THE STORY:—Professor Pye is a distinguished and wealthy physicist, but bitter, scornful and misanthropic. He lives in Surrey, England, working in a laboratory that in its isolation and sternness has every appearance of a fortress.
One afternoon Professor Pye’s only servant is startled by an explosion. He finds the windows of the laboratory smashed, the floor littered with glass and metal fragments, and the professor unconscious. As soon as the servant revives him, the professor cries exultantly: “Eureka! Eureka!”
Professor Pye has succeeded in isolating an atomic ray which he calls the “On,” a strange new force that can be controlled and projected into space, with the power of annihilating, secretly and silently, all within its path. The means by which he is able to project this “On-force” is his atomic gun.
One morning when he has persuaded his servant to take a holiday he carries this gun to the observation tower of his laboratory. He sees cattle grazing peacefully in the hollow of a valley some distance away. He adjusts the gun, trains it on the cattle and lets loose the force. The cattle fall dead. At the same time, a little farther away, the highway is strewn with the wreckage of motor cars. The motorists are dead. Brighton is destroyed and other near-by towns and cities.
In London, scientists try to solve the mystery of the new and terrible menace. Pye’s name is mentioned and airplanes are sent out to spy upon him, but he brings them down with their pilots and passengers dead.
The thought that he is suspected rouses Pye to new frenzy. He determines to wipe out London; to cleanse the whole earth of its vile inhabitants and permit it to start anew and breed a better race. He can do it; he is the new demigod!
PROFESSOR PYE trained the atomic gun on London, and then suddenly he paused. He had a sardonic inspiration. He possessed a small portable wireless set which he used when the more powerful apparatus was not needed. He went below and carried the little cabinet up on to the tower. He placed it beside the gun.
Was London speaking?
He switched on. Mr. Percy Haldane, leader of the House was speaking.
“Within the last forty-eight hours this country has experienced a series of mysterious catastrophes. But may I say at once that the mystery is on the point of being solved. We, the cabinet and our body of experts, are confident that there is in this country a monstrous offender against civilization and humanity. We believe and are sure that we can deal with this evil spirit in our midst. I have just left a conference in which several eminent scientists, Professors Beddington and James, and Sir Phillip Gasson—”
Professor Pye’s head gave a jerk. A little malevolent smile shimmered over his face. So Gasson was there, Gasson the slimy and debonair, Gasson of the black velvet coat and the cerise-colored tie, Gasson who, when lecturing, posed as though all the women must think him Zeus. Professor Pye licked his lips. Mr. Haldane’s voice was still booming.
Click! Professor Pye switched on the current. The wireless cabinet produced four more words from Mr. Percy Haldane.
“We English are people—”
Silence! Not a murmur. The little wooden cabinet was mute, and Professor Pye’s face malignantly triumphant. Exit London. Exit Mr. Percy Haldane, and Phillip Gasson, and Whitehall, and Somerset House, and Lambeth Palace, Whitechapel—all that suppurating sore which fools called a great city. Eros, on his pedestal in Piccadilly Circus, would be posing above an exhibit of corpses.
Professor Pye’s cold frenzy continued. He swept the whole horizon with his gun. He would efface everything within the limit of its range, and then wait for the earth to surrender.
He would listen in to Europe’s terror and anguish.
Soon, they would be appealing to the Unknown God for mercy.
America, Asia, Africa, Australia-—all would be on their knees to him in their transmission stations.
The world would surrender to him by wireless.
Over the whole southeast of England, a large portion of East Anglia, the Midlands and the West there was silence. The death zone covered Bournemouth, Bristol, Gloucester, Birmingham, Leicester, Peterborough, Ipswich, Dover. Exeter, Cardiff, Derby, Nottingham and Norwich were alive. Calais and a small segment of the French coast had been affected. Just beyond the zone, life had been shocked but not effaced. There had been the same symptoms of nausea, giddiness, and, in a number of cases, temporary unconsciousness.
For some days panic prevailed. A few adventurous or anguished souls attempted to penetrate the lethal zone, only to be effaced by Professor Pye’s drenching of that area with On-force. Once every hour the atomic gun covered every point of the compass. Half Somerset, Devon and Cornwall were isolated between the Channel and the Irish Sea. From villages and towns near the borderline the population fled, pouring into Wales, Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield were flooded with refugees. During those first few days organized government, the very social scheme itself, seemed in danger of dissolution.
It was in Manchester that resistance hardened. The Lord Mayor of Manchester and the City Council formed themselves into a species of provisional government. The crisis was unprecedented, and improvizations were urgent and inevitable. The mayors of all the Yorkshire and Lancashire towns were gathered in. York proposed that the centre of authority should be located at Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, the whole world was in agitation.
Moscow both trembled and gloated. Middle-class England had received a deathblow.
New York was all headlines. Crowds filled the streets.
France, wounded at Calais and so near the terror, was arming with all its expert intelligence to combat the horror.
A deputation flew from Manchester to Paris to discuss with the French Government the confrontation of this crisis. Europe’s international quarrels were forgotten for the moment. Berlin, Prague, Rome, Madrid, each sent a body of representatives and experts to Paris. Signor Mussolini flew in person to the French capital, bringing with him a little Italian physicist from Turin, Professor Pirelli. The discussions were informal and held at the Elysée. It was Mussolini’s little professor who was in a position to bring forward data that might explain the cataclysm. He, too, was working on the atom. He had released from it certain energy that when controlled was lethal to mice and rats. His work was as yet an affair of the laboratory, but he postulated that the earth was being assailed by some inspired lunatic who had discovered how to release and control atomic energy.
The English members could produce certain facts. London, before its destruction, had telegraphed confidential information to the municipal authorities in the provinces. The source of the mysterious force was centred in Surrey, and probably on the North Downs, within a few miles of Guildford. It was known that a certain eccentric scientist had a house there, and that he lived the life of a misanthrope and a recluse. Professor Pye was under suspicion.
Europe's Council of War debated the problem. It was evident that the field of force was limited. The death area had not extended. It was like a spider’s web, and in the centre of it crouched the spider.
Signor Mussolini was for instant action.
Reminded that the air was controlled over that area, he was not to be dissuaded.
“We must attack. Let our airplanes go out by the hundred, swarm after swarm, to observe and to make sure. We must take risks, every risk.”
Those round the table looked to Professor Pirelli. Had he anything to suggest? He smiled whimsically. No, he had nothing more subtle to propose. Crude explosives, or perhaps gas bombs, were the only retort science could provide at the moment. Even if one airplane survived, and discovered one live human being in that death area, it might be assumed that that one live man was the monster who was attacking humanity.
One German delegate suggested the construction of long range guns that could be mounted on the French coast to bombard Surrey.
The French President, with certain unhappy memories in his mind, asked the German to say how long it would take to manufacture those guns, and the German was silent.
No, action must be instant and coordinated. The terror might spread. They must make what use they could of the instruments that were to hand. Every country must supply its quota of planes. It would be better to call for volunteers to act as aviators and observers.
Signor Mussolini flew back to Rome, the Germans to Berlin. Orders were issued to the French Air Force. To begin with, the air squadrons would patrol the outskirts of the death zone, observe and report, before attempting to locate and destroy the enemy.
PROFESSOR PYE waited for the earth to broadcast its appeal for mercy. The aerial voice might be English, French or German, but Alfred Pye spoke both French and German, and perhaps he expected the voice to be French.
Meanwhile, he had not had his clothes off for three days, nor had he slept, save in brief snatches. He was looking distinctly worn and dishevelled. He had omitted to shave that part of his face that was accustomed to be razored, and his eyes were the eyes of a man short of sleep.
He had carried a mattress and bedclothes to the top of the tower. He took his perfunctory meals there beside his gun, with the portable wireless switched on. and a pair of binoculars slung round his neck. A dispassionate observer would have described him as a scraggy little man who was both scared and irritable, a grey rat on the alert. Professor Pye was feeling the strain of playing the part of Jupiter.
He was becoming more and more aware of the dreadful silence. He looked out upon a green world that was empty of all sound and movement save the movements of the clouds and the trees. He was surrounded by a ghastly, stagnant greenness, and at night he was alone with the stars. Almost, he began to hunger for the sound of a human voice. The craving was illogical and absurd, but so strong was it that he carried a gramophone up to the tower and played Bach and Beethoven.
Moreover, the air was unaccountably silent. Even his large installation could pick up no voices. What was the earth doing? Had his On-force gradually penetrated over the whole globe, and had man ceased to be? But if so, he himself should be dead, for the force would have circled the earth and returned to destroy him.
Most strange—this silence.
Or was it deliberate? Was civilization conspiring to isolate him? Were all the earth’s transmitting stations wilfully mute? Paris and Berlin and New York might be conferring by cable.
Now and again he would patrol the top of the tower and tum his glasses on the green emptiness of Surrey, and scan the whole horizon. There were moments when he imagined movement upon some hillside, or fancied that he could spot an airplane in the distance. He would rush to his gun and apply On-force to the imagined menace.
He was beginning to look very wild about the eyes.
September continued warm and sunny. A gentle breeze blew from the east, and at noon the mercury stood at seventy.
It happened that Professor Pye had gone below to make himself some tea. He was using tinned milk. He carried the tea tray to the top of the tower, and as he reached it he became ware of a faint odor, sickly and strange. It was as though the whole atmosphere was tainted. He put the tray down on a table, and stood with his nose to the wind.
An odor of death, of decay? Yes, that was it—-millions of dead bodies swelling in the September heat. He was scenting London, greater London, all those towns and villages, the dead cows in the field below, the dead men and women in the valley. And Professor Pye’s face looked suddenly bloodless and ashy. Almost, it was the face of a corpse. He left his tea untouched. He had not seen the horror he had perpetrated, but he could savor it.
Nausea attacked him. He went below and poured out two ounces of brandy.
WOULD nothing happen?
This silence was becoming unbearable.
He was possessed by a febrile and busy restlessness. He went out and walked along the Downs--but that sickly smell of decay was everywhere. Even in green and solitary places he blundered upon death, bodies lying around a cloth with cups and plates and cushions, a dead lad and a girl, an old man with a book, a child and, not far away, a man and woman. He saw a dead dog lying in some rough grass. Was he himself alive or dead? More than once his fingers went to his throat. War, yes, war, but the silence and stench of a field after battle! He slunk back to the white house. He found himself hungry for the face of Hands......yes, even for a disfigured face.
And what had become of Hands?
He fell into a kind of frenzy. He drank more brandy. Where were his enemies? Why did they not attack?
But the war of the world against Professor Pye was developing. To begin with, the reconnaissance in force was crudely conceived. A hundred airplanes flying in a vast half circle crossed the Channel and passed over Sussex. The hour was about noon on a clear day and the planes had the sun above and behind them. Professor Pye heard the faint roar of the massed machines as they crossed the South Downs, for his ears had been straining to catch some sound that might break the stagnant silence. He turned his field glasses on that stretch of sky. He saw the little black silhouettes strung out across the horizon. The planes were flying fast and low.
Here—at last—was something tangible to deal with. The earth was alive, and it had not surrendered. Those planes were coming to attack him. Anger and hatred revived. Insolent fools! Did they imagine that an aerial cavalry charge could contend with his On-force.
He sat by his gun. He waited until that half moon of flying folly was within a mile of him and then, slewing his gun from left to right, he shot the machines down. They seemed to falter and fall one after another like so many crows. Once more there was silence.
The attack was related twice that day on the same unimaginative lines, but the second assault came from the north. Professor Pye might be dishevelled and wild of eye. but in annihilating those aerial enemies he recovered a kind of malignant exultation.
When would the fools realize that they had to deal with a superman who was their master?
This was the world’s Waterloo. Flying cuirassiers charging a little cube of concrete that was invulnerable! He would teach humanity that its salvation could be secured only by surrender.
There followed more than twenty-four hours of silence, and the next night Professor Pye dared to sleep. He was urgently in need of sleep. Wrapped in a greatcoat, he sat on the tower till two o’clock in the morning. It was too cold here. He dragged the mattress and bedclothes down into the laboratory. He would allow himself two hours sleep on the laboratory floor.
He slept, but half an hour after the break of day he was awakened by a rush and a roar overhead. Something had passed with the speed of a shell, and set the glass bottles and jars in the laboratory vibrating. For some seconds Professor Pye sat sodden with sleep, wondering whether the thing had happened or whether he had dreamed it. But a distant and diminishing roar warned him of the reality.
In brief, the Italians had brought a couple of flying boats to Dunkirk, machines built for the Schneider Cup and capable of flying nearly four hundred miles an hour. It was one of these swift machines, which, trusting to its speed, had roared over Sussex and Surrey, and was now making for the Bristol Channel. Professor Pye grasped the significance of the machine’s rush across his safety zone. It could enter the lethal zone, traverse its two hundred miles in half an hour, and escape to report.
He was in his pyjamas. He rushed upstairs to the tower. He shivered in the cold morning air. He saw a great yellow sun hanging above the Surrey hills. That screaming hydroplane was more than thirty miles away. In another ten minutes it would be beyond his reach. He ducked down behind his gun, slewed it round, and released the On-force. The hydroplane was over Reading and following the Thames when the force struck it. The machine crashed on a roof in Friar Street and burst into flames. It started a conflagration that blazed for hours.
Professor Pye stood shivering.
“That fellow might have bombed me.”
He realized that with such machines in action against him his margin of safety had been reduced to fifteen minutes. This was serious. It suggested that he would have to sweep the air every quarter of an hour.
But had they located him? Were these machines merely groping for the enemy? Moreover, he could assume that there were not more than half a dozen machines in the world capable of such speed. Let them all come and crash, and the proof of his power would be all the more catastrophic.
But it was cold on the tower. There had been a slight ground frost. He regretted that warm bed. And that morning he mixed brandy with his coffee.
IN PARIS THERE WAS gloom and consternation. Not an airplane had returned. The death zone had swallowed them up. and mocked the world with a malignant and ominous silence.
It was a delegate from Manchester University, a gawky and rather reticent young man with a squint, who brought psychology to bear upon the problem.
Said the Mancunian:
“Granted, there is something inhumanly human behind this devilment. That’s to say, we have to deal with a man. He is using atomic force or some sort of ray. Let us presume that he has to function, eat, sleep, remain alert. Now, an apparatus or a machine may be more or less infallible. Man is not. The flesh can fail, and so can concentration. Let him stew in silence for a week."
The French President nodded. -
"You suggest that silence might unnerve him.”
“It might fool him. Imagine a man making war on the world. Silence, solitude, a ghastly and fantastic solitude. He might go potty.”
Continental gentlemen had to have “potty” explained to them.
“Mad? But yes, we understand.”
“Surely the creature cannot be considered sane?”
“He’s most damnably sane,” said the Mancunian, “but he must have sleep. Imagine a man sitting by some apparatus, listening and watching for days and nights. He won’t stand it for ever. He’ll break down. He’ll fall asleep. He might commit suicide.”
The shrewd common sense of Manchester was accepted, and the conference at Paris decided to blockade Professor Pye with silence.
For the first twenty-four hours Professor Pye examined the silence and its various and possible implications. His enemies had been profoundly discouraged, or perhaps they were trying to fool him into overconfidence. None the less, this silence worried him; it kept him on the alert— especially so at night. It was so profound and so inhuman. It chained him to the top of the tower. He had connected flexes and ear phones to his larger installation, and for hours he sat on the tower listening and listening—to silence. Every quarter of an hour he had to sweep the horizon with his atomic gun.
Once more the silence began to frighten him. It was as though nothingness possessed powers of attrition, like dropping water or blowing sand. There was pressure in this silence. It became almost like a heavy hand upon the top of his head, bearing more and more heavily upon his brain. The stillness was both so alive and so dead. He began to long for sound, even for some hostile sound that was human.
The landscape had become a painted scene, the sky a kind of hard blue ceiling across which artificial clouds floated. It seemed to be pressing nearer and nearer. His eyes ached. Almost, he was conscious of his tense and overstrained eardrums. He had aged; he looked haggard and grey and dishevelled.
Three days and three nights of that silence.
His brain was beginning to manufacture sounds, and sometimes these auditory hallucinations were so real that he would jump up and look over the parapet. Surely he had heard voices down there? Or he would switch on his gun and sweep the horizon.
He had fed in snatches and slept in snatches. He fought sleep. His desire for sleep was as terrible as the silence. It menaced him like a dark wall of water. He fought it off. It would be fatal for him to sleep for any length of time.
Why had he not thought of this before? He should have been prepared with some mechanism that would keep his gun revolving while he rested.
Why did not those fools flash him a message of surrender?
He was becoming less and less of a superman--the god Pye contra mundum—but a little dishevelled ape of a man who was beginning to chatter to himself and to react to imaginary noises.
On the third night he was convinced that he heard a dog barking outside the house. Hands's dog Jumbo? Had the little beast been near him all the time? But no, he had driven Hands and the dog to Guildford. Nevertheless, he rushed out in a state of strange excitement. He called, he appealed to the ghost dog in a wheedling voice.
“Hello doggie! Come here, good dog. Come along, old man. Nice bone for nice doggie.”
He whistled and wheedled and called, but the silence was like grey rock.
He cursed: “Go to the devil, you beast !”
He slammed the door and burst into sudden tears.
MRS. HECTOR HYDE’S landing at Le Bourget was not fortuitous. The famous airwoman had been engaged in one of her adventurous escapades over Asia, finding other hazards to conquer, when she had picked up an aerial message from Tashkend. This piece of world news had been sufficiently wild and improbable to pique Mrs. Hyde. She had turned the nose of her plane westward, and, on landing at Bagdad, had asked to be enlightened.
“What is this absurd rumor?”
Bagdad could assure her that this was no rumor but very terrible reality.
Mrs. Hector Hyde ate, slept for two hours, had her machine refuelled, and took off for Paris. She arrived at Le Bourget late in the afternoon, and asked to be driven at once to the English Embassy. Mrs. Hector Hyde, being both a gentlewoman and a world figure, was treated as a person of some significance. In fact, she was to be supremely significant. If some nasty little male was— as usual—making a horrid mess of civilization, it was time for woman to intervene.
The ambassador gave her five minutes. He was due to attend a conference at the Elysée at six. Mrs. Hyde listened to all that he had to tell her, and then asked to be allowed to attend the conference with him.
“I would like to come as a volunteer. I might be of some use. ”
She was calmly yet passionately determined to be of use. She had lost things in England, irreplaceable things; relations, friends, a home, dogs who were waiting for her.
“I want to be of use, Sir Hugh. No, there is nothing more to be said.”
The ambassador took her with him. She was the only woman in the conference room, and she sat and listened. Particularly did she listen to the young man from Manchester, Professor Cragg. His name, his appearance, his insurgent hair and strabismic eye might be somewhat uncouth and provincial, but he impressed her. These very eminent gentlemen, politicians, diplomats, savants, sat round a table and conferred. They were dignified, formal, and a little helpless. Professor Cragg was combative, and logically so. He had no oratorical gifts. He was a doer, not a talker.
He argued that the hypothetical enemy in Surrey had been dosed with a week’s potent silence. He might be mad or dead or lulled into a sense of false security. Or he might be preparing further horrors. The psychological moment had arrived for a raid upon Surrey.
“Just one plane, and an attempt to land on the Downs and explore them. Yes, a night landing if possible.”
Professor Cragg’s was a rational suggestion, but who would undertake this forlorn hope?
“I’d rather like to go myself,” said the Mancunian, “if anybody will fly the plane.”
Mrs. Hector Hyde stood up.
“Gentlemen, I ask to be given the duty. There is a full moon tonight. I know that part of the country very well. I was born in Surrey. If Professor Cragg will accept me and my plane—”
Professor Cragg jumped up and gave her an awkward, boyish bow.
“Delighted. Now we can do something.”
Professor Cragg and Mrs. Hyde were driven to Le Bourget. The weather reports were favorable; an anticyclone covered England and the north of France; there was little wind or cloud, but a danger of ground fog at night. Mrs. Hyde inspected her machine in person and superintended the refuelling. The professor was fitted out with a bag of bombs and a flying suit. Le Bourget gave them a meal, and Professor Cragg borrowed from the French an automatic pistol and a pair of glasses. They waited for the moon to rise before taking off. The airdrome gave them a cheer.
Mrs. Hyde had laid her course. She proposed to fly straight across the Channel, strike the South Downs, and crossing the Weald, land on the North Downs. She knew the country from the air. She was sure that she could pick up St. Martha’s and the high ground beyond round Newlands Comer. She had danced at that most comfortable and pleasant of hotels at Newlands Corner. As a girl she had explored the Pilgrim’s Way and ridden along the Drove Road. Her plan was to bring her plane down on that broad, sweet stretch of rabbit-nibbled turf. It would be outlined for her by the wooded Roughs and the scrub and yews on the hillside. Her face was as calm as the face of the full moon.
SEVEN DAYS of silence and of sleeplessness had reduced Professor Pye to a state akin to senile dementia. He chattered to himself; his saliva ran into his beard; hands and head shook with a senile tremor. He was suffering from hallucinations. Imaginary voices threatened him; he was startled by apparitions.
Yet his intelligence retained an edge of sanity. A kind of coldly impersonal Professor Pye could consider and comment upon the figure of a dishevelled and tremulous old gentleman with a dewdrop hanging to his nose. Pye, the physicist, admonished Pye, the man.
“What you need, my friend, is sleep—ten hours sleep.”
Obviously so. The human mechanism that was Pye cried out for sleep. Had it not sat on that tower, hour by hour, sweeping the horizon with that gun? Sleep suborned him; it was more than a temptation; it was like the sea coming in. It was irresistible.
Sleep became a tyrant. It said: “No, I shall be satisfied with nothing but completeness. You will take that mattress and pillow and bolster and those bedclothes and place them on my proper kingly bedstead. No, I refuse to be fobbed off with a shakedown on the floor. See to it that my commands are obeyed.”
Professor Pye procrastinated. He climbed to the top of the tower. He saw the face of the full moon staring at him like a vast countenance that had just appeared above the edge of the world. He gibbered at the moon.
“How dare you stare at me like that!”
He turned the atomic gun on the moon. “Take that, you insolent satellite.”
But the moon frightened him. It was like the cold and accusing face of humanity. Yes, he would sleep. He blundered down the stairs, and dragged mattress and bedclothes from the laboratory into his bedroom.
He made his bed. He had left all the lights blazing in the laboratory and the blinds up.
He was conscious of nothing but the crave for sleep. He closed the door of his bedroom, turned off the lights, and got into bed. He slept like one of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.
MRS. HECTOR HYDE turned her plane to the left about a mile from the wooded crest of the North Downs. They were somewhere over Farley Heath when she spoke to Professor Cragg.
“Do you see those lights?”
Professor Cragg saw them, and realized their significance.
“The only lights in southern England. If someone is alive there, it means—”
“That’s the inference. And we are still alive. Those lights are windows on the Downs.”
“I think so. I am going to land near Newlands Comer.”
She brought the plane down perfectly on the broad and moonlit stretch of turf. They climbed out and stood side by side in that world of the dead. There was the most profound silence. Even here the faint odor of death and decay permeated the air. Almost, they spoke in whispers.
“We had better not waste any time.”
She shivered slightly.
“No, no psychoanalysis. Those lights.” Professor Cragg laid a hand on his bag of bombs.
“Yes, that’s our objective. We are humanity’s forlorn hope. One can assume that life and electric light advertise the enemy. If my theory holds, the devil has fallen asleep and left the lights burning.”
They followed the downland track under the full moon, nor had they gone thirty yards before they came upon the first dead, a man and a girl with a picnic basket between them. Professor Cragg turned his electric torch on the motionless figures. He said nothing, but quickly switched off the beam of light.
Mrs. Hyde’s voice sounded stifled. She had seen the faces of those dead.
“Let’s get on.”
He understood her. She was compelling herself to control instinctive terror. They passed on, having to step aside or diverge to avoid those dark objects on the grass. The moonlight made the scene more ghastly and macabre, those derelict cars, the tea tables in the tea gardens, the odor of death. Mrs. Hyde spoke.
“And to think I have danced over there.”
“The Newlands Comer Hotel. Such a pleasant place.”
Her voice came like a little cold wind.
“Do you know how to use those bombs?”
“Yes. The French showed me.”
“You won’t hesitate?”
“Is it likely?”
They crossed the main road to Shere, and followed the Downs.
There was silence between them. The tension was so acute that time became relative. They might have been walking for an hour or for ten seconds when they emerged from the shadow of a grove of beech trees, and on a bluff of the chalk hills saw those lights shining. Mrs. Hyde paused, her hand on her companion’s arm. “Windows.”
Professor Cragg looked at the lights.
“I’ll go on alone.”
But she would not hear of it.
“No. I don’t think I could bear to be left alone here.”
“I understand. We had better not speak.”
The track forked in a hollow space below the beechwood, one path ascending, the other descending. Professor Cragg chose the upper path, but on the edge of the plateau a stout fence of netting and barbed wire closed the path. It was Professor Pye’s boundary fence erected to keep out hikers and picnic parties, and since Professor Cragg had no wirecutters and the five-foot fence was unclimbable, they had to retrace their steps and explore the lower path. It brought them out into Professor Pye’s private lane whose rough and flinty surface had been loosened by a spell of dry weather. In fact, Professor Cragg trod on a loose flint, and the stone went rattling down the slope. He stood very still for a moment, inwardly cursing. If the house with the lights could be assumed to be the house of the ogre, then it was more than probable that its ingenious owner had installed some apparatus for the registration and amplifying of sound.
He spoke in a whisper.
“That darned flint may have betrayed us.” But his companion was in no mood for loitering. Hesitation and delay might rupture an overstrained self-control. Professor Cragg saw her face in the moonlight.
She pointed upward, like some pale figure of fate urging him on. The lane had a narrow grass verge on either side of it, and taking to the grass they pressed up and on. The lane ended in a cindered space outside the gates of the courtyard, and the white gates were closed.
Mrs. Hyde and Professor Cragg stood and looked at each other for a moment. He made a gesture with his right hand. He was telling her to sit down. She shook her head and remained standing, and Professor Cragg, realizing that her courage had to be humored, sat down on the grass and removed his boots. He left the pistol and the field glasses at her feet. He advanced on his socked feet to the white gates. Very cautiously he tried the latch. The gates were not locked, and Mrs. Hyde saw him swing one leaf back and disappear.
There was not a sound. In less than a minute she saw him reappear carrying what appeared to be an empty deal box. He moved round the house and along a terrace of grass and weeds under the front windows. She changed her position so as to be able to watch his movements. She saw him place the box under one of the laboratory windows. He unhitched his bag of bombs and lowered it to the ground, and, climbing on to the box, raised his head with infinite and deliberate caution.
He was looking in at one of the laboratory windows. They were casements, opening outward, and Professor Cragg raised the casement stay from its iron peg, swung the window back, and put his hands on the sill. She held her breath. She saw the long, gawky figure raise itself and slip through the window. He disappeared.
Professor Cragg was prowling like a cat round the laboratory, examining its contents. He came to the laboratory door; it stood ajar. Inch by inch he pulled it open until he could slip through into the corridor. He had pushed up the button of his torch before entering the laboratory, and with the electric torch in his left hand he crept along the corridor. He came to another door which also stood ajar. He listened.
A sound of life, a most unmistakable sound; the heavy breathing of someone asleep. Professor Cragg put his hand to that door. So gradual was his pressure that the door hardly seemed to move. Very cautiously he shone his light into the room. The ray rested for a moment on a figure lying on a bed.
Professor Cragg, very quietly drew back. He stood in the corridor for a moment listening to the sleeper’s heavy breathing. There was no break in the rhythm, and Professor Cragg crept step by step back into the laboratory. The bedroom was next to the laboratory, and he had noticed that the window was open and the blind down. He slipped out through the laboratory window, and shifted his box and his bag of bombs along the house.
He took a bomb from the bag, stood on the box, pushed the blind back with his lighted torch, and gave one glance into the room to make sure. He dropped the torch on the grass, pulled the bomb pin, and, lobbing the bomb into the room, crouched down behind the wall. There was a moment’s silence, then the crash of the explosion. Fragments of broken window glass flew upon Professor Cragg’s head and shoulders.
He bent down, picked up two more bombs, and hurled them one after the other into the room.
A profound silence seemed to surge back like water that had been troubled by an explosion. Mrs. Hyde saw Professor Cragg standing on the box and shining his torch into that room. He gave a leap from the box to clear the broken glass, and came across the grass toward her. His face was very pale, and a streak of blood showed on his forehead.
“There was life—in there. I’ve effaced it. One had to be ruthless.”
He went for his shoes, sat down, put them on, and rejoined her.
“We’ll wait five minutes. He may have an understudy. Then I'll explore.”
They waited, motionless, voiceless. Not a sound came from the white house, and with a glance at his companion Professor Cragg went forward to explore.
“Better stay there. One has to remember that there may be other devilments—live wires, traps.”
She watched him climb in through the same window. The minutes went by in silence, and then she saw a flash of light up above, and heard his voice.
She saw his head and shoulders in the tower, silhouetted against the moonlit sky.
“There’s a contraption up here—rather the sort of thing I expected to find. I daren’t touch it. It is better that nobody should touch it. I’m coming down.”
He rejoined her on the hillside, and his face was grim.
"Genius gone mad. In one’s imaginative moments one has postulated the case of some antisocial intelligence making war on humanity. And what a war! We little fellows who dabble in mysteries will have to be watched in the future.”
She looked up at the tower.
“So your theory was sound.”
“Yes, even a super-scientist is human. He had to sleep. Sleep saved us. Well, let’s spread the news and prepare the funeral.”
“Yes, of Professor Pye and his infernal creation.”
They made their way along the moonlit hillside to Newlands Comer. The silence was still profound but it had lost its ghastly menace. They talked, and the sound of their voices seemed to fill the silence with a vibration of life reborn. The dead were there, but their destroyer was dead with them. The moonlight seemed to play more mysteriously in the branches of the old yews and beeches.
Standing beside the motionless plane, Professor Cragg pulled out his watch.
"Another hour and the dawn will be here. I should like to fly over that place.”
And then he glanced at the spread wings of her machine.
"I rather think that this plane of yours ought to be preserved—say, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, or a bronze model of it set up on these Downs.”
She smiled faintly.
“I think I'd rather have some sandwiches and hot coffee. They are in the cockpit. Of course I never knew whether we should need them. I'll fetch the thermos. ”
MRS. HECTOR HYDE’S PLANE took off as the sun cleared the horizon, and with the level rays making the machine glow like some golden dragonfly, it climbed and, gaining height, made a left-hand turn over the Downs. Professor Cragg was leaning over the side and observing the white house below. He could see the white parapet of the tower like a marble plinth surrounding a grave.
He thought: “Yes, better to take no chances. I shall suggest that they drop bombs on that hillside until nothing is left of Professor Pye and his machine and his discovery. The world is not yet ripe for so much knowledge.”
Mrs. Hyde headed south. They saw the shimmer of the sea and then the outline of the French coast. She laid her course for Paris, and at Le Bourget men were watching the sky, and when they saw that airplane coming out of the north, an indescribable excitement infected the airdrome. Those two adventurous souls had dared the death zone and had survived.
When the plane bumped along the landing ground and came to rest, a crowd rushed toward it—politicians, diplomats, savants, pilots, the airdrome staff. What had happened? What news did they bring?
Professor Cragg, one leg hanging over the side of the plane’s body, waved his airman’s helmet.
"We found one live man in Surrey, and he’s dead. Satan was sleeping—and we bombed him.”
The crowd went mad. Almost, it seemed ready to carry the plane and its crew in triumph round the airdrome. It shouted and cheered and behaved quite foolishly, only to realize that Mrs. Hyde was still sitting in the pilot’s seat, and Professor Cragg standing up as though to address them.
Professor Cragg held up a hand, and there was gradual silence.
“Gentlemen, we are going back. A little breakfast and then—the final ceremony. I want a dozen bombing machines. We will show them their target.”
Telephones and wireless stations became busy. Signor Mussolini, who had just arrived from Rome, was one of the select few who were permitted to go as passengers. The squadron of huge machines roared northward, led by Mrs. Hyde’s plane. It was Professor Cragg who dropped the pilot bomb on the white building above the Shere valley. Mrs. Hyde swung her plane clear for the big fellows to come into action. Plane after plane flew low over the house of Professor Pye. The hilltop seemed to spout flame and smoke and débris. In a little while the work was finished. That which had been a building was a crater field over which little tattered flames flickered. Even the grass and the trees were alight. Professor Pye and his atomic gun and his notebooks full of cipher were ashes and particles of shattered metal. The End