فصل 06

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فصل 06

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CHAPTER SIX

The Death of Towns

As the dawn grew brighter, we moved back from the window where we had watched and went very quietly downstairs.

The soldier agreed with me that the house was not a good place to stay in. He suggested going towards London, where he could rejoin his company. My plan was to return at once to Leatherhead. The strength of the Martians worried me so much that I had decided to take my wife to the south coast, and leave the country with her immediately. I had already decided that the area around London would be the scene of a great battle before the Martians could be destroyed.

Between us and Leatherhead, however, lay the third cylinder. If I had been alone, I think I would have taken my chance and gone straight across country. But the soldier persuaded me not to. ‘It’s no kindness to your wife,’ he said, ‘for you to get killed.’ In the end I agreed to go north with him under cover of the woods. After that I would leave him and turn off to reach Leatherhead.

I wanted to start at once, but the soldier had been in wars before and knew better than that. He made me find all the food and drink that we could carry, and we filled our pockets. Then we left the house and ran as quickly as we could down the narrow road. All the houses seemed empty. In the road lay a pile of three burnt bodies close together, killed by the Heat-Ray. In fact, apart from ourselves, there did not seem to be a living person on Maybury Hill.

We reached the woods at the foot of the hill and moved through these towards the road. As we ran, we heard the sound of horses and saw through the trees three soldiers riding towards Woking. We shouted and they stopped while we hurried towards them. They were an officer and two men.

‘You are the first people I’ve seen coming this way this morning,’ the officer said. ‘What’s happening?’

The soldier who had stayed with me stepped up to him. ‘My gun was destroyed last night, sir. I’ve been hiding. I’m trying to rejoin my company. You’ll come in sight of the Martians, I expect, about a kilometer along this road.’

‘What do they look like?’ asked the officer.

‘Big machines, sir. Thirty metres high. Three legs and a great big head, sir.’

‘What nonsense!’ said the officer.

‘You’ll see, sir. They carry a kind of box that shoots fire and strikes you dead.’

‘What do you mean - a gun?’

‘No, sir.’ And he began to describe the Heat-Ray.

Half-way through his report the officer interrupted him and looked at me.

‘Did you see it?’ he said.

‘It’s perfectly true,’ I replied.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘I suppose it’s my business to see it too. Listen,’ he said to my new friend, ‘you’d better go to Weybridge and report to the highest officer.’

He thanked me and they rode away.

By Byfleet station we came out from the trees and found the country calm and peaceful in the morning sunlight. It seemed like any other Sunday - except for the empty houses, and the other ones where people were packing.

However, Byfleet was very busy. Soldiers were telling people to leave and helping them to load carts in the main street. Many people, though, did not realize how serious the situation was. I saw one old man with a big box and a number of flower-pots, angrily arguing with a soldier who wanted him to leave them behind.

‘Do you know what’s over there?’ I said, pointing towards the woods that hid the Martians.

‘Eh?’ he said. ‘I was explaining that these are valuable.’

‘Death!’ I shouted. ‘Death is coming! Death!’ and leaving him to think about that, I hurried on to Weybridge.

We remained there until midday, and at that time found ourselves at the place where the River Wey joins the River Thames. Here we found an excited crowd of people. There was no great fear at this time, but already there were more people than all the boats could carry across the Thames. Every now and then people looked nervously at the fields beyond Chertsey, but everything there was still.

Then came the sound of a gun and, almost immediately, other guns across the river, unseen because of the trees, began to fire. Everyone stood still, stopped by the sudden sound of battle, near us but invisible to us.

Then we saw a cloud of smoke far away up the river. The ground moved and a heavy explosion shook the air, smashing two or three windows in the houses and leaving us shocked.

‘Look!’ shouted a man. ‘Over there! Do you see them?’

Quickly, one after the other, one, two, three, four of the Martian machines appeared, far away over the low trees towards Chertsey. Then, from a different direction, a fifth one came towards us. Their metal bodies shone in the sun as they moved forwards to the guns. One on the left, the furthest away, held a large case high in the air, and the terrible Heat-Ray shone towards Chertsey and struck the town.

At the sight of these strange, quick and terrible creatures, the crowd near the water’s edge seemed for a moment to be totally shocked. There was no screaming or shouting, but a silence. Then came some quiet talk and the beginning of movement. A woman pushed at me with her hand and rushed past me. I turned, but I was not too frightened for thought.

‘Get under water!’ I shouted, but nobody listened.

I turned around again and ran towards the approaching Martian, ran right down the stony beach and dived into the water. Others did the same. The stones under my feet were muddy and slippery, and the river was so low that I moved perhaps seven metres before I could get under the surface. I could hear people jumping off boats into the water.

But the Martian took no notice of us. When I lifted my head it was looking towards the guns that were still firing across the river. It was already raising the case which sent the Heat-Ray when the first shell burst six metres above its head.

I gave a cry of surprise. Then two other shells burst at the same time in the air near its body. Its head twisted round in time to receive, but not in time to avoid, the fourth shell.

This exploded right in its face. Its head flashed and burst into a dozen broken pieces of red flesh and shining metal.

‘Hit!’ I shouted.

The headless machine marched on, swinging from side to side. It hit a church tower, knocking it down, then moved on and fell into the river out of sight.

A violent explosion shook the air, and a column of water, steam, mud and broken metal shot far up into the sky. In another moment a great wave of very hot water came sweeping round the bend. I saw people struggling towards the shore and heard their screaming and shouting faintly above the noise of the Martian’s fall.

I rushed through the water until I could see round the bend. The Martian came into sight down the river, most of it under the water. Thick clouds of steam were pouring from the wreckage, and through it I could see its long legs and tentacles moving in the water.

My attention was caught by an angry noise. A man, knee-deep in the water, shouted to me and pointed, although I could not hear what he said. Looking back, I saw the other Martians walking down the river-bank from the direction of Chertsey. The guns fired again, but with no effect.

At that moment I got under the water and, holding my breath until movement was painful, swam under the surface for as long as I could. The river was rough around me and quickly growing hotter.

When for a moment I raised my head to breathe and throw the hair and water out of my eyes, the steam was rising in a white fog that hid the Martians completely. The noise was deafening. Then I saw them, enormous grey figures. They had passed me and two were bending over the fallen one.

The third and fourth stood beside him in the water. The cases that produced the Heat-Rays were waved high and the beams flashed this way and that.

The air was full of deafening and confusing noises: the loud sounds of the Martians, the crash of falling houses, the flash of fire as trees and fences began to burn. Thick black smoke was rising to mix with the steam from the river.

Then suddenly the white flashes of the Heat-Ray came towards me. The houses fell as it touched them, and exploded into flame. The trees caught fire with a loud noise. The Heat- Ray came down to the water’s edge less than fifty metres from where I stood. It ran across the river and the water behind it boiled. I turned towards the shore.

In another moment a large wave of almost boiling water rushed towards me. I screamed and ran. If my foot had slipped, it would have been the end. I fell in full view of the Martians on the stony beach. I expected only death.

I have a faknee-int memory of the foot of a Martian coming down within twenty metres of my head, going straight into the loose stones. Then I saw the four of them carrying the remains of the fallen one between them, now clear and then later faint through a curtain of smoke, moving away from me across a great space of river and fields. And then, very slowly. I realized that somehow I had escaped.

I saw an empty boat, very small and far away, moving down the river and, taking off most of my wet clothes, I swam to it. I used my hands to keep it moving, down the river towards Walton, going very slowly and often looking behind me. I was in some pain and very tired. When the bridge at Walton was coming into sight, I landed on the Middlesex bank and lay down, very sick, in the long grass.

I do not remember the arrival of the curate, so probably I slept for some time. As I woke up, I noticed a seated figure with his face staring at the sky, watching the sunset.

I sat up, and at the sound of my movement he looked at me.

‘Have you any water?’ I asked.

He shook his head.

‘You have been asking for water for the last hour,’ he said.

For a moment we were silent, staring at each other. He spoke suddenly, looking away from me.

‘What does it mean? he said. ‘What do these things mean?’

I gave no answer.

‘Why are these things allowed? What have we done - what has Weybridge done? The morning service was over. I was walking the roads to clear my brain, and then - fire and death! All our work - everything destroyed. The church! We rebuilt it only three years ago. Gone! Why?’

Another pause, and then he shouted, ‘The smoke of her burning goes up for ever and ever!’ His eyes were wide and he pointed a thin finger in the direction of Weybridge.

It was clear to me that the great tragedy in which he was involved - it seemed that he had escaped from Weybridge - had driven him to the edge of madness.

‘Are we far from Sunbury?’ I said, very quietly.

‘What can we do?’ he asked. ‘Are these creatures everywhere? Has the Earth been given to them?’

‘Are we far from Sunbury?’

‘Only this morning I was in charge of the church service -‘

‘Things have changed!’ I said, quietly. ‘You must stay calm. There is still hope.’

‘Hope!’

‘Yes, a lot of hope, despite all this destruction. Listen!’

From beyond the low hills across the water came the dull sound of the distant guns and a far-away strange crying. Then everything was still. High in the west the moon hung pale above the smoke and the hot, still beauty of the sunset.

‘We had better follow this path,’ I said. ‘To the north.’

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