Inexorably, with a fatality no power could arrest, like a projectile speeding from the mouth of a cannon toward the target, the comet continued to advance, following its appointed path, and hurrying, with an ever-increasing velocity, toward the point in space at which the earth would be found on the night of July 14–15. The final calculations were absolutely without error. These two heavenly bodies—the earth and the comet—were to meet like two trains, rushing headlong upon each other, with resistless momentum, as if impelled to mutual destruction by an insatiable rage. But in the present instance the velocity of shock would be 865 times that of two express trains having each a speed of one hundred kilometers per hour.
During the night of July 13–14, the comet spread over nearly the entire sky, and whirlwinds of fire could be seen by the naked eye, eddying about an axis oblique to the zenith. The appearance was that of an army of flaming meteors, in whose midst the flashing lightning produced the effect of a furious combat. The burning star had a revolution of its own, and seemed to be convulsed with pain, like a living thing. Immense jets of flame issued from various centers, some of a greenish hue, others red as blood, while the most brilliant were of a dazzling whiteness. It was evident that the sun was acting powerfully upon this whirlpool of gases, decomposing certain of them, forming detonating compounds, electrifying the nearer portions, and repelling the smoke from about the immense nucleus which was bearing down upon the world. The comet itself emitted a light far different from the sunlight reflected by the enveloping vapors; and its flames, shooting forth in ever-increasing volume, gave it the appearance of a monster, precipitating itself upon the earth to devour it. Perhaps the most striking feature of this spectacle was the absence of all sound. At Paris, as elsewhere, during that eventful night, the crowd instinctively maintained silence, spellbound by an indescribable fascination, endeavoring to catch some echo of the celestial thunder—but not a sound was heard.
The moon rose full, showing green upon the fiery background of the sky, but without brilliancy and casting no shadows. The night was no more night, for the stars had disappeared, and the sky glowed with an intense light.
The comet was approaching the earth with a velocity of 41,000 meters per second, or 2460 kilometers per minute, that is, 147,600 kilometers per hour; and the earth was itself travelling through space, from west to east, at the rate of 29,000 meters per second, 1740 kilometers per minute, or 104,400 kilometers per hour, in a direction oblique to the orbit of the comet, which for any meridian appeared at midnight in the northeast. Thus, in virtue of their velocities, these two celestial bodies were nearing each other at the rate of 173,000 kilometers per hour. When observation, which was in entire accord with the computations previously made, established the fact that the nucleus of the comet was at a distance no greater than that of the moon, everyone knew that two hours later the first phenomena of the coming shock would begin.
Contrary to all expectation, Friday and Saturday, the 13th and 14th of July were, like the preceding days, wonderfully beautiful; the sun shone in a cloudless sky, the air was tranquil, the temperature rather high, but cooled by a light, refreshing breeze. Nature was in a joyous mood, the country was luxuriant with beauty, the streams murmured in the valleys, the birds sang in the woods; but the dwelling places of man were heartrendingly sad. Humanity was prostrated with terror, and the impassible calm of nature stood over against the agonizing fear of the human heart in painful and harrowing contrast.
Two millions of people had fled to Australia from Paris, London, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Rome and Madrid. As the day of collision approached, the Trans-Atlantic Navigation company had been obliged to increase threefold, fourfold, and even tenfold, the number of air-ships, which settled like flocks of birds upon San Francisco, Honolulu, Noumea, and the Australian cities of Melbourne, Sidney and Pax. But this exodus of millions represented only the fortunate minority, and their absence was scarcely noticed in the towns and villages, swarming with restless and anxious life.
Haunted by the fear of unknown perils, for several nights no one had been able to close their eyes, or even dared to go to bed. To do so, seemed to court the last sleep and to abandon all hope of awakening again. Every face was livid with terror, every eye was sunken; the hair was dishevelled, the countenance haggard and stamped with the impress of the most frightful anguish which had ever preyed upon the human soul.
The atmosphere was growing drier and warmer. Since the evening before, no one had bethought himself of food, and the stomach, usually so imperious in its demands, craved for nothing. A burning thirst was the first physiological effect of the dryness of the atmosphere, and the most self-restrained sought, in every possible way, to quench it, though without success. Physical pain had begun its work, and was soon to dominate mental suffering. Hour by hour, respiration became more difficult, more exhausting and more painful. Little children, in the presence of this new suffering, appealed in tears to their mothers.
At Paris, London, Rome and St. Petersburg, in every capital, in every city, in every village, the terrified population wandered about distractedly, like ants when their habitations are disturbed. All the business of ordinary life was neglected, abandoned, forgotten; every project was set aside. No one cared any longer for anything, for his house, his family, his life. There existed a moral prostration and dejection, more complete than even that which is produced by sea-sickness. Some few, abandoning themselves to the exaltation of love, seemed to live only for each other, strangers to the universal panic.
Catholic and Protestant churches, Jewish synagogues, Greek chapels, Mohammedan mosques and Buddhist temples, the sanctuaries of the new Gallican religion—in short, the places of assembly of every sect into which the idiosyncrasies of belief had divided mankind, were thronged by the faithful on that memorable day of Friday, July 13th; and even at Paris the crowds besieging the portals were such that no one could get near the churches, within which were to be seen vast multitudes, all prostrate upon the ground. Prayers were muttered in low tones, but no chant, no organ, no bell was to be heard. The confessionals were surrounded by penitents, waiting their turn, as in those early days of sincere and naïve faith described by the historians of the middle ages.
Everywhere on the streets and on the boulevards the same silence reigned; not a sound disturbed the hush, nothing was sold, no paper was printed; aviators, aeroplanes, dirigible balloons were no more to be seen; the only vehicles passing were the hearses bearing to the crematories the first victims of the comet, already numerous. The days of July 13th and 14th had passed without incident, but with what anxiety the fateful night was awaited! Never, perhaps, had there been so magnificent a sunset, never a sky so pure! The orb of day seemed to go down in a sea of gold and purple; its red disc disappeared below the horizon, but the stars did not rise—and night did not come! To the daylight succeeded a day of cometary and lunar splendor, illuminated by a dazzling light, recalling that of the aurora borealis, but more intense, emanating from an immense blazing focus, which had not been visible during the day because it had been below the horizon, but which would certainly have rivalled the sun in brilliancy. Amid the universal plaint of nature, this luminous center rose in the west almost at the same time with the full moon, which climbed the sky with it like a sacrificial victim ascending the funeral pyre. The moon paled as it mounted higher, but the comet increased in brightness as the sun sank below the western horizon, and now, when the hour of night had come, it reigned supreme, a vaporous, scarlet sun, with flames of yellow and green, like immense extended wings. To the terrified spectator it seemed some enormous giant, taking sovereign possession of earth and sky.
Already the cometary fringes had invaded the lunar orbit. At any moment they would reach the rarer limits of the earth’s atmosphere, only two hundred kilometers away.
Then everyone beheld, as it were, a vast conflagration, kindled over the whole extent of the horizon, throwing skyward little violet flames, and almost immediately the brilliancy of the comet diminished, doubtless because just before touching the earth it had entered into the shadow of the planet and had lost that part of its light which came from the sun. This apparent decrease in brilliancy was chiefly due to contrast, for when the eye, less dazzled, had become accustomed to this new light, it seemed almost as intense as the former, but of a sickly, lurid, sepulchral hue. Never before had the earth been bathed in such a light, which at first seemed to be colorless, emitting lightning flashes from its pale and wan depths. The dryness of the air, hot as the breath of a furnace, became intolerable, and a horrible odor of sulphur, probably due to the super-electrified ozone, poisoned the atmosphere. Everyone believed his last hour was at hand. A terrible cry dominated every other sound. The earth is on fire! The earth is on fire! Indeed, the entire horizon was now illuminated by a ring of bluish flame, surrounding the earth like the flames of a funeral pile. This, as had been predicted, was the carbonic-oxide, whose combustion in the air produced carbonic-anhydride.
Suddenly, as the terrified spectator gazed silent and awestruck, holding his very breath in a stupor of fear, the vault of heaven seemed rent asunder from zenith to horizon, and from this yawning chasm, as from an enormous mouth, was vomited forth jets of dazzling greenish flame, enveloping the earth in a glare so blinding, that all who had not already sought shelter, men and women, the old and the young, the bold as well as the timid, all rushed with the impetuosity of an avalanche to the cellarways, already choked with people. Many were crushed to death, or succumbed to apoplexy, aneurismal ruptures, and wild delirium resulting in brain fever.
On the terraces and in the observatories, however, the astronomers had remained at their posts, and several had succeeded in taking an uninterrupted series of photographs of the sky changes; and from this time, but for a very brief interval, with the exception of a few courageous spirits, who dared to gaze upon the awful spectacle from behind the windows of some upper apartment, they were the sole witnesses of the collision.
Computation had indicated that the earth would penetrate the heart of the comet as a bullet would penetrate a cloud, and that the transit, reckoning from the first instant of contact of the outer zones of the comet’s atmosphere with those of the earth, would consume four and one-half hours,—a fact easily established, inasmuch as the comet, having a diameter about sixty-five times that of the earth, would be traversed, not centrally, but at one-quarter of the distance from the center, with a velocity of about 173,000 kilometers per hour. Nearly forty minutes after the first instant of contact, the heat of this incandescent furnace, and the horrible odor of sulphur, became so suffocating that a few moments more of such torture would have sufficed to destroy every vestige of life. Even the astronomers crept painfully from room to room within the observatories which they had endeavored to close hermetically, and sought shelter in the cellars; and the young computor, whose acquaintance we have already made, was the last to remain on the terrace, at Paris,—a few seconds only, but long enough to witness the explosion of a formidable bolide, which was rushing southward with the velocity of lightning. But strength was lacking for further observations. One could breathe no longer. Besides the heat and the dryness, so destructive to every vital function, there was the carbonic-oxide which was already beginning to poison the atmosphere. The ears were filled with a dull, roaring sound, the heart beat ever more and more violently; and still this choking odor of sulphur! At the same time a fiery rain fell from every quarter of the sky, a rain of shooting stars, the immense majority of which did not reach the earth, although many fell upon the roofs, and the fires which they kindled could be seen in every direction. To these fires from heaven the fires of earth now made answer, and the world was surrounded with electric flashes, as by an army. Everyone, without thinking for an instant of flight, had abandoned all hope, expecting every moment to be buried in the ruins of the world, and those who still clung to each other, and whose only consolation was that of dying together, clung closer, in a last embrace.
But the main body of the celestial army had passed, and a sort of rarefaction, of vacuum, was produced in the atmosphere, perhaps as the result of meteoric explosions; for suddenly the windows were shattered, blown outwards, and the doors opened of themselves. A violent wind arose, adding fury to the conflagration. Then the rain fell in torrents, but reanimating at the same time the extinguished hope of life, and waking mankind from its nightmare.
“The XXVth Century! Death of the Pope and all the bishops! Fall of the comet at Rome! Paper, sir?”
Scarcely a half hour had passed before people began to issue from their cellars, feeling again the joy of living, and recovering gradually from their apathy. Even before one had really begun to take any account of the fires which were still raging, notwithstanding the deluge or rain, the scream of the newsboy was heard in the hardly awakened streets. Everywhere, at Paris, Marseilles, Brussels, London, Vienna, Turin and Madrid, the same news was being shouted, and before caring for the fires which were spreading on every side, everyone bought the popular one-cent sheet, with its sixteen illustrated pages fresh from the press.
“The Pope and the cardinals crushed to death! The sacred college destroyed by the comet! Extra! Extra!”
The newsboys drove a busy trade, for everyone was anxious to know the truth of these announcements, and eagerly bought the great popular socialistic paper.
This is what had taken place. The American Hebrew, to whom we have already referred, and who, on the preceding Tuesday, had managed to make several millions by the reopening of the Paris and Chicago exchanges, had not for a moment yielded to despair, and, as in other days, the monasteries had accepted bequests made in view of the end of the world, so our indefatigable speculator had thought best to remain at his telephone, which he had caused to be taken down for the nonce into a vast subterranean gallery, hermetically closed. Controlling special wires uniting Paris with the principal cities of the world, he was in constant communication with them. The nucleus of the comet had contained within its mass of incandescent gas a certain number of solid uranolites, some of which measured several kilometers in diameter. One of these masses had struck the earth not far from Rome, and the Roman correspondent had sent the following news by phonogram:
“All the cardinals and prelates of the council were assembled in solemn fête under the dome of St. Peter. In this grandest temple of Christendom, splendidly illuminated at the solemn hour of midnight, amid the pious invocations of the chanting brotherhoods, the altars smoking with the perfumed incense, and the organs filling the recesses of the immense church with their tones of thunder, the Pope, seated upon his throne, saw prostrate at his feet his faithful people from every quarter of the world; but as he rose to pronounce the final benediction a mass of iron, half as large as the city itself, falling from the sky with the rapidity of lightning, crushed the assembled multitudes, precipitating them into an abyss of unknown depth, a veritable pit of hell. All Italy was shaken, and the roar of the thunder was heard at Marseilles.”
The bolide had been seen in every city throughout Italy, through the showers of meteorites and the burning atmosphere. It had illumined the earth like a new sun with a brilliant red light, and a terrible rending had followed its fall, as if the sky had really been split from top to bottom. (This was the bolide which the young calculator of the observatory of Paris had observed when, in spite of her zeal, the suffocating fumes had driven her from the terrace.)
Seated at his telephone, our speculator received his despatches and gave his orders, dictating sensational news to his journal, which was printed simultaneously in all the principal cities of the world. A quarter of an hour later these despatches appeared on the first page of the XXVth Century, in New York, St. Petersburg and Melbourne, as also in the capitals nearer Paris; an hour after the first edition a second was announced.
“Paris in flames! The cities of Europe destroyed! Rome in ashes! Here’s your XXVth Century, second edition!”
And in this new edition there was a very closely written article, from the pen of an accomplished correspondent, dealing with the consequences of the destruction of the sacred college.
“Twenty-fifth Century, fourth edition! New volcano in Italy! Revolution in Naples! Paper, sir?”
The second had been followed by the fourth edition without any regard to a third. It told how a bolide, weighing ten thousand tons, or perhaps more, had fallen with the velocity above stated upon the solfatara of Pozzuoli, penetrating and breaking in the light and hollow crust of the ancient crater. The flames below had burst forth in a new volcano, which, with Vesuvius, illuminated the Elysian fields.
“Twenty-fifth Century, sixth edition! New island in the Mediterranean! Conquests of England!”
A fragment of the head of the comet had fallen into the Mediterranean to the west of Rome, forming an irregular island, fifteen hundred meters in length by seven hundred in width, with an altitude of about two hundred meters. The sea had boiled about it, and huge tidal waves had swept the shores. But there happened to be an Englishman nearby, whose first thought was to land in a creek of the newly formed island, and scaling a rock, to plant the British flag upon its highest peak.
Millions of copies of the journal of the famous speculator were distributed broadcast over the world during this night of July 14th, with accounts of the disaster, dictated by telephone from the office of its director, who had taken measures to monopolize every item of news. Everywhere these editions were eagerly read, even before the necessary precautions were taken to extinguish the conflagrations still raging. From the outset, the rain had afforded unexpected succor, yet the material losses were immense, notwithstanding the prevailing use of iron in building construction.
“Twenty-fifth Century, tenth edition! Great miracle at Rome!”
What miracle, it was easy enough to explain. In this latest edition, the XXVth Century announced that its correspondent at Rome had given circulation to a rumor which proved to be without foundation; that the bolide had not destroyed Rome at all, but had fallen quite a distance outside the city. St. Peter and the Vatican had been miraculously preserved. But hundreds of millions of copies were sold in every country of the world. It was an excellent stroke of business.
The crisis had passed. Little by little, men recovered their self-possession, rejoicing in the mere fact of living.
Throughout the night, the sky overhead was illuminated by the lurid light of the comet, and by the meteorites which still fell in showers, kindled on every side new conflagrations. When day came, about half past three in the morning, more than three hours had passed since the head of the comet had collided with the earth; the nucleus had passed in a southwesterly direction, and the earth was still entirely buried in the tail. The shock had taken place at eighteen minutes after midnight; that is to say, fifty-eight minutes after midnight, Paris time, exactly as predicted by the president of the Astronomical society of France, whose statement our readers may remember.
Although, at the instant of collision, the greater part of the hemisphere on the side of the comet had been effected by the constricting dryness, the suffocating heat and the poisonous sulphurous odors, as well as by deadening stupor, due to the resistance encountered by the comet in traversing the atmosphere, the supersaturation of the ozone with electricity, and the mixture of nitrogen protoxide with the upper air, the other hemisphere had experienced no other disturbance than that which followed inevitably from the destroyed atmospheric equilibrium. Fortunately, the comet had only skimmed the earth, and the shock had not been central. Doubtless, also, the attraction of the earth had had much to do with the fall of the bolides in Italy and the Mediterranean. At all events, the orbit of the comet had been entirely altered by this perturbation, while the earth and the moon continued tranquilly on their way about the sun, as if nothing had happened. The orbit of the comet had been changed by the earth’s attraction from a parabola to an ellipse, its aphelion being situated near the ecliptic. When later statistics of the comet’s victims were obtained, it was found that the number of the dead was one-fortieth of the population of Europe. In Paris alone, which extended over a part of the departments formerly known as the Seine and Seine-et-Oise, and which contained nine million inhabitants, there was more than two hundred thousand deaths.
Prior to the fatal week, the mortality had increased threefold, and on the 10th fourfold. This rate of increase had been arrested by the confidence produced by the sessions of the Institute, and had even diminished sensibly during Wednesday. Unfortunately, as the threatening star drew near, the panic had resumed its sway. On the following Thursday the normal mortality rate had increased fivefold, and those of weak constitution had succumbed. On Friday, the 13th, the day before the disaster, owing to privations of every kind, the absence of food and sleep, the heat and feverish condition which it induced, the effect of the excitement upon the heart and brain, the mortality at Paris had reached the hitherto unheard of figure of ten thousand! On the eventful night of the 14th, owing to the crowded condition of the cellars, the vitiation of the atmosphere by the carbonic-oxide gas, and suffocation due to the drying up of the lining membrane of the throat, pulmonary congestion, anæsthesia, and arrest of the circulation, the victims were more numerous than those of the battles of former times, the total for that day reaching the enormous sum of more than one hundred thousand. Some of those mortally effected lived until the following day, and a certain number survived longer, but in a hopeless condition. Not until a week had elapsed was the normal death-rate re-established. During this disastrous month 17,500 children were born at Paris, but nearly all died. Medical statistics, subtracting from the general total the normal mean, based upon a death-rate of twenty for every one thousand inhabitants, that is, 492 per day, or 15,252 for the month, which represents the number of those who would have died independently of the comet, ascribed to the latter the difference between these two numbers, namely, 222,633; of these, more than one-half, or more than one hundred thousand, died of fear, by syncope, aneurisms or cerebral congestions.
But this cataclysm did not bring about the end of the world. The losses were made good by an apparent increase in human vitality, such as had been observed formerly after destructive wars; the earth continued to revolve in the light of the sun, and humanity to advance toward a still higher destiny.
The comet had, above all, been the pretext for the discussion of every possible phase of this great and important subject—the end of the world.