It was on the first day of the new year that the announcement
was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories,
that the motion of the planet Neptune, the outermost of all the
planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic.
Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation
in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news was scarcely
calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants
were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune,
nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent
discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region
of the perturbed planet cause any very great excitement.
Scientific people, however, found the intelligence remarkable
enough, even before it became known that the new body was
rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite
different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the
deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an
Few people without a training in science can realise the huge
isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets,
its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant
immensity that almost defeats the imagination. Beyond
the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation
has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound,
blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million miles. That
is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed before
the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few
comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter
had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until
early in the twentieth century this strange wanderer appeared.
A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without
warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of
the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent
instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the
constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass
could attain it.
On the third day of the new year the newspaper readers of
two hemispheres were made aware for the first time of the real
importance of this unusual apparition in the heavens. "A Planetary
Collision," one London paper headed the news, and proclaimed
Duchaine's opinion that this strange new planet would
probably collide with Neptune. The leader writers enlarged
upon the topic. So that in most of the capitals of the world, on
January 3rd, there was an expectation, however vague of some
imminent phenomenon in the sky; and as the night followed the
sunset round the globe, thousands of men turned their eyes
skyward to see—the old familiar stars just as they had always
Until it was dawn in London and Pollux setting and the stars
overhead grown pale. The Winter's dawn it was, a sickly filtering
accumulation of daylight, and the light of gas and candles
shone yellow in the windows to show where people were astir.
But the yawning policeman saw the thing, the busy crowds in
the markets stopped agape, workmen going to their work betimes,
milkmen, the drivers of news-carts, dissipation going
home jaded and pale, homeless wanderers, sentinels on their
beats, and in the country, labourers trudging afield, poachers
slinking home, all over the dusky quickening country it could
be seen—and out at sea by seamen watching for the
day—a great white star, come suddenly into the westward sky!
Brighter it was than any star in our skies; brighter than the
evening star at its brightest. It still glowed out white and large,
no mere twinkling spot of light, but a small round clear shining
disc, an hour after the day had come. And where science has
not reached, men stared and feared, telling one another of the
wars and pestilences that are foreshadowed by these fiery
signs in the Heavens. Sturdy Boers, dusky Hottentots, Gold
Coast negroes, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, stood in
the warmth of the sunrise watching the setting of this strange
And in a hundred observatories there had been suppressed
excitement, rising almost to shouting pitch, as the two remote
bodies had rushed together, and a hurrying to and fro, to gather
photographic apparatus and spectroscope, and this appliance
and that, to record this novel astonishing sight, the destruction
of a world. For it was a world, a sister planet of our
earth, far greater than our earth indeed, that had so suddenly
flashed into flaming death. Neptune it was, had been struck,
fairly and squarely, by the strange planet from outer space and
the heat of the concussion had incontinently turned two solid
globes into one vast mass of incandescence. Round the world
that day, two hours before the dawn, went the pallid great
white star, fading only as it sank westward and the sun mounted
above it. Everywhere men marvelled at it, but of all those
who saw it none could have marvelled more than those sailors,
habitual watchers of the stars, who far away at sea had heard
nothing of its advent and saw it now rise like a pigmy moon
and climb zenithward and hang overhead and sink westward
with the passing of the night.
And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds
of watchers on hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces,
staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose
with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire,
and those who had seen it come into existence the night before
cried out at the sight of it. "It is larger," they cried. "It is
brighter!" And, indeed the moon a quarter full and sinking in
the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but
scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the
little circle of the strange new star.
"It is brighter!" cried the people clustering in the streets. But
in the dim observatories the watchers held their breath and
peered at one another. "It is nearer," they said. "Nearer!"
And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking
telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone
wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the
type. "It is nearer." Men writing in offices, struck with a
strange realisation, flung down their pens, men talking in a
thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in
those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along awakening streets,
it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages,
men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood
in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to the passers-by. "It
is nearer." Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the
news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned an intelligent
interest they did not feel. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious!
How very, very clever people must be to find out things like
Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured
those words to comfort themselves—looking skyward. "It has
need to be nearer, for the night's as cold as charity. Don't seem
much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same."
"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman kneeling
beside her dead.
The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled
it out for himself—with the great white star, shining broad and
bright through the frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal,
centripetal," he said, with his chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in
its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal
has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this—!"
"Do we come in the way? I wonder—"
The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with
the later watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star
again. And it was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed
but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In
a South African city a great man had married, and the streets
were alight to welcome his return with his bride. "Even the
skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn,
two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for
love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where
the fire-flies hovered. "That is our star," they whispered, and
felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.
The master mathematician sat in his private room and
pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished.
In a small white phial there still remained a little of the
drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights.
Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture
to his students, and then had come back at once to this
momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and
hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost
in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up
with a click. Half way up the sky, over the clustering roofs,
chimneys and steeples of the city, hung the star.
He looked at it as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy.
"You may kill me," he said after a silence. "But I can hold
you—and all the universe for that matter—in the grip of this
little brain. I would not change. Even now."
He looked at the little phial. "There will be no need of sleep
again," he said. The next day at noon, punctual to the minute,
he entered his lecture theatre, put his hat on the end of the
table as his habit was, and carefully selected a large piece of
chalk. It was a joke among his students that he could not
lecture without that piece of chalk to fumble in his fingers, and
once he had been stricken to impotence by their hiding his supply.
He came and looked under his grey eyebrows at the rising
tiers of young fresh faces, and spoke with his accustomed studied
commonness of phrasing. "Circumstances have arisen—circumstances
beyond my control," he said and paused, "which
will debar me from completing the course I had designed. It
would seem, gentlemen, if I may put the thing clearly and
briefly, that—Man has lived in vain."
The students glanced at one another. Had they heard aright?
Mad? Raised eyebrows and grinning lips there were, but one or
two faces remained intent upon his calm grey-fringed face. "It
will be interesting," he was saying, "to devote this morning to
an exposition, so far as I can make it clear to you, of the calculations
that have led me to this conclusion. Let us assume—"
He turned towards the blackboard, meditating a diagram in
the way that was usual to him. "What was that about 'lived in
vain?'" whispered one student to another. "Listen," said the
other, nodding towards the lecturer.
And presently they began to understand.
That night the star rose later, for its proper eastward motion
had carried it some way across Leo towards Virgo, and its
brightness was so great that the sky became a luminous blue
as it rose, and every star was hidden in its turn, save only
Jupiter near the zenith, Capella, Aldebaran, Sirius and the
pointers of the Bear. It was very white and beautiful. In many
parts of the world that night a pallid halo encircled it about. It
was perceptibly larger; in the clear refractive sky of the tropics
it seemed as if it were nearly a quarter the size of the moon.
The frost was still on the ground in England, but the world was
as brightly lit as if it were midsummer moonlight. One could
see to read quite ordinary print by that cold clear light, and in
the cities the lamps burnt yellow and wan.
And everywhere the world was awake that night, and
throughout Christendom a sombre murmur hung in the keen
air over the countryside like the belling of bees in the heather,
and this murmurous tumult grew to a clangour in the cities. It
was the tolling of the bells in a million belfry towers and
steeples, summoning the people to sleep no more, to sin no
more, but to gather in their churches and pray. And overhead,
growing larger and brighter, as the earth rolled on its way and
the night passed, rose the dazzling star.
And the streets and houses were alight in all the cities, the
shipyards glared, and whatever roads led to high country were
lit and crowded all night long. And in all the seas about the civilised
lands, ships with throbbing engines, and ships with bellying
sails, crowded with men and living creatures, were standing
out to ocean and the north. For already the warning of the
master mathematician had been telegraphed all over the
world, and translated into a hundred tongues. The new planet
and Neptune, locked in a fiery embrace, were whirling headlong,
ever faster and faster towards the sun. Already every
second this blazing mass flew a hundred miles, and every
second its terrific velocity increased. As it flew now, indeed, it
must pass a hundred million of miles wide of the earth and
scarcely affect it. But near its destined path, as yet only
slightly perturbed, spun the mighty planet Jupiter and his
moons sweeping splendid round the sun. Every moment now
the attraction between the fiery star and the greatest of the
planets grew stronger. And the result of that attraction? Inevitably
Jupiter would be deflected from its orbit into an elliptical
path, and the burning star, swung by his attraction wide of its
sunward rush, would "describe a curved path" and perhaps collide
with, and certainly pass very close to, our earth. "Earthquakes,
volcanic outbreaks, cyclones, sea waves, floods, and a
steady rise in temperature to I know not what limit"—so prophesied
the master mathematician.
And overhead, to carry out his words, lonely and cold and livid,
blazed the star of the coming doom.
To many who stared at it that night until their eyes ached, it
seemed that it was visibly approaching. And that night, too, the
weather changed, and the frost that had gripped all Central
Europe and France and England softened towards a thaw.
But you must not imagine because I have spoken of people
praying through the night and people going aboard ships and
people fleeing towards mountainous country that the whole
world was already in a terror because of the star. As a matter
of fact, use and wont still ruled the world, and save for the talk
of idle moments and the splendour of the night, nine human
beings out of ten were still busy at their common occupations.
In all the cities the shops, save one here and there, opened and
closed at their proper hours, the doctor and the undertaker
plied their trades, the workers gathered in the factories, soldiers
drilled, scholars studied, lovers sought one another,
thieves lurked and fled, politicians planned their schemes. The
presses of the newspapers roared through the nights, and
many a priest of this church and that would not open his holy
building to further what he considered a foolish panic. The
newspapers insisted on the lesson of the year 1000—for then,
too, people had anticipated the end. The star was no
star—mere gas—a comet; and were it a star it could not possibly
strike the earth. There was no precedent for such a thing.
Common sense was sturdy everywhere, scornful, jesting, a
little inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful. That night, at
seven-fifteen by Greenwich time, the star would be at its
nearest to Jupiter. Then the world would see the turn things
would take. The master mathematician's grim warnings were
treated by many as so much mere elaborate self-advertisement.
Common sense at last, a little heated by argument, signified its
unalterable convictions by going to bed. So, too, barbarism and
savagery, already tired of the novelty, went about their nightly
business, and save for a howling dog here and there, the beast
world left the star unheeded.
And yet, when at last the watchers in the European States
saw the star rise, an hour later it is true, but no larger than it
had been the night before, there were still plenty awake to
laugh at the master mathematician—to take the danger as if it
But hereafter the laughter ceased. The star grew—it grew
with a terrible steadiness hour after hour, a little larger each
hour, a little nearer the midnight zenith, and brighter and
brighter, until it had turned night into a second day. Had it
come straight to the earth instead of in a curved path, had it
lost no velocity to Jupiter, it must have leapt the intervening
gulf in a day, but as it was it took five days altogether to come
by our planet. The next night it had become a third the size of
the moon before it set to English eyes, and the thaw was assured.
It rose over America near the size of the moon, but
blinding white to look at, and hot; and a breath of hot wind
blew now with its rising and gathering strength, and in
Virginia, and Brazil, and down the St. Lawrence valley, it shone
intermittently through a driving reek of thunder-clouds, flickering
violet lightning, and hail unprecedented. In Manitoba was a
thaw and devastating floods. And upon all the mountains of the
earth the snow and ice began to melt that night, and all the
rivers coming out of high country flowed thick and turbid, and
soon—in their upper reaches—with swirling trees and the bodies
of beasts and men. They rose steadily, steadily in the
ghostly brilliance, and came trickling over their banks at last,
behind the flying population of their valleys.
And along the coast of Argentina and up the South Atlantic
the tides were higher than had ever been in the memory of
man, and the storms drove the waters in many cases scores of
miles inland, drowning whole cities. And so great grew the
heat during the night that the rising of the sun was like the
coming of a shadow. The earthquakes began and grew until all
down America from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, hillsides
were sliding, fissures were opening, and houses and walls
crumbling to destruction. The whole side of Cotopaxi slipped
out in one vast convulsion, and a tumult of lava poured out so
high and broad and swift and liquid that in one day it reached
So the star, with the wan moon in its wake, marched across
the Pacific, trailed the thunderstorms like the hem of a robe,
and the growing tidal wave that toiled behind it, frothing and
eager, poured over island and island and swept them clear of
men. Until that wave came at last—in a blinding light and with
the breath of a furnace, swift and terrible it came—a wall of
water, fifty feet high, roaring hungrily, upon the long coasts of
Asia, and swept inland across the plains of China. For a space
the star, hotter now and larger and brighter than the sun in its
strength, showed with pitiless brilliance the wide and populous
country; towns and villages with their pagodas and trees,
roads, wide cultivated fields, millions of sleepless people staring
in helpless terror at the incandescent sky; and then, low
and growing, came the murmur of the flood. And thus it was
with millions of men that night—a flight nowhither, with limbs
heavy with heat and breath fierce and scant, and the flood like
a wall swift and white behind. And then death.
China was lit glowing white, but over Japan and Java and all
the islands of Eastern Asia the great star was a ball of dull red
fire because of the steam and smoke and ashes the volcanoes
were spouting forth to salute its coming. Above was the lava,
hot gases and ash, and below the seething floods, and the
whole earth swayed and rumbled with the earthquake shocks.
Soon the immemorial snows of Thibet and the Himalaya were
melting and pouring down by ten million deepening converging
channels upon the plains of Burmah and Hindostan. The
tangled summits of the Indian jungles were aflame in a thousand
places, and below the hurrying waters around the stems
were dark objects that still struggled feebly and reflected the
blood-red tongues of fire. And in a rudderless confusion a multitude
of men and women fled down the broad river-ways to
that one last hope of men—the open sea.
Larger grew the star, and larger, hotter, and brighter with a
terrible swiftness now. The tropical ocean had lost its phosphorescence,
and the whirling steam rose in ghostly wreaths
from the black waves that plunged incessantly, speckled with
And then came a wonder. It seemed to those who in Europe
watched for the rising of the star that the world must have
ceased its rotation. In a thousand open spaces of down and upland
the people who had fled thither from the floods and the
falling houses and sliding slopes of hill watched for that rising
in vain. Hour followed hour through a terrible suspense, and
the star rose not. Once again men set their eyes upon the old
constellations they had counted lost to them forever. In England
it was hot and clear overhead, though the ground
quivered perpetually, but in the tropics, Sirius and Capella and
Aldebaran showed through a veil of steam. And when at last
the great star rose near ten hours late, the sun rose close upon
it, and in the centre of its white heart was a disc of black.
Over Asia it was the star had begun to fall behind the movement
of the sky, and then suddenly, as it hung over India, its
light had been veiled. All the plain of India from the mouth of
the Indus to the mouths of the Ganges was a shallow waste of
shining water that night, out of which rose temples and
palaces, mounds and hills, black with people. Every minaret
was a clustering mass of people, who fell one by one into the
turbid waters, as heat and terror overcame them. The whole
land seemed a-wailing, and suddenly there swept a shadow
across that furnace of despair, and a breath of cold wind, and a
gathering of clouds, out of the cooling air. Men looking up,
near blinded, at the star, saw that a black disc was creeping
across the light. It was the moon, coming between the star and
the earth. And even as men cried to God at this respite, out of
the East with a strange inexplicable swiftness sprang the sun.
And then star, sun and moon rushed together across the
So it was that presently, to the European watchers, star and
sun rose close upon each other, drove headlong for a space
and then slower, and at last came to rest, star and sun merged
into one glare of flame at the zenith of the sky. The moon no
longer eclipsed the star but was lost to sight in the brilliance of
the sky. And though those who were still alive regarded it for
the most part with that dull stupidity that hunger, fatigue, heat
and despair engender, there were still men who could perceive
the meaning of these signs. Star and earth had been at their
nearest, had swung about one another, and the star had
passed. Already it was receding, swifter and swifter, in the last
stage of its headlong journey downward into the sun.
And then the clouds gathered, blotting out the vision of the
sky, the thunder and lightning wove a garment round the
world; all over the earth was such a downpour of rain as men
had never before seen, and where the volcanoes flared red
against the cloud canopy there descended torrents of mud.
Everywhere the waters were pouring off the land, leaving mudsilted
ruins, and the earth littered like a storm-worn beach
with all that had floated, and the dead bodies of the men and
brutes, its children. For days the water streamed off the land,
sweeping away soil and trees and houses in the way, and piling
huge dykes and scooping out Titanic gullies over the country
side. Those were the days of darkness that followed the star
and the heat. All through them, and for many weeks and
months, the earthquakes continued.
But the star had passed, and men, hunger-driven and gathering
courage only slowly, might creep back to their ruined cities,
buried granaries, and sodden fields. Such few ships as had
escaped the storms of that time came stunned and shattered
and sounding their way cautiously through the new marks and
shoals of once familiar ports. And as the storms subsided men
perceived that everywhere the days were hotter than of yore,
and the sun larger, and the moon, shrunk to a third of its
former size, took now fourscore days between its new and new.
But of the new brotherhood that grew presently among men,
of the saving of laws and books and machines, of the strange
change that had come over Iceland and Greenland and the
shores of Baffin's Bay, so that the sailors coming there
presently found them green and gracious, and could scarce believe
their eyes, this story does not tell. Nor of the movement
of mankind now that the earth was hotter, northward and
southward towards the poles of the earth. It concerns itself
only with the coming and the passing of the Star.
The Martian astronomers—for there are astronomers on
Mars, although they are very different beings from men—were
naturally profoundly interested by these things. They saw them
from their own standpoint of course. "Considering the mass
and temperature of the missile that was flung through our solar
system into the sun," one wrote, "it is astonishing what a
little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained.
All the familiar continental markings and the masses of
the seas remain intact, and indeed the only difference seems to
be a shrinkage of the white discolouration (supposed to be
frozen water) round either pole." Which only shows how small
the vastest of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a
few million miles.
Merci pour la lecture!
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