فصل 08

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فصل 08

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CHAPTER EIGHT

The Black Smoke

While the curate had sat and talked so wildly to me in the flat fields near Walton, and while my brother was watching the refugees pour across Westminster Bridge, the Martians had started to attack again. As it was reported later, most of them remained busy with preparations in the pit on Horsell Common until nine that night, doing something that produced a great amount of Black Smoke.

But three certainly came out at about eight o’clock. They moved forwards slowly and carefully towards Ripley and Weybridge, and so came in sight of the waiting guns. These Martians moved in a line, perhaps two kilometres apart. They communicated with each other by loud howls.

It was this howling and the firing of the guns at Ripley and Weybridge that we heard at Walton. The Ripley gunners had never been in action before. The guns fired one ineffective shell each, then the soldiers ran away. The Martian, without using his Heat-Ray, walked calmly over their guns.

The Weybridge men, however, were better led or were more experienced. Hidden by a wood, it seems they were not noticed by the Martian nearest to them. They aimed their guns well and fired at a distance of about one kilometer.

The shells exploded all round it and it was seen to move forwards a few steps, and go down. The guns were reloaded quickly. The fallen Martian used its voice, and immediately a second one answered it, appearing over the trees to the south. It seemed that one of its three legs had been broken. All of the second shells missed the Martian on the ground and, immediately.

The other Martians used their Heat-Rays on the guns. The shells blew up, the trees all around the guns caught fire and only one or two of the men escaped.

After this it seemed that the three Martians spoke together, and those who were watching them report that they stayed absolutely quiet for the next half-hour. The fallen Martian crawled slowly out of its machine and began to repair its leg. By about nine it had finished, and the machine was seen to move again.

A few minutes later these three were joined by four other Martians, each carrying a thick black tube. A similar tube was given to each of the three, and the seven spread out at equal distances along a curved line between Weybridge and Ripley.

A dozen signal lights went on as soon as they began to move, warning the waiting guns around Esher. At the same time four of the fighting-machines, also carrying tubes, crossed the river, and two of them, black against the western sky, came into sight of myself and the curate as we hurried along the road to the north.

When he saw them, the curate made a frightened noise and began running, but I knew it was no good running from a Martian and I crawled into some bushes by the side of the road. He looked back and turned to join me.

We heard the distant sound of a gun, then another nearer, and then another. And then the Martian closest to us raised his tube and fired it towards the guns, with a loud bang that made the ground shake. The other one did the same. There was no flash, no smoke, simply a loud noise.

I was so excited by all this that I completely forgot about my persona safety and raised my head out of the bushes. As I did, I heard another bang and something flew fast over my head. I expected at least to see smoke or fire, but there was only the deep-blue sky above and one single star. There had been no explosion, no answer from the guns. Silence returned, and three minutes passed.

‘What’s happened?’ said the curate, standing up.

‘I’ve no idea,’ I answered.

I looked again at the Martian, and saw that it was now moving east along the river bank. Every moment I expected a hidden gun to fire at it, but the evening calm was unbroken. The figure of the Martian grew smaller as it moved away, and soon it was hidden by the mist and the coming night. The curate and I climbed higher up the hill and looked around. Towards Sunbury there was something dark, like a hill, hiding our view of the country further away. Then, far across the river, we saw another, similar hill. These hills grew lower and broader as we stared.

I had a sudden thought and looked to the north, and there I saw a third of these cloudy black hills.

Everything had become very still. Far away to the north-east we heard the Martians calling to each other, but our guns were silent.

At the time we could not understand these things, but later I learnt the meaning of these frightening black hills. Each of the Martians, standing in the great curve I have described, had used the tube he carried to fire a large cylinder over whatever hill, wood or other possible hiding-place for guns might be in front of him. Some fired only one of these, some two or more. These broke when they hit the ground - they did not explode - and let out an enormous amount of thick Black Smoke. This rose up in a cloud shaped like a hill, then sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And it was death to breathe that smoke.

It was heavy, this smoke, so when it began to sink down it behaved like a liquid, running down hills and into the valleys. And where it met with water, or even mist or wet grass, a chemical action took place and it turned into a powder that sank slowly and made room for more.

When the smoke had begun to settle, it stayed quite close to the ground so that even fifteen metres up in the air, on the roots and upper floors of houses and in high trees, there was a chance of escaping its poison. A man later told me that he had watched from a church roof as the smoke filled his village. For a day and a half he stayed up there, tired, hungry and burnt by the sun before it was safe to come down. But that was in a village where the Black Smoke was allowed to remain until it sank into the ground. Usually, when it had done its work, the Martian cleared the air by blowing steam at it.

They did this to the black clouds near us, as we saw in the starlight from the upper window of an empty house. From there we could see the searchlights on Richmond Hill and Kingston Hill moving in the sky, and at about eleven the windows shook, and we heard the sound of the large guns that had been put in position there. These continued for a quarter of an hour, firing blindly at Martians too far away to be seen. Then the fourth cylinder fell - a bright green star to the north-east.

So, doing it methodically, as a man might kill insects, the Martians spread this strange killing smoke over the country towards London. The ends of the curve slowly moved apart, until at least they formed a line about twelve kilometres long.

All through the night their tubes moved forwards. They never gave the guns any chance against them. Wherever there was a possibility of guns being hidden, they fired a cylinder of Black Smoke at them, and where the guns could be seen they used the Heat-Ray.

By midnight the burning trees along the slopes of Richmond Hill lit up clouds of Black Smoke which covered the whole valley of the Thames, and went as far as the eye could see.

They only used the Heat-Ray from time to time that night, either because they had a limited supply of material for its production or because they did not want to destroy the country, but only to defeat its people. They certainly succeeded. Sunday night was the end of organized opposition to their movement.

After that no group of men would stand against them, because this would mean almost certain death.

You have to imagine what happened to the gunners towards Esher, waiting so tensely in the evening light, because none of them lived to tell the story. You can see the quiet expectation, the officers watching, the gunners waiting with their horses, the groups of local people standing as near as they were allowed, the ambulances and hospital tents with the burnt and wounded from Weybridge. Then came the dull noise of the shots that the Martians fired, and the cylinder flying over the trees and houses and breaking in the neighboring fields.

You can imagine, too, how they watched as the blackness rose into the sky. The men and horses near it were seen running, screaming, falling down. There were shouts of fear, the guns suddenly left behind, men on the ground struggling to breathe, and the fast spreading of the dark smoke - a silent black cloud hiding its dead.

Before dawn the Black Smoke was pouring through the streets of Richmond. The government, already falling apart, made one last effort. It told the people of London that they had to run away.

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