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ROBERT DUNCAN MILNE

INTO THE SUN

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First published in
The Argonaut, San Francisco, California, 18 November 1882

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Illustration

Robert Duncan Milne (1844-1899)


THE Scottish-born author Robert Duncan Milne, who lived and worked in San Fransisco, may be considered as one of the founding-fathers of modern science-fiction. He wrote 60-odd stories in this genre before his untimely death in a street accident in 1899, publishing them, for the most part, in The Argonaut and San Francisco Examiner.

In its report on Milne's demise (he was struck by a cable-car while in a state of inebriation) The San Fransico Call of 17 December 1899 summarised his life as follows:


"Mr. Milne was the son of the late Rev. George Gordon Milne, M.A., F.R.S.A., for forty years incumbent of St. James Episcopal Church, Cupar-Fife. and nephew of Duncan James Kay, Esq., of Drumpark, J.P. and D.L. of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, through which side of the house, and by maternal ancestry (through the Breadalbane family), he was lineally descended from King Robert the Bruce.

"He received his primary education at Trinity College, Glenalmond, where he distinguished himself by gaining first the Skinner scholarship, which he held for a period of three years; second, the Knox prize for Latin verse, the competition for which is open to a number of public echools in England and Ireland, and thirdly, the Buccleuch gold medal as senior and captain of the school, of the eleven of which he was also captain.

"From Glenalmond Mr. Milne proceeded to Oxford, where he further distinguished himself by taking honors, also rowing in his college eight and playing in its eleven.

"After leaving the university he decided to visit California, a country then beginning to be more talked about than ever, and he afterward made the Pacific Coast his residence. In 1874 Mr. Milne invented and exhibited in the Mechanics' Fair at San Francisco a working model of a new type of rotary steam engine, which was pronounced to be the wonder of the fair.

"While in California Mr. Milne for a long time gained distinction as a writer of short stories and verse which appeared in current periodicals. The character of his work was well defined by Mrs. Gertrude Atherton, who said:

"'He has an extravagant imagination, but under it is a reassuring and scientific mind. He takes such a premise as a comet falling into the sun, and works out a terribly realistic series of results: or he will invent a drama for Saturn which might well have grown out of that planet's conditions. His style is so good and so convincing that one is apt to lay down such a story as the former, with an anticipation of nightmare, if comets are hanging about. His sense of humor and literary taste will always stop him the right side of the grotesque.'"


Illustration

A caricature showing Robert Duncan Milne and a San Francisco cable-car.


INTO THE SUN

Scene—San Francisco / Time—1883

"AND so you think, doctor, that the comet which has just been reported from South America is the same as last year's comet—the one discovered first by Cruls at Rio Janeiro, I mean, and which was afterward so plainly visible to us here all through the month of October?"

"Judging from the statement in the papers regarding its general appearance, and the course in which it is traveling, I do not see to what other conclusion we can come. It is approaching the sun from the same quarter as last year's comet; it resembles it in appearance; its rate of motion is as great, if not greater; all these things are very strong arguments of identity."

"But, then, how do you account for so speedy a return? This is only the end of August, and last year's comet was computed to have passed its perihelion about the eighteenth of September—scarcely a year ago. Even Encke's and Biela's comets, which are denizens of our solar system, so to speak, have longer periods than that."

"I account for it simply on the hypothesis that this comet passes so close to the sun that its motion is retarded, and its course consequently changed after every such approach. I believe, with Mr. Proctor and Professor Boss, that this is the comet of 1843 and 1880; that it is moving in a succession of eccentric spirals, the curvatures of which have reduced its periods of revolution from perhaps many hundreds of years to—at its last recorded return—thirty-seven years, then to two and a fraction, and now to less than one; and that its ultimate destination is to be precipitated into the sun."

"This is certainly startling, supposing your hypothesis to be correct; and should such a casualty happen, what result would you anticipate?"

"That demands some consideration. Take another cigar, and we shall look into the matter."


THE foregoing conversation took place in the rooms of my friend Doctor Arkwright, upon Market Street; the time was about eleven o'clock at night; the date, the twenty-seventh of August; the interrogations had been mine and the answers the doctor's. I may add that the doctor was a chemist of no mean attainments, and took great interest in all scientific discussions and experiments.

"The effect of the collision of a comet with the sun," observed the doctor, as he lit his cigar, "would depend upon a good many conditions. It would depend primarily upon the mass, momentum, and velocity of the comet—something, too, upon its constitution. Let me see that paragraph again. Ah, here it is," and the doctor proceeded to read from the paper:


"'RIO JANEIRO, August 18th.—The comet was again visible last evening, before and after sunset, about thirty degrees from the sun. Mr. Cruls pronounces it identical with the comet of last year. It is approaching the sun at the rate of two and a half degrees a day. R.A., at noon, yesterday, 178 degrees, 24 minutes; Dec. 83 degrees, 40 minutes, S.'


"Now this," he went on, "corresponds exactly with the position and motion of last year's comet. It came from a point nearly due south of the sun, consequently was invisible to the northern hemisphere before perihelion."

"Pardon me," I interrupted, "but you remember the newspaper predictions regarding last year's comet were to the effect that it would speedily become invisible to us here, whereas it continued to adorn the morning skies for weeks, till it faded away in the remote distance."

"That was because the nature of its orbit was not distinctly understood. The plane of the comet's orbit cut the plane of the earth's orbit nearly at right angles, but the major axis or general direction of this orbit in space, was also inclined some fifty degrees to our plane; and so it came about that while the approach of the comet was from a point somewhat east of south, its return journey into space was along a line some twenty degrees south of west, which threw its course nearly along the line of the celestial equator; consequently, last year's comet was visible in the early morning, not only to us, but to every inhabitant of the earth between the sixtieth parallel north and the south pole, until the vast distance caused it to disappear. But, as I was going to say when you interrupted me, if the distance of the comet from the sun was only thirty degrees when observed at Rio Janeiro, nine days ago, and its speed was then two and a half degrees a day, it cannot be far from perihelion now, especially as its speed increases as it approaches the sun."

"Suppose it should strike the sun this time," said I. "What results would you predict?"

"A solid globe," replied the doctor, "of the size of our earth, if falling upon the sun with the momentum resulting from direct attraction from its present position in space, would engender sufficient heat to maintain the solar fires at their existing standard, without further supply, for about ninety years. This calculation does not involve great scientific or mathematical knowledge, but, on the contrary, is as simple as it is reliable, because we have positive data to go upon in the mass and momentum of our planet. But with a comet the case is different. We do not know what elements its nucleus is composed of. It is true we know the value of its momentum; but what does that tell us if we do not know its density or its mass? A momentum of four hundred miles a second—the estimated rate of speed of the present comet at perihelion—would undoubtedly engender fierce combustion were the comet a ponderable body. On the other hand, large bodies composed of fluid matter highly volatilized might collide with the sun without an appreciable effect."

"Have we any data to go upon in this matter?" I inquired.

"With regard to our own sun," replied the doctor, "we have not; but several suggestive circumstances have occurred in the case of other suns which lead us to infer that something similar might happen to our own. Some years ago, a star in the constellation Cygnus was observed to suddenly blaze out with extraordinary brilliancy, its lustre increasing from that of a star of the sixth magnitude—but faintly distinguishable to the unaided eye—to that of a star of the first. This brilliancy was maintained for several days, when it resumed its original condition. Now, it is fair to infer that this great increase of light may have been caused by the precipitation of some large solid body—a planet, a comet, or perhaps another sun—upon the sun in question; and, as light and heat are now understood to be merely different modes or expressions of the same quality of motion, it is fair to infer further that the increment of heat corresponded to that of light."

"What, then, do you suppose would be the natural effect upon ourselves here, on this planet, by some such catastrophe as you have just imagined happening to our own sun!" I asked.

"The light and heat of our luminary might be increased a hundred-fold, or a thousand-fold, according to the nature of the collision. One can conceive of combustion so fierce as to evaporate all of our oceans in one short minute, or even to volatilize the solid matter of our planet in less than that time, like a globule of mercury in a hot-air chamber. 'Large' and 'small' are not absolute, but relative, terms in Nature's vocabulary; both are equally amenable to her laws," sententiously observed the doctor.

"A comforting reflection, certainly," I remarked. "Let us hope we shall not be favored with any such experience."

"Who can tell?" rejoined the doctor, as he rose from his seat. "Excuse me for a minute. You know there is a balloon ascension from Woodward's Gardens to-morrow, and there is a new ingredient I am going to introduce at the inflation. The stuff wants a little more mixing. Take another cigar. I won't be a minute."


I SAT back and meditated as I listened to the retreating footsteps of the doctor, as he passed into an adjoining room. I looked at the clock. It was half past eleven. It was a warm night for San Francisco in August—remarkably so, in fact. I got up to open the window, and as I did so the doctor entered the room again.

"What is that?" I exclaimed involuntarily, as I threw up the sash. And the spectacle which met my gaze as I did so, certainly warranted the exclamation.

Doctor Arkwright's rooms were on the north side of Market Street, and the inferior height of the buildings opposite afforded an uninterrupted view of the horizon to the south and east. Over the tops of the houses to the east could be seen a thin, livid line, marking the waters of the bay, and beyond it the serrated outline of the Alameda hills. All this was normal and just as I had seen it a hundred times before, but in the northeast the sky was lit up with a lurid, dull red glow, which extended northward along the horizon in a broadening arc, till the view was shut out by the street-line to our left. This light resembled in all respects the Aurora Borealis, except that of color. Instead of the cold, clear radiance of the northern light, we were confronted with an angry, blood-red glare which ever and anon shot forks, and tongues, and streamers of fire upward toward the zenith. It was as if some vast conflagration were in progress to our north. But what, I asked myself, could produce so extensive, so powerful an illumination? Vast forest fires, or the burning of large cities, make themselves manifest by a sky-reflected glare for great distances, but they do not display the regularity—or the harmony, so to speak—which was apparent in the present instance. The conclusion was inevitable that the phenomenon was not local in its source.

As we looked out at the window we could see that the scene had arrested the attention of others besides ourselves. Little knots of people had collected on the sidewalk; larger knots at the street corners; and the passers-by kept turning their heads to gaze at the strange spectacle. At the same time the air was growing heavier and more sultry every minute. There was not a breath stirring, but an ominous and preternatural calm seemed to brood over the city, like that which in some climates is the precursor of a storm, and which here is frequently known as "earthquake weather."

The doctor broke the silence.

"This is something quite out of the common run of events," he exclaimed. "That light in the north must have a cause. All the Sonoma and Mendocino redwoods, with the pineries of Oregon and Washington Territory thrown in, would not make such a blaze as that. Besides, that is not the sort of sky-reflection a forest fire would cause."

"Just my own idea," I asserted.

"Let us see if we cannot connect it with a wider origin. It is now nearly midnight. That light is in the north. The sun's rays are now illuminating the other side of the globe. It is, therefore, sunrise on the Atlantic, noon in eastern Europe, and sunset in western Asia. When you came here, scarcely an hour ago, the heavens were clear, and the temperature normal. Whatever has given rise to this extraordinary phenomenon has done so within the last hour. Even since we began to look I see that the extremity of the illuminated arc has shifted further to the east. That light has its origin in the sun, but it altogether passes the bounds of experience."

"Might we not connect it with the comet we have just been speaking about?" I suggested. "It should now be near its perihelion point."

"That must be it," acquiesced the doctor. "Who knows but that the fiery wanderer has actually come in contact with the sun? Let us go out."


WE put on our hats, and left the building. All along the sidewalks we came upon excited groups staring at the strange light, and speculating upon its cause. The general expression of opinion referred it to some vast forest fire, though there were not wanting religious enthusiasts who saw in it a manifestation of divine wrath, or a portent of the predicted consummation of all things; for in the uninformed human mind there is no middle ground between the grossly practical and the purely fanatical. We hurried along Market Street and turned down Kearny, where the crowds were even denser and more anxious-looking. Arrived at the Chronicle office, I noticed that a succession of messengers from the various telegraph offices were encountering each other on the stairs of the building.

"If you will wait a minute," I said to the doctor, "I will run upstairs and find out what is the matter."

"Strange news from the East," said the telegraphic editor, hurriedly, in answer to my question, at the same time pointing to a little pile of dispatches. "These have been coming in for the last half hour from all points of the Union."

I took up one, and read the contents:


NEW YORK, 3:15 A.M.—EXTRAORDINARY LIGHT JUST BROKE OUT OVER THE EASTERN HORIZON. VERY RED AND THREATENING. SEEMS TO PROCEED FROM A GREAT DISTANCE OUT AT SEA. PEOPLE UNABLE TO ASSIGN CAUSE.


Another ran as follows:


NEW ORLEANS, 4:10 A.M.—VIVID CONFLAGRATION REFLECTED IN THE SKY, A LITTLE NORTH OF EAST. GENERAL SENTIMENT THAT VAST FIRES HAVE SPRUNG UP IN THE CANE-BRAKES. POPULATION ABROAD AND ANXIOUS.


"There are a score more," remarked the editor, "from Chicago, Memphis, Canada—everywhere, in fact—all to the same purpose. What do you make of it?"

"The phenomenon is evidently universal," I said. "It must have its origin in the sun. Do you notice how hot and stifling the air is getting? Have you any dispatches from Europe?"

"None yet. Ah, here is a cablegram repeated from New York," said the editor, taking a dispatch from the hand of a messenger who just then entered. "This may tell us something. Listen:


"'LONDON, 7:45 A.M.—FIVE MINUTES AGO SUN'S HEAT BECAME OVERPOWERING. BUSINESS STOPPED. PEOPLE FALLING DEAD IN STREETS. THERMOMETER RISEN FROM 52 DEGREES TO 113. STILL RISING. MESSAGE FROM GREENWICH OBSERVATORY SAYS—'


"The dispatch stops abruptly there," interpolated the editor, "and the New York operator goes on thus: 'Message cut short. Nothing more through cable. Intense alarm everywhere. Light and heat increasing.'"

"Well," said I, "it must be as Doctor Arkwright suggested. The comet observed again at Rio Janeiro, ten days ago, has fallen into the sun. Heaven only knows what we had better do."

"I shall edit these dispatches and get the paper out, at any rate," said the editor with determination. "Ah, here comes the ice for the printers," as half a dozen men filed past the door, each with a sack upon his shoulder. "The paper must come out if the earth burns for it. I fancy we can hold out until sunrise, and before then the worst may be over."

I left the office, rejoined the doctor in the street, and told him the news.

"There is no doubt about it," he remarked at once. "The comet of last year has fallen into the sun. All the telegraphic messages were nearly identical in time, as it is now just midnight here, and consequently about four o'clock in New York, and eight o'clock in England."

"What had we better do?" queried I.

"I do not think there is any cause for immediate alarm," replied the doctor. "We shall see whether the heat increases materially between now and sunrise, and take measures accordingly. Meanwhile, let us look about us."


THE scenes of alarm were intensified in the streets as we passed along. It seemed as if half the population of the city had left their houses, and gathered in the most public places. Thousands of people were pushing and jostling each other in the neighborhood of the various newspaper offices in frantic endeavors to get a glimpse of the bulletin boards, where the substance of the various telegrams was posted up as fast as they came in. Multitudes of hacks and express wagons were driving hither and thither, crowded with family parties seemingly intent upon leaving the city, and probably without any definite aim or accurate comprehension of what they were doing or whither they were going.

As the hours wore on toward morning the angry red arch moved farther along the horizon, its outlines grew bolder and brighter, and its flaming crest towered higher in the heavens. Nothing could be conceived more ominous or ghastly, more calculated to produce feelings of brutish terror, and to convince the spectator of his utter powerlessness to cope with an inevitable and inexorable event, than this blood-red arch of flame which spread over one fourth of the apparent horizon. The air, too, was momentarily growing heavier and more stifling. A glance at a thermometer in one of the hotels gave a temperature of 114 degrees.

Between two and three o'clock four successive alarms of fire were sounded from the lower quarters of the city. Two large wholesale houses and a liquor store, in three contiguous blocks, caught fire, evidently the work of incendiaries. Multitudes of the worst rabble collected, as if by concert, in the business quarters. Shops and warehouses were broken into and looted—the police force, though working vigorously, not being strong enough to arrest the work of pillage, backed as it was by the moral terrors of the night, and the general paralysis which unnerved the better class of citizens. Strange scenes were being enacted at every corner and on every street. Groups of women kneeling upon sidewalks, and rending the air with prayers and lamentations, were jostled aside by ruffians wild and furious with liquor. A procession of religious fanatics, chanting shrill and discordant hymns, and bearing lanterns in their hands, passed unheeded through the crowded streets, and we could afterward watch them threading their way up the steep side of Telegraph Hill. In short, the terrible and bizarre effects of that fearful night would overtax the pen of a Dante to describe, or the pencil of a Doré to portray.

"Let us go home," said the doctor, looking at his watch. "It is now half past three. The temperature of the atmosphere is evidently rising. The chances are that it will become unbearable after sunrise. We must consider what is best to do."


WE pushed our way back through the crowded streets, past despairing and terror-stricken men and wailing women; but as we passed the bulletin boards at the corner of Bush and Kearny streets, it was encouraging to mark that at least one earthly industry would continue to go on till the mechanism could run no longer, and that the world would, at any rate, get full particulars of its approaching doom, so long as wires could transmit them, compositors set them in type, and pressmen print them. I felt that the power and grandeur of the press had never been more fully exemplified than in the regular and ceaseless pulsations of its machinery as the daily issue was being thrown off, with the news that the other hemisphere was in conflagration, and that a few short hours would in all probability witness the same catastrophe in our own.

The last two wagons which had driven up with ice for the employees had been boarded and sacked by the thirsty mob, and, looking down into the press room as I entered the building, I could see the pressmen stripped to the waist in that terrible hot-air bath, while upstairs the telegraphic editor was in similar deshabillé, with the additional feature of a wet towel bound round his temples. He motioned to the latest dispatch from New York as I entered. I took it up and read as follows:


NEW YORK, 6 A.M.—SUN JUST RISEN. HEAT TERRIBLE. AIR SUFFOCATING. PEOPLE SEEKING SHADE. THOUSANDS BATHING OFF THE DOCKS. THOUSANDS KILLED BY SUNSTROKE.


"Almost a recapitulation of the London message of three hours ago," I said, as I hurried out. "Three hours hence we may expect the same here."

I rejoined the doctor in the street, and together we proceeded to his apartments.

"Now," said he, as I told him the purport of the last message, "there is only one thing to be done if we wish to save our lives. It is a chance if even this plan will succeed, but at all events there is a chance."

"What is it?" I asked eagerly.

"I take it," answered he, "that the increase of heat and light which will accrue as soon as the sun rises above the horizon must prove fatal to all animal life beneath the influence of his beams. The population of Europe, and by this time, I doubt not, of all this country east of the Mississippi, is next to annihilated. With us it is but a question of time unless—"

"Unless what?" I exclaimed excitedly, as he paused meditatively.

"Unless we are willing to run a great risk," he added. "You are a philosopher enough to know that heat and light are simply modes of motion—expressions, so to speak, of the same molecular action of the elements they pass through or agitate. They have no intrinsic being in themselves, no entity, no existence, as it were, independent of outside matter. In their case the two forms of outside matter affected by them are the ether pervading space and the atmosphere of our planet. Do you follow?"

"Certainly," I replied, impatiently, for I dreaded one of the doctor's disquisitions at such a critical moment as this. "But my dear sir, what is the practical application of your theorem? How can we apply it to the case in point?"

"In this wise," he went on: "heat—that is, the heat we have to do with now—is caused by the action of the sun's rays upon our atmosphere. If we get beyond the limits of that atmosphere, what then? Simply, we have no heat. Ascend to a sufficient altitude, even under the cloudless rays of the vertical sun, and you will freeze to death. The limit of perpetual snow is not an extreme one."

"I catch your idea perfectly," I assented. "I concede the accuracy of your premises. But what does it avail us? The Sierra Nevada mountains are practically as far off as the peaks of the Himalayas."

"There are other means," rejoined the doctor, "of attaining the necessary altitude. A balloon ascension, as you are aware, was to have taken place today from Woodward's Gardens. I was going to assist at the inflation, to test a new method of generating gas. I now propose that we endeavor to gain possession of the balloon and make the ascension. I do not think we shall be anticipated or thwarted in doing so.

"We must remember that the risk of the balloon bursting, through the expansion of the gas, is great; for we shall be exposed, not only to its normal expansion, should we penetrate the upper atmospheric strata, but to its abnormal expansion through heat, should we fail to do so in time."

"It is shaking the dice with Death in any case," I answered, and proceeded to assist the doctor in packing the apparatus and chemicals he had prepared over night; and, having done so, we left the building and hastened southward along Market Street. The cars were not running, and the carriages we saw paid no heed to our importunities; so the precious time seemed to fly past, while we swiftly covered the mile which separated us from the gardens. The gates were luckily open, and none of the employees visible, so we made for the spot where the balloon, half-inflated, lay like some slimy antediluvian monster in its lair. We adjusted the apparatus and arranged the ropes as speedily as possible, and waited anxiously while the great bag slowly swelled and shook, rearing itself and falling back by turns, but gradually assuming more and more spherical proportions.


MEANWHILE, we had again opportunity to observe the condition of the atmosphere and the heavens. It was already half past four, and in less than an hour the sun would spring up in the east. The pale, bluish tints of daybreak were beginning to assert themselves beside the lurid semi-circle which flamed above them. This latter changed to a hard, coppery hue as daylight became stronger, but preserved its contour unchanged. The heat became more oppressive, the thermometer we had brought with us now registering 133 degrees. Strange sounds were wafted in from the city—meaningless, indeed, but rendered fearfully suggestive by the circumstances of the morning. The animals howled unceasingly from their cages, and we could hear their frantic struggles for liberty. One cat-like form that had made good its escape shot past us in the gloom. Had the whole menagerie been set free at that moment, we should have had nothing to fear from them, so great is the influence elemental crises exert over the brute creation.


WE had at last the satisfaction of seeing the great globe swing clear of the ground, though not yet full inflated, and tug at the ropes which moored it. We had already placed the ballast- bags and other necessary articles in the car, when, perspiring at every pore, we simultaneously cut the last ropes, and rose heavily into the air. There was not a breath of wind stirring, but our course was guided slightly east in the direction of the bay.

It was now broad daylight, and the upper limb of the sun appeared above the horizon as we estimated our altitude from surrounding objects at about a thousand feet. As the full orb appeared the heat became more intense, and by the doctor's direction we swathed our heads in flannel, sprinkled sparingly with a preparation of ether and alcohol, the swift evaporation of which imparted coolness for a short time. The sky had now assumed the appearance of a vast brazen dome, and the waters of the ocean to the west and the bay beneath us reflected the dull, dead, pitiless glare with horrible fidelity. We had taken the precaution to hang heavy blankets upon the ropes sustaining the car, and these we kept sparingly moistened with water. Our own thirst was as intense as our perspiration was profuse, and we had divested ourselves of everything but our woolen underclothing—wool being a nonconductor, and therefore as effective in excluding heat as retaining it.

We were provided with a powerful ship telescope, and also a large binocular glass of long range, and so far as the discomforts of the situation would permit us we took observations of the prospect beneath. To the unaided eye the city simply presented a patch of little rectangles at the end of a brown peninsula, but through our glasses the streets and houses became surprisingly plain. Little squat black forms were to be seen moving, falling down, and lying in the streets. Down by the city front the wharves were seen to be lined with nude, or semi-nude bodies, which dived into the water and remained submerged, with the exception of their heads, though these disappeared at short intervals below the surface. Thousands upon thousands of people were thus engaged. The spectacle would have been utterly absurd and ludicrous had it not been tremendous in its awful suggestiveness.

"The mortality will be terrible, I fear," said the doctor, "if things do not change for the better soon, and I see no prospect of that. Our thermometer already marks 147 degrees even at this altitude. We are in the tepidarium of a thrice-heated Turkish bath. And if this is the case at a barometric altitude of eleven thousand feet—nearly two perpendicular miles—what must it be down there? It is too terrible to contemplate!"

"It is only seven o'clock yet," I remarked, looking at my watch. "The sun is scarcely an hour high."

"We must throw out more ballast," said the doctor, "and reach the higher strata at all hazards." He threw out a forty-pound bag of sand.

We shot upward with tremendous velocity for several minutes, when our ascent again became regular. We now remarked, with intense relief, that the thermometer did not rise—that, in fact, it had fallen about two degrees; though this relief was counterbalanced by the extreme difficulty of breathing the rarefied air at this immense altitude, which we estimated by the barometer at twenty-five thousand feet, or nearly five perpendicular miles. We therefore opened the valve and discharged a quantity of gas, and presently descended into a stratum of dense fog. This fog reminded me of the steam which rises from tropical vegetation during the rainy season, and I mentioned the fact to the doctor.

"If these fogs," replied he, "would only rest upon the city, they might shield it from destruction, but in a case of this kind we have no meteorological data to go on. No one can estimate either the amount of heat or the meteorological results it is now producing on the surface of the earth five miles below us."

The stratum of fog in which we now were was dense and impenetrable. We lay in it as in a steam-bath, the balloon not seeming to drift, but swaying sluggishly from side to side, like a sail flapping idly against a mast in a calm.

Hour after hour passed like this, the temperature still ranging from 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The doctor preserved his wonted equanimity.

"I have grave apprehensions," he remarked impressively, as if in answer to my thoughts, "that the final fiery cataclysm, a foreboding of which has run through all systems of philosophies and religions through all ages, and which seems to be, as it were, ingrained in the inner consciousness of man, is now upon us. I am determined, however, not to fall a victim to the fiery energy that has been evoked, and shall anticipate such a fate by an easer and less disagreeable one," and as he spoke he motioned significantly toward his right hip.

"Do you think, then," said I, "that an act under such circumstances"—designedly employing a vague periphrasis on such an unpleasant topic"—is morally defensible?"

"What can it matter?" returned the doctor, with a shrug. "Of two alternatives, both leading to the same end, common sense accepts the easier. A refusal to touch the hemlock would not have saved Socrates."


IN spite of the terrible forebodings which filled me, the exigencies of the situation seemed to render my brain preternaturally concentrated and abnormally active. The surrounding stillness, the lack of sound of any description, the dreamy warmth of the dense mist in which we lay, exercised a sedative influence, and rendered the mind peculiarly impressionable to action from within.

"We have no means, then, of calculating the probable intensity of the heat at the earth's surface?" I asked.

"None whatever," replied the doctor. "We are now at an indicated elevation, by barometrical pressure, of twenty-two thousand feet. We are probably actually much higher, as the steam in which we lie is acting on the barometer. Atmospheric conditions like the present, at such an altitude, are totally beyond the experience of science. They might be, and probably are, caused by the action of intense heat upon hotter surfaces below us. To the fact of their presence, however, we owe our existence. This atmosphere, though peculiarly favorable to the passage of heat rays through it, is incapable of retaining them."

"Supposing," I went on, in a wildly speculative mood, engendered by the excitement of the occasion, "supposing that the heat of the surface of the earth were sufficiently intense to melt metals—iron, for instance—the most refractory substances, in fact. Take a further flight: supposing that such heat were ten times intensified, what would be its effect upon our planet?"

"The solid portions—the crust with everything upon it—would be the first to experience the effects of such a catastrophe. Then the oceans would boil, and their surface waters, at any rate, be converted into steam."

"What then?" I continued.

"This steam would ascend to the upper regions of the atmosphere till it reached an equilibrium of rarefaction, when its expansion would cool it, upon which rapid condensation would follow, and it would descend to earth in the form of rain. The more sudden and energetic the heat, the sooner would this result be accomplished, and the more copious the precipitation of the succeeding rain. After the first terrible crisis, the grand compensation of natural law would come into play, and the face of the planet would be protected from further harm by the shield of humid vapor—the vis medicatrix naturae, so to speak. Equilibrium would be restored, but most organisms would meanwhile have perished."

"Most organisms, you say?" I repeated, inquiringly.

"It is possible," said the doctor, "that ocean infusoria, and even some of the comparatively higher forms of ocean life, might survive. It is also possible that terrestrial animals occupying high altitudes—mountaineers for example, whose homes are deep snows and glaciers, denizens of the frozen zone, and beings similarly situated—might escape. This would altogether depend upon the intensity and duration of the heat. We must remember that size, looked at from a universal point of view, is merely relative. If we consider our planet as a six-inch ball, our oceans, with their insignificant average depth of a few miles, would be aptly represented by a film of the finest writing paper. How long, think you, would a watery film, such as that, last a few feet from a suddenly stirred fire?"

I bowed acquiescence to the conclusion drawn from the simile, and the doctor proceeded:

"There can be no longer any doubt that the present elemental convulsion is due to the collision of the comet with the sun. Knowing what we do of its orbit from last year's computation, its precipitation upon the solar surface has taken place on the side farthest from our own position in space. We do not, therefore, experience so sudden and so fierce atmospherical excitement as would otherwise have followed. It now remains to be seen what the duration of the effect will be."


DURING the latter portion of our conversation a low moaning sound, which had been heard for the past few minutes, was growing more pronounced and seemingly coming nearer. At the same time the barometer was observed to be falling rapidly.

"That is the sound of wind," I exclaimed. "I have heard it on tropical deserts and on tropical seas. I can not be mistaken. It comes from the east."

"The hot air from the parched continent is approaching," said the doctor. "Scientifically speaking, atmospheric convection is taking place, and we shall bear the brunt of it."

As he spoke the balloon was seized with a violent tremor. It vibrated from apex to car, and the next moment was struck by the most terrific tornado it is possible to imagine. The blast was like the torrid breath of a furnace, and we involuntarily covered our heads with our blankets, and clutched convulsively to the frail bulwarks of the car, which was being dragged on at a tremendous velocity, and at a horribly acute angle, by the distended gas-bag which towered ahead of us.

Luckily we had both clutched mechanically at the railing on the side whence the wind came, to let go which hold would have meant instant precipitation over the opposite side of the car into the yawning gulf beneath. For less than a minute, so far as my stricken and scattered senses could compute, we were borne on by this terrific simoom, when, suddenly, we found ourselves as before, in the midst of a preternatural calm. We had evidently drifted into an eddy of the cyclone; for I could hear its sullen and awful roar at some distance to our right. Hardly had we composed ourselves when the blast struck us again; this time on the opposite side of the car. Again we were hurled forward by the resistless elemental fury; but this time in a sensibly downward direction. The blast had struck us from above, and was hurling us before it—down, down, to inevitable destruction. Fortunately the comparative bulk of the balloon offered more resistance than the car to this downward progress. Down, down, we sped, till, of a sudden, we emerged from the cloud-strata and obtained a brief and abrupt glimpse of the scene below. The counterblasts of the past few minutes had apparently compensated each other's action, for we found ourselves just over the city.


THE city? There was no city. I recognized, indeed, the contour of the peninsula, and the well-known outlines of the bay and islands, through casual rifts in the dense clouds of steam which rose in volumes from below. Well nigh stupefied and maddened as I was by the intense heat, a horrible curiosity seized me to peer into the dread mystery beneath, and while with one scorched and writhing hand I held the blankets, which had not yet parted with the moisture gathered from the clouds above, to my aching head and temples, with the other I raised the powerful binocular to my eyes.

Through drifting rifts of the steam-clouds that obscured the scene, I caught glimpses which filled me with unutterable and nameless horror. Neither streets nor buildings were decipherable where the city once had been. The eye rested upon nothing but irregular and misshapen piles of vitrified slag and calcined ashes. Everything was as scarred in a ruinous silence as the ruined surface of the moon. There was neither flame nor fire to be seen. Things seemed to have long passed the stage of active combustion, as though all the elements necessary to sustain flame had already been abstracted from them.

Here and there an ominous dark red glow showed, however, that the lava into which the fair city had been transformed was still incandescent. The sand dunes to the west shone like glaciers or dull mirrors through the steam fissures, and long shapeless masses of what resembled charred wood were strewn here and there over the surface of the bay.

Less than five seconds served to reveal all that I have taken so long to describe. The binocular, too hot to hold, dropped from my hand. At the same moment the balloon was again struck by the cyclone, and dashed eastward with the same fury as before. The doctor caught convulsively at the railing of the car, missed his hold, and with a wild, despairing shriek, outstretched arms, and starting eyes fixed upon mine, disappeared headlong in the abyss.

I am alone in the balloon—perhaps alone in the world. My companion has been hurled to a fiery death below. His awful shriek still rings in my ears. It sounds over the sullen roar of the cyclone. I am whirled resistlessly onward.

The blast shifts. Again the balloon pauses in one of the strange eddies formed by this strange simoom. The wind dies away to a moan. It rises again. It writhes around the car like the convulsive struggles of some gigantic reptile in the throes of death. It seizes me again in its resistless clutch. The balloon is being whirled toward the earth.

I am falling. But no—it seems to me that the earth—the plutonic, igneous earth—is rising toward me. With lightning-like rapidity it seems to hurl itself up through the air to meet me. I hear the roar of flames mingling with the roar of the blast. I see the seething, bubbling waste of waters through rifts in the clouds of steam.

I am nearing the molten surface. My feeling has changed. I am conscious that it has ceased to seem to rise. I feel that I am falling now—falling into the fiery depths below. Nearer—nearer yet; scorched and blackened by the awful heat as I approach I fall—down—down—down—


THE END


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