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Chapter 2

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« on: April 02, 2023, 10:56:22 am »

PASSING by familiar ways and through familiar doors Felix soon reached the theatre of his anxieties, to find his precious plant-houses at peace. A light shone as he reached them, for the gardener was already there.

Saul Medland had been taken over with Applewood. He was part and parcel of the place, and as boy and man, had worked upon it for half a century. The arrival of the new tenant proved a tonic and a challenge to Saul, but he survived the test and rejoiced with native wits to move in a higher horticultural sphere after nearly half a century of modest and conventional toil. He always hated the lizards, but the hot-houses, the rare plants and intensive culture, that had crushed a lesser man, fired Medland with enthusiasm, and his application gratified the master. They were become close friends.

"I've catched the slug red-'anded, Professor," shouted the old man as Felix entered. "You was right, as you always are; and if I'd 'a' sat up for him all night a bit ago, no doubt I'd have took him sooner."

"Out of evil cometh good, then," replied Felix. "I am glad you captured him, Saul. Is everything as it should be? I detect no disturbance."

"All's well, master, so far as I've travelled round about. But something a good bit out of the common overtook the neighbourhood at two o'clock. A proper rumpus and a crash to wake the dead. I was awake at the time cussing they baggering owlets, as you won't let me shoot, that bawl in the ilex. And just when the clock struck two—on the nail, you may say—there came the fearful affair. My wife sleeps like the dead, but it woke her, though never was thunder loosed that could do it. 'Did I hear anything, Saul?' she asked me. 'So like as not you heard the Day of Doom, woman,' I said. But all was quiet again and she went to sleep instanter."

"That's another theory," answered Felix. "Peters had two—one quite reasonable. He suspects a 'thunder-planet', by which he means what used to be called a thunder-stone, or aerolite."

"Well, it haven't fallen on the stove whether or no, though in a manner of speaking it have fallen on the slug, thanks be," replied Medland.

No evidence of anything unusual marked the night, but still 'Rex' bellowed from the paddock and together the two old men presently turned their steps there. In the corner of the field stood a linhay and the professor approached it.

"We will see if the mare can tell us anything," he said, and Saul made no comment, for in his experience the professor often proved potent to glean information from unexpected sources.

The linhay was only secured by a half-hatch gate and over this an ancient horse stood peering into the darkness. They spoke comfortable words and the creature neighed in evident thankfulness to hear a familiar voice. Her eyes were full of fear and she was trembling still at the recent experience.

"She's sweating like a pig," said Saul. "Poor old girl's had the shock of her life, I shouldn't wonder."

'Sally' contributed her aid to the conduct of Applewood. She mowed the lawns, took the washing to the laundress or went to the railway station when a package was reported. After any toil of this kind she would lie down in the paddock and indicate utter exhaustion; but though now nineteen years of age, her constitution was sound, her teeth satisfactory and her appetite good.

'Sally', restored to peace by evidence that all was still right with her world, retired into her linhay, but 'Rex' still gave tongue and indicated some disturbing discoveries. The men proceeded therefore and presently observed him galloping in much concern while he bayed for attention. At the sound of his master's whistle he approached and gave evidence that he had news to impart could he but do so.

"The air is unsettled here," said Felix. "There has been some commotion, but as yet I see no reason for it."

'Rex' ran before and they followed him to a remarkable upheaval. Fifty yards from the bottom of the paddock the atmosphere became perceptibly warmer, and suddenly they perceived that the meadow grass was broken and a considerable pit yawned from the middle of it. No great elevation of earth marked the fracture but considerable heat appeared to have been engendered and the gulf created was clearly of no small depth.

"Watch your step, Professor, and don't fall in," urged Medland.

Then they stood together on the brink of a well-like hole from which warm air arose. The aperture was not wide but of circular formation with a diameter of two and a half yards. The depth appeared to be twenty feet, or possibly somewhat more.

"How do it strike you, Professor?" asked Medland after a silent perambulation of the gulf.

"I am exceedingly thankful that it did not strike me, or anybody else," answered Felix. "The impact was terrific and had this foreign body smote any habitation or living thing it is easy to have seen what must have happened."

"You'd judge there was a foreign body down there then, master?"

"Without a doubt, Saul. Some fairly massive object, travelling at tremendous speed, came literally to earth in my paddock. More than that I am not prepared to assert, save that the object is now buried in the ground at the bottom of this excavation. To-morrow we shall begin our survey of the event, and learn as much as our wits will tell us. Don't let 'Sally' out in the morning until I join you after breakfast. We must proceed with scientific caution and do nothing in haste that would stultify us afterwards. Now we will both get back to our beds, my dear fellow."

Ten minutes later Felix had returned to the house and found Norah sitting in her apartment drinking tea. She poured out a cup for him.

"I told them to bring a second cup on your account," she said, "and you must ease my mind, otherwise I shall not sleep again. Hide nothing from me, Felix. If the budgey house is destroyed, let me know the worst."

"The budgey house stands where it did, and nothing has been destroyed save a small patch of sward in the paddock. There an exceptional and somewhat puzzling event confronts me. I have pondered over it since leaving the spot and failed to find any explanation as yet. Shall I tell you now, or leave details and possibilities until to-morrow?"

"Now," answered Norah.

"Briefly then, some extraneous body, of no very great size I am glad to say, has fallen—from the sky apparently—into our paddock."

"'Sally' is safe?"

"Quite safe; but she was much distressed and thankful to see Medland and myself. The incident occurred within two hundred yards of her and doubtless she never heard such a tremendous sound in her life before. But we set her at rest. Now, on the face of it, one must judge that an aerolite has fallen and it may be so. There is nothing to prevent one of these aerial messengers from alighting in Devonshire, or anywhere else, and but for our atmosphere, which acts as a protection and armour against all of them, save the very largest, we should be subject to ceaseless bombardment from these flying fragments. But as a rule they are of modest size and, on reaching our envelope of air, the friction they endure at their immense speed burns them up: hence the phenomenon of so-called shooting-stars with which you are familiar. The visitants once captured by earth's gravitation are doomed, and only their incinerated dust falls harmlessly upon us."

"A blessing, no doubt," said Norah.

"A very great blessing; but from time to time some massive monster is not burned up and succeeds in reaching our planet in a state of partial incandescence, but with enough of its substance preserved to render it formidable and terrible. There is in my knowledge no recorded history of any great disaster to civilization from such a cause, but it is well known that in the lone steppes of Russia such a huge meteor fell; and this brings me to the point.

"I do not know whether the scene of that impact has been adequately and scientifically explored and the nature of the fallen mass completely determined; but I am familiar with the fact that a scene of extreme desolation and ruin was created by the fall of this semi-molten meteor, and a desert made where until that time forestal land existed. Every living thing was destroyed by the furious fires that burst into being and the earth was cast up from the very bowels of the region and torn out, where the great stone fell. A crater was formed of vast depth, and the surface of the land altered with the radius of a mile or more."

"Never mind about that," begged Norah. "Anything might happen in Russia, and if this object had waited for Mr. Stalin, then a good many other much pleasanter Russians might still be alive who are so no longer. I am the last to criticize Providence in any case."

"The Hand of Providence must be acknowledged so far as you and I are concerned," declared Felix, "because had the bolt, now buried out of doors, fallen upon our dwelling, little of consequence would have been likely to remain. Even the monograph might have gone. But let me proceed and explain the problem. I mentioned this great Russian aerolith to show you how it treated the region upon which it fell; but our visitor has acted quite differently. Happily it was of far smaller bulk in any case, and the evidence, as far as I have yet been able to judge, points to quite another sort of object. There is no ragged and disorderly confusion in the paddock such as a flaming and falling rock of great size must have occasioned. The herbage is not burned. Not a spark of fire attended the avalanche. And yet, in order to escape our atmosphere, the thing must have been of very considerable size and could hardly have failed to be at a high temperature."

"Do tell me what you found, Felix. That is all that interests me."

"I found a perfectly symmetrical hole drilled into the earth—such a hole as men make when they are sinking for a well. It is circular and some twenty feet deep as far as I could judge by the ray of my electric torch. The bottom is filled with earth and the fallen visitant lies doubtless buried beneath that earth. A perceptibly warmer air rose from the pit than the cool atmosphere of the night; but there was nothing offensive or oppressive about it. One smelled only the sweet savour of upturned soil.

"Now," continued the professor, "you will be anxious to learn my deductions, and I warn you, Norah, that they are of a startling nature. A lifetime devoted to the search for truth has denied me those qualities of poetry and imagination I so greatly admire in other people; but here the apparent truth would seem to plunge me directly into the realms of imagination—quite the last thing that one of my status and scientific position would desire or proclaim. I will ask you, therefore, to keep what I am about to say strictly to yourself. Nothing would be more unseemly than that the opinion I am about to utter should attain publicity until supported by data as yet to be discovered. I may be wrong. I could almost find it in my heart to hope that I am. Yet that were perhaps cowardly and, in any case, I shall not flinch from the labours now confronting me."

"Of course you won't," said Norah, "but why make such a fuss about it and meet trouble half-way? You can get those two young men—the Fords—who dug so well when they turned Stormbury Camp into a ruin hunting for Roman remains. They only found some buttons and a sardine tin as far as I remember; but it was agreed by everybody that the Romans had not eaten sardines when in Devonshire. Well, you dig up this stone and read a paper on it and send it to Redchester Museum, and there's an end of the matter."

"The point is, my love, that I am not going to dig up a stone. A semi-red-hot stone would have acted altogether differently. Now, permit me to elaborate my reflections. This circular hole can only have been created by a circular object, and, arrived at that conclusion, I ask myself what object of this precise description could be responsible. A suggestion immediately occurred from the Great War, and for a moment it seemed to fit the case. You will remember during that tragedy how the Germans invented a prodigious cannon which went by the name of 'Big Bertha' and fired projectiles upon Paris from a range of many miles. Here, then, appeared an explanation apparently calculated to meet the facts. From somewhere in Europe a vast bullet had been launched in the direction of England and come to earth in East Devon within our narrow boundaries."

"Why?" asked Norah.

"It is idle to ask 'why' nowadays for much that happens," he answered, "and we may yet live to face many surprises beyond our powers of explanation; but I am glad to say that certain facts speedily came to my mind exonerating Europe from any outrage of this description. No, the Continent is not involved—a satisfactory conclusion so far as it goes—but opening the way to a hypothesis infinitely more tremendous."

"You're not going to tell me that this cannon-ball came from Ireland?" asked Norah.

"Certainly not. I am going to tell you that it didn't come from any terrestrial source whatsoever. And that conclusion is irrefutably written in the hole in the paddock."

"Why assume anything so utterly mad? That is not like you, Felix," said Norah.

"I began with an assumption, but I end with a certainty," he replied. "The trained scientific mind is ever cautious and incapable of taking a step unsupported by facts. Now, the fact that our gate-crashing, uninvited visitor is not of human origin can be made quite clear to you, my love. To return to 'Big Bertha', or any similar or monstrous piece of ordnance, we have to consider the manner in which it is fired. The barrel of the weapon extends from the breech, and if that barrel were set at right angles to the earth's surface, the projectile must go straight up into the air and presently return to the ground near the scene of the discharge. Circumstances might tend slightly to deflect it, but we may safely assume it would come back perpendicularly to earth within fairly close proximity to the spot from which it started. Behaving in this fashion, it would without doubt create just such a cavity as now yawns in our paddock. But not so was 'Big Bertha' exploded. It was aimed in the direction of France and designed to strike Paris from a distance of some fifty miles or more. Thus the missile started at an angle with the horizon, not at right angles to it, and soared upon its dreadful way, attaining at the zenith of its trajectory a height of some thirty miles above earth's surface. Then, its range completed and its journey done, it falls at a greater angle than it started from the cannon. Had this happened, a totally different scene must have confronted me, and the paddock, instead of being neatly bored, must have been ripped and torn—possibly from one hedge to the other. Thus we may deduce that the projectile fell perpendicularly, or at right angles to earth's surface; and that being so, it can only have come from elsewhere."

"Probably from the moon," suggested Norah; "but I thought it was generally understood no life existed on the moon."

"As to its point of departure we can say nothing as yet," he answered. "I am no astronomer, but Greenwich will work out the figures we are in a position to furnish. All we know is that the object fell at two o'clock by summer time, and how far that will offer a sound starting-place for their calculations, I cannot tell."

"On second thoughts, as there is no moon just now, perhaps that rules it out," suggested Mrs. Hapgood; but the professor could offer no suggestions.

"The projectile, or missile, may itself help future investigation," he answered. "More we do not know, save the tremendous fact that it must be a product of consciousness."

"Isn't that going too far?"

"No, I think not. The evidence confronts us in the mathematical shape of the aperture. No haphazard object created that. Conscious creatures undoubtedly made what we shall look upon to-morrow and despatched it, using our planet as their target; but how they succeeded in their immense task, or what was their purpose in attempting it, we may never know."

"Perhaps they fired at something else and hit us by accident," suggested Norah. "It must have been an utter gamble, at any rate, because if they had missed the land and fallen into the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific, all their trouble would have been wasted."

"Most true," admitted Felix,"—just as we are wasting our trouble now in futile suppositions. Probably a great deal of scientific activity would have been saved us if it had dropped unmarked into the ocean or some uncivilized and unexplored region of the globe; but it didn't; it landed on the British Isles—whether for good or ill remains to be seen."

"You'll see to-morrow," promised his sister. "Now do go and get a little sleep, because both your mind and body will be fully occupied in a few hours. Providentially you have finished the monograph and will be free to concentrate. A man with your terrific devotion to detail can only do one thing at a time."
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