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

  

Before we finish it may happen — it may, I say, happen — that your very life may depend upon this drill being started from a distance by electricity. It can, I presume, be done?’

‘Certainly it can be done.’

‘Then prepare to do it. The matter is not yet ready for your actual presence, but your preparations may now be made. I have nothing more to say.’

‘But it is essential,’ I expostulated, ‘that you should let me know what soil the drill is to penetrate. Sand, or clay, or chalk would each need different treatment.’

‘Let us say jelly,’ said Challenger. ‘Yes, we will for the present suppose that you have to sink your drill into jelly. And now, Mr. Jones, I have matters of some importance to engage my mind, so I will wish you good morning. You can draw up a formal contract with mention of your charges for my Head of Works.’

I bowed and turned, but before I reached the door my curiosity overcame me. He was already writing furiously with a quill pen screeching over the paper, and he looked up angrily at my interruption.

‘Well, sir, what now? I had hoped you were gone.

‘I only wished to ask you, sir, what the object of so extraordinary an experiment can be?’

‘Away, sir, away!’ he cried, angrily. ‘Raise your mind above the base mercantile and utilitarian needs of commerce. Shake off your paltry standards of business. Science seeks knowledge. Let the knowledge lead us where it will, we still must seek it. To know once for all what we are, why we are, where we are, is that not in itself the greatest of all human aspirations? Away, sir, away!’

His great black head was bowed over his papers once more and blended with his beard. The quill pen screeched more shrilly than ever. So I left him, this extraordinary man, with my head in a whirl at the thought of the strange business in which I now found myself to be his partner.

When I got back to my office I found Ted Malone waiting with a broad grin upon his face to know the result of my interview.

‘Well!’ he cried. ‘None the worse? No case of assault and battery? You must have handled him very tactfully. What do you think of the old boy?’

‘The most aggravating, insolent, intolerant, self-opinionated man I have ever met, but —’

‘Exactly!’ cried Malone. ‘We all come to that “but.” Of course, he is all you say and a lot more, but one feels that so big a man is not to be measured in our scale, and that we can endure from him what we would not stand from any other living mortal. Is that not so?’

‘Well, I don’t know him well enough yet to say, but I will admit that if he is not a mere bullying megalomaniac, and if what he says is true, then he certainly is in a class by himself. But is it true?’

‘Of course it is true. Challenger always delivers the goods. Now, where are you exactly in the matter? Has he told you about Hengist Down?’

‘Yes, in a sketchy sort of way.’

‘Well, you may take it from me that the whole thing is colossal colossal in conception and colossal in execution. He hates pressmen, but I am in his confidence, for he knows that I will publish no more than he authorizes. Therefore I have his plans, or some of his plans. He is such a deep old bird that one never is sure if one has really touched bottom. Anyhow, I know enough to assure you that Hengist Down is a practical proposition and nearly completed. My advice to you now is simply to await events, and meanwhile to get your gear all ready. You’ll hear soon enough either from him or from me.’

As it happened, it was from Malone himself that I heard. He came round quite early to my office some weeks later, as the bearer of a message.

‘I’ve come from Challenger’ said he.

‘You are like the pilot fish to the shark.’

‘I’m proud to be anything to him. He really is a wonder. He has done it all right. It’s your turn now, and then he is ready to ring up the curtain.’

‘Well, I can’t believe it until I see it, but I have everything ready and loaded on a lorry. I could start it off at any moment.’

‘Then do so at once. I’ve given you a tremendous character for energy and punctuality, so mind you don’t let me down. In the meantime, come down with me by rail and I will give you an idea of what has to be done.’

It was a lovely spring morning — May 22nd, to be exact — when we made that fateful journey which brought me on to a stage which is destined to be historical. On the way Malone handed me a note from Challenger which I was to accept as my instructions.

‘Sir,’ (it ran)—

‘Upon arriving at Hengist Down you will put yourself at the disposal of Mr. Barforth, the Chief Engineer, who is in possession of my plans. My young friend, Malone, the bearer of this, is also in touch with me and may protect me from any personal contact. We have now experienced certain phenomena in the shaft at and below the fourteen thousand-foot level which fully bear out my views as to the nature of a planetary body, but some more sensational proof is needed before I can hope to make an impression upon the torpid intelligence of the modern scientific world. That proof you are destined to afford, and they to witness. As you descend in the lifts you will observe, presuming that you have the rare quality of observation, that you pass in succession the secondary chalk beds, the coal measures, some Devonian and Cambrian indications, and finally the granite, through which the greater part of our tunnel is conducted. The bottom is now covered with tarpaulin, which I order you not to tamper with, as any clumsy handling of the sensitive inner cuticle of the earth might bring about premature results. At my instruction, two strong beams have been laid across the shaft twenty feet above the bottom, with a space between them. This space will act as a clip to hold up your Artesian tube. Fifty feet of drill will suffice, twenty of which will project below the beams, so that the point of the drill comes nearly down to the tarpaulin. As you value your life do not let it go further. Thirty feet will then project upwards in the shaft, and when you have released it we may assume that not less than forty feet of drill will bury itself in the earth’s substance. As this substance is very soft I find that you will probably need no driving power, and that simply a release of the tube will suffice by its own weight to drive it into the layer which we have uncovered. These instructions would seem to be sufficient for any ordinary intelligence, but I have little doubt that you will need more, which can be referred to me through our young friend, Malone.

‘GEORGE EDWARD CHALLENGER.’

 

It can be imagined that when we arrived at the station of Storrington, near the northern foot of the South Downs, I was in a state of considerable nervous tension. A weather-worn Vauxhall thirty landaulette was awaiting us, and bumped us for six or seven miles over by-paths and lanes which, in spite of their natural seclusion, were deeply rutted and showed every sign of heavy traffic. A broken lorry lying in the grass at one point showed that others had found it rough going as well as we. Once a huge piece of machinery which seemed to be the valves and piston of a hydraulic pump projected itself, all rusted, from a clump of furze.

‘That’s Challenger’s doing,’ said Malone, grinning.

‘Said it was one-tenth of an inch out of estimate, so he simply chucked it by the wayside.’

‘With a lawsuit to follow, no doubt.’

‘A lawsuit! My dear chap, we should have a court of our own. We have enough to keep a judge busy for a year. Government too. The old devil cares for no one. Rex v. George Challenger and George Challenger v. Rex. A nice devil’s dance the two will have from one court to another. Well, here we are. All right, Jenkins, you can let us in!’

A huge man with a notable cauliflower ear was peering into the car, a scowl of suspicion upon his face. He relaxed and saluted as he recognized my companion.

‘All right, Mr. Malone. I thought it was the American Associated Press.’

‘Oh, they are on the track, are they?’

‘They today, and The Times yesterday. Oh, they are buzzing round proper. Look at that!’ He indicated a distant dot upon the sky-line.

‘See that glint! That’s the telescope of the Chicago Daily News. Yes, they are fair after us now. I’ve seen ’em in rows, same as the crows, along the Beacon yonder.’

‘Poor old Press gang!’ said Malone, as we entered a gate in a formidable barbed wire fence. ‘I am one of them myself, and I know how it feels.

At this moment we heard a plaintive bleat behind us of ‘Malone! Ted Malone!’ It came from a fat little man who had just arrived upon a motor-bike and was at present struggling in the Herculean grasp of the gatekeeper.

‘Here, let me go!’ he sputtered. ‘Keep your hands off! Malone, call off this gorilla of yours.’

‘Let him go, Jenkins! He’s a friend of mine!’ cried Malone. ‘Well, old bean, what is it? What are you after in these parts? Fleet Street is your stamping ground — not the wilds of Sussex.’

‘You know what I am after perfectly well,’ said our visitor. ‘I’ve got the assignment to write a story about Hengist Down and I can’t go home without the copy.’

‘Sorry, Roy, but you can’t get anything here. You’ll have to stay on that side of the wire. If you want more you must go and see Professor Challenger and get his leave.’

‘I’ve been,’ said the journalist, ruefully. ‘I went this morning.’

‘Well, what did he say?’

‘He said he would put me through the window.’

Malone laughed.

‘And what did you say?’

‘I said, “What’s wrong with the door?” and I skipped through it just to show there was nothing wrong with it. It was no time for argument. I just went. What with that bearded Assyrian bull in London, and this Thug down here, who has ruined my clean celluloid, you seem to be keeping queer company, Ted Malone.’

‘I can’t help you, Roy; I would if I could. They say in Fleet Street that you have never been beaten, but you are up against it this time. Get back to the office, and if you just wait a few days I’ll give you the news as soon as the old man allows.’

‘No chance of getting in?’

‘Not an earthly.’

‘Money no object?’

‘You should know better than to say that.’

‘They tell me it’s a short cut to New Zealand.’

‘It will be a short cut to the hospital if you butt in here, Roy. Good-bye, now. We have some work to do of our own.

‘That’s Roy Perkins, the war correspondent,’ said Malone as we walked across the compound. ‘We’ve broken his record, for he is supposed to be undefeatable. It’s his fat, little innocent face that carries him through everything. We were on the same staff once. Now there’— he pointed to a cluster of pleasant red-roofed bungalows —‘are the quarters of the men. They are a splendid lot of picked workers who are paid far above ordinary rates. They have to be bachelors and teetotallers, and under oath of secrecy. I don’t think there has been any leakage up to now. That field is their football ground and the detached house is their library and recreation room. The old man is some organizer, I can assure you. This is Mr. Barforth, the head engineer-incharge.’

A long, thin, melancholy man with deep lines of anxiety upon his face had appeared before us. ‘I expect you are the Artesian engineer,’ said he, in a gloomy voice. ‘I was told to expect you. I am glad you’ve come, for I don’t mind telling you that the responsibility of this thing is getting on my nerves. We work away, and I never know if it’s a gush of chalk water, or a seam of coal, or a squirt of petroleum, or maybe a touch of hell fire that is coming next. We’ve been spared the last up to now, but you may make the connection for all I know.’

‘Is it so hot down there?’

‘Well, it’s hot. There’s no denying it. And yet maybe it is not hotter than the barometric pressure and the confined space might account for. Of course, the ventilation is awful. We pump the air down, but two-hour shifts are the most the men can do — and they are willing lads too. The Professor was down yesterday, and he was very pleased with it all. You had best join us at lunch, and then you will see it for yourself.’

After a hurried and frugal meal we were introduced with loving assiduity upon the part of the manager to the contents of his engine-house, and to the miscellaneous scrapheap of disused implements with which the grass was littered. On one side was a huge dismantled Arrol hydraulic shovel, with which the first excavations had been rapidly made. Beside it was a great engine which worked a continuous steel rope on which the skips were fastened which drew up the debris by successive stages from the bottom of the shaft. In the power-house were several Escher Wyss turbines of great horse-power running at one hundred and forty revolutions a minute and governing hydraulic accumulators which evolved a pressure of fourteen hundred pounds per square inch, passing in three-inch pipes down the shaft and operating four rock drills with hollow cutters of the Brandt type. Abutting upon the engine-house was the electric house supplying power for a very large lighting instalment, and next to that again was an extra turbine of two hundred horse-power, which drove a ten-foot fan forcing air down a twelve-inch pipe to the bottom of the workings. All these wonders were shown with many technical explanations by their proud operator, who was well on his way to boring me stiff, as I may in turn have done my reader. There came a welcome interruption, however, when I heard the roar of wheels and rejoiced to see my Leyland three-tonner come rolling and heaving over the grass, heaped up with tools and sections of tubing, and bearing my foreman, Peters, and a very grimy assistant in front. The two of them set to work at once to unload my stuff and to carry it in. Leaving them at their work, the manager, with Malone and myself, approached the shaft.

It was a wondrous place, on a very much larger scale than I had imagined. The spoil banks, which represented the thousands of tons removed, had been built up into a great horseshoe around it, which now made a considerable hill. In the concavity of this horseshoe, composed of chalk, clay, coal, and granite, there rose up a bristle of iron pillars and wheels from which the pumps and the lifts were operated. They connected with the brick power building which filled up the gap in the horseshoe. Beyond it lay the open mouth of the shaft, a huge yawning pit, some thirty or forty feet in diameter, lined and topped with brick and cement. As I craned my neck over the side and gazed down into the dreadful abyss, which I had been assured was eight miles deep, my brain reeled at the thought of what it represented. The sunlight struck the mouth of it diagonally, and I could only see some hundreds of yards of dirty white chalk, bricked here and there where the surface had seemed unstable. Even as I looked, however, I saw, far, far down in the darkness, a tiny speck of light, the smallest possible dot, but clear and steady against the inky background.

‘What is that light?’ I asked.

Malone bent over the parapet beside me.

‘That’s one of the cages coming up,’ said he. ‘Rather wonderful, is it not? That is a mile or more from us, and that little gleam is a powerful arc lamp. It travels quickly, and will be here in a few minutes.’

Sure enough the pin-point of light came larger and larger, until it flooded the tube with its silvery radiance, and I had to turn away my eyes from its blinding glare. A moment later the iron cage clashed up to the landing stage, and four men crawled out of it and passed on to the entrance.

‘Nearly all in,’ said Malone. ‘It is no joke to do a two-hour shift at that depth. Well, some of your stuff is ready to hand here. I suppose the best thing we can do is to go down. Then you will be able to judge the situation for yourself.’

There was an annexe to the engine-house into which he led me. A number of baggy suits of the lightest tussore material were hanging from the wall. Following Malone’s example I took off every stitch of my clothes, and put on one of these suits, together with a pair of rubber-soled slippers. Malone finished before I did and left the dressing-room. A moment later I heard a noise like ten dog-fights rolled into one, and rushing out I found my friend rolling on the ground with his arms round the workman who was helping to stack my artesian tubing. He was endeavouring to tear something from him to which the other was most desperately clinging. But Malone was too strong for him, tore the object out of his grasp, and danced upon it until it was shattered to pieces. Only then did I recognize that it was a photographic camera. My grimy-faced artisan rose ruefully from the floor.

‘Confound you, Ted Malone!’ said he. ‘That was a new ten-guinea machine.’

‘Can’t help it, Roy. I saw you take the snap, and there was only one thing to do.’

‘How the devil did you get mixed up with my outfit?’ I asked, with righteous indignation.

The rascal winked and grinned. ‘There are always and means,’ said he.

‘But don’t blame your foreman. He thought it was just a rag. I swapped clothes with his assistant, and in I came.’

‘And out you go,’ said Malone. ‘No use arguing, Roy. If Challenger were here he would set the dogs on you. I’ve been in a hole myself so I won’t be hard, but I am watch-dog here, and I can bite as well as bark. Come on! Out you march!’

So our enterprising visitor was marched by two grinning workmen out of the compound. So now the public will at last understand the genesis of that wonderful four-column article headed ‘Mad Dream of a Scientist’ with the subtitle. ‘A Bee-line to Australia,’ which appeared in The Adviser some days later and brought Challenger to the verge of apoplexy, and the editor of The Adviser to the most disagreeable and dangerous interview of his lifetime. The article was a highly coloured and exaggerated account of the adventure of Roy Perkins, ‘our experienced war correspondent’ and it contained such purple passages as ‘this hirsute bully of Enmore Gardens,’ ‘a compound guarded by barbed wire, plug-uglies, and bloodhounds,’ and finally, ‘I was dragged from the edge of the Anglo-Australian tunnel by two ruffians, the more savage being a jack-of-all trades whom I had previously known by sight as a hanger-on of the journalistic profession, while the other, a sinister figure in a strange tropical garb, was posing as an Artesian engineer, though his appearance was more reminiscent of Whitechapel.’ Having ticked us off in this way, the rascal had an elaborate description of rails at the pit mouth, and of a zigzag excavation by which funicular trains were to burrow into the earth.

The only practical inconvenience arising from the article was that it notably increased that line of loafers who sat upon the South Downs waiting for something to happen. The day came when it did happen and when they wished themselves elsewhere.

My foreman with his faked assistant had littered the place with all my apparatus, my bellbox, my crowsfoot, the V-drills, the rods, and the weight, but Malone insisted that we disregard all that and descend ourselves to the lowest level. To this end we entered the cage, which was of latticed steel, and in the company of the chief engineer we shot down into the bowels of the earth. There were a series of automatic lifts, each with its own operating station hollowed out in the side of the excavation. They operated with great speed, and the experience was more like a vertical railway journey than the deliberate fall which we associate with the British lift.

Since the cage was latticed and brightly illuminated, we had a clear view of the strata which we passed. I was conscious of each of them as we flashed past. There were the sallow lower chalk, the coffee-coloured Hastings beds, the lighter Ashburnham beds, the dark carboniferous clays, and then, gleaming in the electric light, band after band of jet-black, sparkling coal alternating with the rings of clay. Here and there brickwork had been inserted, but as a rule the shaft was self-supported, and one could but marvel at the immense labour and mechanical skill which it represented. Beneath the coal-beds I was conscious of jumbled strata of a concrete-like appearance, and then we shot down into the primitive granite, where the quartz crystals gleamed and twinkled as if the dark walls were sown with the dust of diamonds. Down we went and ever down — lower now than ever mortals had ever before penetrated. The archaic rocks varied wonderfully in colour, and I can never forget one broad belt of rose-coloured felspar, which shone with an unearthly beauty before our powerful lamps. Stage after stage, and lift after lift, the air getting ever closer and hotter until even the light tussore garments were intolerable and the sweat was pouring down into those rubber-soled slippers. At last, just as I was thinking that I could stand it no more, the last lift came to a stand and we stepped out upon a circular platform which had been cut in the rock. I noticed that Malone gave a curiously suspicious glance round at the walls as he did so. If I did not know him to be amongst the bravest of men, I should say that he was exceedingly nervous.

‘Funny-looking stuff,’ said the chief engineer, passing his hand over the nearest section of rock. He held it to the light and showed that it was glistening with a curious slimy scum. ‘There have been shiverings and tremblings down here. I don’t know what we are dealing with. The Professor seems pleased with it, but it’s all new to me.’

‘I am bound to say I’ve seen that wall fairly shake itself,’ said Malone. ‘Last time I was down here we fixed those two cross-beams for your drill, and when we cut into it for the supports it winced at every stroke.


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