The Day of Uniting/Chapter 16

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pp. 49–523.

CHAPTER XVI.

“Mr. Maggerson,” began the prime minister, “is a very old friend of mine. We were at school together, and our early lives ran upon parallel lines. Maggerson is, I need hardly tell you, a brilliant man of science. I, myself, am a dabbler in science. I am passionately fond of mathematics and physics, and by a remarkable coincidence, two other members of the cabinet were also men who had leanings that way. For years we made a point of dining every Thursday night, a practice which was discontinued after I accepted the leadership of my party.

“At these gatherings, my friend, the Lord Bishop of Fleet, was generally present, though he was not bishop in those days, but the head master of a school, as Mr. Ponter probably knows.

“I tell you this much, because I feel that it is well that you should know my authority for acting as I have done, and because, by reason of those friendships, I have been able to call upon three of the cleverest mathematicians in Great Britain to confirm a certain discovery which we made, or rather which Mr. Maggerson made, a little more than a week ago. Mr. Maggerson is, and of this you must also be aware, the inventor of a new calculus, or rather a table of variations which is used by mathematicians and those who have relations with the exact sciences all over the world.

“I think that this story really starts,” the prime minister went on, 'on the day of the luncheon party which I gave, partly to celebrate his return from America and partly to celebrate the issue of his amended calculus, four hundred thousand copies of which were, I believe, sold within a week of issue.

“As you know, Mr. Maggerson was late, and when he did arrive he was in a condition bordering upon—hysteria. I can think of no better word. It took us some time before we could get him calm, and when we did it was to learn something which I think stunned every one of us. Fortunately there were only us five friends present. My secretary was away in Glasgow in connection with a meeting which I was to address. Beside myself and Maggerson, there was Lord Harry Weltman, Mr. Stope-Kendrick, and the bishop in the room.

“It is rather difficult to explain to a layman, one who is apparently not interested in mathematics, the exact functions of the table of variations with which the name of Maggerson is associated. By its use it is possible to make the most exact—indeed, the only exact—astronomical calculations. that can be made. Those calculations, as you probably know, if worked out without the aid of what, for a better term, I will call a mathematical ready reckoner, would take years to accomplish, and it was with the object of measuring the immeasurable, that Newton and Leibnitz produced their calculi.

“On the day before the luncheon Mr. Maggerson read a note in one of the foreign papers concerning the discovery of a comet which interested him. In the afternoon he visited Greenwich and had lunch with the astronomer royal. They discussed the appearance of the comet in the northern skies, a comet which was neither Eneke's, which had been sighted the year before, nor Winnecke's, and which was either a newcomer in the heavens or else the identical comet on which Newton based his famous calculations. This, however, they decided it could not be, for Newton's comet was not due for another hundred and fifteen years.

“Now, hitherto, in calculating the periodicity of comets, there had been considerable difficulties in making accurate predictions, difficulties due to the influences exercised by various planets, which attract the wanderer from its course. Jupiter in particular seems to have an extraordinary influence upon cometary matter.

“By means of Maggerson's table, however, the most extraordinary accurate results can be obtained, and after taking the longitude of the perihelion, et cetera, Maggerson went home and began to work out the character and the identity of the comet.

“Then, gentlemen”—the voice of the prime minister was lowered—“he made an astonishing discovery. It was this, that on the sixteenth of May of this year, the comet 'X'—for no name has been given to this wanderer—must inevitably collide with the earth!”

For a second Jimmy's heart stopped beating.

“Inevitably?” he repeated.

The prime minister nodded.

“The character of a comet is not known. You can only take the spectrum and discover that it contains certain hydrocarbons, sodium, and other chemical constituents, but whether the nucleus, which is bigger than the earth, is solid or whether it is as vaporous as its attenuated tail, nobody knows. If it is solid”—he paused—“if it is solid, and the collision occurs, it is certain that human life, or, for the matter of that, any life, cannot exist on the earth.”

Jimmy cleared his throat.

“You mean, sir, that on the sixteenth all civilization, all that the world is and means for us, may be wiped away?” His voice sank to a whisper.

The premier nodded.

“Maggerson was not satisfied with his work. He began again, and working all night, he arrived at a similar result. And then it was that, forgetting he was not dressed, forgetting everything except the approaching cataclysm and the terror into which the world would fall, if the news were known, he ran from his house, and did not stop running until he reached No. 10 Downing Street.”

One of the men in the room had a loud watch. Jimmy heard it distinctly.

“Then what happened?” he found voice to ask.

“Maggerson asked me and Stope-Kendrick to check his calculations. In conjunction with the astronomer royal we worked carefully throughout the next night, and a portion of the next day. We were beginning to attract attention. The newspaper reporters had noted that we were together, practically locked in one room, and then it was that I thought of the Warden's Lodge. It was crown property and had been standing empty for many years. It was near to London, but what was more important, it was within a few minutes' walk of the royal observatory.

“It was after we had installed ourselves that the astronomer royal suggested we should send for Gerald van Roon. This course was heartily approved both by Maggerson and by myself, though you, Lord Harry, objected. I can only wish most fervently,” said the prime minister, “that we had listened to your objections. Lord Harry pointed out that Gerald was a man of extremely high principles, and that he had very definite views on the duty of science to the public. We had some trouble with him last year when he was called into consultation over the failure of the wheat and corn crop.”

Jimmy nodded.

“I remember; he was writing an article on that very subject on the night of his death,” he said.

“However,” continued the prime minister. “We overcame Lord Harry's objections, and Harry and Stope-Kendrick themselves went across to your house and delivered the message, returning with Gerald van Roon. In the meantime, the bishop had gone to arouse the government printer, Mr. Sennett here, whom you know. We felt, as a preliminary measure, that it was necessary to warn military authorities that some sort of trouble might be expected. What we most feared was the news leaking out that such a collision was inevitable.

“The destruction of the earth, the wiping off of life, will be a matter so terrifically sudden that nobody will realize what has happened. There is no terror in death—swift, painless, universal,” he said quietly, “but there is a terror of fear which would drive men and women frantic, which would reduce the world to a shrieking madhouse. Mr. van Roon came. We told him quickly the facts as we knew them, namely, that on the sixteenth of May, the unknown comet would cross the orbit of the earth at a point where a collision was impossible to avoid.

“At first he was horrified, and then he sat down to study the tables which Maggerson and the bishop had prepared between them. When he had finished there happened what Lord Harry had feared. Your cousin was a deeply religious man, and he insisted that the world should know. That was, naturally, a course which we were determined should not be taken. There was an angry scene, the end of it was, Gerald van Roon walked through that very door with the words:

“'Whatever you may say, I consider it my duty to communicate to the world the danger which threatens our existence.'

“And there was no doubt whatever that he intended to put his threat into execution. For the moment we were paralyzed, and not until he had left the house did it come to me just what his action would mean.

“We had made some rough preparations, crude and unskillful, to deal with any intrusion into our sanctuary. I had brought down an automatic pistol which my son gave me after the war, and this was then lying on the mantelpiece. I snatched it up and ran after your cousin. He was halfway across the garden. It was raining heavily, I remember, because I slipped on the greasy grass, and in slipping I fired.

“I had no intention of killing him; my plan was to bring him back and hold him a prisoner, but as I slipped I must have thrown out my hand and gripped at the trigger. I am not used to the ways of automatic pistols, and I did not realize that, so long as the trigger is pressed, the weapon continues to fire. I heard five shots, and could not realize that it was I who had fired them, until I saw Gerald van Roon lying senseless on the grass.

“I came back to the house, and we had a consultation. The position was a dreadful one. To explain his death would mean to explain the circumstances under which he met his death. There was nothing to do but to carry out Lord Harry's suggestion, which was that he should be carried on to the heath and left there.

“I was perfectly certain at the time that he was dead, for he showed no signs of life, and the wounds”—the premier shivered—“were terrible! We carried him out just before daybreak and left him, and his fate you know. I might say that Mr. Sennett was not present; indeed, Mr. Sennett did not come into our confidence until a few days ago, when it became necessary to prepare our proclamation.”

“The object of the proclamation being to unite families for the final day of life?”

The prime minister nodded.

“It was the last service which we could render to humanity,” he said, “and that will also explain to you, Mr. Blake, the release of the convicts from the various prisons throughout the country.”

“It does not explain the arrest of thousands of innocent men,” said Jimmy.

A faint smile played at the corners of the premier's delicate mouth.

“Those innocent men were all gentlemen who possessed telescopes,” he said. “They were, in fact, corresponding members of various astronomical societies, and it was very necessary that we should not allow them to make independent calculations. There is one more matter to explain and that is—the end of poor Kendrick.” The premier's voice shook. “He was my very dearest friend,” he said, “a quiet, scholarly man on whose mind the knowledge of this terrible danger produced a deplorable effect. We had met earlier one evening and the bishop remarked upon the strange appearance of the poor fellow. We missed him for a moment—and in that moment he had passed through the gate—I don't want to think about it.”

Jimmy looked round the room from face to face. The girl's eyes had not left his, her lips were set tight. As to Ferdie, he was all blank amazement.

“Perhaps you would like to see—our friend,” said the prime minister.

Jimmy wondered who he was talking about.

“He is very clearly visible to-night,” Mr. Chapelle went on, and then Jimmy knew that he was talking of the comet. “But I am afraid he will not impress you.”

“I did not know there was a comet visible,” said Jimmy.

“Very few people do,” said the prime minister, “although one or two indiscreet references appeared in the newspapers, emanating from foreign correspondents; that is why we established the press censorship. It is a curious comet, because it has little or no tail, and that is probably why it has escaped general observation.”

He led the way to the dark gardens and it was the astronomer royal who directed Jimmy's eyes to the northwestern firmament. Presently he saw it—a blurred spot of light like a star seen through a thin cloud.

“He doesn't look very formidable, does he?” said the prime minister, as he led the way back to the room; “and yet, Mr. Blake, he is the world's terror. For billions of years we have escaped contact with any of these waifs of space, and there are thousands of great men who are emphatic that the laws which govern the movement of celestial bodies make it absolutely impossible that contact can be made.”

“There is only one thing I would like to ask you, sir,” said Jimmy, “although I realize that I have no right whatever to question you.”

“You may ask anything you wish,” interrupted Mr. Chapelle.

“There was no accident in your shooting the man who came into your garden the other night, the night I left my boots under your window?”

It was Lord Harry who replied.

“I killed him,” he said simply, “he was a local criminal named Day, a poor devil who specialized in stealing lead piping.”

“Day?” said Jimmy, staring at him.

Lord Harry nodded. “We thought we heard suspicious sounds, and I went into the garden and I found him sliding down a water pipe with a coil of lead pipe which he had taken from a disused cistern. Not knowing who he was, or what was his object, I called on him to stand. He ran and I shot him.”

Jimmy collapsed into a chair.

“Then it was not Tom Elmers!” he said hollowly.

“Tom Elmers?” It was Joe who spoke. “Was he here?” and Jimmy told him all that he had seen on the night he broke into the grounds.

“That is serious,” said the prime minister. “Do you know him, Mr. Sennett?”

“I know him,” replied Joe startled, “he is dangerous, sir—he would probably understand every calculation that has been made in this house. I should say that next to myself he is the finest mathematical printer in England.”

“You did not see him again after he disappeared over the wall?” said Chapelle, turning to Jimmy.

Jimmy shook his head.

“No, I didn't see him. I was perfectly satisfied that he was the gentleman you were burying.”

“That's very, very bad,” said the prime minister. “Is he an enemy of yours?”

“Not of mine, sir.”

“He is of mine,” said Joe. “He wished to marry my daughter, and neither she nor I wanted anything to do with him and he took to drink. My own impression is that he is a little mad. He always was a violent, undisciplined man.”

There was a long silence broken by the prime minister.

“That man must be found,” he said quietly. “He may be concealed in this very house. You have neither seen nor heard anything, Maggerson?”

The great Maggerson shook his head. Apparently he was the only one who spent the whole of his time at Warden's Lodge.

“We had better make a search,” said Lord Harry shortly. “You and your friend come along, Mr. Blake.”

Jimmy followed him into the broad paneled hall and up the rickety stairs. Ferdie brought up the rear carrying an oil lamp. The gloomy rooms were empty and in a sad state of disrepair. Only one, where Maggerson had slept and in which Jimmy had seen him through his telescope, was occupied. There were five rooms on the upper floor, and each room was explored without producing any other sign of life than mice.

“He's not here,” said Jimmy. “Are there any cellars?”

“None,” replied Lord Harry. “The only place on which he could conceal himself is the roof, which is flat, like most of the houses in this neighborhood.”

He pointed to a trapdoor leading from a small cistern room. It was reached by a steep ladder.

“The last man who was in here,” began Lord Harry as he climbed the steps, “was the unfortunate burglar whom you saw being buried. There,” he pointed, “is the end of the piping he stole.”

He pushed up the trap, and Jimmy followed him into the night. It was both impossible and inexpedient to bring up the lamp and Ferdie, and they had to conduct their search in the darkness. They were groping their way along the parapet, when they heard a crash behind them. It was the trapdoor falling. Immediately afterward came a yell below and a smashing of glass. Jimmy stumbled across the roof, found the trap, and flung it up. From below came the smell of kerosene, but the lamp had gone, and so also had Ferdie. Jimmy dropped to the floor and ran downstairs. The front door was open, and he flew out into the night. He saw a figure in the half darkness, and then heard Ferdinand's voice.

“Sorry, old man, he climbed the wall, and I haven't the key of the gate.”

“Did you see him?”

“No, but I felt him,” said Ferdie grimly.

When he came into the light they saw he had a long cut on his cheek.

“Lost him,” he said laconically.

He had not seen the “him.” Standing at the foot of the ladder beneath the trap-door, the man had suddenly dropped on him; the light had been extinguished, and before he could pull himself to his feet, the attacker was halfway down the stairs.