"Haven't you heard?"
"No," answered Hooker rather impatiently. "I haven't heard anything. I haven't any time to read the papers; I'm too busy. My thermic inductor transformers melted last week and I'm all in the air. What was it?"
"Oh, never mind now," said Thornton hurriedly, perceiving that Hooker's ignorance was an added asset. He'd get his science pure, uncontaminated by disturbing questions of fact. "How about the earth's losing that quarter of an hour?"
"Of course she's off her orbit," remarked Hooker in a detached way. "And you want to know what's done it? Don't blame you. I suppose you've gone into the possibilities of stellar attraction."
"Discount that!" ordered Thornton. "What I want to know is whether it could happen from the inside?"
"Why not?" inquired Hooker. "A general shift in the mass would do it. So would the mere application of force at the proper point."
"It never happened before."
"Of course not. Neither had seedless oranges until Burbank came along," said Hooker.
"Do you regard it as possible by any human agency?" inquired Thornton.
"Why not?" repeated Hooker. "All you need is the energy. And it's lying all round if you could only get at it. That's just what I'm working at now. Radium, uranium, thorium, actinium--all the radioactive elements--are, as everybody knows, continually disintegrating, discharging the enormous energy that is imprisoned in their molecules. It may take generations, epochs, centuries, for them to get rid of it and transform themselves into other substances, but they will inevitably do so eventually. They're doing with more or less of a rush what all the elements are doing at their leisure. A single ounce of uranium contains about the same amount of energy that could be produced by the combustion of ten tons of coal--but it won't let the energy go. Instead it holds on to it, and the energy leaks slowly, almost imperceptibly, away, like water from a big reservoir tapped only by a tiny pipe. 'Atomic energy' Rutherford calls it. Every element, every substance, has its ready to be touched off and put to use. The chap who can find out how to release that energy all at once will revolutionize the civilized world. It will be like the discovery that water could be turned into steam and made to work for us--multiplied a million times. If, instead of that energy just oozing away and the uranium disintegrating infinitesimally each year, it could be exploded at a given moment you could drive an ocean liner with a handful of it. You could make the old globe stagger round and turn upside down! Mankind could just lay off and take a holiday. But how?"
Bennie enthusiastically waved his pipe at Thornton.
"How! That's the question. Everybody's known about the possibilities, for Soddy wrote a book about it; but nobody's ever suggested where the key could be found to unlock that treasure-house of energy. Some chap made up a novel once and pretended it was done, but he didn't say how. But"--and he lowered his voice passionately--"I'm working at it, and--and--I've nearly--nearly got it."
Thornton, infected by his friend's excitement, leaned forward in his chair.
"Yes--nearly. If only my transformers hadn't melted! You see I got the idea from Savaroff, who noticed that the activity of radium and other elements wasn't constant, but varied with the degree of solar activity, reaching its maximum at the periods when the sun spots were most numerous. In other words, he's shown that the breakdown of the atoms of radium and the other radioactive elements isn't spontaneous, as Soddy and others had thought, but is due to the action of certain extremely penetrating rays given out by the sun. These particular rays are the result of the enormous temperature of the solar atmosphere, and their effect upon radioactive substances is analogous to that of the detonating cap upon dynamite. No one has been able to produce these rays in the laboratory, although Hempel has suspected sometimes that traces of them appeared in the radiations from powerful electric sparks. Everything came to a halt until Hiroshito discovered thermic induction, and we were able to elevate temperature almost indefinitely through a process similar to the induction of high electric potentials by means of transformers and the Ruhmkorff coil.
"Hiroshito wasn't looking for a detonating ray and didn't have time to bother with it, but I started a series of experiments with that end in view. I got close--I am close, but the trouble has been to control the forces set in motion, for the rapid rise in temperature has always destroyed the apparatus."
Thornton whistled. "And when you succeed?" he asked in a whisper.
Hooker's face was transfigured.
"When I succeed I shall control the world," he cried, and his voice trembled. "But the damn thing either melts or explodes," he added with a tinge of indignation.
"You know about Hiroshito's experiments, of course; he used a quartz bulb containing a mixture of neon gas and the vapour of mercury, placed at the centre of a coil of silver wire carrying a big oscillatory current. This induced a ring discharge in the bulb, and the temperature of the vapour mixture rose until the bulb melted. He calculated that the temperature of that part of the vapour which carried the current was over 6,000. You see, the ring discharge is not in contact with the wall of the bulb, and can consequently be much hotter. It's like this." Here Bennie drew with a burnt match on the back of an envelope a diagram of something which resembled a doughnut in a chianti flask.
Thornton scratched his head. "Yes," he said, "but that's an old principle, isn't it? Why does Hiro--what's his name--call it--thermic induction?"
"Oriental imagination, probably," replied Bennie. "Hiroshito observed that a sudden increase in the temperature of the discharge occurred at the moment when the silver coil of his transformer became white hot, which he explained by some mysterious inductive action of the heat vibrations. I don't follow him at all. His theory's probably all wrong, but he delivered the goods. He gave me the right tip, even if I have got him lashed to the mast now. I use a tungsten spiral in a nitrogen atmosphere in my transformer and replace the quartz bulb with a capsule of zircorundum."
"A capsule of what?" asked Thornton, whose chemistry was mid-Victorian.
"Zircorundum," said Bennie, groping around in a drawer of his work table. "It's an absolute nonconductor of heat. Look here, just stick your finger in that." He held out to Thornton what appeared to be a small test tube of black glass. Thornton, with a slight moral hesitation, did as he was told, and Bennie, whistling, picked up the oxyacetylene blowpipe, regarding it somewhat as a dog fancier might gaze at an exceptionally fine pup. "Hold up your finger," said he to the astronomer. "That's right--like that!"
Thrusting the blowpipe forward, he allowed the hissing blue-white flame to wrap itself round the outer wall of the tube--a flame which Thornton knew could melt its way through a block of steel--but the astronomer felt no sensation of heat, although he not unnaturally expected the member to be incinerated.
"Queer, eh?" said Bennie. "Absolute insulation! Beats the thermos bottle, and requires no vacuum. It isn't quite what I want though, because the disintegrating rays which the ring discharge gives out break down the zirconium, which isn't an end-product of radioactivity. The pressure in the capsule rises, due to the liberation of helium, and it blows up, and the landlady or the police come up and bother me."
Thornton was scrutinizing Bennie's rough diagram. "This ring discharge," he meditated; "I wonder if it isn't something like a sunspot. You know the spots are electron vortices with strong magnetic fields. I'll bet you the Savaroff disintegrating rays come from the spots and not from the whole surface of the sun!"
"My word," said Bennie, with a grin of delight, "you occasionally have an illuminating idea, even if you are a musty astronomer. I always thought you were a sort of calculating machine, who slept on a logarithm table. I owe you two drinks for that suggestion, and to scare a thirst into you I'll show you an experiment that no living human being has ever seen before. I can't make very powerful disintegrating rays yet, but I can break down uranium, which is the easiest of all. Later on I'll be able to disintegrate anything, if I have luck--that is, anything except end-products. Then you'll see things fly. But, for the present, just this." He picked up a thin plate of white metal. "This is the metal we're going to attack, uranium--the parent of radium--and the whole radioactive series, ending with the end-product lead."
He hung the plate by two fine wires fastened to its corners, and adjusted a coil of wire opposite its centre, while within the coil he slipped a small black capsule.
"This is the best we can do now," he said. "The capsule is made of zircorundum, and we shall get only a trace of the disintegrating rays before it blows up. But you'll see 'em, or, rather, you'll see the lavender phosphorescence of the air through which they pass."
He arranged a thick slab of plate glass between Thornton and the thermic transformer, and stepping to the wall closed a switch. An oscillatory spark discharge started off with a roar in a closed box, and the coil of wire became white hot.
"Watch the plate!" shouted Bennie.
And Thornton watched.
For ten or fifteen seconds nothing happened, and then a faint beam of pale lavender light shot out from the capsule, and the metal plate swung away from the incandescent coil as if blown by a gentle breeze.
Almost instantly there was a loud report and a blinding flash of yellow light so brilliant that for the next instant or two to Thornton's eyes the room seemed dark. Slowly the afternoon light regained its normal quality. Bennie relit his pipe unconcernedly.
"That's the germ of the idea," he said between puffs. "That capsule contains a mixture of vapours that give out disintegrating rays when the temperature is raised by thermic induction above six thousand. Most of 'em are stopped by the zirconium atoms in the capsule, which break down and liberate helium; and the temperature rises in the capsule until it explodes, as you saw just now, with a flash of yellow helium light. The rays that get out strike the uranium plate and cause the surface layer of molecules to disintegrate, their products being driven off by the atomic explosions with a velocity about equal to that of light, and it's the recoil that deflects and swings the plate. The amount of uranium decomposed in this experiment couldn't be detected by the most delicate balance--small mass, but enormous velocity. See?"
"Yes, I understand," answered Thornton. "It's the old, 'momentum equals mass times velocity,' business we had in mechanics."
"Of course this is only a toy experiment," Bennie continued. "It is what the dancing pithballs of Franklin's time were to the multipolar, high-frequency dynamo. But if we could control this force and handle it on a large scale we could do anything with it--destroy the world, drive a car against gravity off into space, shift the axis of the earth perhaps!"
It came to Thornton as he sat there, cigarette in hand, that poor Bennie Hooker was going to receive the disappointment of his life. Within the next five minutes his dreams would be dashed to earth, for he would learn that another had stepped down to the pool of discovery before him. For how many years, he wondered, had Bennie toiled to produce his mysterious ray that should break down the atom and release the store of energy that the genii of Nature had concealed there. And now Thornton must tell him that all his efforts had gone for nothing!
"And you believe that any one who could generate a ray such as you describe could control the motion of the earth?" he asked.
"Of course, certainly," answered Hooker. "He could either disintegrate such huge quantities of matter that the mass of the earth would be shifted and its polar axis be changed, or if radioactive substances--pitchblende, for example--lay exposed upon the earth's surface he could cause them to discharge their helium and other products at such an enormous velocity that the recoil or reaction would accelerate or retard the motion of the globe. It would be quite feasible, quite simple--all one would need would be the disintegrating ray."
And then Thornton told Hooker of the flight of the giant Ring machine from the north and the destruction of the Mountains of Atlas through the apparent instrumentality of a ray of lavender light. Hooker's face turned slightly pale and his unshaven mouth tightened. Then a smile of exaltation illuminated his features.
"He's done it!" he cried joyously. "He's done it on an engineering scale. We pure-science dreamers turn up our noses at the engineers, but I tell you the improvements in the apparatus part of the game come when there is a big commercial demand for a thing and the engineering chaps take hold of it. But who is he and where is he? I must get to him. I don't suppose I can teach him much, but I've got a magnificent experiment that we can try together."
He turned to a littered writing-table and poked among the papers that lay there.
"You see," he explained excitedly, "if there is anything in the quantum theory----Oh! but you don't care about that. The point is where is the chap?"
And so Thornton had to begin at the beginning and tell Hooker all about the mysterious messages and the phenomena that accompanied them. He enlarged upon Pax's benignant intentions and the great problems presented by the proposed interference of the United States Government in Continental affairs, but Bennie swept them aside. The great thing, to his mind, was to find and get into communication with Pax.
"Ah! How he must feel! The greatest achievement of all time!" cried Hooker radiantly. "How ecstatically happy! Earth blossoming like the rose! Well-watered valleys where deserts were before. War abolished, poverty, disease! Who can it be? Curie? No; she's bottled in Paris. Posky, Langham, Varanelli--it can't be any one of those fellows. It beats me! Some Hindoo or Jap maybe, but never Hiroshito! Now we must get to him right away. So much to talk over." He walked round the room, blundering into things, dizzy with the thought that his great dream had come true. Suddenly he swept everything off the table on to the floor and kicked his heels in the air.
"Hooray!" he shouted, dancing round the room like a freshman. "Hooray! Now I can take a holiday. And come to think of it, I'm as hungry as a brontosaurus!"
That night Thornton returned to Washington and was at the White House by nine o'clock the following day.
"It's all straight," he told the President. "The honestest man in the United States has said so."
The moon rose over sleeping Paris, silvering the silent reaches of the Seine, flooding the deserted streets with mellow light, yet gently retouching all the disfigurements of the siege. No lights illuminated the cafes, no taxis dashed along the boulevards, no crowds loitered in the Place de l'Opera or the Place Vendome. Yet save for these facts it might have been the Paris of old time, unvisited by hunger, misery, or death. The curfew had sounded. Every citizen had long since gone within, extinguished his lights, and locked his door. Safe in the knowledge that the Germans' second advance had been finally met and effectually blocked sixty miles outside the walls, and that an armistice had been declared to go into effect at midnight, Paris slumbered peacefully.
Beyond the pellet-strewn fields and glacis of the second line of defence the invader, after a series of terrific onslaughts, had paused, retreated a few miles and intrenched himself, there to wait until the starving city should capitulate. For four months he had waited, yet Paris gave no sign of surrendering. On the contrary, it seemed to have some mysterious means of self-support, and the war office, in daily communication with London, reported that it could withstand the investment for an indefinite period. Meantime the Germans reintrenched themselves, built forts of their own upon which they mounted the siege guns intended for the walls, and constructed an impregnable line of entanglements, redoubts, and defences, which rendered it impossible for any army outside the city to come to its relief.
So rose the moon, turning white the millions of slate roofs, gilding the traceries of the towers of Notre Dame, dimming the searchlights which, like the antennae of gigantic fireflies, constantly played round the city from the summit of the Eiffel Tower. So slept Paris, confident that no crash of descending bombs would shatter the blue vault of the starlit sky or rend the habitations in which lay two millions of human beings, assured that the sun would rise through the gray mists of the Seine upon the ancient beauties of the Tuilleries and the Louvre unmarred by the enemy's projectiles, and that its citizens could pass freely along its boulevards without menace of death from flying missiles. For no shell could be hurled a distance of sixty miles, and an armistice had been declared.
Behind a small hill within the German fortifications a group of officers stood in the moonlight, examining what looked superficially like the hangar of a small dirigible. Nestling behind the hill it cast a black rectangular shadow upon the trampled sand of the redoubt. A score of artisans were busy filling a deep trench through which a huge pipe led off somewhere--a sort of deadly plumbing, for the house sheltered a monster cannon reenforced by jackets of lead and steel, the whole encased in a cooling apparatus of intricate manufacture. From the open end of the house the cylindrical barrel of the gigantic engine of war raised itself into the air at an angle of forty degrees, and from the muzzle to the ground below it was a drop of over eighty feet. On a track running off to the north rested the projectiles side by side, resembling in the dim light a row of steam boilers in the yard of a locomotive factory.
"Well," remarked one of the officers, turning to the only one of his companions not in uniform. "'Thanatos' is ready."
The man addressed was Von Heckmann, the most famous inventor of military ordnance in the world, already four times decorated for his services to the Emperor.
"The labour of nine years!" he answered with emotion. "Nine long years of self-denial and unremitting study! But to-night I shall be repaid, repaid a thousand times."
The officers shook hands with him one after the other, and the group broke up; the men who were filling the trench completed their labours and departed; and Von Heckmann and the major-general of artillery alone remained, except for the sentries beside the gun. The night was balmy and the moon rode in a cloudless sky high above the hill. They crossed the enclosure, followed by the two sentinels, and entering a passage reached the outer wall of the redoubt, which was in turn closed and locked. Here the sentries remained, but Von Heckmann and the general continued on behind the fortifications for some distance.
"Well, shall we start the ball?" asked the general, laying his hand on Von Heckmann's shoulder. But the inventor found it so hard to master his emotion that he could only nod his head. Yet the ball to which the general alluded was the discharging of a fiendish war machine toward an unsuspecting and harmless city alive with sleeping people, and the emotion of the inventor was due to the fact that he had devised and completed the most atrocious engine of death ever conceived by the mind of man--the Relay Gun. Horrible as is the thought, this otherwise normal man had devoted nine whole years to the problem of how to destroy human life at a distance of a hundred kilometres, and at last he had been successful, and an emperor had placed with his own divinely appointed hands a ribbon over the spot beneath which his heart should have been.
The projectile of this diabolical invention was ninety-five centimetres in diameter, and was itself a rifled mortar, which in full flight, twenty miles from the gun and at the top of its trajectory, exploded in mid-air, hurling forward its contained projectile with an additional velocity of three thousand feet per second. This process repeated itself, the final or core bomb, weighing over three hundred pounds and filled with lyddite, reaching its mark one minute and thirty-five seconds after the firing of the gun. This crowning example of the human mind's destructive ingenuity had cost the German Government five million marks and had required three years for its construction, and by no means the least of its devilish capacities was that of automatically reloading and firing itself at the interval of every ten seconds, its muzzle rising, falling, or veering slightly from side to side with each discharge, thus causing the shells to fall at wide distances. The poisonous nature of the immense volumes of gas poured out by the mastodon when in action necessitated the withdrawal of its crew to a safe distance. But once set in motion it needed no attendant. It had been tested by a preliminary shot the day before, which had been directed to a point several miles outside the walls of Paris, the effect of which had been observed and reported by high-flying German aeroplanes equipped with wireless. Everything was ready for the holocaust.
Von Heckmann and the general of artillery continued to make their way through the intrenchments and other fortifications, until at a distance of about a quarter of a mile from the redoubt where they had left the Relay Gun they arrived at a small whitewashed cottage.
"I have invited a few of my staff to join us," said the general to the inventor, "in order that they may in years to come describe to their children and their grandchildren this, the most momentous occasion in the history of warfare."
They turned the corner of the cottage and came upon a group of officers standing by the wooden gate of the cottage, all of whom saluted at their approach.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said the general. "I beg to present the members of my staff," turning to Von Heckmann.
The officers stood back while the general led the way into the cottage, the lower floor of which consisted of but a single room, used by the recent tenants as a kitchen, dining-room, and living-room. At one end of a long table, constructed by the regimental carpenter, supper had been laid, and a tub filled with ice contained a dozen or more quarts of champagne. Two orderlies stood behind the table, at the other end of which was affixed a small brass switch connected with the redoubt and controlled by a spring and button. The windows of the cottage were open, and through them poured the light of the full moon, dimming the flickering light of the candles upon the table.
In spite of the champagne, the supper, and the boxes of cigars and cigarettes, an atmosphere of solemnity was distinctly perceptible. It was as if each one of these officers, hardened to human suffering by a lifetime of discipline and active service, to say nothing of the years of horror through which they had just passed, could not but feel that in the last analysis the hurling upon an unsuspecting city of a rain of projectiles containing the highest explosive known to warfare, at a distance three times greater than that heretofore supposed to be possible to science, and the ensuing annihilation of its inhabitants, was something less for congratulation and applause than for sorrow and regret. The officers, who had joked each other outside the gate, became singularly quiet as they entered the cottage and gathered round the table where Von Heckmann and the general had taken their stand by the instrument. Utter silence fell upon the group. The mercury of their spirits dropped from summer heat to below freezing. What was this thing which they were about to do?
Through the windows, at a distance of four hundred yards, the pounding of the machinery which flooded the water jacket of the Relay Gun was distinctly audible in the stillness of the night. The pressure of a finger--a little finger--upon that electric button was all that was necessary to start the torrent of iron and high explosives toward Paris. By the time the first shell would reach its mark nine more would be on their way, stretched across the midnight sky at intervals of less than eight miles. And once started the stream would continue uninterrupted for two hours. The fascinated eyes of all the officers fastened themselves upon the key. None spoke.
"Well, well, gentlemen!" exclaimed the general brusquely, "what is the matter with you? You act as if you were at a funeral! Hans," turning to the orderly, "open the champagne there. Fill the glasses. Bumpers all, gentlemen, for the greatest inventor of all times, Herr von Heckmann, the inventor of the Relay Gun!"
The orderly sprang forward and hastily commenced uncorking bottles, while Von Heckmann turned away to the window.
"Here, this won't do, Schelling! You must liven things up a bit!" continued the general to one of the officers. "This is a great occasion for all of us! Give me that bottle." He seized a magnum of champagne from the orderly and commenced pouring out the foaming liquid into the glasses beside the plates. Schelling made a feeble attempt at a joke at which the officers laughed loudly, for the general was a martinet and had to be humoured.
"Now, then," called out the general as he glanced toward the window, "Herr von Heckmann, we are going to drink your health! Officers of the First Artillery, I give you a toast--a toast which you will all remember to your dying day! Bumpers, gentlemen! No heel taps! I give you the health of 'Thanatos'--the leviathan of artillery, the winged bearer of death and destruction--and of its inventor, Herr von Heckmann. Bumpers, gentlemen!" The general slapped Von Heckmann upon the shoulder and drained his glass.
"'Thanatos!' Von Heckmann!" shouted the officers. And with one accord they dashed their goblets to the stone flagging upon which they stood.
"And now, my dear inventor," said the general, "to you belongs the honour of arousing 'Thanatos' into activity. Are you ready, gentlemen? I warn you that when 'Thanatos' snores the rafters will ring."
Von Heckmann had stood with bowed head while the officers had drunk his health, and he now hesitatingly turned toward the little brass switch with its button of black rubber that glistened so innocently in the candlelight. His right hand trembled. He dashed the back of his left across his eyes. The general took out a large silver watch from his pocket. "Fifty-nine minutes past eleven," he announced. "At one minute past twelve Paris will be disembowelled. Put your finger on the button, my friend. Let us start the ball rolling."
Von Heckmann cast a glance almost of disquietude upon the faces of the officers who were leaning over the table in the intensity of their excitement. His elation, his exaltation, had passed from him. He seemed overwhelmed at the momentousness of the act which he was about to perform. Slowly his index finger crept toward the button and hovered half suspended over it. He pressed his lips together and was about to exert the pressure required to transmit the current of electricity to the discharging apparatus when unexpectedly there echoed through the night the sharp click of a horse's hoofs coming at a gallop down the village street. The group turned expectantly to the doorway.
An officer dressed in the uniform of an aide-de-camp of artillery entered abruptly, saluted, and produced from the inside pocket of his jacket a sealed envelope which he handed to the general. The interest of the officers suddenly centred upon the contents of the envelope. The general grumbled an oath at the interruption, tore open the missive, and held the single sheet which it contained to the candlelight.
"An armistice!" he cried disgustedly. His eye glanced rapidly over the page.
"To the Major-General commanding the First Division of Artillery, Army of the Meuse: "An armistice has been declared, to commence at midnight, pending negotiations for peace. You will see that no acts of hostility occur until you receive notice that war is to be resumed.
"VON HELMUTH, "Imperial Commissioner for War."
The officers broke into exclamations of impatience as the general crumpled the missive in his hand and cast it upon the floor.
"Donnerwetter!" he shouted. "Why were we so slow? Curse the armistice!" He glanced at his watch. It already pointed to after midnight. His face turned red and the veins in his forehead swelled.
"To hell with peace!" he bellowed, turning back his watch until the minute hand pointed to five minutes to twelve. "To hell with peace, I say! Press the button, Von Heckmann!"
But in spite of the agony of disappointment which he now acutely experienced, Von Heckmann did not fire. Sixty years of German respect for orders held him in a viselike grip and paralyzed his arm.
"I can't," he muttered. "I can't."
The general seemed to have gone mad. Thrusting Von Heckmann out of the way, he threw himself into a chair at the end of the table and with a snarl pressed the black handle of the key.
The officers gasped. Hardened as they were to the necessities of war, no act of insubordination like the present had ever occurred within their experience. Yet they must all uphold the general; they must all swear that the gun was fired before midnight. The key clicked and a blue bead snapped at the switch. They held their breaths, looking through the window to the west.
At first the night remained still. Only the chirp of the crickets and the fretting of the aide-de-camp's horse outside the cottage could be heard. Then, like the grating of a coffee mill in a distant kitchen when one is just waking out of a sound sleep, they heard the faint, smothered whir of machinery, a sharper metallic ring of steel against steel followed by a gigantic detonation which shook the ground upon which the cottage stood and overthrew every glass upon the table. With a roar like the fall of a skyscraper the first shell hurled itself into the night. Half terrified the officers gripped their chairs, waiting for the second discharge. The reverberation was still echoing among the hills when the second detonation occurred, shortly followed by the third and fourth. Then, in intervals between the crashing explosions, a distant rumbling growl, followed by a shuddering of the air, as if the night were frightened, came up out of the west toward Paris, showing that the projectiles were at the top of their flight and going into action. A lake of yellow smoke formed in the pocket behind the hill where lay the redoubt in which "Thanatos" was snoring.
On the great race track of Longchamps, in the Bois de Boulogne, the vast herd of cows, sheep, horses, and goats, collected together by the city government of Paris and attended by fifty or sixty shepherds especially imported from les Landes, had long since ceased to browse and had settled themselves down into the profound slumber of the animal world, broken only by an occasional bleating or the restless whinnying of a stallion. On the race course proper, in front of the grandstand and between it and the judge's box, four of these shepherds had built a small fire and by its light were throwing dice for coppers. They were having an easy time of it, these shepherds, for their flocks did not wander, and all that they had to do was to see that the animals were properly driven to such parts of the Bois as would afford proper nourishment.
"Well, mes enfants," exclaimed old Adrian Bannalec, pulling a turnip-shaped watch from beneath his blouse and holding it up to the firelight, "it's twelve o'clock and time to turn in. But what do you say to a cup of chocolate first?"
The others greeted the suggestion with approval, and going somewhere underneath the grandstand, Bannalec produced a pot filled with water, which he suspended with much dexterity over the fire upon the end of a pointed stick. The water began to boil almost immediately, and they were on the point of breaking their chocolate into it when, from what appeared to be an immense distance, through the air there came a curious rumble.
"What was that?" muttered Bannalec. The sound was followed within a few seconds by another, and after a similar interval by a third and fourth.
"There was going to be an armistice," suggested one of the younger herdsmen. He had hardly spoken before a much louder and apparently nearer detonation occurred.
"That must be one of our guns," said old Adrian proudly. "Do you hear how much louder it speaks than those of the Germans?"
Other discharges now followed in rapid succession, some fainter, some much louder. And then somewhere in the sky they saw a flash of flame, followed by a thunderous concussion which rattled the grandstand, and a great fiery serpent came soaring through the heavens toward Paris. Each moment it grew larger, until it seemed to be dropping straight toward them out of the sky, leaving a trail of sparks behind it.
"It's coming our way," chattered Adrian.
"God have mercy upon us!" murmured the others.
Rigid with fear, they stood staring with open mouths at the shell that seemed to have selected them for the object of its flight.
"God have mercy on our souls!" repeated Adrian after the others.
Then there came a light like that of a million suns....