The Star by H.
It was on the first day of the new year that the announcement was made,
almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the
planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun,
had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a
suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news
was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose
inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor
outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a
faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause
any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the
intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new
body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite
different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the
deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an
Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of
the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of
planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that
almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is
space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth
or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million
miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed
before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets
more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human
knowledge crossed this gulf of space until early in the twentieth century
this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky,
heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into
the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any
decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the
constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could
On the third day of the new year the newspaper readers of two hemispheres
were made aware for the first time of the real importance of this unusual
apparition in the heavens. "A Planetary Collision," one London paper
headed the news, and proclaimed Duchaine's opinion that this strange new
planet would probably collide with Neptune. The leader-writers enlarged
upon the topic. So that in most of the capitals of the world, on January
3rd, there was an expectation, however vague, of some imminent phenomenon
in the sky; and as the night followed the sunset round the globe,
thousands of men turned their eyes skyward to see—the old familiar stars
just as they had always been.
Until it was dawn in London and Pollux setting and the stars overhead
grown pale. The Winter's dawn it was, a sickly filtering accumulation of
daylight, and the light of gas and candles shone yellow in the windows to
show where people were astir. But the yawning policeman saw the thing, the
busy crowds in the markets stopped agape, workmen going to their work
betimes, milkmen, the drivers of news-carts, dissipation going home jaded
and pale, homeless wanderers, sentinels on their beats, and, in the
country, labourers trudging afield, poachers slinking home, all over the
dusky quickening country it could be seen—and out at sea by seamen
watching for the day—a great white star, come suddenly into the westward
Brighter it was than any star in our skies; brighter than the evening star
at its brightest. It still glowed out white and large, no mere twinkling
spot of light, but a small, round, clear shining disc, an hour after the
day had come. And where science has not reached, men stared and feared,
telling one another of the wars and pestilences that are foreshadowed by
these fiery signs in the Heavens. Sturdy Boers, dusky Hottentots, Gold
Coast negroes, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, stood in the warmth of
the sunrise watching the setting of this strange new star.
And in a hundred observatories there had been suppressed excitement,
rising almost to shouting pitch, as the two remote bodies had rushed
together, and a hurrying to and fro, to gather photographic apparatus and
spectroscope, and this appliance and that, to record this novel,
astonishing sight, the destruction of a world. For it was a world, a
sister planet of our earth, far greater than our earth indeed, that had so
suddenly flashed into flaming death. Neptune it was had been struck,
fairly and squarely, by the strange planet from outer space, and the heat
of the concussion had incontinently turned two solid globes into one vast
mass of incandescence. Round the world that day, two hours before the
dawn, went the pallid great white star, fading only as it sank westward
and the sun mounted above it. Everywhere men marvelled at it, but of all
those who saw it none could have marvelled more than those sailors,
habitual watchers of the stars, who far away at sea had heard nothing of
its advent and saw it now rise like a pigmy moon and climb zenithward and
hang overhead and sink westward with the passing of the night.
And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on
hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the
rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it,
like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into
existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. "It is larger,"
they cried. "It is brighter!" And indeed the moon, a quarter full and
sinking in the west, was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but
scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little
circle of the strange new star.
"It is brighter!" cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the
dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one
another. "It is nearer!" they said. "Nearer!"
And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking telegraph
took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand
cities grimy compositors fingered the type. "It is nearer." Men writing in
offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men
talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in
those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along awakening streets, it was
shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages, men who had read
these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting
the news to the passers-by. "It is nearer," Pretty women, flushed and
glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned
an intelligent interest they did not feel. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious!
How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!"
Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to
comfort themselves—looking skyward. "It has need to be nearer, for the
night's as cold as charity. Don't seem much warmth from it if it is
nearer, all the same."
"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman, kneeling beside her
The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for
himself—with the great white star shining broad and bright through the
frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal, centripetal," he said, with his
chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal
force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And
"Do we come in the way? I wonder—"
The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later
watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now
so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself,
hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African city a great man had
married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride.
"Even the skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn,
two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits for love of one
another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered.
"That is our star," they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the
sweet brilliance of its light.
The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from
him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there
still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for
four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had
given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this
momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from
his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he
went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half-way up the
sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys, and steeples of the city, hung
He looked at it as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. "You may
kill me," he said after a silence. "But I can hold you—and all the
universe for that matter—in the grip of this small brain. I would not
change. Even now."
He looked at the little phial. "There will be no need of sleep again," he
said. The next day at noon, punctual to the minute, he entered his lecture
theatre, put his hat on the end of the table as his habit was, and
carefully selected a large piece of chalk. It was a joke among his
students that he could not lecture without that piece of chalk to fumble
in his fingers, and once he had been stricken to impotence by their hiding
his supply. He came and looked under his grey eyebrows at the rising tiers
of young fresh faces, and spoke with his accustomed studied commonness of
"Circumstances have arisen—circumstances beyond my control," he said, and
paused, "which will debar me from completing the course I had designed.
It would seem, gentlemen, if I may put the thing clearly and briefly,
that—Man has lived in vain."
The students glanced at one another. Had they heard aright? Mad? Raised
eyebrows and grinning lips there were, but one or two faces remained
intent upon his calm grey-fringed face. "It will be interesting," he was
saying, "to devote this morning to an exposition, so far as I can make it
clear to you, of the calculations that have led me to this conclusion. Let
He turned towards the blackboard, meditating a diagram in the way that was
usual to him. "What was that about 'lived in vain'?" whispered one student
to another. "Listen," said the other, nodding towards the lecturer.
And presently they began to understand.
* * * * *
That night the star rose later, for its proper eastward motion had carried
it some way across Leo towards Virgo, and its brightness was so great that
the sky became a luminous blue as it rose, and every star was hidden in
its turn, save only Jupiter near the zenith, Capella, Aldebaran, Sirius,
and the pointers of the Bear. It was very white and beautiful. In many
parts of the world that night a pallid halo encircled it about. It was
perceptibly larger; in the clear refractive sky of the tropics it seemed
as if it were nearly a quarter the size of the moon. The frost was still
on the ground in England, but the world was as brightly lit as if it were
midsummer moonlight. One could see to read quite ordinary print by that
cold, clear light, and in the cities the lamps burnt yellow and wan.
And everywhere the world was awake that night, and throughout Christendom
a sombre murmur hung in the keen air over the country-side like the
belling of bees in the heather, and this murmurous tumult grew to a
clangour in the cities. It was the tolling of the bells in a million
belfry towers and steeples, summoning the people to sleep no more, to sin
no more, but to gather in their churches and pray. And overhead, growing
larger and brighter, as the earth rolled on its way and the night passed,
rose the dazzling star.
And the streets and houses were alight in all the cities, the shipyards
glared, and whatever roads led to high country were lit and crowded all
night long. And in all the seas about the civilized lands, ships with
throbbing engines, and ships with bellying sails, crowded with men and
living creatures, were standing out to ocean and the north. For already
the warning of the master mathematician had been telegraphed all over the
world and translated into a hundred tongues. The new planet and Neptune,
locked in a fiery embrace, were whirling headlong, ever faster and faster
towards the sun. Already every second this blazing mass flew a hundred
miles, and every second its terrific velocity increased. As it flew now,
indeed, it must pass a hundred million of miles, wide of the earth and
scarcely affect it. But near its destined path, as yet only slightly
perturbed, spun the mighty planet Jupiter and his moons sweeping splendid
round the sun. Every moment now the attraction between the fiery star and
the greatest of the planets grew stronger. And the result of that
attraction? Inevitably Jupiter would be deflected from its orbit into
an elliptical path, and the burning star, swung by his attraction wide of
its sunward rush, would "describe a curved path," and perhaps collide
with, and certainly pass very close to, our earth. "Earthquakes, volcanic
outbreaks, cyclones, sea waves, floods, and a steady rise in temperature
to I know not what limit"—so prophesied the master mathematician.
And overhead, to carry out his words, lonely and cold and livid blazed the
star of the coming doom.
To many who stared at it that night until their eyes ached it seemed that
it was visibly approaching. And that night, too, the weather changed, and
the frost that had gripped all Central Europe and France and England
softened towards a thaw.
But you must not imagine, because I have spoken of people praying through
the night and people going aboard ships and people fleeing towards
mountainous country, that the whole world was already in a terror because
of the star. As a matter of fact, use and wont still ruled the world, and
save for the talk of idle moments and the splendour of the night, nine
human beings out of ten were still busy at their common occupations. In
all the cities the shops, save one here and there, opened and closed at
their proper hours, the doctor and the undertaker plied their trades, the
workers gathered in the factories, soldiers drilled, scholars studied,
lovers sought one another, thieves lurked and fled, politicians planned
their schemes. The presses of the newspapers roared through the nights,
and many a priest of this church and that would not open his holy building
to further what he considered a foolish panic. The newspapers insisted on
the lesson of the year 1000—for then, too, people had anticipated the
end. The star was no star—mere gas—a comet; and were it a star it could
not possibly strike the earth. There was no precedent for such a thing.
Common-sense was sturdy everywhere, scornful, jesting, a little inclined
to persecute the obdurate fearful. That night, at seven-fifteen by
Greenwich time, the star would be at its nearest to Jupiter. Then the
world would see the turn things would take. The master mathematician's
grim warnings were treated by many as so much mere elaborate
self-advertisement. Common-sense at last, a little heated by argument,
signified its unalterable convictions by going to bed. So, too, barbarism
and savagery, already tired of the novelty, went about their nightly
business, and, save for a howling dog here and there, the beast world left
the star unheeded.
And yet, when at last the watchers in the European States saw the star
rise, an hour later, it is true, but no larger than it had been the night
before, there were still plenty awake to laugh at the master
mathematician—to take the danger as if it had passed.
But hereafter the laughter ceased. The star grew—it grew with a terrible
steadiness hour after hour, a little larger each hour, a little nearer
the midnight zenith, and brighter and brighter, until it had turned night
into a second day. Had it come straight to the earth instead of in a
curved path, had it lost no velocity to Jupiter, it must have leapt the
intervening gulf in a day; but as it was, it took five days altogether to
come by our planet. The next night it had become a third the size of the
moon before it set to English eyes, and the thaw was assured. It rose over
America near the size of the moon, but blinding white to look at, and
hot; and a breath of hot wind blew now with its rising and
gathering strength, and in Virginia, and Brazil, and down the St. Lawrence
valley, it shone intermittently through a driving reek of thunder-clouds,
flickering violet lightning, and hail unprecedented. In Manitoba was a
thaw and devastating floods. And upon all the mountains of the earth the
snow and ice began to melt that night, and all the rivers coming out of
high country flowed thick and turbid, and soon—in their upper reaches—
with swirling trees and the bodies of beasts and men. They rose steadily,
steadily in the ghostly brilliance, and came trickling over their banks at
last, behind the flying population of their valleys.
And along the coast of Argentina and up the South Atlantic the tides were
higher than had ever been in the memory of man, and the storms drove the
waters in many cases scores of miles inland, drowning whole cities. And so
great grew the heat during the night that the rising of the sun was like
the coming of a shadow. The earthquakes began and grew until all down
America from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, hillsides were sliding,
fissures were opening, and houses and walls crumbling to destruction. The
whole side of Cotopaxi slipped out in one vast convulsion, and a tumult of
lava poured out so high and broad and swift and liquid that in one day it
reached the sea.
So the star, with the wan moon in its wake, marched across the Pacific,
trailed the thunder-storms like the hem of a robe, and the growing tidal
wave that toiled behind it, frothing and eager, poured over island and
island and swept them clear of men: until that wave came at last—in a
blinding light and with the breath of a furnace, swift and terrible it
came—a wall of water, fifty feet high, roaring hungrily, upon the long
coasts of Asia, and swept inland across the plains of China. For a space
the star, hotter now and larger and brighter than the sun in its strength,
showed with pitiless brilliance the wide and populous country; towns and
villages with their pagodas and trees, roads, wide cultivated fields,
millions of sleepless people staring in helpless terror at the
incandescent sky; and then, low and growing, came the murmur of the flood.
And thus it was with millions of men that night—a flight nowhither, with
limbs heavy with heat and breath fierce and scant, and the flood like a
wall swift and white behind. And then death.
China was lit glowing white, but over Japan and Java and all the islands
of Eastern Asia the great star was a ball of dull red fire because of the
steam and smoke and ashes the volcanoes were spouting forth to salute its
coming. Above was the lava, hot gases and ash, and below the seething
floods, and the whole earth swayed and rumbled with the earthquake shocks.
Soon the immemorial snows of Thibet and the Himalaya were melting and
pouring down by ten million deepening converging channels upon the plains
of Burmah and Hindostan. The tangled summits of the Indian jungles were
aflame in a thousand places, and below the hurrying waters around the
stems were dark objects that still struggled feebly and reflected the
blood-red tongues of fire. And in a rudderless confusion a multitude of
men and women fled down the broad river-ways to that one last hope of
men—the open sea.
Larger grew the star, and larger, hotter, and brighter with a terrible
swiftness now. The tropical ocean had lost its phosphorescence, and the
whirling steam rose in ghostly wreaths from the black waves that plunged
incessantly, speckled with storm-tossed ships.
And then came a wonder. It seemed to those who in Europe watched for the
rising of the star that the world must have ceased its rotation. In a
thousand open spaces of down and upland the people who had fled thither
from the floods and the falling houses and sliding slopes of hill watched
for that rising in vain. Hour followed hour through a terrible suspense,
and the star rose not. Once again men set their eyes upon the old
constellations they had counted lost to them for ever. In England it was
hot and clear overhead, though the ground quivered perpetually, but in the
tropics, Sirius and Capella and Aldebaran showed through a veil of steam.
And when at last the great star rose near ten hours late, the sun rose
close upon it, and in the centre of its white heart was a disc of black.
Over Asia it was the star had begun to fall behind the movement of the
sky, and then suddenly, as it hung over India, its light had been veiled.
All the plain of India from the mouth of the Indus to the mouths of the
Ganges was a shallow waste of shining water that night, out of which rose
temples and palaces, mounds and hills, black with people. Every minaret
was a clustering mass of people, who fell one by one into the turbid
waters, as heat and terror overcame them. The whole land seemed a-wailing,
and suddenly there swept a shadow across that furnace of despair, and a
breath of cold wind, and a gathering of clouds, out of the cooling air.
Men looking up, near blinded, at the star, saw that a black disc was
creeping across the light. It was the moon, coming between the star and
the earth. And even as men cried to God at this respite, out of the East
with a strange inexplicable swiftness sprang the sun. And then star, sun,
and moon rushed together across the heavens.
So it was that presently to the European watchers star and sun rose close
upon each other, drove headlong for a space and then slower, and at last
came to rest, star and sun merged into one glare of flame at the zenith of
the sky. The moon no longer eclipsed the star but was lost to sight in the
brilliance of the sky. And though those who were still alive regarded it
for the most part with that dull stupidity that hunger, fatigue, heat and
despair engender, there were still men who could perceive the meaning of
these signs. Star and earth had been at their nearest, had swung about one
another, and the star had passed. Already it was receding, swifter and
swifter, in the last stage of its headlong journey downward into the sun.
And then the clouds gathered, blotting out the vision of the sky, the
thunder and lightning wove a garment round the world; all over the earth
was such a downpour of rain as men had never before seen, and where the
volcanoes flared red against the cloud canopy there descended torrents of
mud. Everywhere the waters were pouring off the land, leaving mud-silted
ruins, and the earth littered like a storm-worn beach with all that had
floated, and the dead bodies of the men and brutes, its children. For days
the water streamed off the land, sweeping away soil and trees and houses
in the way, and piling huge dykes and scooping out Titanic gullies over
the country-side. Those were the days of darkness that followed the star
and the heat. All through them, and for many weeks and months, the
But the star had passed, and men, hunger-driven and gathering courage only
slowly, might creep back to their ruined cities, buried granaries, and
sodden fields. Such few ships as had escaped the storms of that time came
stunned and shattered and sounding their way cautiously through the new
marks and shoals of once familiar ports. And as the storms subsided men
perceived that everywhere the days were hotter than of yore, and the sun
larger, and the moon, shrunk to a third of its former size, took now
fourscore days between its new and new.
But of the new brotherhood that grew presently among men, of the saving of
laws and books and machines, of the strange change that had come over
Iceland and Greenland and the shores of Baffin's Bay, so that the sailors
coming there presently found them green and gracious, and could scarce
believe their eyes, this story does not tell. Nor of the movement of
mankind, now that the earth was hotter, northward and southward towards
the poles of the earth. It concerns itself only with the coming and the
passing of the star.
The Martian astronomers—for there are astronomers on Mars, although they
are very different beings from men—were naturally profoundly interested
by these things. They saw them from their own standpoint of course.
"Considering the mass and temperature of the missile that was flung
through our solar system into the sun," one wrote, "it is astonishing what
a little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained. All
the familiar continental markings and the masses of the seas remain
intact, and indeed the only difference seems to be a shrinkage of the
white discolouration (supposed to be frozen water) round either pole."
Which only shows how small the vastest of human catastrophes may seem at a
distance of a few million miles.