"Curious performance of the magnetic needle. They say it held due east for several minutes," continued Evarts, hoping to engage his senior in conversation--almost an impossibility, as he well knew.
Thornton did not reply. He was carefully observing the infinitesimal approach of a certain star to the meridian line, marked by a thread across the circle's aperture. When that point of light should cross the thread it would be midnight, and July 22, 1916, would be gone forever. Every midnight the indicating stars crossed the thread exactly on time, each night a trifle earlier than the night before by a definite and calculable amount, due to the march of the earth around the sun. So they had crossed the lines in every observatory since clocks and telescopes had been invented. Heretofore, no matter what cataclysm of nature had occurred, the star had always crossed the line not a second too soon or a second too late, but exactly on time. It was the one positively predictable thing, foretellable for ten or for ten thousand years by a simple mathematical calculation. It was surer than death or the tax-man. It was absolute.
Thornton was a reserved man of few words--impersonal, methodical, serious. He spent many nights there with Evarts, hardly exchanging a phrase with him, and then only on some matter immediately concerned with their work. Evarts could dimly see his long, grave profile bending over his eyepiece, shrouded in the heavy shadows across the table. He felt a great respect, even tenderness, for this taciturn, high-principled, devoted scientist. He had never seen him excited, hardly ever aroused. He was a man of figures, whose only passion seemed to be the "music of the spheres."
A long silence followed, during which Thornton seemed to bend more intently than ever over his eyepiece. The hand of the big clock slipped gradually to midnight.
"There's something wrong with the clock," said Thornton suddenly, and his voice sounded curiously dry, almost unnatural. "Telephone to the equatorial room for the time."
Puzzled by Thornton's manner Evarts did as instructed.
"Forty seconds past midnight," came the reply from the equatorial observer.
Evarts repeated the answer for Thornton's benefit, looking at their own clock at the same time. It pointed to exactly forty seconds past the hour. He heard Thornton suppress something like an oath.
"There's something the matter!" repeated Thornton dumbly. "Aeta isn't within five minutes of crossing. Both clocks can't be wrong!"
He pressed a button that connected with the wireless room.
"What's the time?" he called sharply through the nickel-plated speaking-tube.
"Forty-five seconds past the hour," came the answer. Then: "But I want to see you, sir. There's something queer going on. May I come in?"
"Come!" almost shouted Thornton.
A moment later the flushed face of Williams, the night operator, appeared in the doorway.
"Excuse me, sir," he stammered, "but something fierce must have happened! I thought you ought to know. The Eiffel Tower has been trying to talk to us for over two hours, but I can't get what he's saying."
"What's the matter--atmospherics?" snapped Evarts.
"No; the air was full of them, sir--shrieking with them you might say; but they've stopped now. The trouble has been that I've been jammed by the Brussels station talking to the Belgian Congo--same wave length--and I couldn't tune Brussels out. Every once in a while I'd get a word of what Paris was saying, and it's always the same word--'heure.' But just now Brussels stopped sending and I got the complete message of the Eiffel Tower. They wanted to know our time by Greenwich. I gave it to 'em. Then Paris said to tell you to take your transit with great care and send result to them immediately----"
The ordinarily calm Thornton gave a great suspiration and his face was livid. "Aeta's just crossed--we're five minutes out! Evarts, am I crazy? Am I talking straight?"
Evarts laid his hand on the other's arm.
"The earthquake's knocked out your transit," he suggested.
"And Paris--how about Paris?" asked Thornton. He wrote something down on a card mechanically and started for the door. "Get me the Eiffel Tower!" he ordered Williams.
The three men stood motionless, as the wireless man sent the Eiffel Tower call hurtling across the Atlantic: "ETA--ETA--ETA.".
"All right," whispered Williams, "I've got 'em."
"Tell Paris that our clocks are all out five minutes according to the meridian."
Williams worked the key rapidly, and then listened.
"The Eiffel Tower says that their chronometers also appear to be out by the same time, and that Greenwich and Moscow both report the same thing. Wait a minute! He says Moscow has wired that at eight o'clock last evening a tremendous aurora of bright yellow light was seen to the northwest, and that their spectroscopes showed the helium line only. He wants to know if we have any explanation to offer----"
"Explanation!" gasped Evarts. "Tell Paris that we had earthquake shocks here together with violent seismic movements, sudden rise in barometer, followed by fall, statics, and erratic variation in the magnetic needle."
"What does it all mean?" murmured Thornton, staring blankly at the younger man.
The key rattled and the rotary spark whined into a shriek. Then silence.
"Paris says that the same manifestations have been observed in Russia, Algeria, Italy, and London," called out Williams. "Ah! What's that? Nauen's calling." Again he sent the blue flame crackling between the coils. "Nauen reports an error of five minutes in their meridian observations according to the official clocks. And hello! He says Berlin has capitulated and that the Russians began marching through at daylight--that is about two hours ago. He says he is about to turn the station over to the Allied Commissioners, who will at once assume charge."
"How about it?" he asked of Thornton.
The latter shook his head gravely.
"It may be--explainable--or," he added hoarsely, "it may mean the end of the world."
Williams sprang from his chair and confronted Thornton.
"What do you mean?" he almost shouted.
"Perhaps the universe is running down!" said Evarts soothingly. "At any rate, keep it to yourself, old chap. If the jig is up there's no use scaring people to death a month or so too soon!"
Thornton grasped an arm of each.
"Not a word of this to anybody!" he ground out through compressed lips. "Absolute silence, or hell may break loose on earth!"
Free translation of the Official Report of the Imperial Commission of the Berlin Academy of Science to the Imperial Commissioners of the German Federated States: The unprecedented cosmic phenomena which occurred on the 22d and 27th days of the month of July, and which were felt over the entire surface of the globe, have left a permanent effect of such magnitude on the position of the earth's axis in space and the duration of the period of the rotation, that it is impossible to predict at the present time the ultimate changes or modifications in the climatic conditions which may follow. This commission has considered most carefully the possible causes that may have been responsible for this catastrophe--(Weltunfall)--and by eliminating every hypothesis that was incapable of explaining all of the various disturbances, is now in a position to present two theories, either one of which appears to be capable of explaining the recent disturbances.
The phenomena in question may be briefly summarized as follows; 1. THE YELLOW AURORA. In Northern Europe this appeared suddenly on the night of July 22d as a broad, faint sheaf--(Lichtbundel)--of clear yellow light in the western sky. Reports from America show that at Washington it appeared in the north as a narrow shaft of light, inclined at an angle of about thirty degrees with the horizon, and shooting off to the east. Near the horizon it was extremely brilliant, and the spectroscope showed that the light was due to glowing helium gas.
The Potsdam Observatory reported that the presence of sodium has been detected in the aurora; but this appears to have been a mistake due to the faintness of the light and the circumstance that no comparison spectrum was impressed on the plate. On the photograph made at the Washington Observatory the helium line is certain, as a second exposure was made with a sodium flame; and the two lines are shown distinctly separated.
2. THE NEGATIVE ACCELERATION. This phenomenon was observed to a greater or less extent all over the globe. It was especially marked near the equator; but in Northern Europe it was noted by only a few observers, though many clocks were stopped and other instruments deranged. There appears to be no doubt that a force of terrific magnitude was applied in a tangential direction to the surface of the earth, in such a direction as to oppose its axial rotation, with the effect that the surface velocity was diminished by about one part in three hundred, resulting in a lengthening of the day by five minutes, thirteen and a half seconds.
The application of this brake--(Bremsekraft), as we may term it--caused acceleration phenomena to manifest themselves precisely as on a railroad train when being brought to a stop. The change in the surface speed of the earth at the equator has amounted to about 6.4 kilometres an hour; and various observations show that this change of velocity was brought about by the operation of the unknown force for a period of time of less than three minutes. The negative acceleration thus represented would certainly be too small to produce any marked physiological sensations, and yet the reports from various places indicate that they were certainly observed. The sensations felt are usually described as similar to those experienced in a moving automobile when the brake is very gently applied.
Moreover, certain destructive actions are reported from localities near the equator--chimneys fell and tall buildings swayed; while from New York comes the report that the obelisk in Central Park was thrown from its pedestal. It appears that these effects were due to the circumstance that the alteration of velocity was propagated through the earth as a wave similar to an earthquake wave, and that the effects were cumulative at certain points--a theory that is substantiated by reports that at certain localities, even near the equator, no effects were noted.
3. TIDAL WAVES. These were observed everywhere and were very destructive in many places. In the Panama Canal, which is near the equator and which runs nearly east and west, the sweep of the water was so great that it flowed over the Gatun Lock. On the eastern coasts of the various continents there was a recession of the sea, the fall of the tide being from three to five metres below the low-water mark. On the western coasts there was a corresponding rise, which in some cases reached a level of over twelve metres.
That the tidal phenomena were not more marked and more destructive is a matter of great surprise, and has been considered as evidence that the retarding force was not applied at a single spot on the earth's surface, but was a distributed force, which acted on the water as well as on the land, though to a less extent. It is difficult, however, to conceive of a force capable of acting in such a way; and Bjornson's theory of the magnetic vortex in the ether has been rejected by this commission.
4. ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES. Some time after the appearance of the yellow aurora a sudden rise in atmospheric pressure, followed by a gradual fall considerably below the normal pressure, was recorded over the entire surface of the globe. Calculations based on the time of arrival of this disturbance at widely separated points show that it proceeded with the velocity of sound from a point situated probably in Northern Labrador. The maximum rise of pressure recorded was registered at Halifax, the self-recording barographs showing that the pressure rose over six centimetres in less than five minutes.
5. SHIFT IN DIRECTION OF THE EARTH'S AXIS. The axis of the earth has been shifted in space by the disturbance and now points almost exactly toward the double star Delta Ursae Minoris. This change appears to have resulted from the circumstance that the force was applied to the surface of the globe in a direction not quite parallel to the direction of rotation, the result being the development of a new axis and a shift in the positions of the poles, which it will now be necessary to rediscover.
It appears that these most remarkable cosmic phenomena can be explained in either of two ways: they may have resulted from an explosive or volcanic discharge from the surface of the earth, or from the oblique impact of a meteoric stream moving at a very high velocity. It seems unlikely that sufficient energy to bring about the observed changes could have been developed by a volcanic disturbance of the ordinary type; but if radioactive forces are allowed to come into play the amount of energy available is practically unlimited.
It is difficult, however, to conceive of any way in which a sudden liberation of atomic energy could have been brought about by any terrestrial agency; so that the first theory, though able to account for the facts, seems to be the less tenable of the two. The meteoric theory offers no especial difficulty. The energy delivered by a comparatively small mass of finely divided matter, moving at a velocity of several hundred kilometres a second--and such a velocity is by no means unknown--would be amply sufficient to alter the velocity of rotation by the small amount observed.
Moreover, the impact of such a meteoric stream may have developed a temperature sufficiently high to bring about radioactive changes, the effect of which would be to expel helium and other disintegration products at cathode-ray velocity--(Kathoden-Strahlen-Fortpflanzung-Geschwindigkeit)--from the surface of the earth; and the recoil exerted by this expulsion would add itself to the force of the meteoric impact.
The presence of helium makes this latter hypothesis not altogether improbable, while the atmospheric wave of pressure would result at once from the disruption of the air by the passage of the meteor stream through it. Exploration of the region in which it seems probable that the disturbance took place will undoubtedly furnish the data necessary for the complete solution of the problem." [Pp. 17-19.]
At ten o'clock one evening, shortly after the occurrences heretofore described, an extraordinary conference occurred at the White House, probably the most remarkable ever held there or elsewhere. At the long table at which the cabinet meetings took place sat six gentlemen in evening dress, each trying to appear unconcerned, if not amused. At the head of the table was the President of the United States; next to him Count von Koenitz, the German Ambassador, representing the Imperial German Commissioners, who had taken over the reins of the German Government after the abdication of the Kaiser; and, on the opposite side, Monsieur Emil Liban, Prince Rostoloff, and Sir John Smith, the respective ambassadors of France, Russia, and Great Britain. The sixth person was Thornton, the astronomer.
[Footnote 1: The Germans were unwilling to surrender the use of the words "Empire" and "Imperial," even after they had adopted a republican form of government.]
The President had only succeeded in bringing this conference about after the greatest effort and the most skilful diplomacy--in view of the extreme importance which, he assured them all, he attached to the matters which he desired to lay before them. Only for this reason had the ambassadors of warring nations consented to meet--unofficially as it were.
"With great respect, your Excellency," said Count von Koenitz, "the matter is preposterous--as much so as a fairy tale by Grimm! This wireless operator of whom you speak is lying about these messages. If he received them at all--a fact which hangs solely upon his word--he received them after and not before the phenomena recorded."
The President shook his head. "That might hold true of the first message--the one received July 19th," said he, "but the second message, foretelling the lengthening of July 27th, was delivered on that day, and was in my hands before the disturbances occurred."
Von Koenitz fingered his moustache and shrugged his shoulders. It was clear that he regarded the whole affair as absurd, undignified.
Monsieur Liban turned impatiently from him.
"Your Excellency," he said, addressing the President, "I cannot share the views of Count von Koenitz. I regard this affair as of the most stupendous importance. Messages or no messages, extraordinary natural phenomena are occurring which may shortly end in the extinction of human life upon the planet. A power which can control the length of the day can annihilate the globe."
"You cannot change the facts," remarked Prince Rostoloff sternly to the German Ambassador. "The earth has changed its orbit. Professor Vaskofsky, of the Imperial College, has so declared. There is some cause. Be it God or devil, there is a cause. Are we to sit still and do nothing while the globe's crust freezes and our armies congeal into corpses?" He trembled with agitation.
"Calm yourself, mon cher Prince!" said Monsieur Liban. "So far we have gained fifteen minutes and have lost nothing! But, as you say, whether or not the sender of these messages is responsible, there is a cause, and we must find it."
"But how? That is the question," exclaimed the President almost apologetically, for he felt, as did Count von Koenitz, that somehow an explanation would shortly be forthcoming that would make this conference seem the height of the ridiculous. "I have already," he added hastily, "instructed the entire force of the National Academy of Sciences to direct its energies toward the solution of these phenomena. Undoubtedly Great Britain, Russia, Germany, and France are doing the same. The scientists report that the yellow aurora seen in the north, the earthquakes, the variation of the compass, and the eccentricities of the barometer are probably all connected more or less directly with the change in the earth's orbit. But they offer no explanation. They do not suggest what the aurora is nor why its appearance should have this effect. It, therefore, seems to me clearly my duty to lay before you all the facts as far as they are known to me. Among these facts are the mysterious messages received by wireless at the Naval Observatory immediately preceding these events."
"Post hoc, ergo propter hoc!" half sneered Von Koenitz.
The President smiled wearily.
"What do you wish me to do?" he asked, glancing round the table. "Shall we remain inactive? Shall we wait and see what may happen?"
"No! No!" shouted Rostoloff, jumping to his feet. "Another week and we may all be plunged into eternity. It is suicidal not to regard this matter seriously. We are sick from war. And perhaps Count von Koenitz, in view of the fall of Berlin, would welcome something of the sort as an honourable way out of his country's difficulties."
"Sir!" cried the count, leaping to his feet. "Have a care! It has cost Russia four million men to reach Berlin. When we have taken Paris we shall recapture Berlin and commence the march of our victorious eagles toward Moscow and the Winter Palace."
"Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Be seated, I implore you!" exclaimed the President.
The Russian and German ambassadors somewhat ungraciously resumed their former places, casting at each other glances of undisguised contempt.
"As I see the matter," continued the President, "there are two distinct propositions before you: The first relates to how far the extraordinary events of the past week are of such a character as to demand joint investigation and action by the Powers. The second involves the cause of these events and their connection with and relation to the sender of the messages signed Pax. I shall ask you to signify your opinion as to each of these questions."
"I believe that some action should be taken, based on the assumption that they are manifestations of one and the same power or cause," said Monsieur Liban emphatically.
"I agree with the French Ambassador," growled Rostoloff.
"I am of opinion that the phenomena should be the subject of proper scientific investigation," remarked Count von Koenitz more calmly. "But as far as these messages are concerned they are, if I may be pardoned for saying so, a foolish joke. It is undignified to take any cognizance of them."
"What do you think, Sir John?" asked the President, turning to the English Ambassador.
"Before making up my mind," returned the latter quietly, "I should like to see the operator who received them."
"By all means!" exclaimed Von Koenitz.
The President pressed a button and his secretary entered.
"I had anticipated such a desire on the part of all of you," he announced, "and arranged to have him here. He is waiting outside. Shall I have him brought in?"
"Yes! Yes!" answered Rostoloff. And the others nodded.
The door opened, and Bill Hood, wearing his best new blue suit and nervously twisting a faded bicycle cap between his fingers, stumbled awkwardly into the room. His face was bright red with embarrassment and one of his cheeks exhibited a marked protuberance. He blinked in the glare of the electric light.
"Mr. Hood," the President addressed him courteously, "I have sent for you to explain to these gentlemen, who are the ambassadors of the great European Powers, the circumstances under which you received the wireless messages from the unknown person describing himself as 'Pax.'"
Hood shifted from his right to his left foot and pressed his lips together. Von Koenitz fingered the waxed ends of his moustache and regarded the operator whimsically.
"In the first place," went on the President, "we desire to know whether the messages which you have reported were received under ordinary or under unusual conditions. In a word, could you form any opinion as to the whereabouts of the sender?"
Hood scratched the side of his nose in a manner politely doubtful.
"Sure thing, your Honour," he answered at last. "Sure the conditions was unusual. That feller has some juice and no mistake."
"Juice?" inquired Von Koenitz.
"Yare--current. Whines like a steel top. Fifty kilowatts sure, and maybe more! And a twelve-thousand-metre wave."
"I do not fully understand," interjected Rostoloff. "Please explain, sir."
"Ain't nothin' to explain," returned Hood. "He's just got a hell of a wave length, that's all. Biggest on earth. We're only tuned for a three-thousand-metre wave. At first I could hardly take him at all. I had to throw in our new Henderson ballast coils before I could hear properly. I reckon there ain't another station in Christendom can get him."
"Ah," remarked Von Koenitz. "One of your millionaire amateurs, I suppose."
"Yare," agreed Hood. "I thought sure he was a nut."
"A what?" interrupted Sir John Smith.
"A nut," answered Hood. "A crank, so to speak."
"Ah, 'krank'!" nodded the German. "Exactly--a lunatic! That is precisely what I say!"
"But I don't think it's no nut now," countered Hood valiantly. "If he is a bug he's the biggest bug in all creation, that's all I can say. He's got the goods, that's what he's got. He'll do some damage before he gets through."
"Are these messages addressed to anybody in particular?" inquired Sir John, who was studying Hood intently.