The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
I went over and put an arm round her.
‘I know what you mean,’ I said. ‘I think it is part of it – the thing is not to let it get us down.’
She turned her head. ‘Part of what?’ she asked, puzzled.
‘Part of the process we are going through – the instinctive reaction. The idea of an alien intelligence here is intolerable to us, we must hate and fear it. We can’t help it – even our own kind of intelligence when it goes a bit off the rails in drunks and crazies alarms us not very rationally.’
‘You mean I’d not be feeling quite the same way about it if I knew that it had been done by – well, the Chinese, or somebody?’
‘Do you think you would?’
‘I-I’m not sure.’
‘Well, for myself, I’d say I’d be roaring with indignation. Knowing that it was somebody hitting well below the belt, I’d at least have a glimmering of who, how, and why, to give me focus. As it is, I’ve only the haziest impressions of the who, no idea about the how, and a feeling about the why that makes me go cold inside, if you really want to know.’
She pressed her hand on mine.
‘I’m glad to know that, Mike. I was feeling pretty lonely yesterday.’
‘My protective coloration isn’t intended to deceive you, my sweet. It is intended to deceive me.’
‘I must remember that,’ she said, with an air of extensive implication that I am not sure I have fully understood yet.
One of the grubs in the raspberry at Rose Cottage was that our guests almost invariably arrived in the middle of the night, having (a) over-estimated the average speed they would maintain, (b) spent longer over dinner on the way than they had intended, (c) developed in the course of the last few miles a compulsion towards bacon and eggs.
Harold and Tuny were no exception. Two-ten a.m. on Saturday was the time when I heard their car draw up. I went out into the moonlight and found Harold pulling things out of the boot, while Tuny who had not been there before looked about her with a doubtful expression which cleared somewhat as she recognized me.
‘Oh, it is the right place,’ she said. ‘I was just telling Harold it couldn’t be because – ’
‘I’m sorry,’ I apologized, ‘we shall really have to grow some. Everybody expects it of us – except the natives.’
‘I’ve explained,’ said Harold, ‘but she won’t have it.’
‘All you kept on saying was that in Cornwall rose doesn’t mean rose.’
‘It doesn’t,’ I told her, ‘it means “heath”.’
‘Well, then I don’t see why you don’t call it Heath Cottage, to make it plainer.’
‘Let’s go inside,’ I suggested, laying hold of a case.
Wondering why one’s friends chose to marry the people they did is unprofitable, but recurrent. One could so often have done so much better for them. For instance, I could think of three girls who would have been better for Harold, in their different ways; one would have pushed him, another would have looked after him, the third would have amused him. It is true that they were none of them quite as decorative as Tuny, but that’s not – well, it’s something like the difference between the room you live in and the one at the Ideal Home Exhibition. However, there it was, and, as Phyllis said, a girl who makes good with a name like Petunia must at least have something her parents didn’t have.
The bacon and eggs made their appearance. Tuny admired the plates, which were part of a set that we had found in Milan, and presently she and Phyllis were well away. After a while I asked Harold how the metal-fatigue theory was going down. He held a public-relations job with a large engineering firm, so he’d be likely to know. He looked at me, and gave a quick glance at Tuny who was still chatting china.
‘It’s not pleasing our people a lot,’ he said, briefly, and then switched over to telling me of some minor noise that his car had developed on the way down.
Untraceable noises in other people’s cars tend to bore: this one was so mysterious in its habits that I suggested that we put it down to metal-fatigue, and leave it at that until the morning, at least. Across the table, Tuny caught-the phrase. She gave a – well, there used to be something called a ‘tinkling laugh’; this was probably it.
‘Metal-fatigue!’ she repeated, and tinkled again.
Harold said hurriedly: ‘We were talking about the funny noise the car was making, dear.’ Tuny paid him no attention.
‘Metal-fatigue!’ she repeated.
Since there is nothing intrinsically funny in metal-fatigue, we judged that her amusement was the kind that invites inquiry. In our lack of response we were not being wilfully unkind, merely contra-suggestible; besides, it was ten minutes to three a.m. Harold pushed back his chair.
‘It’s been a pretty long run,’ he said, ‘I think – ’ But Tuny was not to be stalled.
‘Oh, my dears,’ she said, ‘you don’t mean to say that people down here really believe all that stuff about metal-fatigue?’
I caught Phyllis’s surprised eye. I was somewhat taken aback myself. Earlier I had been saying that it was well done, and that the general public would believe it because they would prefer to believe it. Now here was Tuny confuting me almost at once. I glanced at Harold who was looking at his plate. He would not, I decided, be the one who had enlightened Tuny. She belonged irretrievably to the class of woman who believes from the church-door that, having let her bring it off, her man must be a mental weakling, and that any views he may put forward should be treated accordingly.
‘Why not?’ asked Phyllis. ‘There’s nothing very new about the idea of metal-fatigue.’
‘Of course not,’ Tuny agreed, ‘that’s where they are being clever in putting this out. I mean, it’s the kind of thing lots of quite sensible people will fall for,’ she added kindly. ‘But in this case it’s all quite phoney, of course.’
I was about to speak when a look from Phyllis quenched me. It was the kind of look I sometimes get when she is doing her stuff.
‘But it’s practically official. It’s in all the papers,’ she said.
‘Oh, my dear, surely you don’t believe official statements any more,’ said Tuny, indulgently. ‘Of course they had to make some kind of statement, or else do something about it. And it being only a Japanese steamer made a difference. But it’s pretty much like Munich over again.’
‘Oh, come, I’d not go as far as that,’ said Phyllis in mild expostulation, while I was still wondering how on earth we had arrived at Munich.
‘Near enough,’ Tuny told her, ‘if they can do it once and have the whole thing explained away for them, they’ll just be encouraged to do it again, and go on doing it. The only proper way of dealing with it is to take a firm stand. It’s simply no good appeasing and dodging. We ought to have called their bluff months and months ago.’
‘Bluff?’ repeated Phyllis, raising her eyebrows.
‘All this story about things in the sea, and those balloon things, and all that silly stuff about Martians, and so on.’
‘Martians?’ Phyllis said, bemusedly.
‘Well, Neptunians – it’s the same sort of thing. The rubbish that that Bocker man put about. I can’t think why he wasn’t arrested long ago. I happen to know from somebody who used to know him that he joined the Party when he first went up to the University, and of course he’s been working for them ever since. He didn’t invent it, I don’t mean that. No, the whole thing was thought up in Moscow, and they just used him to put it across because he was influential. And he did it very well – that story about the things in the sea was all over the world, and a whole lot of people believed it for a bit, but of course he’s quite done for now. That doesn’t matter to them, they do that to people. He was just wanted to lay a foundation, you see.’
We had begun to see.
‘But the Russians tried to explode the idea. They said at the time it was just a smokescreen to cover the preparations of warmongers,’ I pointed out.
‘You mean that the whole thing has been engineered by them right from the beginning?’ asked Phyllis.
‘But of course,’ Tuny told her. ‘Quite a long time ago now they had their first try with the flying-saucers, but that didn’t come off because most people didn’t believe in them, and nobody was really scared. So this time they improved it. First they sent out the red balloons to puzzle people. Then there was all this business about the bottom of the sea that Bocker helped to spread, and to make that more convincing they cut cables, and even sank a few ships – ’
‘Er – what with?’ I inquired.
‘With these new midget submarines of theirs, of course; the same kind that they used on this Japanese ship. And now they’ll just be able to go on sinking ships because once people have seen through this metal-fatigue business they’ll just say it’s being done by the Bocker things in the sea. As long as people believe that, there’ll be no popular backing for reprisals.’
‘So the metal-fatigue idea was just put about to keep people quiet?’ Phyllis asked.
‘Exactly,’ Tuny agreed. ‘The Government doesn’t want to admit that it’s the Russians, because then there would be a demand that they should take action, and they can’t afford to do that with all the Red influence there is. But if they officially pretend to think it’s these Bocker things, well, then they’d have to pretend, too, that they were doing something about that, and that’d make them look pretty silly later when it is all exploded. So this is their way out, and as it’s only a Japanese ship it’s all right – for the moment. But it won’t last long. We can’t afford to have the Russians getting away with this kind of thing. People are starting to demand a strong line, and no more appeasement.’
‘People – ?’ I put in.
‘People in Kensington – and some other places,’ Tuny explained.
Phyllis looked thoughtful as she collected the plates.
‘It’s shocking how out of touch one gets in a little place like this,’ she said, with a slightly apologetic air, and for all the world as if she had been immured in Rose Cottage for several years.
Harold choked a little, and coughed. Then he yawned largely.
‘More fresh air than I’m used to,’ he explained, and helped to break the party up by carrying out the plates.
In the course of the week-end we learnt more about Russian intentions, though their reasons for sinking a harmless passenger-liner never emerged very clearly. The Sunday papers all had articles, informative in different degrees, on metal-fatigue, and Tuny had a nice day reading them with the smile of a cognoscenta.
Whatever might be the opinion in Kensington, and the lesser Kensingtons of other towns, it was clear that the official theory was being well received in Cornwall. The public bar of The Pick in Penllyn had its own expert on the crystalline structure of metals, with several tales to tell of mysterious collapses of mine machinery which could be attributed to nothing but brittreness induced by prolonged vibration. All old miners, he said, had known this by instinct, long before the scientists got at it. And also, since matters of the sea are of perennial interest to all Cornishmen, heads were knowledgeably shaken over the behaviour of certain Liberty-ships.
Harold looked a little worried as we left there to walk back to the cottage.
‘I can see a busy time ahead,’ he said, gloomily. ‘Months of writing stuff to prove that none of our products can possibly suffer from metal-fatigue.’
‘What’s it matter? They’ll have to use your products,’ I said.
‘Yes, but all our competitors will be saying how their goods aren’t affected by it, so it’ll look bad if we don’t do the same. I’ll have to put in for an extra allocation,’ he grumbled. ‘If only the damned ship had turned turtle nobody would have been greatly surprised, seeing its nationality, and there’d have been no need for all this. What’s more,’ he added, ‘there’s such a lot of trouble for so little result. A good many million people may be lapping it up, but it isn’t going home in the places that matter. How much of that is due to Tuny’s friends with their usual universal political solvent, and how much to other causes, I wouldn’t know, but the fact remains that the number of passage-cancellations has risen well above average, and the number of extra airline bookings about balances it. Also, do you happen to have noticed the shipping shares?’
I said that I had.
‘Well, that isn’t good. It wouldn’t be Tuny’s friends selling just now. It points to a number of people who aren’t satisfied with the metal-fatigue or the red-menace explanations.’
‘Well, are you?’ I asked.
‘No, of course not, but that isn’t the point. I’m not the kind of fellow who can make a difference to the price of shipping shares. The chaps who can are influential: if they start a scare, people start cancelling orders, and trade bogs down. It doesn’t matter a hoot whether there are things at the bottom of the sea or not. What does matter is if people swing back to thinking there are – if they do, we’ll have a worse trade recession than last time.’ He paused. Then he added: ‘And you people haven’t helped a lot, either.’
‘We’ve not been doing world-trade a lot of harm lately,’ I told him. ‘We’ve not had the chance. I don’t say we haven’t got a few scripts up our sleeves against the day when truth shall be more important than world-trade, but for the last few months now not a word about those things down there has gone out from any of our transmitters; the sponsors don’t like it – ’
‘Good for them,’ interrupted Harold.
‘ – any more than the advertisers liked mention of Hitler when we were on the brink of World War II,’ I concluded.
‘Implying – just what?’ asked Harold.
‘Well, roughly, that if you do happen to have any money in shipping, I should take it out, and put it into aircraft.’
Harold gave a disapproving grunt.
‘I know you and Phyl have been specializing in this thing and following it along. What you’ve learnt seems to have convinced you – but have you any solution?’
I shook my head.
‘Well, then, what good do you think you’ll do to anybody by simply broadcasting: “Woe! Woe!”? All that happened in that scare after the first atomic depth-bomb was that a lot of people were worried, trade fell off, and everyone suffered, to no purpose. And then it took a lot of work to get them all soothed down again. If there is anything in it, then let them worry when they have to, but leave them in peace till then.’
‘If – !’ I repeated. ‘What do you suppose sank that ship, Harold? When did any good come of burying your head in the sand?’
‘It’s safer for my neck than sticking it out,’ said Harold, rather pleased with himself.
I found that Phyllis, when I recounted the gist of the con versation to her later, took a not dissimilar view.
‘If we had come across a single practicable suggestion for countering the things it would have been worth campaigning for it, but we haven’t,’ she said. ‘All my life I have been surrounded by things I’d rather not know too much about, so I have come to feel that truth made naked without purpose is really a wanton. It – I say, that was rather good, wasn’t it? Where did I put my notebook?’
Tuny and Harold duly departed, and we settled again to our tasks – Phyllis to the search for something which had not already been said about Beckford of Fonthill. I, to the less literary occupation of framing a series on royal love-matches, to be entitled provisionally either, The Heart of Kings, or, Cupid Wears a Crown.
A pleasant month followed. The outer world intruded little. Phyllis finished the Beckford script, and two more, and picked up the threads of the novel that never seemed to get finished. I went steadily ahead with the task of straining the royal love-lives free from any political contaminations, and writing an article or two in between, to clear the air a bit. On days that
Then, on a Wednesday night, the nine o’clock bulletin announced that the Queen Anne had been lost at sea…
The report was very brief. Simply the fact, followed by: ‘No details are available as yet, but it is feared that the list of the missing may prove to be very heavy indeed.’ There was silence for fifteen seconds, then the announcer’s voice resumed: ‘The Queen Anne, the current holder of the Transatlantic record, was a vessel of ninety thousand tons displacement. She was built – ’
I leant forward, and switched off. We sat looking at one another. Tears came into Phyllis’s eyes. The tip of her tongue appeared, wetting her lips.
‘The Queen Anne! Oh, God!’ she said.
She searched for a handkerchief.
‘Oh, Mike. That lovely ship!’
I crossed to sit beside her, and put my arm round her. For the moment she was seeing simply the ship as we had last seen her, putting out from Southampton. A creation that had been somewhere between a work of art and a living thing, shining and beautiful in the sunlight, moving serenely out towards the high seas, leaving a flock of little tugs bobbing behind. But I knew enough of her to realize that in a few minutes she would be on board, dining in the fabulous restaurant, or dancing in the ballroom, or up on one of the decks, watching it happen, feeling what they must have felt there. I put my other arm round her, and held her closer.
Previous PageNext Page