21 CHAPTER FOUR
THE DEATH OF THE CURATE
It was on the sixth day of our imprisonment that I
peeped for the last time, and presently found myself alone.
Instead of keeping close to me and trying to oust me from
the slit, the curate had gone back into the scullery. I was
struck by a sudden thought. I went back quickly and quietly
into the scullery. In the darkness I heard the curate drink-
ing. I snatched in the darkness, and my fingers caught a
bottle of burgundy.
For a few minutes there was a tussle. The bottle struck
the floor and broke, and I desisted and rose. We stood
panting and threatening each other. In the end I planted
myself between him and the food, and told him of my
determination to begin a discipline. I divided the food in
the pantry, into rations to last us ten days. I would not
let him eat any more that day. In the afternoon he made
a feeble effort to get at the food. I had been dozing, but
in an instant I was awake. All day and all night we sat
face to face, I weary but resolute, and he weeping and com-
plaining of his immediate hunger. It was, I know, a night
and a day, but to me it seemed--it seems now--an inter-
minable length of time.
And so our widened incompatibility ended at last in open
conflict. For two vast days we struggled in undertones and
wrestling contests. There were times when I beat and kicked
him madly, times when I cajoled and persuaded him, and
once I tried to bribe him with the last bottle of burgundy,
for there was a rain-water pump from which I could get
water. But neither force nor kindness availed; he was indeed
beyond reason. He would neither desist from his attacks on
the food nor from his noisy babbling to himself. The rudi-
mentary precautions to keep our imprisonment endurable
he would not observe. Slowly I began to realise the complete
overthrow of his intelligence, to perceive that my sole com-
panion in this close and sickly darkness was a man insane.
From certain vague memories I am inclined to think my
own mind wandered at times. I had strange and hideous
dreams whenever I slept. It sounds paradoxical, but I am
inclined to think that the weakness and insanity of the
curate warned me, braced me, and kept me a sane man.
On the eighth day he began to talk aloud instead of whis-
pering, and nothing I could do would moderate his speech.
"It is just, O God!" he would say, over and over again.
"It is just. On me and mine be the punishment laid. We
have sinned, we have fallen short. There was poverty,
sorrow; the poor were trodden in the dust, and I held my
peace. I preached acceptable folly--my God, what folly!
--when I should have stood up, though I died for it, and
called upon them to repent-repent! . . . Oppressors of the
poor and needy . . . ! The wine press of God!"
Then he would suddenly revert to the matter of the food
I withheld from him, praying, begging, weeping, at last
threatening. He began to raise his voice--I prayed him not
to. He perceived a hold on me--he threatened he would
shout and bring the Martians upon us. For a time that scared
me; but any concession would have shortened our chance
of escape beyond estimating. I defied him, although I felt
no assurance that he might not do this thing. But that day,
at any rate, he did not. He talked with his voice rising slowly,
through the greater part of the eighth and ninth days--
threats, entreaties, mingled with a torrent of half-sane and
always frothy repentance for his vacant sham of God's
service, such as made me pity him. Then he slept awhile, and
began again with renewed strength, so loudly that I must
needs make him desist.
"Be still!" I implored.
He rose to his knees, for he had been sitting in the dark-
ness near the copper.
"I have been still too long," he said, in a tone that must
have reached the pit, "and now I must bear my witness.
Woe unto this unfaithful city! Woe! Woe! Woe! Woe! Woe!
To the inhabitants of the earth by reason of the other voices
of the trumpet----"
"Shut up!" I said, rising to my feet, and in a terror lest
the Martians should hear us. "For God's sake----"
"Nay," shouted the curate, at the top of his voice, stand-
ing likewise and extending his arms. "Speak! The word of the
Lord is upon me!"
In three strides he was at the door leading into the kitchen.
"I must bear my witness! I go! It has already been too long
I put out my hand and felt the meat chopper hanging to
the wall. In a flash I was after him. I was fierce with fear.
Before he was halfway across the kitchen I had overtaken
him. With one last touch of humanity I turned the blade
back and struck him with the butt. He went headlong for-
ward and lay stretched on the ground. I stumbled over him
and stood panting. He lay still.
Suddenly I heard a noise without, the run and smash of
slipping plaster, and the triangular aperture in the wall was
darkened. I looked up and saw the lower surface of a
handling-machine coming slowly across the hole. One of its
gripping limbs curled amid the debris; another limb ap-
peared, feeling its way over the fallen beams. I stood
petrified, staring. Then I saw through a sort of glass plate
near the edge of the body the face, as we may call it, and
the large dark eyes of a Martian, peering, and then a long
metallic snake of tentacle came feeling slowly through the
I turned by an effort, stumbled over the curate, and
stopped at the scullery door. The tentacle was now some
way, two yards or more, in the room, and twisting and turn-
ing, with queer sudden movements, this way and that. For
a while I stood fascinated by that slow, fitful advance. Then,
with a faint, hoarse cry, I forced myself across the scullery.
I trembled violently; I could scarcely stand upright. I opened
the door of the coal cellar, and stood there in the darkness
staring at the faintly lit doorway into the kitchen, and listen-
ing. Had the Martian seen me? What was it doing now?
Something was moving to and fro there, very quietly;
every now and then it tapped against the wall, or started
on its movements with a faint metallic ringing, like the
movements of keys on a split-ring. Then a heavy body--I
knew too well what--was dragged across the floor of the
kitchen towards the opening. Irresistibly attracted, I crept
to the door and peeped into the kitchen. In the triangle of
bright outer sunlight I saw the Martian, in its Briareus of a
handling-machine, scrutinizing the curate's head. I thought
at once that it would infer my presence from the mark of
the blow I had given him.
I crept back to the coal cellar, shut the door, and began
to cover myself up as much as I could, and as noiselessly as
possible in the darkness, among the firewood and coal
therein. Every now and then I paused, rigid, to hear if the
Martian had thrust its tentacles through the opening again.
Then the faint metallic jingle returned. I traced it slowly
feeling over the kitchen. Presently I heard it nearer--in the
scullery, as I judged. I thought that its length might be in-
sufficient to reach me. I prayed copiously. It passed, scrap-
ing faintly across the cellar door. An age of almost intolerable
suspense intervened; then I heard it fumbling at the latch!
It had found the door! The Martians understood doors!
It worried at the catch for a minute, perhaps, and then
the door opened.
In the darkness I could just see the thing--like an ele-
phant's trunk more than anything else--waving towards me
and touching and examining the wall, coals, wood and ceil-
ing. It was like a black worm swaying its blind head to
Once, even, it touched the heel of my boot. I was on the
verge of screaming; I bit my hand. For a time the tentacle
was silent. I could have fancied it had been withdrawn.
Presently, with an abrupt click, it gripped something--I
thought it had me!--and seemed to go out of the cellar again.
For a minute I was not sure. Apparently it had taken a lump
of coal to examine.
I seized the opportunity of slightly shifting my position,
which had become cramped, and then listened. I whispered
passionate prayers for safety.
Then I heard the slow, deliberate sound creeping towards
me again. Slowly, slowly it drew near, scratching against the
walls and tapping the furniture.
While I was still doubtful, it rapped smartly against the
cellar door and closed it. I heard it go into the pantry, and
the biscuit-tins rattled and a bottle smashed, and then came
a heavy bump against the cellar door. Then silence that
passed into an infinity of suspense.
Had it gone?
At last I decided that it had.
It came into the scullery no more; but I lay all the tenth day in the close darkness, buried among coals and firewood, not daring even to crawl out for the drink for which I craved. It was the eleventh day before I ventured so far from my security.