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CHAPTER THIRTEEN - HOW I FELL IN WITH THE CURATE (continued)
"Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then--fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work---- What are these Martians?"
"What are we?" I answered, clearing my throat.
He gripped his knees and turned to look at me again. For half a minute, perhaps, he stared silently.
"I was walking through the roads to clear my brain," he said. "And suddenly--fire, earthquake, death!"
He relapsed into silence, with his chin now sunken almost to his knees.
Presently he began waving his hand.
"All the work--all the Sunday schools---- What have we done--what has Weybridge done? Everything gone--every-thing destroyed. The church! We rebuilt it only three years ago. Gone! Swept out of existence! Why?"
Another pause, and he broke out again like one demented.
"The smoke of her burning goeth up for ever and ever!" he shouted.
His eyes flamed, and he pointed a lean finger in the direction of Weybridge.
By this time I was beginning to take his measure. The tremendous tragedy in which he had been involved--it was evident he was a fugitive from Weybridge--had driven him to the very verge of his reason.
"Are we far from Sunbury?" I said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
"What are we to do?" he asked. "Are these creatures everywhere? Has the earth been given over to them?"
"Are we far from Sunbury?"
"Only this morning I officiated at early celebration----"
"Things have changed," I said, quietly. "You must keep your head. There is still hope."
"Yes. Plentiful hope--for all this destruction!"
I began to explain my view of our position. He listened at first, but as I went on the interest dawning in his eyes gave place to their former stare, and his regard wandered from me.
"This must be the beginning of the end," he said, interrupting me. "The end! The great and terrible day of the Lord! When men shall call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon them and hide them--hide them from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne!"
I began to understand the position. I ceased my laboured reasoning, struggled to my feet, and, standing over him, laid my hand on his shoulder.
"Be a man!" said I. "You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent."
For a time he sat in blank silence.
"But how can we escape?" he asked, suddenly. "They are invulnerable, they are pitiless."
"Neither the one nor, perhaps, the other," I answered. "And the mightier they are the more sane and wary should we be. One of them was killed yonder not three hours ago."
"Killed!" he said, staring about him. "How can God's ministers be killed?"
"I saw it happen." I proceeded to tell him. "We have chanced to come in for the thick of it," said I, "and that is all."
"What is that flicker in the sky?" he asked abruptly.
I told him it was the heliograph signalling--that it was the sign of human help and effort in the sky.
"We are in the midst of it," I said, "quiet as it is. That flicker in the sky tells of the gathering storm. Yonder, I take it are the Martians, and Londonward, where those hills rise about Richmond and Kingston and the trees give cover, earth-works are being thrown up and guns are being placed. Presently the Martians will be coming this way again."
And even as I spoke he sprang to his feet and stopped me by a gesture.
"Listen!" he said.
From beyond the low hills across the water came the dull resonance of distant guns and a remote weird crying. Then everything was still. A cockchafer came droning over the hedge and past us. High in the west the crescent moon hung faint and pale above the smoke of Weybridge and Shepperton and the hot, still splendour of the sunset.
"We had better follow this path," I said, "northward."