"I am staying with my uncle. Before I left the city I saw a great deal more of my father than I used to. And I found that there was something weighing on his mind, something that he kept to himself. Once he was very angry because he thought I guessed it.
"We have been living in ignorance of a terrible danger that hangs over us, over the whole world. My father knows of it, my uncle knows it. If you go to the Director of the State Observatory and tell him you come from my uncle he will not deceive you, though the danger is kept secret. It is this. The summers have been growing hotter and the winters colder, because we are attracted out of our orbit by Ardaea.
"In a little while we shall be frozen to death or burned up alive. My uncle knows a way of saving us. Please come and let him tell you what it is. By himself he can do nothing, but with you to help him he can bring us to safety again.
Yours very sincerely,"LAURA CARTWRIGHT."
If one of us had taken the journey Wall took in response to this letter, had passed the crowded cities, the straggling villages and solitary dwellings on our way, we should have felt a strange sense of isolation—as if our unshared knowledge was phantasmal, and all those unconscious people in the possession of the truth, not ourselves.
How could the age-long routine of business, barter, trade—the intense and urgent solicitude of every man in his own affairs—how could the absorption of each man in his own microscopic corner be interrupted! By dint of their intense pre-occupation in their own individual affairs, the race has surely won the right to have the basis on which all rests undisturbed. The firmament, the arch of sky, the mutations of the seasons, the fabric of the earth, they at least must be secure. But Wall had wrung the secret of State from the unwilling astronomer and accepted it. He believed in the interplanetary vicissitude and was prepared to consider means of averting it. There was no lack of events which he could have looked on as ominous and significant. Great storms had beaten on the shore. A tidal wave of unprecedented magnitude had caused serious damage to the ships prepared for his expedition. The frightened colonists refused to sail till the sea was settled to its usual calm. But his attitude, his readiness to believe and act upon a theory can only be explained by the history of his people. We must remember that Unæa owed her existence to an idea—it was the idea of the circularity of the earth that saved Unæa from destruction at the hands of the Scythiansand therefore the Unæans had a different attitude with regard to ideas to that which we have, for we belong to the barbarian hordes who swept off the face of the earth the people who had ideas—the Greeks and Romans. Ideas are to us of incidental assistance, but we feel that essentially we can do very well without them. The Unæans were different, they had a faculty of realising and acting according to ideas which seems strange to us. Our history is as the Astrian history would have been had the Scythians overwhelmed Unæa, and plunged the nascent star of civilization into long centuries of eclipse.
At this epoch of his life, Wall was free from those charges of unbridled and self-seeking ambition which were afterwards levelled at him. His life, if obscure, had been simple and straightforward. For so young a man, he exercised a remarkable influence over his comrades, due perhaps to his power, which showed itself so often at a crisis of coming to an unexpected but irresistibly incisive decision, sweeping the minds of all along with his own—an influence perhaps due, in some measure, to the hidden passion which lay behind all his frank comradeship, giving a touch in his intimacies of that zest for the unattainable, that reaching beyond the obvious bounds of fate which lies latent in everyone.
Some would look on him on this journey as filled with an unscrupulous ambition, preparing to strike with the subtlest instinct of success. And this no doubt is true. Strictly speaking, his course is indefensible. But there is another side. Let us look on him that last night of his journey as he hurried on.
Slowly Ardaea rose, the hymned of mortals, the divine orb, the legended cold lover of the earth, towards whom poets had ever turned lavishing their adoration. She slowly rose, strangely ardent, and burning bright, for at last that cold heart was touched: the chaste and solitary, the huntress of the skies, had turned from her lonely path and, responding, was already swerving in one moment of the giddy whirl of passion to draw her earth lover to his endless death. But innocent! Away with the fables that lend the appearance of purpose to the course of things. In the appointed revolutions of the orbs of heaven, in those great secular changes, there is but inevitable law, and in the cold rhythm of the cosmos, the warm pulse of heart, the plan of mind, and all the fabled legends of the soul of things, is but as the plash of a pebble in the ocean, signifying nothing.
Yet wherefore this throb? This life passion that he felt rising within him as he drew near his journey's end? In the suffusion wherein all his being lost itself in another's, in this was there not something as great as in all the world's inevitable course?
Thinking of her and all she meant to him, he entered on a different path, a different way to that wide contemplation of vastness, but in this intimate, most secret, and real communion he arrived at something as true and as strong as all the substantial distant phantasmagoria of earth and skies.
Did she not tell him there was hope? Himself and her in the face of this great catastrophe, were not alone. Love and trust and hope had ever been, had ever faced the vast mechanic universe. What of the age-long revolutions of the planets, had there not been age-long efforts of true men. Incalculable vast forces went to the swinging of the orbs of heaven, but also incalculable vast forces, age after age, and generation after generation, in the beating hearts of men, laboured there also, built up their edifices, prepared their powers. And in the army which had saved Unæa, which, now abandoned of its use still strangely lingered on, for all its forlornness yet capable of predominance absolute, perchance that army now by gathering all the forces of the land, gathering them from ineffective hands, might save the earth—what else than some such message could her letter mean?
Harold found himself in the presence of an old man, bowed and emaciated, but of a ponderous brow and keen gaze, and his love stood by silent. The old man asked him:
"You have questioned the astronomers?"
"Yes, they have left no doubt in my mind."
"In the greatness of our peril," said Farmer, "all that human ingenuity has devised stands for nothing. No known force can alter the orbit of our earth. The event is hopeless as far as our science goes."
"That is the opinion of those who have studied the question."
"But it is hard to set a limit to what is possible. What men think possible depends on two elements, notone. It depends on the facts and on their ideas. Now, science has been concerned in developing a certain limited range of ideas—they are a few out of the many ideas of the past—just the few which we justify by observation and experiment. But there are many more ideas than these, and I believe that our path lies more in acquiring new ideas than in the one we have trod for the past few centuries—in working out the consequences of the ideas we have.
"There is one idea which I have been trying to live into all my life, and which gives a perfectly new range of thought and physical possibilities. It is the idea of a third dimension. According to it, when you think you are in empty space you are really not so. To prevent your moving in the third dimension there must be some physical cause, a source of resistance. This is the alongside being, a substance with which you are in contact whenever you move, which you never can become aware of because you never leave it, you are like a particle slipping along a smooth edge—the edge prevents its moving except in a line.
"Now, along this alongside being, there are all the directions of motion possible which we can point to, and by acting on this alongside substance we can hinder and change our movements. The means, and the only one by which we can escape the catastrophe, is by acting on this alongside substance to deflect the course of our world. This can be done. I will explain how."
Harold answered, "To say that there is something besides space which stretches infinitely all round us sounds to me absurd. You have a scientific theory, put it before the learned bodies, you can convince them if it is true."
Farmer made a gesture of resignation, but Laura seized his hand in her warm grasp and smiled encouragement, whispering, "He only wants to find out what you have done already."
"I have tried," said Farmer, "to convince the learned bodies. They assume that my view is mere formal analogy and will not spend the labour in habituating themselves to it, which is necessary to feel it true."
"But you can prove it is true."
"I can, but in no way they will admit. The conditions of my proof are too involved, and individual with me. They call it spiritualistic jugglery and will not attend to it for a moment. You must try to understand."
"In the first place," answered Wall, "I doubt if I should understand however long you took in explaining, and in the second place it can make no conceivable difference whether I understand or not. I am a soldier merely and obey orders. Now there are many clear-headed men who have a great deal of influence in the government, you should appeal to them."
"You mean my brother and others like him?" said Farmer. "They pay the scientific men to do their thinking for them."
"Then," said Harold, "there is only one course left. You must move the people by the churches."
"Don't trifle; the kind of people that direct them wouldn't have the slightest comprehension of what I mean."
"I can only judge in a rough and ready way," said Harold, "but I should say there were as great intellects among them as among scientific men. You must trust to them recognising you. Their very distance from you will make it easier for them than for those closer to you."
"What shall I say to them?" asked the old man.
"Tell them exactly what you think—be genuine, let them judge. Write me a letter explaining the danger clearly. I will use it to prepare the way for you."
The old man, surprised at the turn affairs had taken, went into the house to write the letter, and Harold and Laura were left face to face.
He looked at the delicate, lovely figure before him—the joy of the earth, the light of the stars—so real; and to protect her, win her, gain her, meant this scheme of a visionary, the tortuous labyrinthine windings of thought, dark and hidden, touching open day but to produce subversion and a medley of strife. For a moment he was almost saying: "Laura, let this wild dreamer alone; you and I are real, let us be our simple selves." But what did that lead to? Nothing, save one sweet moment. And that was impossible. He would accept her mission, take the cause of this dreamer on him, see it through, but not use her trust in him to win her. She must not risk her heart in the perilous adventure and the conflict he foresaw. He would not throw those links and ties on her, the desperate grief of breaking which he knew so well himself. The die was cast. Into the tumultuous waters went he; and she, so close a moment before, was as the dear land a swimmer has left behind. He said impatiently:
"How can he, believing what he does, potter round here instead of acting?"
"But you believe in him, Harold?"
"The only thing I can say for him is that he appears ready to recognise his own limitations."
"He is the wisest man that ever lived. If you are not kind to him I shall never speak to you again."
"I'll treat him as well as he deserves."
"Deserves! You are irritated because understand a word he says."
"Harold, you are dreadfully rough. I can understand how nobody can get on with you. Now, uncle explained it all to me. It's beautiful."
"And I suppose you understood it?"
"Of course, I do, I'm reasonable. You are going quite the wrong way."
"I suppose you know the right way."
"Certainly," said Laura.
The waves incessantly throw themselves against the rocks they can never move; why they love to is because they know they can never move them; and so Laura threw herself against the resolution of the man.
"You ought," she said, "to learn what he means and then explain it to others."
"You think the world's made up of sweet reasonableness."
"It's your fault, Harold, to think that everything can be done by violence. I can persuade people a hundred times as well as you."
"The best thing you can do, Laura, is to keep out of it altogether."
"How ungrateful you are! You would never have known anything at all about it if I hadn't told you."
"Once telling is enough."
"I enlisted you and this is how you treat me."
"Listen, Laura! Your uncle and you must start as soon as possible. When you get home stay quietly with your father. Imagine you have dreamt all this."
Laura protested, but Harold was firm. Iron makes very effective implements, but women like to handle something softer. What a contrast it was to the vision her uncle held out of Harold and she, in the fulness of their love, joining together for a supreme effort! Harold didn't say a word of love—simply brushed her aside. "Oh! I am an intelligent human being," she said, "not a doll or a puppet." She looked at him defiantly, but met a gaze worse than her father's. She felt bruised and helpless and flung aside. Wall made a mistake when he looked at her as he would at an insubordinate private on the field of battle. He ran great risks in treating a high-spirited girl so.
Suddenly the blue sunlit sky was filled with an opalescent mist, all things grew dim and distant, pale and phantom-like, the whole earth became a shadow,and, like creatures lost and groping, that seek but a saviour from eternal solitude, they moved towards one another closer and closer still . . . and then they heard Farmer coming from the house, and saw the sky was blue again and the sun shining; the day of work was about them, the day of meeting many people, the day of tedious trifles, of danger, labour, pleasure, pains; but never the day of forgetting that vision of themselves alone in a world of shadows.