THE "THUNDER CHILD"
Had the Martians aimed only at destruction, they might
on Monday have annihilated the entire population of London,
as it spread itself slowly through the home counties. Not
only along the road through Barnet, but also through Edgware
and Waltham Abbey, and along the roads eastward to South-
end and Shoeburyness, and south of the Thames to Deal and
Broadstairs, poured the same frantic rout. If one could have
hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue
above London every northward and eastward road running out
of the tangled maze of streets would have seemed stippled
black with the streaming fugitives, each dot a human agony
of terror and physical distress. I have set forth at length in
the last chapter my brother's account of the road through
Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realise how
that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those con-
cerned. Never before in the history of the world had such a
mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The
legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia
has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current.
And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede--a
stampede gigantic and terrible--without order and without
a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving
headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of
the massacre of mankind.
Directly below him the balloonist would have seen the
network of streets far and wide, houses, churches, squares,
crescents, gardens--already derelict--spread out like a huge
map, and in the southward BLOTTED. Over Ealing, Richmond,
Wimbledon, it would have seemed as if some monstrous pen
had flung ink upon the chart. Steadily, incessantly, each black
splash grew and spread, shooting out ramifications this way
and that, now banking itself against rising ground, now
pouring swiftly over a crest into a new-found valley, exactly
as a gout of ink would spread itself upon blotting paper.
And beyond, over the blue hills that rise southward of
the river, the glittering Martians went to and fro, calmly
and methodically spreading their poison cloud over this
patch of country and then over that, laying it again with
their steam jets when it had served its purpose, and taking
possession of the conquered country. They do not seem to
have aimed at extermination so much as at complete demoral-
isation and the destruction of any opposition. They exploded
any stores of powder they came upon, cut every telegraph,
and wrecked the railways here and there. They were ham-
stringing mankind. They seemed in no hurry to extend the
field of their operations, and did not come beyond the central
part of London all that day. It is possible that a very con-
siderable number of people in London stuck to their houses
through Monday morning. Certain it is that many died at
home suffocated by the Black Smoke.
Until about midday the Pool of London was an astonishing
scene. Steamboats and shipping of all sorts lay there, tempted
by the enormous sums of money offered by fugitives, and it
is said that many who swam out to these vessels were thrust
off with boathooks and drowned. About one o'clock in the
afternoon the thinning remnant of a cloud of the black vapour
appeared between the arches of Blackfriars Bridge. At that
the Pool became a scene of mad confusion, fighting, and
collision, and for some time a multitude of boats and barges
jammed in the northern arch of the Tower Bridge, and the
sailors and lightermen had to fight savagely against the
people who swarmed upon them from the riverfront. People
were actually clambering down the piers of the bridge from
When, an hour later, a Martian appeared beyond the
Clock Tower and waded down the river, nothing but wreck-
age floated above Limehouse.
Of the falling of the fifth cylinder I have presently to tell.
The sixth star fell at Wimbledon. My brother, keeping watch
beside the women in the chaise in a meadow, saw the green
flash of it far beyond the hills. On Tuesday the little party,
still set upon getting across the sea, made its way through
the swarming country towards Colchester. The news that the
Martians were now in possession of the whole of London was
confirmed. They had been seen at Highgate, and even, it
was said, at Neasden. But they did not come into my brother's
view until the morrow.
That day the scattered multitudes began to realise the
urgent need of provisions. As they grew hungry the rights
of property ceased to be regarded. Farmers were out to
defend their cattle-sheds, granaries, and ripening root crops
with arms in their hands. A number of people now, like my
brother, had their faces eastward, and there were some des-
perate souls even going back towards London to get food.
These were chiefly people from the northern suburbs, whose
knowledge of the Black Smoke came by hearsay. He heard
that about half the members of the government had gathered
at Birmingham, and that enormous quantities of high explo-
sives were being prepared to be used in automatic mines
across the Midland counties.
He was also told that the Midland Railway Company had
replaced the desertions of the first day's panic, had resumed
traffic, and was running northward trains from St. Albans
to relieve the congestion of the home counties. There was
also a placard in Chipping Ongar announcing that large
stores of flour were available in the northern towns and that
within twenty-four hours bread would be distributed among
the starving people in the neighbourhood. But this intelli-
gence did not deter him from the plan of escape he had
formed, and the three pressed eastward all day, and heard
no more of the bread distribution than this promise. Nor, as
a matter of fact, did anyone else hear more of it. That night
fell the seventh star, falling upon Primrose Hill. It fell while
Miss Elphinstone was watching, for she took that duty alter-
nately with my brother. She saw it.
On Wednesday the three fugitives--they had passed the
night in a field of unripe wheat--reached Chelmsford, and
there a body of the inhabitants, calling itself the Committee
of Public Supply, seized the pony as provisions, and would
give nothing in exchange for it but the promise of a share
in it the next day. Here there were rumours of Martians at
Epping, and news of the destruction of Waltham Abbey
Powder Mills in a vain attempt to blow up one of the invaders.
People were watching for Martians here from the church
towers. My brother, very luckily for him as it chanced, pre-
ferred to push on at once to the coast rather than wait for
food, although all three of them were very hungry. By mid-
day they passed through Tillingham, which, strangely enough,
seemed to be quite silent and deserted, save for a few furtive
plunderers hunting for food. Near Tillingham they suddenly
came in sight of the sea, and the most amazing crowd of
shipping of all sorts that it is possible to imagine.
For after the sailors could no longer come up the Thames,
they came on to the Essex coast, to Harwich and Walton
and Clacton, and afterwards to Foulness and Shoebury, to
bring off the people. They lay in a huge sickle-shaped curve
that vanished into mist at last towards the Naze. Close inshore
was a multitude of fishing smacks--English, Scotch, French,
Dutch, and Swedish; steam launches from the Thames, yachts,
electric boats; and beyond were ships of large burden, a
multitude of filthy colliers, trim merchantmen, cattle ships,
passenger boats, petroleum tanks, ocean tramps, an old white
transport even, neat white and grey liners from Southampton
and Hamburg; and along the blue coast across the Blackwater
my brother could make out dimly a dense swarm of boats
chaffering with the people on the beach, a swarm which also
extended up the Blackwater almost to Maldon.
About a couple of miles out lay an ironclad, very low in
the water, almost, to my brother's perception, like a water-
logged ship. This was the ram THUNDER CHILD. It was the
only warship in sight, but far away to the right over the
smooth surface of the sea--for that day there was a dead
calm--lay a serpent of black smoke to mark the next iron-
clads of the Channel Fleet, which hovered in an extended
line, steam up and ready for action, across the Thames estuary
during the course of the Martian conquest, vigilant and yet
powerless to prevent it.
At the sight of the sea, Mrs. Elphinstone, in spite of the
assurances of her sister-in-law, gave way to panic. She had
never been out of England before, she would rather die than
trust herself friendless in a foreign country, and so forth.
She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and the
Martians might prove very similar. She had been growing
increasingly hysterical, fearful, and depressed during the two
days' journeyings. Her great idea was to return to Stanmore.
Things had been always well and safe at Stanmore. They
would find George at Stanmore.
It was with the greatest difficulty they could get her down
to the beach, where presently my brother succeeded in
attracting the attention of some men on a paddle steamer
from the Thames. They sent a boat and drove a bargain for
thirty-six pounds for the three. The steamer was going, these
men said, to Ostend.
It was about two o'clock when my brother, having paid
their fares at the gangway, found himself safely aboard the
steamboat with his charges. There was food aboard, albeit
at exorbitant prices, and the three of them contrived to eat
a meal on one of the seats forward.
There were already a couple of score of passengers aboard,
some of whom had expended their last money in securing
a passage, but the captain lay off the Blackwater until five
in the afternoon, picking up passengers until the seated decks
were even dangerously crowded. He would probably have
remained longer had it not been for the sound of guns that
began about that hour in the south. As if in answer, the
ironclad seaward fired a small gun and hoisted a string of
flags. A jet of smoke sprang out of her funnels.
Some of the passengers were of opinion that this firing
came from Shoeburyness, until it was noticed that it was
growing louder. At the same time, far away in the southeast
the masts and upperworks of three ironclads rose one after
the other out of the sea, beneath clouds of black smoke. But
my brother's attention speedily reverted to the distant firing
in the south. He fancied he saw a column of smoke rising
out of the distant grey haze.
The little steamer was already flapping her way eastward
of the big crescent of shipping, and the low Essex coast was
growing blue and hazy, when a Martian appeared, small and
faint in the remote distance, advancing along the muddy
coast from the direction of Foulness. At that the captain on
the bridge swore at the top of his voice with fear and anger
at his own delay, and the paddles seemed infected with his
terror. Every soul aboard stood at the bulwarks or on the seats
of the steamer and stared at that distant shape, higher than
the trees or church towers inland, and advancing with a
leisurely parody of a human stride.
It was the first Martian my brother had seen, and he
stood, more amazed than terrified, watching this Titan
advancing deliberately towards the shipping, wading farther
and farther into the water as the coast fell away. Then, far
away beyond the Crouch, came another, striding over some
stunted trees, and then yet another, still farther off, wading
deeply through a shiny mudflat that seemed to hang halfway
up between sea and sky. They were all stalking seaward, as
if to intercept the escape of the multitudinous vessels that
were crowded between Foulness and the Naze. In spite of
the throbbing exertions of the engines of the little paddle-
boat, and the pouring foam that her wheels flung behind
her, she receded with terrifying slowness from this ominous
Glancing northwestward, my brother saw the large crescent
of shipping already writhing with the approaching terror;
one ship passing behind another, another coming round from
broadside to end on, steamships whistling and giving off
volumes of steam, sails being let out, launches rushing hither
and thither. He was so fascinated by this and by the creeping
danger away to the left that he had no eyes for anything
seaward. And then a swift movement of the steamboat (she
had suddenly come round to avoid being run down) flung
him headlong from the seat upon which he was standing.
There was a shouting all about him, a trampling of feet, and
a cheer that seemed to be answered faintly. The steamboat
lurched and rolled him over upon his hands.
He sprang to his feet and saw to starboard, and not a
hundred yards from their heeling, pitching boat, a vast iron
bulk like the blade of a plough tearing through the water,
tossing it on either side in huge waves of foam that leaped
towards the steamer, flinging her paddles helplessly in the
air, and then sucking her deck down almost to the waterline.
A douche of spray blinded my brother for a moment.
When his eyes were clear again he saw the monster had
passed and was rushing landward. Big iron upperworks rose
out of this headlong structure, and from that twin funnels
projected and spat a smoking blast shot with fire. It was the
torpedo ram, THUNDER CHILD, steaming headlong, coming to
the rescue of the threatened shipping.
Keeping his footing on the heaving deck by clutching the
bulwarks, my brother looked past this charging leviathan at
the Martians again, and he saw the three of them now close
together, and standing so far out to sea that their tripod
supports were almost entirely submerged. Thus sunken, and
seen in remote perspective, they appeared far less formidable
than the huge iron bulk in whose wake the steamer was
pitching so helplessly. It would seem they were regarding
this new antagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence,
it may be, the giant was even such another as themselves.
The THUNDER CHILD fired no gun, but simply drove full speed
towards them. It was probably her not firing that enabled
her to get so near the enemy as she did. They did not know
what to make of her. One shell, and they would have sent
her to the bottom forthwith with the Heat-Ray.
She was steaming at such a pace that in a minute she
seemed halfway between the steamboat and the Martians--
a diminishing black bulk against the receding horizontal
expanse of the Essex coast.
Suddenly the foremost Martian lowered his tube and dis-
charged a canister of the black gas at the ironclad. It hit her
larboard side and glanced off in an inky jet that rolled away
to seaward, an unfolding torrent of Black Smoke, from which
the ironclad drove clear. To the watchers from the steamer,
low in the water and with the sun in their eyes, it seemed
as though she were already among the Martians.
They saw the gaunt figures separating and rising out of
the water as they retreated shoreward, and one of them
raised the camera-like generator of the Heat-Ray. He held it
pointing obliquely downward, and a bank of steam sprang
from the water at its touch. It must have driven through the
iron of the ship's side like a white-hot iron rod through paper.
A flicker of flame went up through the rising steam, and
then the Martian reeled and staggered. In another moment
he was cut down, and a great body of water and steam shot
high in the air. The guns of the THUNDER CHILD sounded
through the reek, going off one after the other, and one shot
splashed the water high close by the steamer, ricocheted
towards the other flying ships to the north, and smashed a
smack to matchwood.
But no one heeded that very much. At the sight of the
Martian's collapse the captain on the bridge yelled inarticu-
lately, and all the crowding passengers on the steamer's stern
shouted together. And then they yelled again. For, surging
out beyond the white tumult, drove something long and
black, the flames streaming from its middle parts, its ventila-
tors and funnels spouting fire.
She was alive still; the steering gear, it seems, was intact
and her engines working. She headed straight for a second
Martian, and was within a hundred yards of him when the
Heat-Ray came to bear. Then with a violent thud, a blinding
flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped upward. The Martian
staggered with the violence of her explosion, and in another
moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with the
impetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up
like a thing of cardboard. My brother shouted involuntarily.
A boiling tumult of steam hid everything again.
"Two!," yelled the captain.
Everyone was shouting. The whole steamer from end to
end rang with frantic cheering that was taken up first by one
and then by all in the crowding multitude of ships and boats
that was driving out to sea.
The steam hung upon the water for many minutes, hiding
the third Martian and the coast altogether. And all this time
the boat was paddling steadily out to sea and away from the
fight; and when at last the confusion cleared, the drifting
bank of black vapour intervened, and nothing of the
THUNDER CHILD could be made out, nor could the third
Martian be seen. But the ironclads to seaward were now
quite close and standing in towards shore past the steamboat.
The little vessel continued to beat its way seaward, and
the ironclads receded slowly towards the coast, which was
hidden still by a marbled bank of vapour, part steam, part
black gas, eddying and combining in the strangest way. The
fleet of refugees was scattering to the northeast; several
smacks were sailing between the ironclads and the steamboat.
After a time, and before they reached the sinking cloud bank,
the warships turned northward, and then abruptly went
about and passed into the thickening haze of evening south-
ward. The coast grew faint, and at last indistinguishable amid
the low banks of clouds that were gathering about the
Then suddenly out of the golden haze of the sunset came
the vibration of guns, and a form of black shadows moving.
Everyone struggled to the rail of the steamer and peered into
the blinding furnace of the west, but nothing was to be dis-
tinguished clearly. A mass of smoke rose slanting and barred
the face of the sun. The steamboat throbbed on its way
through an interminable suspense.
The sun sank into grey clouds, the sky flushed and dark- ened, the evening star trembled into sight. It was deep twilight when the captain cried out and pointed. My brother strained his eyes. Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness--rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and van- ished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.