The Poison Belt, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter V

THE DEAD WORLD

I remember that we all sat gasping in our chairs, with that sweet, wet south-western breeze, fresh from the sea, flapping the muslin curtains and cooling our flushed faces. I wonder how long we sat! None of us afterwards could agree at all on that point. We were bewildered, stunned, semi-conscious. We had all braced our courage for death, but this fearful and sudden new fact — that we must continue to live after we had survived the race to which we belonged — struck us with the shock of a physical blow and left us prostrate. Then gradually the suspended mechanism began to move once more; the shuttles of memory worked; ideas weaved themselves together in our minds. We saw, with vivid, merciless clearness, the relations between the past, the present, and the future — the lives that we had led and the lives which we would have to live. Our eyes turned in silent horror upon those of our companions and found the same answering look in theirs. Instead of the joy which men might have been expected to feel who had so narrowly escaped an imminent death, a terrible wave of darkest depression submerged us. Everything on earth that we loved had been washed away into the great, infinite, unknown ocean, and here were we marooned upon this desert island of a world, without companions, hopes, or aspirations. A few years’ skulking like jackals among the graves of the human race and then our belated and lonely end would come.

“It’s dreadful, George, dreadful!” the lady cried in an agony of sobs. “If we had only passed with the others! Oh, why did you save us? I feel as if it is we that are dead and everyone else alive.”

Challenger’s great eyebrows were drawn down in concentrated thought, while his huge, hairy paw closed upon the outstretched hand of his wife. I had observed that she always held out her arms to him in trouble as a child would to its mother.

“Without being a fatalist to the point of nonresistance,” said he, “I have always found that the highest wisdom lies in an acquiescence with the actual.” He spoke slowly, and there was a vibration of feeling in his sonorous voice.

“I do not acquiesce,” said Summerlee firmly.

“I don’t see that it matters a row of pins whether you acquiesce or whether you don’t,” remarked Lord John. “You’ve got to take it, whether you take it fightin’ or take it lyin’ down, so what’s the odds whether you acquiesce or not?

“I can’t remember that anyone asked our permission before the thing began, and nobody’s likely to ask it now. So what difference can it make what we may think of it?”

“It is just all the difference between happiness and misery,” said Challenger with an abstracted face, still patting his wife’s hand. “You can swim with the tide and have peace in mind and soul, or you can thrust against it and be bruised and weary. This business is beyond us, so let us accept it as it stands and say no more.”

“But what in the world are we to do with our lives?” I asked, appealing in desperation to the blue, empty heaven.

“What am I to do, for example? There are no newspapers, so there’s an end of my vocation.”

“And there’s nothin’ left to shoot, and no more soldierin’, so there’s an end of mine,” said Lord John.

“And there are no students, so there’s an end of mine,” cried Summerlee.

“But I have my husband and my house, so I can thank heaven that there is no end of mine,” said the lady.

“Nor is there an end of mine,” remarked Challenger, “for science is not dead, and this catastrophe in itself will offer us many most absorbing problems for investigation.”

He had now flung open the windows and we were gazing out upon the silent and motionless landscape.

“Let me consider,” he continued. “It was about three, or a little after, yesterday afternoon that the world finally entered the poison belt to the extent of being completely submerged. It is now nine o’clock. The question is, at what hour did we pass out from it?”

“The air was very bad at daybreak,” said I.

“Later than that,” said Mrs. Challenger. “As late as eight o’clock I distinctly felt the same choking at my throat which came at the outset.”

“Then we shall say that it passed just after eight o’clock. For seventeen hours the world has been soaked in the poisonous ether. For that length of time the Great Gardener has sterilized the human mold which had grown over the surface of His fruit. Is it possible that the work is incompletely done — that others may have survived besides ourselves?”

“That’s what I was wonderin’” said Lord John. “Why should we be the only pebbles on the beach?”

“It is absurd to suppose that anyone besides ourselves can possibly have survived,” said Summerlee with conviction. “Consider that the poison was so virulent that even a man who is as strong as an ox and has not a nerve in his body, like Malone here, could hardly get up the stairs before he fell unconscious. Is it likely that anyone could stand seventeen minutes of it, far less hours?”

“Unless someone saw it coming and made preparation, same as old friend Challenger did.”

“That, I think, is hardly probable,” said Challenger, projecting his beard and sinking his eyelids. “The combination of observation, inference, and anticipatory imagination which enabled me to foresee the danger is what one can hardly expect twice in the same generation.”

“Then your conclusion is that everyone is certainly dead?”

“There can be little doubt of that. We have to remember, however, that the poison worked from below upwards and would possibly be less virulent in the higher strata of the atmosphere. It is strange, indeed, that it should be so; but it presents one of those features which will afford us in the future a fascinating field for study. One could imagine, therefore, that if one had to search for survivors one would turn one’s eyes with best hopes of success to some Tibetan village or some Alpine farm, many thousands of feet above the sea level.”

“Well, considerin’ that there are no railroads and no steamers you might as well talk about survivors in the moon,” said Lord John. “But what I’m askin’ myself is whether it’s really over or whether it’s only half-time.”

Summerlee craned his neck to look round the horizon. “It seems clear and fine,” said he in a very dubious voice; “but so it did yesterday. I am by no means assured that it is all over.”

Challenger shrugged his shoulders.

“We must come back once more to our fatalism,” said he. “If the world has undergone this experience before, which is not outside the range of possibility; it was certainly a very long time ago. Therefore, we may reasonably hope that it will be very long before it occurs again.”

“That’s all very well,” said Lord John, “but if you get an earthquake shock you are mighty likely to have a second one right on the top of it. I think we’d be wise to stretch our legs and have a breath of air while we have the chance. Since our oxygen is exhausted we may just as well be caught outside as in.”

It was strange the absolute lethargy which had come upon us as a reaction after our tremendous emotions of the last twenty-four hours. It was both mental and physical, a deep-lying feeling that nothing mattered and that everything was a weariness and a profitless exertion. Even Challenger had succumbed to it, and sat in his chair, with his great head leaning upon his hands and his thoughts far away, until Lord John and I, catching him by each arm, fairly lifted him on to his feet, receiving only the glare and growl of an angry mastiff for our trouble. However, once we had got out of our narrow haven of refuge into the wider atmosphere of everyday life, our normal energy came gradually back to us once more.

But what were we to begin to do in that graveyard of a world? Could ever men have been faced with such a question since the dawn of time? It is true that our own physical needs, and even our luxuries, were assured for the future. All the stores of food, all the vintages of wine, all the treasures of art were ours for the taking. But what were we to do? Some few tasks appealed to us at once, since they lay ready to our hands. We descended into the kitchen and laid the two domestics upon their respective beds. They seemed to have died without suffering, one in the chair by the fire, the other upon the scullery floor. Then we carried in poor Austin from the yard. His muscles were set as hard as a board in the most exaggerated rigor mortis, while the contraction of the fibres had drawn his mouth into a hard sardonic grin. This symptom was prevalent among all who had died from the poison. Wherever we went we were confronted by those grinning faces, which seemed to mock at our dreadful position, smiling silently and grimly at the ill-fated survivors of their race.

“Look here,” said Lord John, who had paced restlessly about the dining-room whilst we partook of some food, “I don’t know how you fellows feel about it, but for my part, I simply can’t sit here and do nothin’.”

“Perhaps,” Challenger answered, “you would have the kindness to suggest what you think we ought to do.”

“Get a move on us and see all that has happened.”

“That is what I should myself propose.”

“But not in this little country village. We can see from the window all that this place can teach us.”

“Where should we go, then?”

“To London!”

“That’s all very well,” grumbled Summerlee. “You may be equal to a forty-mile walk, but I’m not so sure about Challenger, with his stumpy legs, and I am perfectly sure about myself.” Challenger was very much annoyed.

“If you could see your way, sir, to confining your remarks to your own physical peculiarities, you would find that you had an ample field for comment,” he cried.

“I had no intention to offend you, my dear Challenger,” cried our tactless friend, “You can’t be held responsible for your own physique. If nature has given you a short, heavy body you cannot possibly help having stumpy legs.”

Challenger was too furious to answer. He could only growl and blink and bristle. Lord John hastened to intervene before the dispute became more violent.

“You talk of walking. Why should we walk?” said he.

“Do you suggest taking a train?” asked Challenger, still simmering.

“What’s the matter with the motor-car? Why should we not go in that?”

“I am not an expert,” said Challenger, pulling at his beard reflectively. “At the same time, you are right in supposing that the human intellect in its higher manifestations should be sufficiently flexible to turn itself to anything. Your idea is an excellent one, Lord John. I myself will drive you all to London.”

“You will do nothing of the kind,” said Summerlee with decision.

“No, indeed, George!” cried his wife. “You only tried once, and you remember how you crashed through the gate of the garage.”

“It was a momentary want of concentration,” said Challenger complacently. “You can consider the matter settled. I will certainly drive you all to London.”

The situation was relieved by Lord John.

“What’s the car?” he asked.

“A twenty-horsepower Humber.”

“Why, I’ve driven one for years,” said he. “By George!” he added. “I never thought I’d live to take the whole human race in one load. There’s just room for five, as I remember it. Get your things on, and I’ll be ready at the door by ten o’clock.”

Sure enough, at the hour named, the car came purring and crackling from the yard with Lord John at the wheel. I took my seat beside him, while the lady, a useful little buffer state, was squeezed in between the two men of wrath at the back. Then Lord John released his brakes, slid his lever rapidly from first to third, and we sped off upon the strangest drive that ever human beings have taken since man first came upon the earth.

You are to picture the loveliness of nature upon that August day, the freshness of the morning air, the golden glare of the summer sunshine, the cloudless sky, the luxuriant green of the Sussex woods, and the deep purple of heather-clad downs. As you looked round upon the many-coloured beauty of the scene all thought of a vast catastrophe would have passed from your mind had it not been for one sinister sign — the solemn, all-embracing silence. There is a gentle hum of life which pervades a closely-settled country, so deep and constant that one ceases to observe it, as the dweller by the sea loses all sense of the constant murmur of the waves. The twitter of birds, the buzz of insects, the far-off echo of voices, the lowing of cattle, the distant barking of dogs, roar of trains, and rattle of carts — all these form one low, unremitting note, striking unheeded upon the ear. We missed it now. This deadly silence was appalling. So solemn was it, so impressive, that the buzz and rattle of our motor-car seemed an unwarrantable intrusion, an indecent disregard of this reverent stillness which lay like a pall over and round the ruins of humanity. It was this grim hush, and the tall clouds of smoke which rose here and there over the country-side from smoldering buildings, which cast a chill into our hearts as we gazed round at the glorious panorama of the Weald.

And then there were the dead! At first those endless groups of drawn and grinning faces filled us with a shuddering horror. So vivid and mordant was the impression that I can live over again that slow descent of the station hill, the passing by the nurse-girl with the two babes, the sight of the old horse on his knees between the shafts, the cabman twisted across his seat, and the young man inside with his hand upon the open door in the very act of springing out. Lower down were six reapers all in a litter, their limbs crossing, their dead, unwinking eyes gazing upwards at the glare of heaven. These things I see as in a photograph. But soon, by the merciful provision of nature, the over-excited nerve ceased to respond. The very vastness of the horror took away from its personal appeal. Individuals merged into groups, groups into crowds, crowds into a universal phenomenon which one soon accepted as the inevitable detail of every scene. Only here and there, where some particularly brutal or grotesque incident caught the attention, did the mind come back with a sudden shock to the personal and human meaning of it all.

Above all, there was the fate of the children. That, I remember, filled us with the strongest sense of intolerable injustice. We could have wept — Mrs. Challenger did weep — when we passed a great council school and saw the long trail of tiny figures scattered down the road which led from it. They had been dismissed by their terrified teachers and were speeding for their homes when the poison caught them in its net. Great numbers of people were at the open windows of the houses. In Tunbridge Wells there was hardly one which had not its staring, smiling face. At the last instant the need of air, that very craving for oxygen which we alone had been able to satisfy, had sent them flying to the window. The sidewalks too were littered with men and women, hatless and bonnetless, who had rushed out of the houses. Many of them had fallen in the roadway. It was a lucky thing that in Lord John we had found an expert driver, for it was no easy matter to pick one’s way. Passing through the villages or towns we could only go at a walking pace, and once, I remember, opposite the school at Tonbridge, we had to halt some time while we carried aside the bodies which blocked our path.

A few small, definite pictures stand out in my memory from amid that long panorama of death upon the Sussex and Kentish high roads. One was that of a great, glittering motor-car standing outside the inn at the village of Southborough. It bore, as I should guess, some pleasure party upon their return from Brighton or from Eastbourne. There were three gaily dressed women, all young and beautiful, one of them with a Peking spaniel upon her lap. With them were a rakish-looking elderly man and a young aristocrat, his eyeglass still in his eye, his cigarette burned down to the stub between the fingers of his begloved hand. Death must have come on them in an instant and fixed them as they sat. Save that the elderly man had at the last moment torn out his collar in an effort to breathe, they might all have been asleep. On one side of the car a waiter with some broken glasses beside a tray was huddled near the step. On the other, two very ragged tramps, a man and a woman, lay where they had fallen, the man with his long, thin arm still outstretched, even as he had asked for alms in his lifetime. One instant of time had put aristocrat, waiter, tramp, and dog upon one common footing of inert and dissolving protoplasm.

I remember another singular picture, some miles on the London side of Sevenoaks. There is a large convent upon the left, with a long, green slope in front of it. Upon this slope were assembled a great number of school children, all kneeling at prayer. In front of them was a fringe of nuns, and higher up the slope, facing towards them, a single figure whom we took to be the Mother Superior. Unlike the pleasure-seekers in the motor-car, these people seemed to have had warning of their danger and to have died beautifully together, the teachers and the taught, assembled for their last common lesson.

My mind is still stunned by that terrific experience, and I grope vainly for means of expression by which I can reproduce the emotions which we felt. Perhaps it is best and wisest not to try, but merely to indicate the facts. Even Summerlee and Challenger were crushed, and we heard nothing of our companions behind us save an occasional whimper from the lady. As to Lord John, he was too intent upon his wheel and the difficult task of threading his way along such roads to have time or inclination for conversation. One phrase he used with such wearisome iteration that it stuck in my memory and at last almost made me laugh as a comment upon the day of doom.

“Pretty doin’s! What!”

That was his ejaculation as each fresh tremendous combination of death and disaster displayed itself before us. “Pretty doin’s! What!” he cried, as we descended the station hill at Rotherfield, and it was still “Pretty doin’s! What!” as we picked our way through a wilderness of death in the High Street of Lewisham and the Old Kent Road.

It was here that we received a sudden and amazing shock. Out of the window of a humble corner house there appeared a fluttering handkerchief waving at the end of a long, thin human arm. Never had the sight of unexpected death caused our hearts to stop and then throb so wildly as did this amazing indication of life. Lord John ran the motor to the curb, and in an instant we had rushed through the open door of the house and up the staircase to the second-floor front room from which the signal proceeded.

A very old lady sat in a chair by the open window, and close to her, laid across a second chair, was a cylinder of oxygen, smaller but of the same shape as those which had saved our own lives. She turned her thin, drawn, bespectacled face toward us as we crowded in at the doorway.

“I feared that I was abandoned here forever,” said she, “for I am an invalid and cannot stir.”

“Well, madam,” Challenger answered, “it is a lucky chance that we happened to pass.”

“I have one all-important question to ask you,” said she. “Gentlemen, I beg that you will be frank with me. What effect will these events have upon London and North-Western Railway shares?”

We should have laughed had it not been for the tragic eagerness with which she listened for our answer. Mrs. Burston, for that was her name, was an aged widow, whose whole income depended upon a small holding of this stock. Her life had been regulated by the rise and fall of the dividend, and she could form no conception of existence save as it was affected by the quotation of her shares. In vain we pointed out to her that all the money in the world was hers for the taking and was useless when taken. Her old mind would not adapt itself to the new idea, and she wept loudly over her vanished stock. “It was all I had,” she wailed. “If that is gone I may as well go too.”

Amid her lamentations we found out how this frail old plant had lived where the whole great forest had fallen. She was a confirmed invalid and an asthmatic. Oxygen had been prescribed for her malady, and a tube was in her room at the moment of the crisis. She had naturally inhaled some as had been her habit when there was a difficulty with her breathing. It had given her relief, and by doling out her supply she had managed to survive the night. Finally she had fallen asleep and been awakened by the buzz of our motor-car. As it was impossible to take her on with us, we saw that she had all necessaries of life and promised to communicate with her in a couple of days at the latest. So we left her, still weeping bitterly over her vanished stock.

As we approached the Thames the block in the streets became thicker and the obstacles more bewildering. It was with difficulty that we made our way across London Bridge. The approaches to it upon the Middlesex side were choked from end to end with frozen traffic which made all further advance in that direction impossible. A ship was blazing brightly alongside one of the wharves near the bridge, and the air was full of drifting smuts and of a heavy acrid smell of burning. There was a cloud of dense smoke somewhere near the Houses of Parliament, but it was impossible from where we were to see what was on fire.

“I don’t know how it strikes you,” Lord John remarked as he brought his engine to a standstill, “but it seems to me the country is more cheerful than the town. Dead London is gettin’ on my nerves. I’m for a cast round and then gettin’ back to Rotherfield.”

“I confess that I do not see what we can hope for here,” said Professor Summerlee.

“At the same time,” said Challenger, his great voice booming strangely amid the silence, “it is difficult for us to conceive that out of seven millions of people there is only this one old woman who by some peculiarity of constitution or some accident of occupation has managed to survive this catastrophe.”

“If there should be others, how can we hope to find them, George?” asked the lady. “And yet I agree with you that we cannot go back until we have tried.”

Getting out of the car and leaving it by the curb, we walked with some difficulty along the crowded pavement of King William Street and entered the open door of a large insurance office. It was a corner house, and we chose it as commanding a view in every direction. Ascending the stair, we passed through what I suppose to have been the board-room, for eight elderly men were seated round a long table in the centre of it. The high window was open and we all stepped out upon the balcony. From it we could see the crowded city streets radiating in every direction, while below us the road was black from side to side with the tops of the motionless taxis. All, or nearly all, had their heads pointed outwards, showing how the terrified men of the city had at the last moment made a vain endeavor to rejoin their families in the suburbs or the country. Here and there amid the humbler cabs towered the great brass-spangled motor-car of some wealthy magnate, wedged hopelessly among the dammed stream of arrested traffic. Just beneath us there was such a one of great size and luxurious appearance, with its owner, a fat old man, leaning out, half his gross body through the window, and his podgy hand, gleaming with diamonds, outstretched as he urged his chauffeur to make a last effort to break through the press.

A dozen motor-buses towered up like islands in this flood, the passengers who crowded the roofs lying all huddled together and across each others’ laps like a child’s toys in a nursery. On a broad lamp pedestal in the centre of the roadway, a burly policeman was standing, leaning his back against the post in so natural an attitude that it was hard to realize that he was not alive, while at his feet there lay a ragged newsboy with his bundle of papers on the ground beside him. A paper-cart had got blocked in the crowd, and we could read in large letters, black upon yellow, “Scene at Lord’s. County Match Interrupted.” This must have been the earliest edition, for there were other placards bearing the legend, “Is It the End? Great Scientist’s Warning.” And another, “Is Challenger Justified? Ominous Rumours.”

Challenger pointed the latter placard out to his wife, as it thrust itself like a banner above the throng. I could see him throw out his chest and stroke his beard as he looked at it. It pleased and flattered that complex mind to think that London had died with his name and his words still present in their thoughts. His feelings were so evident that they aroused the sardonic comment of his colleague.

“In the limelight to the last, Challenger,” he remarked.

“So it would appear,” he answered complacently. “Well,” he added as he looked down the long vista of the radiating streets, all silent and all choked up with death, “I really see no purpose to be served by our staying any longer in London. I suggest that we return at once to Rotherfield and then take counsel as to how we shall most profitably employ the years which lie before us.”

Only one other picture shall I give of the scenes which we carried back in our memories from the dead city. It is a glimpse which we had of the interior of the old church of St. Mary’s, which is at the very point where our car was awaiting us. Picking our way among the prostrate figures upon the steps, we pushed open the swing door and entered. It was a wonderful sight. The church was crammed from end to end with kneeling figures in every posture of supplication and abasement. At the last dreadful moment, brought suddenly face to face with the realities of life, those terrific realities which hang over us even while we follow the shadows, the terrified people had rushed into those old city churches which for generations had hardly ever held a congregation. There they huddled as close as they could kneel, many of them in their agitation still wearing their hats, while above them in the pulpit a young man in lay dress had apparently been addressing them when he and they had been overwhelmed by the same fate. He lay now, like Punch in his booth, with his head and two limp arms hanging over the ledge of the pulpit. It was a nightmare, the grey, dusty church, the rows of agonized figures, the dimness and silence of it all. We moved about with hushed whispers, walking upon our tip-toes.

And then suddenly I had an idea. At one corner of the church, near the door, stood the ancient font, and behind it a deep recess in which there hung the ropes for the bell-ringers. Why should we not send a message out over London which would attract to us anyone who might still be alive? I ran across, and pulling at the list-covered rope, I was surprised to find how difficult it was to swing the bell. Lord John had followed me.

“By George, young fellah!” said he, pulling off his coat. “You’ve hit on a dooced good notion. Give me a grip and we’ll soon have a move on it.”

But, even then, so heavy was the bell that it was not until Challenger and Summerlee had added their weight to ours that we heard the roaring and clanging above our heads which told us that the great clapper was ringing out its music. Far over dead London resounded our message of comradeship and hope to any fellow-man surviving. It cheered our own hearts, that strong, metallic call, and we turned the more earnestly to our work, dragged two feet off the earth with each upward jerk of the rope, but all straining together on the downward heave, Challenger the lowest of all, bending all his great strength to the task and flopping up and down like a monstrous bull-frog, croaking with every pull. It was at that moment that an artist might have taken a picture of the four adventurers, the comrades of many strange perils in the past, whom fate had now chosen for so supreme an experience. For half an hour we worked, the sweat dropping from our faces, our arms and backs aching with the exertion. Then we went out into the portico of the church and looked eagerly up and down the silent, crowded streets. Not a sound, not a motion, in answer to our summons.

“It’s no use. No one is left,” I cried.

“We can do nothing more,” said Mrs. Challenger. “For God’s sake, George, let us get back to Rotherfield. Another hour of this dreadful, silent city would drive me mad.”

We got into the car without another word. Lord John backed her round and turned her to the south. To us the chapter seemed closed. Little did we foresee the strange new chapter which was to open.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33