When The World Screamed
written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and narrated by Barnaby Edwards

  

I had a vague recollection of having heard my friend Edward Malone, of the Gazette, speak of Professor Challenger, with whom he had been associated in some remarkable adventures. I am so busy, however, with my own profession, and my firm has been so overtaxed with orders, that I know little of what is going on in the world outside my own special interests. My general recollection was that Challenger has been depicted as a wild genius of a violent and intolerant disposition. I was greatly surprised to receive a business communication from him which was in the following terms:

‘14 (Bis), Enmore Gardens, Kensington.

‘Sir,—

‘I have occasion to engage the services of an expert in Artesian borings. I will not conceal from you that my opinion of experts is not a high one, and that I have usually found that a man who, like myself, has a well-equipped brain can take a sounder and broader view than the man who professes a special knowledge (which, alas, is so often a mere profession), and is therefore limited in his outlook. None the less, I am disposed to give you a trial. Looking down the list of Artesian authorities, a certain oddity — I had almost written absurdity — in your name attracted my attention, and I found upon inquiry that my young friend, Mr. Edward Malone, was actually acquainted with you. I am therefore writing to say that I should be glad to have an interview with you, and that if you satisfy my requirements, and my standard is no mean one, I may be inclined to put a most important matter into your hands. I can say no more at present as the matter is of extreme secrecy, which can only be discussed by word of mouth. I beg, therefore, that you will at once cancel any engagement which you may happen to have, and that you will call upon me at the above address at 10.30 in the morning of next Friday. There is a scraper as well as a mat, and Mrs. Challenger is most particular.

‘I remain, Sir, as I began,

‘George Edward Challenger.’

 

I handed this letter to my chief clerk to answer, and he informed the Professor that Mr. Peerless Jones would be glad to keep the appointment as arranged. It was a perfectly civil business note, but it began with the phrase: ‘Your letter (undated) has been received.’

This drew a second epistle from the Professor:

‘Sir,’ (he said and his writing looked like a barbed wire fence)

‘I observe that you animadvert upon the trifle that my letter was undated. Might I draw your attention to the fact that, as some return for a monstrous taxation, our Government is in the habit of affixing a small circular sign or stamp upon the outside on the envelope which notifies the date of posting? Should this sign be missing or illegible your remedy lies with the proper postal authorities. Meanwhile, I would ask you to confine your observations to matters which concern the business over which I consult you, and to cease to comment upon the form which my own letters may assume. ’

It was clear to me that I was dealing with a lunatic, so I thought it well before I went any further in the matter to call upon my friend Malone, whom I had known since the old days when we both played Rugger for Richmond. I found him the same jolly Irishman as ever, and much amused at my first brush with Challenger.

‘That’s nothing, my boy,’ said he. ‘You’ll feel as if you had been skinned alive when you have been with him five minutes. He beats the world for offensiveness.’

‘But why should the world put up with it?’

‘They don’t. If you collected all the libel actions and all the rows and all the police-court assaults —’

‘Assaults!’

‘Bless you, he would think nothing of throwing you downstairs if you have a disagreement. He is a primitive cave-man in a lounge suit. I can see him with a club in one hand and a jagged bit of flint in the other. Some people are born out of their proper century, but he is born out of his millennium. He belongs to the early neolithic or thereabouts.’

‘And he a professor!’

‘There is the wonder of it! It’s the greatest brain in Europe, with a driving force behind it that can turn all his dreams into facts. They do all they can to hold him back for his colleagues hate him like poison, but a lot of trawlers might as well try to hold back the Berengaria. He simply ignores them and steams on his way.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘one thing is clear. I don’t want to have anything to do with him. I’ll cancel that appointment.’

‘Not a bit of it. You will keep it to the minute — and mind that it is to the minute or you will hear of it.’

‘Why should I?’

‘Well, I’ll tell you. First of all, don’t take too seriously what I have said about old Challenger. Everyone who gets close to him learns to love him. There is no real harm in the old bear. Why, I remember how he carried an Indian baby with the smallpox on his back for a hundred miles from the back country down to the Madeira river. He is big every way. He won’t hurt if you get right with him.’

‘I won’t give him the chance.’

‘You will be a fool if you don’t. Have you ever heard of the Hengist Down Mystery — the shaft-sinking on the South Coast?’

‘Some secret coal-mining exploration, I understand.’

Malone winked. ‘Well, you can put it down as that if you like. You see, I am in the old man’s confidence, and I can’t say anything until he gives the word. But I may tell you this, for it has been in the Press. A man, Betterton, who made his money in rubber, left his whole estate to Challenger some years ago, with the provision that it should be used in the interests of science. It proved to be an enormous sum — several millions. Challenger then bought a property at Hengist Down, in Sussex. It was worthless land on the north edge of the chalk country, and he got a large tract of it, which he wired off. There was a deep gully in the middle of it. Here he began to make an excavation. He announced’— here Malone winked again —‘that there was petroleum in England and that he meant to prove it. He built a little model village with a colony of well-paid workers who are all sworn to keep their mouths shut. The gully is wired off as well as the estate, and the place is guarded by bloodhounds. Several pressmen have nearly lost their lives, to say nothing of the seats of their trousers, from these creatures. It’s a big operation, and Sir Thomas Morden’s firm has it in hand, but they also are sworn to secrecy. Clearly the time has come when Artesian help is needed. Now, would you not be foolish to refuse such a job as that, with all the interest and experience and a big fat cheque at the end of it — to say nothing of rubbing shoulders with the most wonderful man you have ever met or are ever likely to meet?’

Malone’s arguments prevailed, and Friday morning found me on my way to Enmore Gardens, I took such particular care to be in time that I found myself at the door twenty minutes too soon. I was waiting in the street when it struck me that I recognized the Rolls — Royce with the silver arrow mascot at the door. It was certainly that of Jack Devonshire, the junior partner of the great Morden firm. I had always known him as the most urbane of men, so that it was rather a shock to me when he suddenly appeared, and standing outside the door he raised both his hands, to heaven and said with great fervour: ‘Damn him! Oh, damn him!’

‘What is up, Jack? You seem peeved this morning.’

‘Hullo, Peerless! Are you in on this job, too?’

‘There seems a chance of it.’

‘Well, you find it chastening to the temper.’

‘Rather more so than yours can stand, apparently.’

‘Well, I should say so. The butler’s message to me was: “The Professor desired me to say, sir, that he was rather busy at present eating an egg, and that if you would call at some more convenient time he would very likely see you.” That was the message delivered by a servant. I may add that I had called to collect forty-two thousand pounds that he owes us.’

I whistled.

‘You can’t get your money?’

‘Oh, yes, he is all right about money. I’ll do the old gorilla the justice to say that he is open — handed with money. But he pays when he likes and how he likes, and he cares for nobody. However, you go and try your luck and see how you like it.’ With that he flung himself into his motor and was off.

I waited with occasional glances at my watch until the zero hour should arrive. I am, if I may say so, a fairly hefty individual, and a runner-up for the Belsize Boxing Club middle-weights, but I have never faced an interview with such trepidation as this. It was not physical, for I was confident I could hold my own if this inspired lunatic should attack me, but it was a mixture of feelings in which fear of some public scandal and dread of losing a lucrative contract were mingled. However, things are always easier when imagination ceases and action begins. I snapped up my watch and made for the door.

It was opened by an old wooden-faced butler, a man who bore an expression, or an absence of expression, which gave the impression that he was so inured to shocks that nothing on earth would surprise him.

‘By appointment, sir?’ he asked.

‘Certainly.’

He glanced at a list in his hand.

‘Your name, sir? . . . Quite so, Mr. Peerless Jones. . . . Ten-thirty. Everything is in order. We have to be careful, Mr. Jones, for we are much annoyed by journalists. The Professor, as you may be aware, does not approve of the Press. This way, sir. Professor Challenger is now receiving.’

The next instant I found myself in the presence. I believe that my friend, Ted Malone, has described the man in his ‘Lost World’ yarn better than I can hope to do, so I’ll leave it at that. All I was aware of was a huge trunk of a man behind a mahogany desk, with a great spade-shaped black beard and two large grey eyes half covered with insolent drooping eyelids. His big head sloped back, his beard bristled forward, and his whole appearance conveyed one single impression of arrogant intolerance. ‘Well, what the devil do you want?’ was written all over him. I laid my card on the table.

‘Ah yes,’ he said, picking it up and handling it as if he disliked the smell of it. ‘Of course. You are the expert so-called. Mr. Jones — Mr. Peerless Jones. You may thank your godfather, Mr. Jones, for it was this ludicrous prefix which first drew my attention to you.’

‘I am here, Professor Challenger, for a business interview and not to discuss my own name,’ said I, with all the dignity I could master.

‘Dear me, you seem to be a very touchy person, Mr. Jones. Your nerves are in a highly irritable condition. We must walk warily in dealing with you, Mr. Jones. Pray sit down and compose yourself. I have been reading your little brochure upon the reclaiming of the Sinai Peninsula. Did you write it yourself?’

‘Naturally, sir. My name is on it.’

‘Quite so! Quite so! But it does not always follow, does it? However, I am prepared to accept your assertion. The book is not without merit of a sort. Beneath the dullness of the diction one gets glimpses of an occasional idea. There are germs of thought here and there. Are you a married man?’

‘No, sir. I am not. ’

‘Then there is some chance of your keeping a secret. ’

‘If I promised to do so, I would certainly keep my promise. ‘So you say. My young friend, Malone’— he spoke as if Ted were ten years of age —‘has a good opinion of you. He says that I may trust you. This trust is a very great one, for I am engaged just now in one of the greatest experiments — I may even say the greatest experiment — in the history of the world. I ask for your participation.’

‘I shall be honoured.’

‘It is indeed an honour. I will admit that I should have shared my labours with no one were it not that the gigantic nature of the undertaking calls for the highest technical skill. Now, Mr. Jones, having obtained your promise of inviolable secrecy, I come down to the essential point. It is this — that the world upon which we live is itself a living organism, endowed, as I believe, with a circulation, a respiration, and a nervous system of its own.’ Clearly the man was a lunatic.

‘Your brain, I observe,’ he continued, ‘fails to register. But it will gradually absorb the idea. You will recall how a moor or heath resembles the hairy side of a giant animal. A certain analogy runs through all nature. You will then consider the secular rise and fall of land, which indicates the slow respiration of the creature. Finally, you will note the fidgetings and scratchings which appear to our Lilliputian perceptions as earthquakes and convulsions.’

‘What about volcanoes?’ I asked.

‘Tut, tut! They correspond to the heat spots upon our own bodies.’

My brain whirled as I tried to find some answer to these monstrous contentions.

‘The temperature!’ I cried. ‘Is it not a fact that it rises rapidly as one descends, and that the centre of the earth is liquid heat?’

He waved my assertion aside.

‘You are probably aware, sir, since Council schools are now compulsory, that the earth is flattened at the poles. This means that the pole is nearer to the centre than any other point and would therefore be most affected by this heat of which you spoke. It is notorious, of course, that the conditions of the poles are tropical, is it not?’

‘The whole idea is utterly new to me.’

‘Of course it is. It is the privilege of the original thinker to put forward ideas which are new and usually unwelcome to the common clay. Now, sir, what is this?’ He held up a small object which he had picked from the table.

‘I should say it is a sea-urchin.’

‘Exactly!’ he cried, with an air of exaggerated surprise, as when an infant has done something clever. ‘It is a sea-urchin — a common echinus. Nature repeats itself in many forms regardless of the size. This echinus is a model, a prototype, of the world. You perceive that it is roughly circular, but flattened at the poles. Let us then regard the world as a huge echinus. What are your objections?’

My chief objection was that the thing was too absurd for argument, but I did not dare to say so. I fished around for some less sweeping assertion.

‘A living creature needs food,’ I said. ‘Where could the world sustain its huge bulk?’

‘An excellent point — excellent!’ said the Professor, with a huge air of patronage. ‘You have a quick eye for the obvious, though you are slow in realizing the more subtle implications. How does the world get nourishment? Again we turn to our little friend the echinus. The water which surrounds it flows through the tubes of this small creature and provides its nutrition.’

‘Then you think that the water —’

‘No, sir. The ether. The earth browses upon a circular path in the fields of space, and as it moves the ether is continually pouring through it and providing its vitality. Quite a flock of other little world-echini are doing the same thing, Venus, Mars, and the rest, each with its own field for grazing.’

The man was clearly mad, but there was no arguing with him. He accepted my silence as agreement and smiled at me in most beneficent fashion.

‘We are coming on, I perceive,’ said he. ‘Light is beginning to break in. A little dazzling at first, no doubt, but we will soon get used to it. Pray give me your attention while I found one or two more observations upon this little creature in my hand.

‘We will suppose that on this outer hard rind there were certain infinitely small insects which crawled upon the surface. Would the echinus ever be aware of their existence?’

‘I should say not.’

‘You can well imagine then, that the earth has not the least idea of the way in which it is utilized by the human race. It is quite unaware of this fungus growth of vegetation and evolution of tiny animalcules which has collected upon it during its travels round the sun as barnacles gather upon the ancient vessel. That is the present state of affairs, and that is what I propose to alter.’

I stared in amazement. ‘You propose to alter it?’

‘I propose to let the earth know that there is at least one person, George Edward Challenger, who calls for attention — who, indeed, insists upon attention. It is certainly the first intimation it has ever had of the sort.’

‘And how, sir, will you do this?’

‘Ah, there we get down to business. You have touched the spot. I will again call your attention to this interesting little creature which I hold in my hand. It is all nerves and sensibility beneath that protective crust. Is it not evident that if a parasitic animalcule desired to call its attention it would sink a hole in its shell and so stimulate its sensory apparatus?’

‘Certainly.’

‘Or, again, we will take the case of the homely flea or a mosquito which explores the surface of the human body. We may be unaware of its presence. But presently, when it sinks its proboscis through the skin, which is our crust, we are disagreeably reminded that we are not altogether alone. My plans now will no doubt begin to dawn upon you. Light breaks in the darkness.’

‘Good heavens! You propose to sink a shaft through the earth’s crust?’

He closed his eyes with ineffable complacency.

‘You see before you,’ he said, ‘the first who will ever pierce that horny hide. I may even put it in the present tense and say who has pierced it.’

‘You have done it!’

‘With the very efficient aid of Morden and think I may say that I have done it. Several years of constant work which has been carried on night and day, and conducted by every known species of drill, borer, crusher, and explosive, has at last brought us to our goal.’

‘You don’t mean to say you are through the crust!’

‘If your expressions denote bewilderment they may pass. If they denote incredulity —’

‘No, sir, nothing of the kind.’

‘You will accept my statement without question. We are through the crust. It was exactly fourteen thousand four hundred and forty-two yards thick, or roughly eight miles. In the course of our sinking it may interest you to know that we have exposed a fortune in the matter of coal-beds which would probably in the long run defray the cost of the enterprise. Our chief difficulty has been the springs of water in the lower chalk and Hastings sands, but these we have overcome. The last stage has now been reached — and the last stage is none other than Mr. Peerless Jones. You, sir, represent the mosquito. Your Artesian borer takes the place of the stinging proboscis. The brain has done its work. Exit the thinker. Enter the mechanical one, the peerless one, with his rod of metal. Do I make myself clear?’

‘You talk of eight miles!’ I cried. ‘Are you aware, sir, that five thousand feet is considered nearly the limit for Artesian borings? I am acquainted with one in upper Silesia which is six thousand two hundred feet deep, but it is looked upon as a wonder.’

‘You misunderstand me, Mr. Peerless. Either my explanation or your brain is at fault, and I will not insist upon which. I am well aware of the limits of Artesian borings, and it is not likely that I would have spent millions of pounds upon my colossal tunnel if a six-inch boring would have met my needs. All that I ask you is to have a drill ready which shall be as sharp as possible, not more than a hundred feet in length, and operated by an electric motor. An ordinary percussion drill driven home by a weight will meet every requirement.

‘Why by an electric motor?’

‘I am here, Mr. Jones, to give orders, not reasons.

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