a loaded and cocked revolver. There were several other revolvers in men's pockets men who had sworn that their nearest and dearest should be spared the last tortures of the death-agony of humanity.
The chronometers began to tick off the seconds. of the last minute. The wings of the comet spread out vaster and vaster and its now flaming nucleus blazed brighter and brighter. A low, vague wailing sound seemed to be running through the multitudes which thronged the semicircle of moors. It was the first and perhaps the last utterance of the agony of unendurable suspense.
At the thirtieth second Lennard looked up and said in a quiet, passionless tone:
At the same moment he saw, as millions of others thought they saw, a grey shape skimming through the air from the north-east towards Bolton. It could not be a British airship, for the fleet had already scattered, as the shock of the coming explosion would certainly have caused them to smash up like so many shells. It was John Castellan's Flying Fish come to fulfil the letter of his threat, even at this supreme moment of the world's fate.
Again Lennard spoke.
And then he began to count. "Nine- eight- seven- six- five- four- three-two- Now!"
The two fingers went down at the same instant and completed the circuits. The next, the central fires of the earth seemed to have burst loose. A roar such as had never deafened human ears before thundered from earth to heaven, and a vast column of pale flame leapt up with a concussion which seemed to shake the foundations of the world. Then in the midst of the column of flame there came a brighter flash, a momentary blaze of green-blue flame flashing out for a moment and vanishing.
"That was John's ship," said Norah. "God forgive him!"
"He will," said Westerham, taking her hand. "He was wrong-headed on that particular subject, but he was a brave man, and a genius. I don't think there's any doubt about that."
"It's good of you to say so," said Norah. "Poor John! With all his learning and genius to come to that"
"We all have to get there some time, Norah, and after all, whether he's right or wrong, a man can't die better than for what he believes to be the truth and the right. We may think him mistaken, he thought he was right, and he has proved it. God rest his soul!"
"Amen!" said Norah, and she leant over again and kissed him on the brow.
Then came ten seconds more of mute and agonised suspense, and men's fingers tightened their grip on the revolvers. Then the upturned straining eyes looked upon such a sight as human eyes will never see again save perchance those which, in the fullness of time, may look upon the awful pageantry of the Last Day.
High up in the air there was a shrill screaming sound which seemed something like an echo of the roar of the great gun. Something like a white flash of light darted upwards straight to the heart of the descending Invader. Then the whole heavens were illumined by a blinding glare. The nucleus of the comet seemed to throw out long rays of many-coloured light. A moment later it had burst into myriads of faintly gleaming atoms.
The watching millions on earth instinctively clasped their hands to their ears, expecting such a sound as would deafen them for ever; but none came, for the explosion had taken place beyond the limits of the earth's atmosphere. The whole sky was now filled from zenith to horizon with a pale, golden, luminous mist, and through this the moon and stars began to shine dimly.
Then a blast of burning air swept shrieking and howling across the earth, for now the planet Terra was rushing at her headlong speed of nearly seventy thousand miles an hour through the ocean of fire-mist into which the shattered comet had been dissolved. Then, this passed. The cool wind of night followed it, and the moon and stars shone down once more undimmed through the pure and cloudless ether.
Until now there had been silence. Men and women looked at each other and clasped hands; and then Tom Bowcock, standing just outside the marquee with his arm round his wife's shoulders, lifted up his mighty baritone voice and sang the lines:
"Praise God from whom all blessings flow!"
Hundreds and then thousands, then millions of voices took up the familiar strain, and so from the tops of the Lancashire moors the chorus rolled on from village to village and town to town, until with one voice, though with many tongues, east and west were giving thanks for the Great Deliverance.
But the man who, under Providence, had wrought it, seemed deaf and blind to all this. He only felt a soft trembling clasp round his right hand, and he only heard Auriole's voice whispering his name.
The next moment a stronger grip pulled his left hand out of his coat pocket, bringing the revolver with it, and Mr Parmenter's voice, shaken by rare emotion, said, loudly enough for all in the marquee to hear:
"We may thank God and you, Gilbert Lennard, that there's still a world with living men and women on it, and there's one woman here who's going to live for you only till death do you part. She told me all about it last night. You've won her fair and square and you're going to have her. I did have other views for her, but I've changed my mind, because I have learnt other things since then. But anyhow, with no offence to this distinguished company, I reckon you're the biggest man on earth just now."
Soon after daybreak on the first of May, one of the airships that had been guarding Whernside dropped on the top of Winter Hill, and the captain gave Lennard a cablegram which read thus:
"LENNARD, Bolton, England: Good shot. As you left no pieces for us to shoot at we've let our shot go. No use for it here. Hope it will stop next celestial stranger coming this way. America thanks you. Any terms you like for lecturing tour. HENCHELL."
Lennard did not see his way to accept the lecturing offer because he had much more important business on hand: but a week later, after a magnificent and, if the word may be used, multiple marriage ceremony had been performed in Westminster Abbey, five airships, each with a bride and bridegroom on board, rose from the gardens of Buckingham Palace and, followed by the cheers of millions, winged their way westward. Thirty-five hours, later there was such a dinner-party at the White House, Washington, as eclipsed all the previous glories even of American hospitality.
Nothing was ever seen of the projectile which "The Pittsburg Prattler" had hurled into space. Not even the great Whernside reflector was able to pick it up. The probability, therefore, is that even now it is still speeding on its lonely way through the Ocean of Immensity, and it is within the bounds of possibility that at some happy moment in the future and somewhere far away beyond the reach of human vision, its huge charge of explosives may do for some other threatened world what the one which the Bolton Baby coughed up into Space just in the nick of time did to save this home of ours from the impending Peril of 1910.