فصل 13

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فصل 13

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The Man on Putney Hill

I spent that night in the pub that stands on the top of Putney Hill, sleeping in a made bed for the first time since I had run away to Leatherhead. I broke into the house - and afterwards found that the front door was unlocked. I searched every room for food until, when I was ready to give up, I found some bread and two tins of fruit in one of the bedrooms. The place had already been searched and emptied. Later, in the bar, I found some sandwiches that no one had noticed. I ate some of these and put the rest in my pockets.

I lit no lamps, afraid that a Martian might come through that part of London looking for food in the night. Before I went to bed I was very restless and went from window to window, looking out for some sign of them. I slept little. As I lay in bed, I found myself thinking of the killing of the curate.

I had no regrets about this, but in the stillness of the night, with a sense that God was near, I thought again of every part of our conversation from the time we had first met. We had been unable to co-operate. If I had known, I would have left him at Walton, but I had not been able to see ahead. Nobody saw me kill him, but I have described it here and the reader can make a judgement.

The morning was bright and fine and there were little golden clouds in the eastern sky. In the road that runs from the top of Putney Hill to Wimbledon many things had been left behind by the crowds that ran towards London on the Sunday night after the fighting began. There was a little two-wheeled cart with a broken wheel. It had the name of a shop written on it. There was a hat lying in the mud, and a lot of broken glass with blood on it.

I moved slowly because I was very tired and my plans were uncertain. I had an idea of going to Leatherhead, although I knew there was little chance of finding my wife there. Certainly, unless they had been killed, she and my cousins would have run away.

I came to the edge of Wimbledon Common and stood there, under cover of some trees and bushes. It stretched far and wide and I hesitated on the edge of that large open space. Soon I had an odd feeling of being watched and, turning suddenly, I saw something hiding in some of the bushes. I took a step towards it, and it rose up and became a man armed with a sword. I approached him slowly. He stood silently, watching me but not moving.

As I came nearer, I saw that he was dressed in clothes as dusty and dirty as my own. His black hair fell over his eyes, and his face was dark and dirty and thin, so at first I did not recognize him.

‘Stop!’ he cried, when I was within ten metres of him, and I stopped. ‘Where have you come from?’ he said.

I thought, watching him.

‘I have come from Sheen,’ I said. ‘I was buried near the pit the Martians made around their cylinder. I have escaped.’

‘There is no food around here,’ he said. ‘This is my country: all this hill down to the river and up to the edge of the common. There is only food for one. Which way are you going?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

He looked at me uncertainly, then his expression suddenly changed. He pointed at me.

‘It’s you,’ he said,’- the man from Woking. And you weren’t killed at Weybridge?’

I recognized him at the same moment.

‘You’re the soldier who came into my garden.’

‘What luck!’ he said. ‘We are lucky ones!’

He put out a hand and I took it.

‘I hid,’ he said. ‘But they didn’t kill everyone. And after they went away, I went towards Walton across the fields. But - it’s only been sixteen days and your hair is grey.’ He looked over his shoulder suddenly. ‘Only a bird,’ he said. ‘This is a bit open. Let’s crawl under those bushes and talk.’

‘Have you seen any Martians?’ I asked. ‘Since I got out-‘

‘They’ve gone away across London,’ he said. ‘I guess they’ve got a bigger camp there. The night before last I saw some lights up in the air. I believe they’ve built a flying-machine and are learning to fly’

I stopped, on hands and knees, because we had come to the bushes.

‘Fly!’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘fly!’

I crawled into an open space in the bushes and sat down.

‘If they manage to do that, we haven’t got a chance,’ I said. ‘They will simply go round the world.’

‘They will. But it will make things easier around here. And besides …’ he looked at me. ‘Don’t you believe that we’re beaten? I do.’

I stared. Strange as it may seem, I had not thought of things this way, although it was perfectly obvious. I had still held onto some hope.

‘It’s finished,’ he said. ‘They’ve lost one - just one. And they’ve taken over the capital of the most powerful country in the world. The death of that one at Weybridge was an accident. And these are only the first ones. They keep coming. These green stars - I’ve seen none for five or six days, but I’ve no doubt they’re falling somewhere every night. There’s nothing we can do. We’re beaten!’

I did not answer. I sat staring in front of me, trying without success to find a way of arguing against him. Suddenly, I remembered the night I had watched through the telescope.

‘After the tenth shot they fired no more - at least until the first cylinder came.’

‘How do you know?’ said the soldier. I explained. ‘Something wrong with the gun?’ he said. ‘But even if there is, they’ll get it right again.’

We sat looking at each other.

‘And what will they do with us?’ I said.

‘That’s what I’ve been thinking.’ he said. ‘It seems to me that at the moment they catch us when they want food. But they won’t keep doing that. As soon as they’ve destroyed all our guns and ships and railways, they’ll begin to catch us one by one, picking the best and keeping us in cages and things. They haven’t begun on us yet. Don’t you see that?’

‘Not begun!’ I cried.

‘Not begun. And instead of rushing around blindly, we’ve got to change to suit the new situation. That’s how I see it.’

‘But if that’s true,’ I said, ‘what is there to live for?’

‘There won’t be anything important for a million years or more - no music, no art and no nice little visits to restaurants. No entertainment. But men like me are going to go on living - so human beings can continue. And if I’m not mistaken, you’ll show how strong you are too. We aren’t going to be killed. And I don’t intend to be caught, either, and caged and fattened. Ugh!’

‘You don’t mean -‘

‘I do. I’m going on. Under their feet. I’ve thought about it. We’ve got to learn while we’ve got a chance. And we’ve got to live and stay independent while we learn. That’s what has to be done.’

I stared, surprised and greatly affected by the man’s courage.

‘Good God!’ I said. ‘You are a brave man.’ And suddenly I held his hand. ‘Go on,’ I said.

‘Well, people who intend to escape them must get ready. I’m getting ready. But not all of us can live like animals, and that’s how we’ll have to live. That’s why I watched you. I had my doubts. You’re thinner. I didn’t know that it was you, you see. All these - the sort of people that lived in these houses, all those little office workers that used to live down that way - they’d be no good. They haven’t any spirit in them - no proud dreams and no great ideas. They just used to rush off to work - I’ve seen hundreds of them, with a bit of breakfast in their hand, running to catch their train, frightened they’d be sacked if they didn’t. Well, the Martians will be a good thing for them. Nice big cages, fattening food, no worry. After a week or two running around the fields on empty stomachs they’ll come and be caught quite happily.’ He paused. ‘The Martians will probably make pets of some of them; train them to do tricks - who knows? And some, maybe, they will train to hunt us.’

‘No,’ I cried, ‘that’s impossible! No human being -‘

‘What’s the good of going on with such lies?’ said the soldier. ‘There are men who would do it cheerfully. What nonsense to pretend there aren’t!’

And I realized that I agreed with him.

I sat and thought about these things. It was interesting that he, an ordinary soldier, seemed to have a much better understanding of the situation than I, a professional writer.

‘What plans do you have?’ I said.

He hesitated.

‘Well, we have to invent a life where people can live and have children, and be safe enough to bring the children up. Yes - wait a bit, and I’ll make it clearer what I think ought to be done. The ones the Martians capture will be like farm animals; in a few years they’ll be big, beautiful, stupid - rubbish. But we who stay free risk turning into wild animals.

‘You see, I intend to live underground. I’ve been thinking about the drains. Under London there are hundreds of kilometres of them. And we can dig passages between the drains and buildings. And then there are the railways, where they go underground. You begin to see? And we’ll get some people together - strong, clean-minded men. We’re not going to accept any rubbish that comes in. Weak ones go out again.’

‘As you intended me to go?’

‘Well - I discussed it, didn’t I?

‘We won’t argue about that. Go on.’

‘The people who stay will obey orders. We want strong, good women too - mothers and teachers. No lazy ones with rolling eyes. We can’t have any weak or silly ones. Life is real again, and the useless and bad ones have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It would be wrong of them to live and weaken the others.

‘But it’s no good just staying alive. That’s just living like rats. We have to save our knowledge, and add to it. That’s why men like you are needed. We must make great safe places deep underground, and get all the books we can; not novels and poetry, but ideas, science books. We must go to the British Museum and choose the best books in it. Especially, we must keep our science - learn more.’

The soldier paused and laid a brown hand on my arm.

‘In fact, it may not be so difficult to learn how their fighting- machines work. Think of four or five of them with men inside, firing Heat-Rays back at the Martians!’

For some time the imagination of the soldier, and the confidence and courage he showed, persuaded me completely. I believed in his idea of the future and in the possibility of his plans. We talked like this through the early morning, and later came out of the bushes. After checking the sky for Martians, we hurried quickly to the house on Putney Hill where he had his hiding-place.

There I saw the work he had spent a week on. It was a passage about ten metres long, designed to reach the main drain on Putney Hill. For the first time I began to think that there was some distance between his dreams and his powers, because I could dig a hole like this in a day. But I believed in him enough to work with him all that morning at his digging.

As we worked I thought about the job, and soon some doubts began to come into my mind. I thought about the distance to the drain and the chances of missing it completely. I also felt that it would be easier to get into the drain and dig back towards the house. And just as I was beginning to face these things, the soldier stopped digging and looked at me.

‘We’re working well,’ he said. ‘Let’s stop. I think it’s time we looked around from the top of the house.’

I wanted to continue, but a thought came to me.

‘Why were you walking around on the common,’ I asked, ‘instead of being here?’

‘Taking the air,’ he said. ‘It’s safer by night.’

‘But the work?’

‘Oh, one can’t always work,’ he said, and in a flash I understood the man clearly.

We went together to the roof and stood on a ladder, looking out of the roof door. No Martians could be seen. We went back down into the house. Neither of us wanted to start digging again, and when he suggested a meal I was quite happy to agree.

Afterwards we drank wine and played cards. He won most of the games, and when we did not want to play any more I went back up on the roof.

I stayed there for a long time, looking north over the city. I began to feel that I had failed my wife, and decided to leave this dreamer of great things and to go on into London. There, it seemed to me, I had the best chance of learning what the Martians and human beings were doing for death.

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