The Day of Uniting/Chapter 17

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pp. 53–56.

CHAPTER XVII.

The prime minister turned to Maggerson.

“You wrote a summary of your observations. Those are the only papers he could get at—it would take too long to follow the calculations,” he said. “Will you bring the summary down? It will also help Mr. Blake to understand. I fear I may have failed to impress upon him the seriousness of our discovery.”

“I think I understand fairly well, sir,” said Jimmy quietly, after Maggerson had gone upstairs to his room. “On the sixteenth at some hour we——

“At half past four in the afternoon, by Greenwich mean time,” said the prime minister, “the point of contact will in all probability be within a hundred miles of the south pole, but the effect will be just as disastrous as if it struck the city of London.”

“At that hour, sir, you expect the world to be destroyed?”

“Not destroyed,” corrected the prime minister. “I think the world will go on rolling through space; it will probably stagger, perhaps, for a few seconds.”

“And it will require no more than that?” asked Jimmy in amazement, “to wipe off all forms of life?”

“Some life may still exist,” said the prime minister. “For example, we expect that fish—especially the deep-sea fish—and a very large proportion of the others, will still continue living. Certain insects, too, will continue, and it is possible, though very improbable that mammalian and even human life will be left with a representative or two. It depends entirely on the effect which the impact may have upon the atmosphere. The atmospheric belt may be burned up, leaving the world a cold cinder, in which case, of course, even the lowest form of sea life would perish.”

Maggerson came in at that moment, a worried frown on his face.

“Did you take the summary from my room, Chapelle?” he asked.

“No,” said the prime minister quickly. “Has it gone?”

“I had it under my pillow. I swear I put it there last night, but it's not there now.”

Jimmy, still dazed and almost crushed by the news he had heard, could only wonder that such a minor matter as the disappearance of a summary, whatever that might be, should affect the prime minister so.

“We must get that man,” he said.

“What use would the summary be to him?” asked Lord Harry, “and who would publish it, supposing he took it to an editor?”

“I know a man who would publish it,” said the prime minister, between his teeth. “Though it may seem a fantastic theory on my part, I believe Elmers was sent by him to discover what is going on at Warden's Lodge.”

Jimmy, with Delia, and Ferdinand Ponter, left the dark house by the postern gate he had come to know so well. They walked across the heath, each in his or her own way reflecting on what the days would bring forth.

In silence they turned into the dining room, and Stephens, who was sitting at the dining-room table, his head upon his hands, jumped up as if he had seen a ghost.

“Mr. Blake, sir,” he stammered. He was speechless until he found the formula which came readiest: “Can I get anything?”

He was eager and trembling and Jimmy shook his head with a smile.

“No, thank you, Stephens,” he said.

But there was one who was not to be denied.

“Beer, Stephens, my lad,” he said, “nut-brown ale—and draw it with a froth.”

“Beer!” said Jimmy with a wry little smile. “I can't understand you, Ferdie, you're a weird bird! I suppose you don't realize the significance of all the prime minister told us.”

“I only realize that I want beer in large quantities,” said Ferdie firmly. “It's rather a pity this sort of thing's going to happen. It's a jolly old world when you come to think of it,” and Jimmy shuddered.

“Your good health, Mrs. Blake.”

He raised his tankard and Jimmy looked up and stared open-mouthed at him.

“Mrs. Blake?” he repeated. “Who the dickens” and then he looked at the girl, her mouth twitching with laughter. “Good Lord, I'm married!” he gasped.

Joe Sennett came across from the Warden's Lodge the next morning and brought the latest news.

“Half the police force of England are searching for that fellow,” he said, shaking his head. “He's a thoroughly bad lot. I suppose Delia told you she knew, Mr. Blake?”

“About——” Jimmy hesitated.

“I broke faith with Mr. Chapelle in telling my daughter, but I was certain she would not tell even you.” The old man bit his lips. “I wonder” And then, “Have you any friends or relations with whom you are spending to-morrow?” he asked.

“No, Joe,” said Jimmy quietly, “except my wife and, I hope, my father-in-law. I intend leaving this house to-morrow morning early in my car and taking Delia and you with me. The servants I am sending to their homes. Mr. Ponter is going to his father's house.”

“Where do you intend going, Mr. Blake?”

“To Salisbury Plain,” said Jimmy. “I want the openness of it, and Delia agrees. I want to be away from houses, and the sight of humanity suffering, if it does suffer—please God it will not.”

“At what hour, sir?”

“At daybreak,” said Jimmy, and his father-in-law went up to his room without further comment.

His work was done, Jimmy learned later. The country was quiet; no word of the approaching catastrophe had been spoken and the necessity for secret orders, printed or otherwise, had passed. Every railway was running to the utmost limit of its rolling stock, carrying, for the first time in its history, passengers who paid no fare and who were stopped at no barriers.

Jimmy drove up to town that morning to make sure that the servants at his flat were taking their holiday.

As he drove down Blackheath Hill that bright May morning, with the sky a fleckless blue and the world bathed in yellow sunshine, it seemed impossible that this terrible thing could happen. Women were shopping in a busy thoroughfare through which he passed, laden trams were carrying unsuspecting workers in their holiday attire, buses were crowded, and the streets of the poorer parts through which he passed were thronged with children. He caught glimpses of them in less busy thoroughfares, playing in the middle of the road, and at sight of them he caught his breath. They would go out, vanish, at a snap of a finger—all of them. There would be none to mourn them—there was a comforting thought in that.

As he passed a hospital he saw what had evidently been the result of a street accident carried through the doors of the institution. All the thought, all the work, all the science which would be employed to bring back that battered wreck to life and health, would be wasted.

The wonderful inventions of man, the amazingly competent systems he had set up, would disappear with their inventors, and the history of mankind would end with all the history that mankind had written.

He could not understand it, he could not believe it.

His car skidded across the nose of a horse and its driver cursed him in voluble cockney. He slowed his car down to apologize. The driver told him to go to hell. Jimmy grinned, and with a wave of his hand, went on.

His way lay across Westminster Bridge, and under the shadow of the great gray house, that monument to democracy and its power, he thought of all the men who had spoken within those walls. Disraeli, Bright, Gladstone, Palmerston, Peel—shadows, and soon to be less than shadows. Who would remember them or know of them? Who was to perpetuate the fame of Billie Marks, that eminent theatrical lady whose portrait adorned the hoardings?

Only the insects and the fishes might survive the cataclysm, and in the course of millions of years, produce all over again the beginning of a new civilization. And where London stood would be a great mound of earth, covered with forests, perhaps, and New York City would be just the rocky platform of Manhattan Island, and when the winds had blown away the dust of crumbled masonry, and kindly nature had covered the desolation with her verdure, there would be a new America awaiting through the ages new discoveries, or equipping expeditions to locate a mythical Europe.

He was passing down Pall Mall when a shrill whistle attracted his attention. He saw Ferdie's big motor car parked in the center of the road before he saw Ferdie standing on the steps of a club, beckoning him frantically. Ferdinand had gone to town an hour before him, and he was the last person Jimmy expected to see. He pulled his car in to the curb and Ferdie walked along to him.

“Jimmy, old thing,” he said. “I saw that bright lad this morning.”

“Elmers?” asked Jimmy quickly.

Ferdie nodded.

“Spotted him in the park. He was walking with a respectable old boy, and he was all shaved and dolled up.”

“What did you do?” asked Jimmy. “You know there's a warrant for him, and it is absolutely essential that he should be arrested?”

“That's what I thought,” nodded Ferdie. “It also struck me that it would be a good idea to find out where he was living. Anyway, I might have lost him in the park; it's a ticklish place to trail people in a sixty-horse-power Italia. Partly,” he added unnecessarily, “because I've never taught the dashed thing to jump railings or swim lakes, and it looks as if I'm never going to,” he added with grim humor.

“Well, what did you do?” asked Jimmy, anxious to get off that subject.

“I followed him as slowly as the old bus could go. He was just about to turn into a house in Welton Street, that's just off Piccadilly, when he must have spotted me out of the corner of his eye, for he walked on. The stout gentleman went into the house, No. 16. The gent's name is Palythorpe—how's that for a piece of high-class detective work?”

“Palythorpe?” said Jimmy. “I wonder if the prime minister knows him? Come along with me, Ferdie, maybe you have done something useful before you die.”

They found the prime minister at home. He had been up all night and looked less troubled and more serene than Jimmy had expected.

“Palythorpe?” he said quickly. “It can't be that unspeakable blackguard—wait a moment.”

He went out of the room quickly and returned in five minutes.

“Yes, it is evidently the same man,” he said. “He owns a scurrilous weekly paper.”

“But surely he wouldn't publish anything about this,” said Jimmy, horrified at the thought. “What was the summary, sir?”

“It was a statement prepared by Maggerson and the bishop setting out in as plain language as they could command, just what is going to happen. We prepared this, because there was a time when the bishop wondered whether it would not be his Christian duty to give the world an opportunity for making spiritual preparations. But, mild as the statement was, it was too terrible to put into circulation. Even the bishop agreed to that.”

“But what object could he have?”

“The man has been to prison, and I was responsible for sending him there,” said the prime minister. “He had gone out of my mind until—last night. You remember I said there was a man.”

“But such a statement would not hurt you, sir,” insisted Jimmy.

The prime minister shook his head.

“It would be enough for Palythorpe to know that I wish this secret kept. There is also the possibility that he might believe that it was a scare without any basis of reason, and publish the summary in order to throw ridicule on me—from whatever motive he put the summary into circulation the effect would be the same. Scientific men would recognize immediately that the statement told the truth. There would be a panic in this country, probably throughout the world, a panic of such a nature that I dare not let my mind contemplate. I've sent the police to arrest Palythorpe. Could you arrange to meet them at the corner of Welton Street? I told them that I should ask you to accompany them.”

“Like a shot,” said Ferdie, who had not been asked.

When they reached Welton Street the police car was already standing at the corner, with four men grouped near by. One of them must have known Jimmy, although the man was a stranger to him.

“If you'll show me the house, sir——

Ferdie led the way, but their search was in vain. Mr. Palythorpe had gone out five minutes earlier, the servant told them.

One detective was left in charge of the flat to conduct a search, and Jimmy and his friend took the other three to the office of the little sheet which Palythorpe edited. Here, too, they drew a blank. The office was closed and locked. It was a public holiday, and Mr. Palythorpe did not carry his enmity of the prime minister to such lengths that he had denied his employees their vacation. Probably his employees had had something to do with the matter.

The detectives had a consultation.

“Who prints this paper?”

One of them fished a copy from his pocket and examined the imprint.

“It says printed by Tyrhitt Palythorpe.”

“Has he a press of his own?” asked Jimmy.

“I'm blessed if I know,” said the detective, “but we can easily find out.”

It was some time before the necessary information was forthcoming. Palythorpe had apparently printed his own paper. His new venture was of a semiprivate character, and was sold in a sealed envelope. As to the exact location of the works there was some conflict of evidence. On a day like this, when all the business houses were closed, it was almost impossible to get into touch with the people who could have supplied the information. Printer after printer was called by telephone at his private residence, and none could give any kind of direction. Neither the telephone book, nor the London directory, carried the name of Mr. Palythorpe and his printing works.

It was a handicap to Jimmy that the police were not aware of the reason for the arrest and search. To them Palythorpe was a political offender of the first magnitude who had been guilty of some mysterious crime against the state, as to the exact character of which they were ignorant.

Jimmy had a short consultation with Ferdinand.

“Suppose he prints the information,” said Ferdie. “I don't see what he can do with it. No trains are running. He couldn't distribute it to-day if he tried.”

“There is a post,” said Jimmy significantly, “'and there is an early-morning delivery. The postmen are the only people who are working to-morrow.”

“But he couldn't get the news all over the country,” protested Ferdie. “Do you suggest that he could get into touch with every lad in every village?”

Jimmy shook his head.

“It is only necessary that two of those summaries should go to every town. The news would be out in five minutes. And then!”

“He wouldn't do it,” said Ferdie. “No man would be such an unutterable blackguard!”

But he did not know Mr. Tyrhitt Palythorpe.