فصل 14

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فصل 14

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Dead London

After I had said goodbye to the soldier, I went down the hill, along the High Street and across the bridge to Fulham. There was black dust on the road after the bridge, and it grew thicker in Fulham. The streets were horribly quiet. I found some old bread in a baker’s shop there. After that, the streets became clear of powder and I passed some white houses which were on fire. The noise of burning was actually better than silence.

Beyond Fulham the streets were quiet again. Here I found more black powder and some dead bodies. I saw about ten along Fulham Road. They had been dead for many days, so I hurried quickly past them. The black powder covered them and softened their shapes. One or two had been partly eaten by dogs.

Where there was no black powder, it was curiously like Sunday in the financial area of London, with the closed shops, the houses locked up and the curtains closed. In some places thieves had been at work, but usually only at the food and wine shops. A jeweller’s window had been broken open in one place, but the thief had clearly been chased away, because a number of gold chains and a watch were lying on the pavement. I did not take the trouble to touch them. Further down the road, a woman in torn clothes was sitting on a doorstep. The hand that hung over her knee was cut, and blood had fallen onto her dirty brown dress. A broken bottle of wine had formed a pool on the pavement. She seemed asleep, but she was dead.

The silence grew greater. But it was not the stillness of death - it was the stillness of expectation. At any time the destruction that had already happened to the north-western borders of the city, that had destroyed Ealing, might strike among these houses and leave them smoking ruins. It was an empty city waiting for death…

In South Kensington the streets were clear of dead people and of black powder, and near there I first heard the howling. It started very quietly. It was a sad movement between two notes, ‘Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,’ continuing without stopping. When I passed streets that ran to the north it grew louder, and then houses and buildings seemed to cut it off again. It came most loudly down Exhibition Road. I stopped, staring towards Kensington Gardens.

It seemed that all the empty houses had found a voice for their fear and loneliness.

‘Ulla, ulla, ulla,’ cried that inhuman note - great waves of sound sweeping down the broad, sunlit road, between the tall buildings on each side. I turned to the north, towards the iron gates of Hyde Park. The voice grew stronger and stronger, although I could see nothing above the roof-tops on the north side of the park except some smoke to the north-west.

‘Ulla, ulla, ulla,’ cried the voice, coming, it seemed to me, from the district around Regent’s Park. The howl affected my mind, and my mood changed. I also found that I was very tired, and hungry and thirsty again.

It was already past midday. Why was I walking alone in this city of the dead? I thought of old friends that I had forgotten for years. I thought of the poisons in the chemists’ shops, the bottles in the wine shops…

I came into Oxford Street by Marble Arch, and here again were black powder and several bodies. After a lot of trouble, I managed to break into a pub and find some food and drink. I was tired after eating and went into the room behind the bar and slept on a black leather sofa that I found there.

I awoke to find that sad howling still in my ears: ‘Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,’ It was now getting dark, and after I had found some bread and cheese in the bar I walked on through the silent squares to Baker Street and so came at last to Regents Park. And as I came out of the top of Baker Street, I saw far away over the trees, in the clearness of the sunset, the top of the Martian fighting-machine from winch this howling came. I was not frightened. I watched it for some time, but it did not move. It appeared to be standing and calling, for no reason that I could discover.

I tried to work out a plan of action. That non-stop sound of ‘Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla’ confused my mind. Perhaps I was too tired to be very afraid. Certainly I was more curious to know the reason for this howling. I turned and went into Park Road, intending to go round the edge of the park, with houses between us to keep me safe, and get a view of this unmoving, howling Martian from the direction of St John’s Wood.

I came to a destroyed building-machine halfway to St John’s Wood station. At first I thought a house had fallen across the road, but when I climbed up on the ruins I saw, with a shock, this great machine lying, with its tentacles bent and twisted, among the ruins that it had made. The front part of it was pushed in. It seemed that it had been driven blindly straight at the house, and had been turned over when the house fell on it.

Wondering about all that I had seen, I moved on towards Primrose Hill. Far away, through a space in the trees, I saw a second Martian fighting-machine, as unmoving as the first, standing in the park near the Zoo. Then the sound of ‘Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla’ stopped. The silence came suddenly. And now night, the mother of fear and mystery, was coming.

London around me looked like a city of ghosts. My imagination heard a thousand noiseless enemies moving. Terror came to me. In front of me the road became black and I saw the twisted shape of a body lying across the pavement. I could not go on. I turned down St John’s Wood Road and ran away from this terrible stillness.

I hid from the night and the silence until long after midnight, in a garden hut in Harrow Road. But before dawn my courage returned, and while the stars were still in the sky I turned again towards Regent’s Park. I lost my way among the streets, and soon saw down a long road, in the half-light of the early dawn, the curve of Primrose Hill. There, on the top, high against the early morning stars, was a third Martian, standing still like the others.

A mad idea came to me. I would die and end it. And I would save myself even the trouble of killing myself. I marched on without fear towards this great machine, and then, as I came nearer and the light grew, I saw that a number of black birds were circling and gathering around the top of it. I began to feel very happy and I started running along the road.

I got onto the grass before the sun rose. Great piles of earth had formed around a pit at the top of the hill - the final and largest one the Martians had made - and from behind these piles thin smoke rose against the sky. Against the sky-line an eager dog ran and disappeared. The thought that had flashed into my mind grew real, and believable. I felt no fear, only a wild, shaking excitement, as I ran up the hill towards the unmoving Martian. Out of the top of it hung long, brown pieces of flesh, which the birds were tearing away.

In another moment I had climbed a pile of earth and stood on its top, and the pit was below me. It was a large space, with enormous machines here and there within it, great piles of material and strange buildings. And all around it, some in their overturned war-machines and some in building-machines, and ten of them lying in a row, were the Martians - dead! They had been killed by germs against which their systems could not fight; killed, after all man’s machines had failed, by the smallest things that God has put on this Earth.

It had happened in this way, and I and many others did not see that it would happen because terror and disaster had blinded our minds. These germs of disease have killed people and animals since the beginning of time, but over these many years we have developed the ability to fight against them. But there are no germs on Mars, and as soon as the Martians arrived, as soon as they drank and fed, our tiny friends began to destroy them. By paying with a million lives, human beings have bought their right to live on Earth. It is our home and would be ours even if the Martians were ten times as strong as they are.

I stood staring into the pit, and my heart grew wonderfully happy as the rising sun lit up the world around me. The pit was still in darkness. Only the tops of the great engines, so unearthly in their shape, could be seen in the morning light. I heard a large number of dogs fighting over the bodies that lay in the darkness at the bottom of the pit.

Across the pit, on its further edge, lay the great flying-machine which they had been testing in our heavier atmosphere when disease and death stopped them. Death had not come a day too soon. At the sound of birds overhead I looked up at the enormous fighting-machine that would never fight again, at the pieces of red flesh that dropped down onto the overturned seats on the top of Primrose Hill.

I turned and looked down the slope of the hill at those two other Martians that I had seen the previous night. They were surrounded by birds now. One of them had died as it had been crying to its friends. Perhaps it was the last to die, and its voice had gone on and on until its machinery stopped. They stood now, harmless tripods of shining metal, against the brightness of the rising sun.

All around the pit, and saved from everlasting destruction, lay the great city. And as I looked at it, and realized that the shadows had been rolled back, and that people might still live in its streets, and that this dear city of mine might be once more alive and powerful again, I felt such emotion that I was very close to tears.

The trouble had ended. That same day the healing would begin. People who were still alive would start to return, and life would come back to the empty streets. The sound of tools would soon be heard in all the burnt and broken houses. At the thought, I lifted my hands towards the sky and began thanking God. In a year, I thought, we would rebuild all that had been destroyed.

Then came the thought of myself, of my wife, and the old life of hope and tender helpfulness that had ended forever.

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