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THE POISON BELT


BY

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE




Being an account of another adventure of
Prof. George E. Challenger, Lord John Roxton,
Prof. Summerlee, and Mr. E. D. Malone,
the discoverers of "The Lost World"



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter

I THE BLURRING OF LINES
II THE TIDE OF DEATH
III SUBMERGED
IV A DIARY OF THE DYING
V THE DEAD WORLD
VI THE GREAT AWAKENING




Chapter I

THE BLURRING OF LINES


It is imperative that now at once, while these stupendous events are
still clear in my mind, I should set them down with that exactness of
detail which time may blur. But even as I do so, I am overwhelmed by the
wonder of the fact that it should be our little group of the "Lost
World" - Professor Challenger, Professor Summerlee, Lord John Roxton, and
myself - who have passed through this amazing experience.

When, some years ago, I chronicled in the Daily Gazette our epoch-making
journey in South America, I little thought that it should ever fall to my
lot to tell an even stranger personal experience, one which is unique in
all human annals and must stand out in the records of history as a great
peak among the humble foothills which surround it. The event itself will
always be marvellous, but the circumstances that we four were together at
the time of this extraordinary episode came about in a most natural and,
indeed, inevitable fashion. I will explain the events which led up to it
as shortly and as clearly as I can, though I am well aware that the
fuller the detail upon such a subject the more welcome it will be to the
reader, for the public curiosity has been and still is insatiable.

It was upon Friday, the twenty-seventh of August - a date forever
memorable in the history of the world - that I went down to the office of
my paper and asked for three days' leave of absence from Mr. McArdle, who
still presided over our news department. The good old Scotchman shook
his head, scratched his dwindling fringe of ruddy fluff, and finally put
his reluctance into words.

"I was thinking, Mr. Malone, that we could employ you to advantage these
days. I was thinking there was a story that you are the only man that
could handle as it should be handled."

"I am sorry for that," said I, trying to hide my disappointment. "Of
course if I am needed, there is an end of the matter. But the engagement
was important and intimate. If I could be spared - - "

"Well, I don't see that you can."

It was bitter, but I had to put the best face I could upon it. After
all, it was my own fault, for I should have known by this time that a
journalist has no right to make plans of his own.

"Then I'll think no more of it," said I with as much cheerfulness as I
could assume at so short a notice. "What was it that you wanted me to
do?"

"Well, it was just to interview that deevil of a man down at Rotherfield."

"You don't mean Professor Challenger?" I cried.

"Aye, it's just him that I do mean. He ran young Alec Simpson of the
Courier a mile down the high road last week by the collar of his coat and
the slack of his breeches. You'll have read of it, likely, in the police
report. Our boys would as soon interview a loose alligator in the zoo.
But you could do it, I'm thinking - an old friend like you."

"Why," said I, greatly relieved, "this makes it all easy. It so happens
that it was to visit Professor Challenger at Rotherfield that I was
asking for leave of absence. The fact is, that it is the anniversary of
our main adventure on the plateau three years ago, and he has asked our
whole party down to his house to see him and celebrate the occasion."

"Capital!" cried McArdle, rubbing his hands and beaming through his
glasses. "Then you will be able to get his opeenions out of him. In any
other man I would say it was all moonshine, but the fellow has made good
once, and who knows but he may again!"

"Get what out of him?" I asked. "What has he been doing?"

"Haven't you seen his letter on 'Scientific Possibeelities' in to-day's
Times?"

"No."

McArdle dived down and picked a copy from the floor.

"Read it aloud," said he, indicating a column with his finger. "I'd be
glad to hear it again, for I am not sure now that I have the man's
meaning clear in my head."

This was the letter which I read to the news editor of the Gazette: -


"SCIENTIFIC POSSIBILITIES"

"Sir, - I have read with amusement, not wholly unmixed with some less
complimentary emotion, the complacent and wholly fatuous letter of James
Wilson MacPhail which has lately appeared in your columns upon the
subject of the blurring of Fraunhofer's lines in the spectra both of the
planets and of the fixed stars. He dismisses the matter as of no
significance. To a wider intelligence it may well seem of very great
possible importance - so great as to involve the ultimate welfare of every
man, woman, and child upon this planet. I can hardly hope, by the use of
scientific language, to convey any sense of my meaning to those
ineffectual people who gather their ideas from the columns of a daily
newspaper. I will endeavour, therefore, to condescend to their
limitation and to indicate the situation by the use of a homely analogy
which will be within the limits of the intelligence of your readers."


"Man, he's a wonder - a living wonder!" said McArdle, shaking his head
reflectively. "He'd put up the feathers of a sucking-dove and set up a
riot in a Quakers' meeting. No wonder he has made London too hot for
him. It's a peety, Mr. Malone, for it's a grand brain! We'll let's have
the analogy."

"We will suppose," I read, "that a small bundle of connected corks was
launched in a sluggish current upon a voyage across the Atlantic. The
corks drift slowly on from day to day with the same conditions all round
them. If the corks were sentient we could imagine that they would
consider these conditions to be permanent and assured. But we, with our
superior knowledge, know that many things might happen to surprise the
corks. They might possibly float up against a ship, or a sleeping whale,
or become entangled in seaweed. In any case, their voyage would probably
end by their being thrown up on the rocky coast of Labrador. But what
could they know of all this while they drifted so gently day by day in
what they thought was a limitless and homogeneous ocean?

"Your readers will possibly comprehend that the Atlantic, in this
parable, stands for the mighty ocean of ether through which we drift and
that the bunch of corks represents the little and obscure planetary
system to which we belong. A third-rate sun, with its rag tag and
bobtail of insignificant satellites, we float under the same daily
conditions towards some unknown end, some squalid catastrophe which will
overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of space, where we are swept over
an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see no
room here for the shallow and ignorant optimism of your correspondent,
Mr. James Wilson MacPhail, but many reasons why we should watch with a
very close and interested attention every indication of change in those
cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend."

"Man, he'd have made a grand meenister," said McArdle. "It just booms
like an organ. Let's get doun to what it is that's troubling him."

"The general blurring and shifting of Fraunhofer's lines of the spectrum
point, in my opinion, to a widespread cosmic change of a subtle and
singular character. Light from a planet is the reflected light of the
sun. Light from a star is a self-produced light. But the spectra both
from planets and stars have, in this instance, all undergone the same
change. Is it, then, a change in those planets and stars? To me such an
idea is inconceivable. What common change could simultaneously come upon
them all? Is it a change in our own atmosphere? It is possible, but in
the highest degree improbable, since we see no signs of it around us, and
chemical analysis has failed to reveal it. What, then, is the third
possibility? That it may be a change in the conducting medium, in that
infinitely fine ether which extends from star to star and pervades the
whole universe. Deep in that ocean we are floating upon a slow current.
Might that current not drift us into belts of ether which are novel and
have properties of which we have never conceived? There is a change
somewhere. This cosmic disturbance of the spectrum proves it. It may be
a good change. It may be an evil one. It may be a neutral one. We do
not know. Shallow observers may treat the matter as one which can be
disregarded, but one who like myself is possessed of the deeper
intelligence of the true philosopher will understand that the
possibilities of the universe are incalculable and that the wisest man is
he who holds himself ready for the unexpected. To take an obvious
example, who would undertake to say that the mysterious and universal
outbreak of illness, recorded in your columns this very morning as having
broken out among the indigenous races of Sumatra, has no connection with
some cosmic change to which they may respond more quickly than the more
complex peoples of Europe? I throw out the idea for what it is worth.
To assert it is, in the present stage, as unprofitable as to deny it, but
it is an unimaginative numskull who is too dense to perceive that it is
well within the bounds of scientific possibility.

"Yours faithfully,
"GEORGE EDWARD CHALLENGER.

"THE BRIARS, ROTHERFIELD."


"It's a fine, steemulating letter," said McArdle thoughtfully, fitting a
cigarette into the long glass tube which he used as a holder. "What's
your opeenion of it, Mr. Malone?"

I had to confess my total and humiliating ignorance of the subject at
issue. What, for example, were Fraunhofer's lines? McArdle had just
been studying the matter with the aid of our tame scientist at the
office, and he picked from his desk two of those many-coloured spectral
bands which bear a general resemblance to the hat-ribbons of some young
and ambitious cricket club. He pointed out to me that there were certain
black lines which formed crossbars upon the series of brilliant colours
extending from the red at one end through gradations of orange, yellow,
green, blue, and indigo to the violet at the other.

"Those dark bands are Fraunhofer's lines," said he. "The colours are
just light itself. Every light, if you can split it up with a prism,
gives the same colours. They tell us nothing. It is the lines that
count, because they vary according to what it may be that produces the
light. It is these lines that have been blurred instead of clear this
last week, and all the astronomers have been quarreling over the reason.
Here's a photograph of the blurred lines for our issue to-morrow. The
public have taken no interest in the matter up to now, but this letter of
Challenger's in the Times will make them wake up, I'm thinking."

"And this about Sumatra?"

"Well, it's a long cry from a blurred line in a spectrum to a sick nigger
in Sumatra. And yet the chiel has shown us once before that he knows
what he's talking about. There is some queer illness down yonder, that's
beyond all doubt, and to-day there's a cable just come in from Singapore
that the lighthouses are out of action in the Straits of Sundan, and two
ships on the beach in consequence. Anyhow, it's good enough for you to
interview Challenger upon. If you get anything definite, let us have a
column by Monday."

I was coming out from the news editor's room, turning over my new mission
in my mind, when I heard my name called from the waiting-room below. It
was a telegraph-boy with a wire which had been forwarded from my lodgings
at Streatham. The message was from the very man we had been discussing,
and ran thus: -

Malone, 17, Hill Street, Streatham. - Bring oxygen. - Challenger.

"Bring oxygen!" The Professor, as I remembered him, had an elephantine
sense of humour capable of the most clumsy and unwieldly gambollings.
Was this one of those jokes which used to reduce him to uproarious
laughter, when his eyes would disappear and he was all gaping mouth and
wagging beard, supremely indifferent to the gravity of all around him? I
turned the words over, but could make nothing even remotely jocose out of
them. Then surely it was a concise order - though a very strange one. He
was the last man in the world whose deliberate command I should care to
disobey. Possibly some chemical experiment was afoot; possibly - - Well,
it was no business of mine to speculate upon why he wanted it. I must
get it. There was nearly an hour before I should catch the train at
Victoria. I took a taxi, and having ascertained the address from the
telephone book, I made for the Oxygen Tube Supply Company in Oxford
Street.

As I alighted on the pavement at my destination, two youths emerged from
the door of the establishment carrying an iron cylinder, which, with some
trouble, they hoisted into a waiting motor-car. An elderly man was at
their heels scolding and directing in a creaky, sardonic voice. He
turned towards me. There was no mistaking those austere features and
that goatee beard. It was my old cross-grained companion, Professor
Summerlee.

"What!" he cried. "Don't tell me that _you_ have had one of these
preposterous telegrams for oxygen?"

I exhibited it.

"Well, well! I have had one too, and, as you see, very much against the
grain, I have acted upon it. Our good friend is as impossible as ever.
The need for oxygen could not have been so urgent that he must desert the
usual means of supply and encroach upon the time of those who are really
busier than himself. Why could he not order it direct?"

I could only suggest that he probably wanted it at once.

"Or thought he did, which is quite another matter. But it is superfluous
now for you to purchase any, since I have this considerable supply."

"Still, for some reason he seems to wish that I should bring oxygen too.
It will be safer to do exactly what he tells me."

Accordingly, in spite of many grumbles and remonstrances from Summerlee,
I ordered an additional tube, which was placed with the other in his
motor-car, for he had offered me a lift to Victoria.

I turned away to pay off my taxi, the driver of which was very
cantankerous and abusive over his fare. As I came back to Professor
Summerlee, he was having a furious altercation with the men who had
carried down the oxygen, his little white goat's beard jerking with
indignation. One of the fellows called him, I remember, "a silly old
bleached cockatoo," which so enraged his chauffeur that he bounded out of
his seat to take the part of his insulted master, and it was all we could
do to prevent a riot in the street.

These little things may seem trivial to relate, and passed as mere
incidents at the time. It is only now, as I look back, that I see their
relation to the whole story which I have to unfold.

The chauffeur must, as it seemed to me, have been a novice or else have
lost his nerve in this disturbance, for he drove vilely on the way to the
station. Twice we nearly had collisions with other equally erratic
vehicles, and I remember remarking to Summerlee that the standard of
driving in London had very much declined. Once we brushed the very edge
of a great crowd which was watching a fight at the corner of the Mall.
The people, who were much excited, raised cries of anger at the clumsy
driving, and one fellow sprang upon the step and waved a stick above our
heads. I pushed him off, but we were glad when we had got clear of them
and safe out of the park. These little events, coming one after the
other, left me very jangled in my nerves, and I could see from my
companion's petulant manner that his own patience had got to a low ebb.

But our good humour was restored when we saw Lord John Roxton waiting for
us upon the platform, his tall, thin figure clad in a yellow tweed
shooting-suit. His keen face, with those unforgettable eyes, so fierce
and yet so humorous, flushed with pleasure at the sight of us. His ruddy
hair was shot with grey, and the furrows upon his brow had been cut a
little deeper by Time's chisel, but in all else he was the Lord John who
had been our good comrade in the past.

"Hullo, Herr Professor! Hullo, young fella!" he shouted as he came
toward us.

He roared with amusement when he saw the oxygen cylinders upon the
porter's trolly behind us. "So you've got them too!" he cried. "Mine is
in the van. Whatever can the old dear be after?"

"Have you seen his letter in the Times?" I asked.

"What was it?"

"Stuff and nonsense!" said Summerlee harshly.

"Well, it's at the bottom of this oxygen business, or I am mistaken,"
said I.

"Stuff and nonsense!" cried Summerlee again with quite unnecessary
violence. We had all got into a first-class smoker, and he had already
lit the short and charred old briar pipe which seemed to singe the end of
his long, aggressive nose.

"Friend Challenger is a clever man," said he with great vehemence. "No
one can deny it. It's a fool that denies it. Look at his hat. There's
a sixty-ounce brain inside it - a big engine, running smooth, and turning
out clean work. Show me the engine-house and I'll tell you the size of
the engine. But he is a born charlatan - you've heard me tell him so to
his face - a born charlatan, with a kind of dramatic trick of jumping into
the limelight. Things are quiet, so friend Challenger sees a chance to
set the public talking about him. You don't imagine that he seriously
believes all this nonsense about a change in the ether and a danger to
the human race? Was ever such a cock-and-bull story in this life?"

He sat like an old white raven, croaking and shaking with sardonic
laughter.

A wave of anger passed through me as I listened to Summerlee. It was
disgraceful that he should speak thus of the leader who had been the
source of all our fame and given us such an experience as no men have
ever enjoyed. I had opened my mouth to utter some hot retort, when Lord
John got before me.

"You had a scrap once before with old man Challenger," said he sternly,
"and you were down and out inside ten seconds. It seems to me, Professor
Summerlee, he's beyond your class, and the best you can do with him is to
walk wide and leave him alone."

"Besides," said I, "he has been a good friend to every one of us.
Whatever his faults may be, he is as straight as a line, and I don't
believe he ever speaks evil of his comrades behind their backs."

"Well said, young fellah-my-lad," said Lord John Roxton. Then, with a
kindly smile, he slapped Professor Summerlee upon his shoulder. "Come,
Herr Professor, we're not going to quarrel at this time of day. We've
seen too much together. But keep off the grass when you get near
Challenger, for this young fellah and I have a bit of a weakness for the
old dear."

But Summerlee was in no humour for compromise. His face was screwed up
in rigid disapproval, and thick curls of angry smoke rolled up from his
pipe.

"As to you, Lord John Roxton," he creaked, "your opinion upon a matter of
science is of as much value in my eyes as my views upon a new type of
shot-gun would be in yours. I have my own judgment, sir, and I use it in
my own way. Because it has misled me once, is that any reason why I
should accept without criticism anything, however far-fetched, which this
man may care to put forward? Are we to have a Pope of science, with
infallible decrees laid down _ex cathedra_, and accepted without question
by the poor humble public? I tell you, sir, that I have a brain of my
own and that I should feel myself to be a snob and a slave if I did not
use it. If it pleases you to believe this rigmarole about ether and
Fraunhofer's lines upon the spectrum, do so by all means, but do not ask
one who is older and wiser than yourself to share in your folly. Is it
not evident that if the ether were affected to the degree which he
maintains, and if it were obnoxious to human health, the result of it
would already be apparent upon ourselves?" Here he laughed with
uproarious triumph over his own argument. "Yes, sir, we should already
be very far from our normal selves, and instead of sitting quietly
discussing scientific problems in a railway train we should be showing
actual symptoms of the poison which was working within us. Where do we
see any signs of this poisonous cosmic disturbance? Answer me that, sir!
Answer me that! Come, come, no evasion! I pin you to an answer!"

I felt more and more angry. There was something very irritating and
aggressive in Summerlee's demeanour.

"I think that if you knew more about the facts you might be less positive
in your opinion," said I.

Summerlee took his pipe from his mouth and fixed me with a stony stare.

"Pray what do you mean, sir, by that somewhat impertinent observation?"

"I mean that when I was leaving the office the news editor told me that a
telegram had come in confirming the general illness of the Sumatra
natives, and adding that the lights had not been lit in the Straits of
Sunda."

"Really, there should be some limits to human folly!" cried Summerlee in
a positive fury. "Is it possible that you do not realize that ether, if
for a moment we adopt Challenger's preposterous supposition, is a
universal substance which is the same here as at the other side of the
world? Do you for an instant suppose that there is an English ether and
a Sumatran ether? Perhaps you imagine that the ether of Kent is in some
way superior to the ether of Surrey, through which this train is now
bearing us. There really are no bounds to the credulity and ignorance of
the average layman. Is it conceivable that the ether in Sumatra should
be so deadly as to cause total insensibility at the very time when the
ether here has had no appreciable effect upon us whatever? Personally, I
can truly say that I never felt stronger in body or better balanced in
mind in my life."

"That may be. I don't profess to be a scientific man," said I, "though I
have heard somewhere that the science of one generation is usually the
fallacy of the next. But it does not take much common sense to see that,
as we seem to know so little about ether, it might be affected by some
local conditions in various parts of the world and might show an effect
over there which would only develop later with us."

"With 'might' and 'may' you can prove anything," cried Summerlee
furiously. "Pigs may fly. Yes, sir, pigs _may_ fly - but they don't. It
is not worth arguing with you. Challenger has filled you with his
nonsense and you are both incapable of reason. I had as soon lay
arguments before those railway cushions."

"I must say, Professor Summerlee, that your manners do not seem to have
improved since I last had the pleasure of meeting you," said Lord John
severely.

"You lordlings are not accustomed to hear the truth," Summerlee answered
with a bitter smile. "It comes as a bit of a shock, does it not, when
someone makes you realize that your title leaves you none the less a very
ignorant man?"

"Upon my word, sir," said Lord John, very stern and rigid, "if you were a
younger man you would not dare to speak to me in so offensive a fashion."

Summerlee thrust out his chin, with its little wagging tuft of goatee
beard.

"I would have you know, sir, that, young or old, there has never been a
time in my life when I was afraid to speak my mind to an ignorant
coxcomb - yes, sir, an ignorant coxcomb, if you had as many titles as
slaves could invent and fools could adopt."

For a moment Lord John's eyes blazed, and then, with a tremendous effort,
he mastered his anger and leaned back in his seat with arms folded and a
bitter smile upon his face. To me all this was dreadful and deplorable.
Like a wave, the memory of the past swept over me, the good comradeship,
the happy, adventurous days - all that we had suffered and worked for and
won. That it should have come to this - to insults and abuse! Suddenly I
was sobbing - sobbing in loud, gulping, uncontrollable sobs which refused
to be concealed. My companions looked at me in surprise. I covered my
face with my hands.

"It's all right," said I. "Only - only it _is_ such a pity!"

"You're ill, young fellah, that's what's amiss with you," said Lord John.
"I thought you were queer from the first."

"Your habits, sir, have not mended in these three years," said Summerlee,
shaking his head. "I also did not fail to observe your strange manner


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