THE DEATH OF THE CURATE
It was on the sixth day of our imprisonment that I peeped for the
last time, and presently found myself alone. Instead of keeping close
to me and trying to oust me from the slit, the curate had gone back
into the scullery. I was struck by a sudden thought. I went back
quickly and quietly into the scullery. In the darkness I heard the
curate drinking. I snatched in the darkness, and my fingers caught a
bottle of burgundy.
For a few minutes there was a tussle. The bottle struck the floor
and broke, and I desisted and rose. We stood panting and threatening
each other. In the end I planted myself between him and the food, and
told him of my determination to begin a discipline. I divided the
food in the pantry, into rations to last us ten days. I would not let
him eat any more that day. In the afternoon he made a feeble effort
to get at the food. I had been dozing, but in an instant I was awake.
All day and all night we sat face to face, I weary but resolute, and
he weeping and complaining of his immediate hunger. It was, I know, a
night and a day, but to me it seemed--it seems now--an interminable
length of time.
And so our widened incompatibility ended at last in open conflict.
For two vast days we struggled in undertones and wrestling contests.
There were times when I beat and kicked him madly, times when I
cajoled and persuaded him, and once I tried to bribe him with the last
bottle of burgundy, for there was a rain-water pump from which I could
get water. But neither force nor kindness availed; he was indeed
beyond reason. He would neither desist from his attacks on the food
nor from his noisy babbling to himself. The rudimentary precautions
to keep our imprisonment endurable he would not observe. Slowly I
began to realise the complete overthrow of his intelligence, to
perceive that my sole companion in this close and sickly darkness was
a man insane.
From certain vague memories I am inclined to think my own mind
wandered at times. I had strange and hideous dreams whenever I slept.
It sounds paradoxical, but I am inclined to think that the weakness
and insanity of the curate warned me, braced me, and kept me a sane
On the eighth day he began to talk aloud instead of whispering, and
nothing I could do would moderate his speech.
"It is just, O God!" he would say, over and over again. "It is
just. On me and mine be the punishment laid. We have sinned, we have
fallen short. There was poverty, sorrow; the poor were trodden in
the dust, and I held my peace. I preached acceptable folly--my God,
what folly!--when I should have stood up, though I died for it, and
called upon them to repent-repent! . . . Oppressors of the poor and
needy . . . ! The wine press of God!"
Then he would suddenly revert to the matter of the food I withheld
from him, praying, begging, weeping, at last threatening. He began to
raise his voice--I prayed him not to. He perceived a hold on me--he
threatened he would shout and bring the Martians upon us. For a time
that scared me; but any concession would have shortened our chance of
escape beyond estimating. I defied him, although I felt no assurance
that he might not do this thing. But that day, at any rate, he did
not. He talked with his voice rising slowly, through the greater part
of the eighth and ninth days--threats, entreaties, mingled with a
torrent of half-sane and always frothy repentance for his vacant sham
of God's service, such as made me pity him. Then he slept awhile, and
began again with renewed strength, so loudly that I must needs make
"Be still!" I implored.
He rose to his knees, for he had been sitting in the darkness near
"I have been still too long," he said, in a tone that must have
reached the pit, "and now I must bear my witness. Woe unto this
unfaithful city! Woe! Woe! Woe! Woe! Woe! To the inhabitants of
the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet----"
"Shut up!" I said, rising to my feet, and in a terror lest the
Martians should hear us. "For God's sake----"
"Nay," shouted the curate, at the top of his voice, standing
likewise and extending his arms. "Speak! The word of the Lord is
In three strides he was at the door leading into the kitchen.
"I must bear my witness! I go! It has already been too long
I put out my hand and felt the meat chopper hanging to the wall.
In a flash I was after him. I was fierce with fear. Before he was
halfway across the kitchen I had overtaken him. With one last touch
of humanity I turned the blade back and struck him with the butt. He
went headlong forward and lay stretched on the ground. I stumbled
over him and stood panting. He lay still.
Suddenly I heard a noise without, the run and smash of slipping
plaster, and the triangular aperture in the wall was darkened. I
looked up and saw the lower surface of a handling-machine coming
slowly across the hole. One of its gripping limbs curled amid the
debris; another limb appeared, feeling its way over the fallen beams.
I stood petrified, staring. Then I saw through a sort of glass plate
near the edge of the body the face, as we may call it, and the large
dark eyes of a Martian, peering, and then a long metallic snake of
tentacle came feeling slowly through the hole.
I turned by an effort, stumbled over the curate, and stopped at the
scullery door. The tentacle was now some way, two yards or more, in
the room, and twisting and turning, with queer sudden movements, this
way and that. For a while I stood fascinated by that slow, fitful
advance. Then, with a faint, hoarse cry, I forced myself across the
scullery. I trembled violently; I could scarcely stand upright. I
opened the door of the coal cellar, and stood there in the darkness
staring at the faintly lit doorway into the kitchen, and listening.
Had the Martian seen me? What was it doing now?
Something was moving to and fro there, very quietly; every now and
then it tapped against the wall, or started on its movements with a
faint metallic ringing, like the movements of keys on a split-ring.
Then a heavy body--I knew too well what--was dragged across the floor
of the kitchen towards the opening. Irresistibly attracted, I crept
to the door and peeped into the kitchen. In the triangle of bright
outer sunlight I saw the Martian, in its Briareus of a handling-machine,
scrutinizing the curate's head. I thought at once that it would infer
my presence from the mark of the blow I had given him.
I crept back to the coal cellar, shut the door, and began to cover
myself up as much as I could, and as noiselessly as possible in the
darkness, among the firewood and coal therein. Every now and then I
paused, rigid, to hear if the Martian had thrust its tentacles through
the opening again.
Then the faint metallic jingle returned. I traced it slowly
feeling over the kitchen. Presently I heard it nearer--in the
scullery, as I judged. I thought that its length might be
insufficient to reach me. I prayed copiously. It passed, scraping
faintly across the cellar door. An age of almost intolerable suspense
intervened; then I heard it fumbling at the latch! It had found the
door! The Martians understood doors!
It worried at the catch for a minute, perhaps, and then the door
In the darkness I could just see the thing--like an elephant's
trunk more than anything else--waving towards me and touching and
examining the wall, coals, wood and ceiling. It was like a black worm
swaying its blind head to and fro.
Once, even, it touched the heel of my boot. I was on the verge of
screaming; I bit my hand. For a time the tentacle was silent. I
could have fancied it had been withdrawn. Presently, with an abrupt
click, it gripped something--I thought it had me!--and seemed to go
out of the cellar again. For a minute I was not sure. Apparently it
had taken a lump of coal to examine.
I seized the opportunity of slightly shifting my position, which
had become cramped, and then listened. I whispered passionate prayers
Then I heard the slow, deliberate sound creeping towards me again.
Slowly, slowly it drew near, scratching against the walls and tapping
While I was still doubtful, it rapped smartly against the cellar
door and closed it. I heard it go into the pantry, and the biscuit-tins
rattled and a bottle smashed, and then came a heavy bump against
the cellar door. Then silence that passed into an infinity of
Had it gone?
At last I decided that it had.
It came into the scullery no more; but I lay all the tenth day in
the close darkness, buried among coals and firewood, not daring even
to crawl out for the drink for which I craved. It was the eleventh day
before I ventured so far from my security.