The Poison Belt (6)

By: Arthur Conan Doyle
May 22, 2012

HiLobrow is pleased to present the sixth installment of our serialization of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt. New installments will appear each Tuesday for 12 weeks.

If you alone had discovered that the Earth was about to be engulfed in a belt of poisonous “ether” from outer space, what would you do? Professor Challenger, a controversial scientist whose intellectual sprezzatura may remind you of Arthur Conan Doyle’s more famous fictional detective character, assembles the adventurers with whom he’d once romped through a South American jungle (in The Lost World, published in 1912) and locks them in his wife’s dressing room. Less a thriller than a brainteaser set against a catastrophic backdrop, in this 1913 sequel Challenger & Co. inquire into the method of the mind, and the relationship of intuition to reason, even as the world ends.

“To anyone who has had the delightful experience of traveling in The Lost World with Professor Challenger the bare announcement that that brilliant and eccentric personage plays a most important part in this new tale will quite suffice. For who, having once met the Professor, would not desire to continue the acquaintance?” — New York Times (1913).

“It’s impossible to read The Poison Belt, written in 1913, and not see in its exterminating vision a shadow of the coming war that would, only slightly less effectively, destroy Conan Doyle’s world.” — Gordon Dahlquist (2012 blurb for HiLoBooks)

In July, HiLoBooks will publish a beautiful new edition of The Poison Belt, with an introduction by Radium Age science fiction scholar (and HiLobrow editor) Joshua Glenn. Afterword by Gordon Dahlquist, author of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, The Dark Volume, and the forthcoming The Chemickal Marriage.

ORDER YOUR COPY NOW!

ALL EXCERPTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12

LAST WEEK: “Despairing messages were flashing from every quarter to the great centres of learning, to the chemists and the doctors of world-wide repute, imploring their advice. The astronomers too were deluged with inquiries. Nothing could be done. The thing was universal and beyond our human knowledge or control. It was death — painless but inevitable — death for young and old, for weak and strong, for rich and poor, without hope or possibility of escape.”

***

At that instant, just as I took a step backwards from the telephone, the thing was on us. It was as if we were bathers, up to our shoulders in water, who suddenly are submerged by a rolling wave. An invisible hand seemed to have quietly closed round my throat and to be gently pressing the life from me. I was conscious of immense oppression upon my chest, great tightness within my head, a loud singing in my ears, and bright flashes before my eyes. I staggered to the balustrades of the stair. At the same moment, rushing and snorting like a wounded buffalo, Challenger dashed past me, a terrible vision, with red-purple face, engorged eyes, and bristling hair. His little wife, insensible to all appearance, was slung over his great shoulder, and he blundered and thundered up the stair, scrambling and tripping, but carrying himself and her through sheer will-force through that mephitic atmosphere to the haven of temporary safety. At the sight of his effort I too rushed up the steps, clambering, falling, clutching at the rail, until I tumbled half senseless upon by face on the upper landing. Lord John’s fingers of steel were in the collar of my coat, and a moment later I was stretched upon my back, unable to speak or move, on the boudoir carpet. The woman lay beside me, and Summerlee was bunched in a chair by the window, his head nearly touching his knees. As in a dream I saw Challenger, like a monstrous beetle, crawling slowly across the floor, and a moment later I heard the gentle hissing of the escaping oxygen. Challenger breathed two or three times with enormous gulps, his lungs roaring as he drew in the vital gas.

“It works!” he cried exultantly. “My reasoning has been justified!” He was up on his feet again, alert and strong. With a tube in his hand he rushed over to his wife and held it to her face. In a few seconds she moaned, stirred, and sat up. He turned to me, and I felt the tide of life stealing warmly through my arteries. My reason told me that it was but a little respite, and yet, carelessly as we talk of its value, every hour of existence now seemed an inestimable thing. Never have I known such a thrill of sensuous joy as came with that freshet of life. The weight fell away from my lungs, the band loosened from my brow, a sweet feeling of peace and gentle, languid comfort stole over me. I lay watching Summerlee revive under the same remedy, and finally Lord John took his turn. He sprang to his feet and gave me a hand to rise, while Challenger picked up his wife and laid her on the settee.

“Oh, George, I am so sorry you brought me back,” she said, holding him by the hand. “The door of death is indeed, as you said, hung with beautiful, shimmering curtains; for, once the choking feeling had passed, it was all unspeakably soothing and beautiful. Why have you dragged me back?”

“Because I wish that we make the passage together. We have been together so many years. It would be sad to fall apart at the supreme moment.”

For a moment in his tender voice I caught a glimpse of a new Challenger, something very far from the bullying, ranting, arrogant man who had alternately amazed and offended his generation. Here in the shadow of death was the innermost Challenger, the man who had won and held a woman’s love. Suddenly his mood changed and he was our strong captain once again.

“Alone of all mankind I saw and foretold this catastrophe,” said he with a ring of exultation and scientific triumph in his voice. “As to you, my good Summerlee, I trust your last doubts have been resolved as to the meaning of the blurring of the lines in the spectrum and that you will no longer contend that my letter in the Times was based upon a delusion.”

For once our pugnacious colleague was deaf to a challenge. He could but sit gasping and stretching his long, thin limbs, as if to assure himself that he was still really upon this planet. Challenger walked across to the oxygen tube, and the sound of the loud hissing fell away till it was the most gentle sibilation.

“We must husband our supply of the gas,” said he. “The atmosphere of the room is now strongly hyper-oxygenated, and I take it that none of us feel any distressing symptoms. We can only determine by actual experiments what amount added to the air will serve to neutralize the poison. Let us see how that will do.”

We sat in silent nervous tension for five minutes or more, observing our own sensations. I had just begun to fancy that I felt the constriction round my temples again when Mrs. Challenger called out from the sofa that she was fainting. Her husband turned on more gas.

“In pre-scientific days,” said he, “they used to keep a white mouse in every submarine, as its more delicate organization gave signs of a vicious atmosphere before it was perceived by the sailors. You, my dear, will be our white mouse. I have now increased the supply and you are better.”

“Yes, I am better.”

“Possibly we have hit upon the correct mixture. When we have ascertained exactly how little will serve we shall be able to compute how long we shall be able to exist. Unfortunately, in resuscitating ourselves we have already consumed a considerable proportion of this first tube.”

“Does it matter?” asked Lord John, who was standing with his hands in his pockets close to the window. “If we have to go, what is the use of holdin’ on? You don’t suppose there’s any chance for us?”

Challenger smiled and shook his head.

“Well, then, don’t you think there is more dignity in takin’ the jump and not waitin’ to be pushed in? If it must be so, I’m for sayin’ our prayers, turnin’ off the gas, and openin’ the window.”

“Why not?” said the lady bravely. “Surely, George, Lord John is right and it is better so.”

“I most strongly object,” cried Summerlee in a querulous voice. “When we must die let us by all means die, but to deliberately anticipate death seems to me to be a foolish and unjustifiable action.”

“What does our young friend say to it?” asked Challenger.

“I think we should see it to the end.”

“And I am strongly of the same opinion,” said he.

“Then, George, if you say so, I think so too,” cried the lady.

“Well, well, I’m only puttin’ it as an argument,” said Lord John. “If you all want to see it through I am with you. It’s dooced interestin’, and no mistake about that. I’ve had my share of adventures in my life, and as many thrills as most folk, but I’m endin’ on my top note.”

“Granting the continuity of life,” said Challenger.

“A large assumption!” cried Summerlee. Challenger stared at him in silent reproof.

“Granting the continuity of life,” said he, in his most didactic manner, “none of us can predicate what opportunities of observation one may have from what we may call the spirit plane to the plane of matter. It surely must be evident to the most obtuse person” (here he glared a Summerlee) “that it is while we are ourselves material that we are most fitted to watch and form a judgment upon material phenomena. Therefore it is only by keeping alive for these few extra hours that we can hope to carry on with us to some future existence a clear conception of the most stupendous event that the world, or the universe so far as we know it, has ever encountered. To me it would seem a deplorable thing that we should in any way curtail by so much as a minute so wonderful an experience.”

“I am strongly of the same opinion,” cried Summerlee.

“Carried without a division,” said Lord John. “By George, that poor devil of a chauffeur of yours down in the yard has made his last journey. No use makin’ a sally and bringin’ him in?”

“It would be absolute madness,” cried Summerlee.

“Well, I suppose it would,” said Lord John. “It couldn’t help him and would scatter our gas all over the house, even if we ever got back alive. My word, look at the little birds under the trees!”

We drew four chairs up to the long, low window, the lady still resting with closed eyes upon the settee. I remember that the monstrous and grotesque idea crossed my mind — the illusion may have been heightened by the heavy stuffiness of the air which we were breathing — that we were in four front seats of the stalls at the last act of the drama of the world.

In the immediate foreground, beneath our very eyes, was the small yard with the half-cleaned motor-car standing in it. Austin, the chauffeur, had received his final notice at last, for he was sprawling beside the wheel, with a great black bruise upon his forehead where it had struck the step or mud-guard in falling. He still held in his hand the nozzle of the hose with which he had been washing down his machine. A couple of small plane trees stood in the corner of the yard, and underneath them lay several pathetic little balls of fluffy feathers, with tiny feet uplifted. The sweep of death’s scythe had included everything, great and small, within its swathe.

Over the wall of the yard we looked down upon the winding road, which led to the station. A group of the reapers whom we had seen running from the fields were lying all pell-mell, their bodies crossing each other, at the bottom of it. Farther up, the nurse-girl lay with her head and shoulders propped against the slope of the grassy bank. She had taken the baby from the perambulator, and it was a motionless bundle of wraps in her arms. Close behind her a tiny patch upon the roadside showed where the little boy was stretched. Still nearer to us was the dead cab-horse, kneeling between the shafts. The old driver was hanging over the splash-board like some grotesque scarecrow, his arms dangling absurdly in front of him. Through the window we could dimly discern that a young man was seated inside. The door was swinging open and his hand was grasping the handle, as if he had attempted to leap forth at the last instant. In the middle distance lay the golf links, dotted as they had been in the morning with the dark figures of the golfers, lying motionless upon the grass of the course or among the heather which skirted it. On one particular green there were eight bodies stretched where a foursome with its caddies had held to their game to the last. No bird flew in the blue vault of heaven, no man or beast moved upon the vast countryside which lay before us. The evening sun shone its peaceful radiance across it, but there brooded over it all the stillness and the silence of universal death — a death in which we were so soon to join. At the present instant that one frail sheet of glass, by holding in the extra oxygen which counteracted the poisoned ether, shut us off from the fate of all our kind. For a few short hours the knowledge and foresight of one man could preserve our little oasis of life in the vast desert of death and save us from participation in the common catastrophe. Then the gas would run low, we too should lie gasping upon that cherry-coloured boudoir carpet, and the fate of the human race and of all earthly life would be complete. For a long time, in a mood which was too solemn for speech, we looked out at the tragic world.

“There is a house on fire,” said Challenger at last, pointing to a column of smoke which rose above the trees. “There will, I expect, be many such — possibly whole cities in flames — when we consider how many folk may have dropped with lights in their hands. The fact of combustion is in itself enough to show that the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere is normal and that it is the ether which is at fault. Ah, there you see another blaze on the top of Crowborough Hill. It is the golf clubhouse, or I am mistaken. There is the church clock chiming the hour. It would interest our philosophers to know that man-made mechanisms has survived the race who made it.”

“By George!” cried Lord John, rising excitedly from his chair. “What’s that puff of smoke? It’s a train.”

We heard the roar of it, and presently it came flying into sight, going at what seemed to me to be a prodigious speed. Whence it had come, or how far, we had no means of knowing. Only by some miracle of luck could it have gone any distance. But now we were to see the terrific end of its career. A train of coal trucks stood motionless upon the line. We held our breath as the express roared along the same track. The crash was horrible. Engine and carriages piled themselves into a hill of splintered wood and twisted iron. Red spurts of flame flickered up from the wreckage until it was all ablaze. For half an hour we sat with hardly a word, stunned by the stupendous sight.

***

NEXT WEEK: “‘The true scientific mind is not to be tied down by its own conditions of time and space. It builds itself an observatory erected upon the border line of present, which separates the infinite past from the infinite future. From this sure post it makes its sallies even to the beginning and to the end of all things. As to death, the scientific mind dies at its post working in normal and methodic fashion to the end. It disregards so petty a thing as its own physical dissolution as completely as it does all other limitations upon the plane of matter.'”

Stay tuned!

***

RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HiLobrow’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.

HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels on HiLobrow; and also, as of 2012, operating as an imprint of Richard Nash’s Cursor, to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. So far, we have published Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’s The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, and J.D. Beresford’s Goslings. Forthcoming: E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.

READ: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, serialized between January and April 2012; and Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), serialized between March and June 2012.

ORIGINAL FICTION: HiLobrow has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic) and Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda. We also publish original stories and comics.

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