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This etext was produced by Judy Boss.







IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET

BY H. G. WELLS




"The World's Great Age begins anew,
The Golden Years return,
The Earth doth like a Snake renew
Her Winter Skin outworn:
Heaven smiles, and Faiths and Empires gleam
Like Wrecks of a Dissolving Dream."





CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

PAGE

THE MAN WHO WROTE IN THE TOWER . . . 3


BOOK THE FIRST

THE COMET

CHAPTER

I. DUST IN THE SHADOWS . . . . . . 9
II. NETTIE . . . . . . . . . . . . 52
III. THE REVOLVER . . . . . . . . . 89
IV. WAR . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152
V. THE PURSUIT OF THE TWO LOVERS . . 184


BOOK THE SECOND

THE GREEN VAPORS

I. THE CHANGE . . . . . . . . . 221
II. THE AWAKENING . . . . . . . . . 252
III. THE CABINET COUNCIL . . . . . . . 279


BOOK THE THIRD

THE NEW WORLD

CHAPTER PAGE

I. LOVE AFTER THE CHANGE . . . . . . 303
II. MY MOTHER'S LAST DAYS . . . . . . 335
III. BELTANE AND NEW YEAR'S EVE . . . 353


EPILOGUE

THE WINDOW OF THE TOWER . . . . . . . 375





IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET

PROLOGUE

THE MAN WHO WROTE IN THE TOWER


I SAW a gray-haired man, a figure of hale age, sitting at a desk
and writing.

He seemed to be in a room in a tower, very high, so that through
the tall window on his left one perceived only distances, a remote
horizon of sea, a headland and that vague haze and glitter in the
sunset that many miles away marks a city. All the appointments of
this room were orderly and beautiful, and in some subtle quality,
in this small difference and that, new to me and strange. They were
in no fashion I could name, and the simple costume the man wore
suggested neither period nor country. It might, I thought, be the
Happy Future, or Utopia, or the Land of Simple Dreams; an errant
mote of memory, Henry James's phrase and story of "The Great Good
Place," twinkled across my mind, and passed and left no light.

The man I saw wrote with a thing like a fountain pen, a modern touch
that prohibited any historical retrospection, and as he finished
each sheet, writing in an easy flowing hand, he added it to a growing
pile upon a graceful little table under the window. His last done
sheets lay loose, partly covering others that were clipped together
into fascicles.

Clearly he was unaware of my presence, and I stood waiting until
his pen should come to a pause. Old as he certainly was
he wrote with a steady hand. . . .

I discovered that a concave speculum hung slantingly high over his
head; a movement in this caught my attention sharply, and I looked
up to see, distorted and made fantastic but bright and beautifully
colored, the magnified, reflected, evasive rendering of a palace,
of a terrace, of the vista of a great roadway with many people,
people exaggerated, impossible-looking because of the curvature of
the mirror, going to and fro. I turned my head quickly that I might
see more clearly through the window behind me, but it was too high
for me to survey this nearer scene directly, and after a momentary
pause I came back to that distorting mirror again.

But now the writer was leaning back in his chair. He put down his
pen and sighed the half resentful sigh - "ah! you, work, you! how
you gratify and tire me!" - of a man who has been writing to his
satisfaction.

"What is this place," I asked, "and who are you?"

He looked around with the quick movement of surprise.

"What is this place?" I repeated, "and where am I?"

He regarded me steadfastly for a moment under his wrinkled brows,
and then his expression softened to a smile. He pointed to a chair
beside the table. "I am writing," he said.

"About this?"

"About the change."

I sat down. It was a very comfortable chair, and well placed under
the light.

"If you would like to read - " he said.

I indicated the manuscript. "This explains?" I asked.

"That explains," he answered.

He drew a fresh sheet of paper toward him as he looked at me.

I glanced from him about his apartment and back to the little
table. A fascicle marked very distinctly "1" caught my attention,
and I took it up. I smiled in his friendly eyes. "Very well," said
I, suddenly at my ease, and he nodded and went on writing. And in
a mood between confidence and curiosity, I began to read.

This is the story that happy, active-looking old man in that pleasant
place had written.





BOOK THE FIRST

THE COMET




CHAPTER THE FIRST

DUST IN THE SHADOWS



Section 1

I HAVE set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far
as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people
closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.

Long ago in my crude unhappy youth, I conceived the desire of
writing a book. To scribble secretly and dream of authorship was
one of my chief alleviations, and I read with a sympathetic envy
every scrap I could get about the world of literature and the
lives of literary people. It is something, even amidst this present
happiness, to find leisure and opportunity to take up and partially
realize these old and hopeless dreams. But that alone, in a world
where so much of vivid and increasing interest presents itself to
be done, even by an old man, would not, I think, suffice to set
me at this desk. I find some such recapitulation of my past as
this will involve, is becoming necessary to my own secure mental
continuity. The passage of years brings a man at last to retrospection;
at seventy-two one's youth is far more important than it was at
forty. And I am out of touch with my youth. The old life seems so
cut off from the new, so alien and so unreasonable, that at times
I find it bordering upon the incredible. The data have gone, the
buildings and places. I stopped dead the other afternoon in my walk
across the moor, where once the dismal outskirts of Swathinglea
straggled toward Leet, and asked, "Was it here indeed that I
crouched among the weeds and refuse and broken crockery and loaded
my revolver ready for murder? Did ever such a thing happen in my
life? Was such a mood and thought and intention ever possible to
me? Rather, has not some queer nightmare spirit out of dreamland
slipped a pseudo-memory into the records of my vanished life?"
There must be many alive still who have the same perplexities. And
I think too that those who are now growing up to take our places
in the great enterprise of mankind, will need many such narratives
as mine for even the most partial conception of the old world
of shadows that came before our day. It chances too that my case
is fairly typical of the Change; I was caught midway in a gust
of passion; and a curious accident put me for a time in the very
nucleus of the new order.

My memory takes me back across the interval of fifty years to a
little ill-lit room with a sash window open to a starry sky, and
instantly there returns to me the characteristic smell of that
room, the penetrating odor of an ill-trimmed lamp, burning cheap
paraffin. Lighting by electricity had then been perfected for fifteen
years, but still the larger portion of the world used these lamps.
All this first scene will go, in my mind at least, to that olfactory
accompaniment. That was the evening smell of the room. By day
it had a more subtle aroma, a closeness, a peculiar sort of faint
pungency that I associate - I know not why - with dust.

Let me describe this room to you in detail. It was perhaps eight
feet by seven in area and rather higher than either of these
dimensions; the ceiling was of plaster, cracked and bulging in
places, gray with the soot of the lamp, and in one place discolored
by a system of yellow and olive-green stains caused by the percolation
of damp from above. The walls were covered with dun-colored paper,
upon which had been printed in oblique reiteration a crimson shape,
something of the nature of a curly ostrich feather, or an acanthus
flower, that had in its less faded moments a sort of dingy gaiety.
There were several big plaster-rimmed wounds in this, caused by
Parload's ineffectual attempts to get nails into the wall, whereby
there might hang pictures. One nail had hit between two bricks and
got home, and from this depended, sustained a little insecurely
by frayed and knotted blind-cord, Parload's hanging bookshelves,
planks painted over with a treacly blue enamel and further decorated
by a fringe of pinked American cloth insecurely fixed by tacks. Below
this was a little table that behaved with a mulish vindictiveness
to any knee that was thrust beneath it suddenly; it was covered
with a cloth whose pattern of red and black had been rendered less
monotonous by the accidents of Parload's versatile ink bottle, and
on it, leit motif of the whole, stood and stank the lamp. This lamp,
you must understand, was of some whitish translucent substance that
was neither china nor glass, it had a shade of the same substance,
a shade that did not protect the eyes of a reader in any measure,
and it seemed admirably adapted to bring into pitiless prominence
the fact that, after the lamp's trimming, dust and paraffin had
been smeared over its exterior with a reckless generosity.

The uneven floor boards of this apartment were covered with scratched
enamel of chocolate hue, on which a small island of frayed carpet
dimly blossomed in the dust and shadows.

There was a very small grate, made of cast-iron in one piece and
painted buff, and a still smaller misfit of a cast-iron fender
that confessed the gray stone of the hearth. No fire was laid, only
a few scraps of torn paper and the bowl of a broken corn-cob pipe
were visible behind the bars, and in the corner and rather thrust
away was an angular japanned coal-box with a damaged hinge. It
was the custom in those days to warm every room separately from a
separate fireplace, more prolific of dirt than heat, and the rickety
sash window, the small chimney, and the loose-fitting door were
expected to organize the ventilation of the room among themselves
without any further direction.

Parload's truckle bed hid its gray sheets beneath an old patchwork
counterpane on one side of the room, and veiled his boxes and
suchlike oddments, and invading the two corners of the window were
an old whatnot and the washhandstand, on which were distributed
the simple appliances of his toilet.

This washhandstand had been made of deal by some one with an
excess of turnery appliances in a hurry, who had tried to distract
attention from the rough economies of his workmanship by an arresting
ornamentation of blobs and bulbs upon the joints and legs. Apparently
the piece had then been placed in the hands of some person of
infinite leisure equipped with a pot of ocherous paint, varnish,
and a set of flexible combs. This person had first painted the
article, then, I fancy, smeared it with varnish, and then sat down
to work with the combs to streak and comb the varnish into a weird
imitation of the grain of some nightmare timber. The washhandstand so
made had evidently had a prolonged career of violent use, had been
chipped, kicked, splintered, punched, stained, scorched, hammered,
dessicated, damped, and defiled, had met indeed with almost every
possible adventure except a conflagration or a scrubbing, until at
last it had come to this high refuge of Parload's attic to sustain
the simple requirements of Parload's personal cleanliness. There
were, in chief, a basin and a jug of water and a slop-pail of tin,
and, further, a piece of yellow soap in a tray, a tooth-brush, a
rat-tailed shaving brush, one huckaback towel, and one or two other
minor articles. In those days only very prosperous people had more
than such an equipage, and it is to be remarked that every drop
of water Parload used had to be carried by an unfortunate servant
girl, - the "slavey," Parload called her - up from the basement to
the top of the house and subsequently down again. Already we begin
to forget how modern an invention is personal cleanliness. It is a
fact that Parload had never stripped for a swim in his life; never
had a simultaneous bath all over his body since his childhood. Not
one in fifty of us did in the days of which I am telling you.

A chest, also singularly grained and streaked, of two large and
two small drawers, held Parload's reserve of garments, and pegs
on the door carried his two hats and completed this inventory
of a "bed-sitting-room" as I knew it before the Change. But I had
forgotten - there was also a chair with a "squab" that apologized
inadequately for the defects of its cane seat. I forgot that for
the moment because I was sitting on the chair on the occasion that
best begins this story.

I have described Parload's room with such particularity because it
will help you to understand the key in which my earlier chapters
are written, but you must not imagine that this singular equipment
or the smell of the lamp engaged my attention at that time to the
slightest degree. I took all this grimy unpleasantness as if it
were the most natural and proper setting for existence imaginable.
It was the world as I knew it. My mind was entirely occupied then
by graver and intenser matters, and it is only now in the distant
retrospect that I see these details of environment as being
remarkable, as significant, as indeed obviously the outward visible
manifestations of the old world disorder in our hearts.



Section 2

Parload stood at the open window, opera-glass in hand, and sought
and found and was uncertain about and lost again, the new comet.

I thought the comet no more than a nuisance then because I wanted
to talk of other matters. But Parload was full of it. My head was
hot, I was feverish with interlacing annoyances and bitterness,
I wanted to open my heart to him - at least I wanted to relieve my
heart by some romantic rendering of my troubles - and I gave but
little heed to the things he told me. It was the first time I had
heard of this new speck among the countless specks of heaven, and
I did not care if I never heard of the thing again.

We were two youths much of an age together, Parload was two and
twenty, and eight months older than I. He was - I think his proper
definition was "engrossing clerk" to a little solicitor in Overcastle,
while I was third in the office staff of Rawdon's pot-bank in
Clayton. We had met first in the "Parliament" of the Young Men's
Christian Association of Swathinglea; we had found we attended
simultaneous classes in Overcastle, he in science and I in shorthand,
and had started a practice of walking home together, and so our
friendship came into being. (Swathinglea, Clayton, and Overcastle
were contiguous towns, I should mention, in the great industrial
area of the Midlands.) We had shared each other's secret of religious
doubt, we had confided to one another a common interest in Socialism,
he had come twice to supper at my mother's on a Sunday night, and
I was free of his apartment. He was then a tall, flaxen-haired,
gawky youth, with a disproportionate development of neck and wrist,
and capable of vast enthusiasm; he gave two evenings a week to
the evening classes of the organized science school in Overcastle,
physiography was his favorite "subject," and through this insidious
opening of his mind the wonder of outer space had come to take
possession of his soul. He had commandeered an old opera-glass
from his uncle who farmed at Leet over the moors, he had bought a
cheap paper planisphere and Whitaker's Almanac, and for a time day
and moonlight were mere blank interruptions to the one satisfactory
reality in his life - star-gazing. It was the deeps that had seized
him, the immensities, and the mysterious possibilities that might
float unlit in that unplumbed abyss. With infinite labor and the
help of a very precise article in The Heavens, a little monthly
magazine that catered for those who were under this obsession, he
had at last got his opera-glass upon the new visitor to our system
from outer space. He gazed in a sort of rapture upon that quivering
little smudge of light among the shining pin-points - and gazed. My
troubles had to wait for him.

"Wonderful," he sighed, and then as though his first emphasis did
not satisfy him, "wonderful!"

He turned to me. "Wouldn't you like to see?"

I had to look, and then I had to listen, how that this scarce-visible
intruder was to be, was presently to be, one of the largest comets
this world has ever seen, how that its course must bring it within
at most - so many score of millions of miles from the earth, a mere
step, Parload seemed to think that; how that the spectroscope was
already sounding its chemical secrets, perplexed by the unprecedented
band in the green, how it was even now being photographed in the
very act of unwinding - in an unusual direction - a sunward tail
(which presently it wound up again), and all the while in a sort
of undertow I was thinking first of Nettie Stuart and the letter
she had just written me, and then of old Rawdon's detestable face
as I had seen it that afternoon. Now I planned answers to Nettie
and now belated repartees to my employer, and then again "Nettie"
was blazing all across the background of my thoughts. . . .

Nettie Stuart was daughter of the head gardener of the rich Mr.
Verrall's widow, and she and I had kissed and become sweethearts
before we were eighteen years old. My mother and hers were second
cousins and old schoolfellows, and though my mother had been widowed
untimely by a train accident, and had been reduced to letting lodgings
(she was the Clayton curate's landlady), a position esteemed much
lower than that of Mrs. Stuart, a kindly custom of occasional
visits to the gardener's cottage at Checkshill Towers still kept
the friends in touch. Commonly I went with her. And I remember it
was in the dusk of one bright evening in July, one of those long
golden evenings that do not so much give way to night as admit at
last, upon courtesy, the moon and a choice retinue of stars, that
Nettie and I, at the pond of goldfish where the yew-bordered walks
converged, made our shy beginners' vow. I remember still - something
will always stir in me at that memory - the tremulous emotion of
that adventure. Nettie was dressed in white, her hair went off in
waves of soft darkness from above her dark shining eyes; there was
a little necklace of pearls about her sweetly modeled neck, and
a little coin of gold that nestled in her throat. I kissed her
half-reluctant lips, and for three years of my life thereafter - nay!
I almost think for all the rest of her life and mine - I could have
died for her sake.

You must understand - and every year it becomes increasingly difficult
to understand - how entirely different the world was then from what
it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder,
preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid
unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of
the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent
beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The
great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our
atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None
would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time,
and yet that misery was pierced, ever and again its gray curtain was
stabbed through and through by joys of an intensity, by perceptions
of a keenness that it seems to me are now altogether gone out
of life. Is it the Change, I wonder, that has robbed life of its
extremes, or is it perhaps only this, that youth has left me - even
the strength of middle years leaves me now - and taken its despairs
and raptures, leaving me judgment, perhaps, sympathy, memories?

I cannot tell. One would need to be young now and to have been
young then as well, to decide that impossible problem.

Perhaps a cool observer even in the old days would have found little
beauty in our grouping. I have our two photographs at hand in this
bureau as I write, and they show me a gawky youth in ill-fitting
ready-made clothing, and Nettie - Indeed Nettie is badly dressed,
and her attitude is more than a little stiff; but I can see her
through the picture, and her living brightness and something of
that mystery of charm she had for me, comes back again to my mind.
Her face has triumphed over the photographer - or I would long ago
have cast this picture away.

The reality of beauty yields itself to no words. I wish that I had
the sister art and could draw in my margin something that escapes
description. There was a sort of gravity in her eyes. There was
something, a matter of the minutest difference, about her upper
lip so that her mouth closed sweetly and broke very sweetly to a
smile. That grave, sweet smile!

After we had kissed and decided not to tell our parents for awhile
of the irrevocable choice we had made, the time came for us to part,
shyly and before others, and I and my mother went off back across
the moonlit park - the bracken thickets rustling with startled deer - to
the railway station at Checkshill and so to our dingy basement in
Clayton, and I saw no more of Nettie - except that I saw her in my
thoughts - for nearly a year. But at our next meeting it was decided
that we must correspond, and this we did with much elaboration
of secrecy, for Nettie would have no one at home, not even her
only sister, know of her attachment. So I had to send my precious
documents sealed and under cover by way of a confidential schoolfellow
of hers who lived near London. . . . I could write that address
down now, though house and street and suburb have gone beyond any
man's tracing.

Our correspondence began our estrangement, because for the first
time we came into more than sensuous contact and our minds sought
expression.

Now you must understand that the world of thought in those days was
in the strangest condition, it was choked with obsolete inadequate
formulae, it was tortuous to a maze-like degree with secondary
contrivances and adaptations, suppressions, conventions, and
subterfuges. Base immediacies fouled the truth on every man's
lips. I was brought up by my mother in a quaint old-fashioned narrow
faith in certain religious formulae, certain rules of conduct,
certain conceptions of social and political order, that had no more
relevance to the realities and needs of everyday contemporary life
than if they were clean linen that had been put away with lavender
in a drawer. Indeed, her religion did actually smell of lavender;
on Sundays she put away all the things of reality, the garments and
even the furnishings of everyday, hid her hands, that were gnarled
and sometimes chapped with scrubbing, in black, carefully mended
gloves, assumed her old black silk dress and bonnet and took me,
unnaturally clean and sweet also, to church. There we sang and
bowed and heard sonorous prayers and joined in sonorous responses,
and rose with a congregational sigh refreshed and relieved when the
doxology, with its opening "Now to God the Father, God the Son,"
bowed out the tame, brief sermon. There was a hell in that religion
of my mother's, a red-haired hell of curly flames that had once
been very terrible; there was a devil, who was also ex officio the
British King's enemy, and much denunciation of the wicked lusts
of the flesh; we were expected to believe that most of our poor
unhappy world was to atone for its muddle and trouble here by
suffering exquisite torments for ever after, world without end,
Amen. But indeed those curly flames looked rather jolly. The whole
thing had been mellowed and faded into a gentle unreality long
before my time; if it had much terror even in my childhood I have
forgotten it, it was not so terrible as the giant who was killed
by the Beanstalk, and I see it all now as a setting for my poor
old mother's worn and grimy face, and almost lovingly as a part
of her. And Mr. Gabbitas, our plump little lodger, strangely
transformed in his vestments and lifting his voice manfully to
the quality of those Elizabethan prayers, seemed, I think, to give
her a special and peculiar interest with God. She radiated her
own tremulous gentleness upon Him, and redeemed Him from all the
implications of vindictive theologians; she was in truth, had I
but perceived it, the effectual answer to all she would have taught
me.

So I see it now, but there is something harsh in the earnest
intensity of youth, and having at first taken all these things quite
seriously, the fiery hell and God's vindictiveness at any neglect,


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