When the World Shook (20)

By: H. Rider Haggard
July 20, 2012

HILOBROW is pleased to present the twentieth installment of our serialization of H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook. New installments will appear each Friday for 24 weeks.

Marooned on a South Sea island, Humphrey Arbuthnot and his friends awaken the last two members of an advanced race, who have spent 250,000 years in a state of suspended animation. Using astral projection, Lord Oro visits London and the battlefields of the Western Front; horrified by the degraded state of modern civilization, he activates chthonic technology capable of obliterating it. Will Oro’s beautiful daughter, Yva, who has fallen in love with Humphrey, stop him in time?

“If this is pulp fiction it’s high pulp: a Wagnerian opera of an adventure tale, a B-movie humanist apocalypse and chivalric romance,” says Lydia Millet in a blurb written for HiLoBooks. “When the World Shook has it all — English gentlemen of leisure, a devastating shipwreck, a volcanic tropical island inhabited by cannibals, an ancient princess risen from the grave, and if that weren’t enough a friendly, ongoing debate between a godless materialist and a devout Christian. H. Rider Haggard’s rich universe is both profoundly camp and deeply idealistic.”

Haggard’s only science fiction novel was first published in 1919. In September 2012, HiLoBooks will publish a beautiful new edition of When the World Shook, with an introduction by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor James Parker. NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDERING!

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LAST WEEK: “‘We have still an earthly hour,’ she said; ‘therefore let us forget the far, dead past and the eternities to come and be joyful in that hour. Now throw your arms about me and I will tell you strange stories of lost days, and you shall look into my eyes and learn wisdom, and you shall kiss my lips and taste of bliss — you, who were and are and shall be — you, the beloved of Yva from the beginning to the end of Time.'”

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Even Bastin, whose perceptions normally were not acute, felt that the situation was strained and awkward and broke in with a curious air of forced satisfaction:

“It’s uncommonly lucky for you, old boy, that you happen to have a clergyman in your party, as I shall be able to marry you in a respectable fashion. Of course I can’t say that the Glittering Lady is as yet absolutely converted to our faith, but I am certain that she has absorbed enough of its principles to justify me in uniting her in Christian wedlock.”

“Yes,” I answered, “she has absorbed its principles; she told me as much herself. Sacrifice, for instance,” and as I spoke the word my eyes filled with tears.

“Sacrifice!” broke in Bickley with an angry snort, for he needed a vent to his mental disturbance. “Rubbish. Why should every religion demand sacrifice as savages do? By it alone they stand condemned.”

“Because as I think, sacrifice is the law of life, at least of all life that is worth the living,” I answered sadly enough. “Anyhow I believe you are right, Bickley, and that Bastin will not be troubled to marry us.”

“You don’t mean,” broke in Bastin with a horrified air, “that you propose to dispense —”

“No, Bastin, I don’t mean that. What I mean is that it comes upon me that something will prevent this marriage. Sacrifice, perhaps, though in what shape I do not know. And now good night. I am tired.”


That night in the chill dead hour before the dawn Oro came again. I woke up to see him seated by my bed, majestic, and, as it seemed to me, lambent, though this may have been my imagination.

“You take strange liberties with my daughter, Barbarian, or she takes strange liberties with you, it does not matter which,” he said, regarding me with his calm and terrible eyes.

“Why do you presume to call me Barbarian?” I asked, avoiding the main issue.

“For this reason, Humphrey. All men are the same. They have the same organs, the same instincts, the same desires, which in essence are but two, food and rebirth that Nature commands; though it is true that millions of years before I was born, as I have learned from the records of the Sons of Wisdom, it was said that they were half ape. Yet being the same there is between them a whole sea of difference, since some have knowledge and others none, or little. Those who have none or little, among whom you must be numbered, are Barbarians. Those who have much, among whom my daughter and I are the sole survivors, are the Instructed.”

“There are nearly two thousand millions of living people in this world,” I said, “and you name all of them Barbarians?”

“All, Humphrey, excepting, of course, myself and my daughter who are not known to be alive. You think that you have learned much, whereas in truth you are most ignorant. The commonest of the outer nations, when I destroyed them, knew more than your wisest know today.”

“You are mistaken, Oro; since then we have learned something of the soul.”

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “that interests me and perhaps it is true. Also, if true it is very important, as I have told you before — or was it Bastin? If a man has a soul, he lives, whereas even we Sons of Wisdom die, and in Death what is the use of Wisdom? Because you can believe, you have souls and are therefore, perhaps, heirs to life, foolish and ignorant as you are today. Therefore I admit you and Bastin to be my equals, though Bickley, who like myself believes nothing, is but a common chemist and doctor of disease.”

“Then you bow to Faith, Oro?”

“Yes, and I think that my god Fate also bows to Faith. Perhaps, indeed, Faith shapes Fate, not Fate, Faith. But whence comes that faith which even I with all my learning cannot command? Why is it denied to me and given to you and Bastin?”

“Because as Bastin would tell you, it is a gift, though one that is never granted to the proud and self-sufficient. Become humble as a child, Oro, and perchance you too may acquire faith.”

“And how shall I become humble?”

“By putting away all dreams of power and its exercise, if such you have, and in repentance walking quietly to the Gates of Death,” I replied.

“For you, Humphrey, who have little or none of these things, that may be easy. But for me who have much, if not all, it is otherwise. You ask me to abandon the certain for the uncertain, the known for the unknown, and from a half-god communing with the stars, to become an earthworm crawling in mud and lifting blind eyes towards the darkness of everlasting night.”

“A god who must die is no god, half or whole, Oro; the earthworm that lives on is greater than he.”

“Mayhap. Yet while I endure I will be as a god, so that when night comes, if come it must, I shall have played my part and left my mark upon this little world of ours. Have done!” he added with a burst of impatience. “What will you of my daughter?”

“What man has always willed of woman — herself, body and soul.”

“Her soul perchance is yours, if she has one, but her body is mine to give or withhold. Yet it can be bought at a price,” he added slowly.

“So she told me, Oro.”

“I can guess what she told you. Did I not watch you yonder by the lake when you gave her a ring graved with the signs of Life and Everlastingness? The question is, will you pay the price?”

“Not so; the question is — what is the price?”

“This; to enter my service and henceforth do my will — without debate or cavil.”

“For what reward, Oro?”

“Yva and the dominion of the earth while you shall live, neither more nor less.”

“And what is your will?”

“That you shall learn in due course. On the second night from this I command the three of you to wait upon me at sundown in the buried halls of Nyo. Till then you see no more of Yva, for I do not trust her. She, too, has powers, though as yet she does not use them, and perchance she would forget her oaths, and following some new star of love, for a little while vanish with you out of my reach. Be in the sepulchre at the hour of sundown on the second day from this, all three of you, if you would continue to live upon the earth. Afterwards you shall learn my will and make your choice between Yva with majesty and her loss with death.”

Then suddenly he was gone.


Next morning I told the others what had passed, and we talked the matter over. The trouble was, of course, that Bickley did not believe me. He had no faith in my alleged interviews with Oro, which he set down to delusions of a semi-mesmeric character. This was not strange, since it appeared that on the previous night he had watched the door of my sleeping-place until dawn broke, which it did long after Oro had departed, and he had not seen him either come or go, although the moon was shining brightly.

When he told me this I could only answer that all the same he had been there as, if he could speak, Tommy would have been able to certify. As it chanced the dog was sleeping with me and at the first sound of the approach of someone, woke up and growled. Then recognising Oro, he went to him, wagged his tail and curled himself up at his feet.

Bastin believed my story readily enough, saying that Oro was a peculiar person who no doubt had ways of coming and going which we did not understand. His point was, however, that he did not in the least wish to visit Nyo any more. The wonders of its underground palaces and temples had no charms for him. Also he did not think he could do any good by going, since after “sucking him as dry as an orange” with reference to religious matters “that old vampire-bat Oro had just thrown him away like the rind,” and, he might add, “seemed no better for the juice he had absorbed.”

“I doubt,” continued Bastin, “whether St. Paul himself could have converted Oro, even if he performed miracles before him. What is the use of showing miracles to a man who could always work a bigger one himself?”

In short, Bastin’s one idea, and Bickley’s also for the matter of that, was to get away to the main island and thence escape by means of the boat, or in some other fashion.

I pointed out that Oro had said we must obey at the peril of our lives; indeed that he had put it even more strongly, using words to the effect that if we did not he would kill us.

“I’d take the risk,” said Bickley, “since I believe that you dreamt it all, Arbuthnot. However, putting that aside, there is a natural reason why you should wish to go, and for my own part, so do I in a way. I want to see what that old fellow has up his extremely long sleeve, if there is anything there at all.”

“Well, if you ask me, Bickley,” I answered, “I believe it is the destruction of half the earth, or some little matter of that sort.”

At this suggestion Bickley only snorted, but Bastin said cheerfully:

“I dare say. He is bad enough even for that. But as I am quite convinced that it will never be allowed, his intentions do not trouble me.”

I remarked that he seemed to have carried them out once before.

“Oh! you mean the Deluge. Well, no doubt there was a deluge, but I am sure that Oro had no more to do with it than you or I, as I think I have said already. Anyhow it is impossible to leave you to descend into that hole alone. I suggest, therefore, that we should go into the sepulchre at the time which you believe Oro appointed, and see what happens. If you are not mistaken, the Glittering Lady will come there to fetch us, since it is quite certain that we cannot work the lift or whatever it is, alone. If you are mistaken we can just go back to bed as usual.”

“Yes, that’s the best plan,” said Bickley, shortly, after which the conversation came to an end.

All that day and the next I watched and waited in vain for the coming of Yva, but no Yva appeared. I even went as far as the sepulchre, but it was as empty as were the two crystal coffins, and after waiting a while I returned. Although I did not say so to Bickley, to me it was evident that Oro, as he had said, was determined to cut off all communication between us.

The second day drew to its close. Our simple preparations were complete. They consisted mainly in making ready our hurricane lamps and packing up a little food, enough to keep us for three or four days if necessary, together with some matches and a good supply of oil, since, as Bastin put it, he was determined not to be caught like the foolish virgins in the parable.

“You see,” he added, “one never knows when it might please that old wretch to turn off the incandescent gas or electric light, or whatever it is he uses to illumine his family catacombs, and then it would be awkward if we had no oil.”

“For the matter of that he might steal our lamps,” suggested Bickley, “in which case we should be where Moses was when the light went out.”

“I have considered that possibility,” answered Bastin, “and therefore, although it is a dangerous weapon to carry loaded, I am determined to take my revolver. If necessary I shall consider myself quite justified in shooting him to save our lives and those of thousands of others.”

At this we both laughed; somehow the idea of Bastin trying to shoot Oro struck us as intensely ludicrous. Yet that very thing was to happen.


It was a peculiarly beautiful sunset over the southern seas. To the west the great flaming orb sank into the ocean, to the east appeared the silver circle of the full moon. To my excited fancy they were like scales hanging from the hand of a materialised spirit of calm. Over the volcano and the lake, over the island with its palm trees, over the seas beyond, this calm brooded. Save for a few travelling birds the sky was empty; no cloud disturbed its peace; the world seemed steeped in innocence and quiet.

All these things struck me, as I think they did the others, because by the action of some simultaneous thought it came to our minds that very probably we were looking on them for the last time. It is all very well to talk of the Unknown and the Infinite whereof we are assured we are the heirs, but that does not make it any easier for us to part with the Known and the Finite. The contemplation of the wonders of Eternity does not conceal the advantages of actual and existent Time. In short there is no one of us, from a sainted archbishop down to a sinful suicide, who does not regret the necessity of farewell to the pleasant light and the kindly race of men wherewith we are acquainted.

For after all, who can be quite certain of the Beyond? It may be splendid, but it will probably be strange, and from strangeness, after a certain age, we shrink. We know that all things will be different there; that our human relationships will be utterly changed, that perhaps sex which shapes so many of them, will vanish to be replaced by something unknown, that ambitions will lose their hold of us, and that, at the best, the mere loss of hopes and fears will leave us empty. So at least we think, who seek not variation but continuance, since the spirit must differ from the body and that thought alarms our intelligence.

At least some of us think so; others, like Bickley, write down the future as a black and endless night, which after all has its consolations since, as has been wisely suggested, perhaps oblivion is better than any memories. Others again, like Bastin, would say of it with the Frenchman, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Yet others, like Oro, consider it as a realm of possibilities, probably unpleasant and perhaps non-existent; just this and nothing more. Only one thing is certain, that no creature which has life desires to leap into the fire and from the dross of doubts, to resolve the gold — or the lead — of certainty.

“It is time to be going,” said Bastin. “In these skies the sun seems to tumble down, not to set decently as it does in England, and if we wait any longer we shall be late for our appointment in the sepulchre. I am sorry because although I don’t often notice scenery, everything looks rather beautiful this evening. That star, for instance, I think it is called Venus.”

“And therefore one that Arbuthnot should admire,” broke in Bickley, attempting to lighten matters with a joke. “But come on and let us be rid of this fool’s errand. Certainly the world is a lovely place after all, and for my part I hope that we haven’t seen the last of it,” he added with a sigh.

“So do I,” said Bastin, “though of course, Faith teaches us that there are much better ones beyond. It is no use bothering about what they are like, but I hope that the road to them doesn’t run through the hole that the old reprobate, Oro, calls Nyo.”

A few minutes later we started, each of us carrying his share of the impedimenta. I think that Tommy was the only really cheerful member of the party, for he skipped about and barked, running backwards and forwards into the mouth of the cave, as though to hurry our movements.

“Really,” said Bastin, “it is quite unholy to see an animal going on in that way when it knows that it is about to descend into the bowels of the earth. I suppose it must like them.”

“Oh! no,” commented Bickley, “it only likes what is in them — like Arbuthnot. Since that little beast came in contact with the Lady Yva, it has never been happy out of her company.”

“I think that is so,” said Bastin. “At any rate I have noticed that it has been moping for the last two days, as it always does when she is not present. It even seems to like Oro who gives me the creeps, perhaps because he is her father. Dogs must be very charitable animals.”

By now we were in the cave marching past the wrecks of the half-buried flying-machines, which Bickley, as he remarked regretfully, had never found time thoroughly to examine. Indeed, to do so would have needed more digging than we could do without proper instruments, since the machines were big and deeply entombed in dust.

We came to the sepulchre and entered.

“Well,” said Bickley, seating himself on the edge of one of the coffins and holding up his lamp to look about him, “this place seems fairly empty. No one is keeping the assignation, Arbuthnot, although the sun is well down.”

As he spoke the words Yva stood before us. Whence she came we did not see, for all our backs were turned at the moment of her arrival. But there she was, calm, beautiful, radiating light.


Yva glanced at me, and in her eyes I read tenderness and solicitude, also something of inquiry. It seemed to me as though she were wondering what I should do under circumstances that might, or would, arise, and in some secret fashion of which I was but half conscious, drawing an answer from my soul. Then she turned, and, smiling in her dazzling way, said:

“So, Bickley, as usual, you did not believe? Because you did not see him, therefore the Lord Oro, my father, never spoke with Humphrey. As though the Lord Oro could not pass you without your knowledge, or, perchance, send thoughts clothed in his own shape to work his errand.”

“How do you know that I did not believe Arbuthnot’s story?” Bickley asked in a rather cross voice and avoiding the direct issue. “Do you also send thoughts to work your errands clothed in your own shape, Lady Yva?”

“Alas! not so, though perhaps I could if I might. It is very simple, Bickley. Standing here, I heard you say that although the sun was well down there was no one to meet you as Humphrey had expected, and from those words and your voice I guessed the rest.”

“Your knowledge of the English language is improving fast, Lady Yva. Also, when I spoke, you were not here.”

“At least I was very near, Bickley, and these walls are thinner than you think,” she answered, contemplating what seemed to be solid rock with eyes that were full of innocence. “Oh! friend,” she went on suddenly, “I wonder what there is which will cause you to believe that you do not know all; that there exist many things beyond the reach of your learning and imagination? Well, in a day or two, perhaps, even you will admit as much, and confess it to me — elsewhere,” and she sighed.

“I am ready to confess now that much happens which I do not understand at present, because I have not the key to the trick,” he replied.

Yva shook her head at him and smiled again. Then she motioned to all of us to stand close to her, and, stooping, lifted Tommy in her arms. Next moment that marvel happened which I have described already, and we were whirling downwards through space, to find ourselves in a very little time standing safe in the caves of Nyo, breathless with the swiftness of our descent. How and on what we descended neither I nor the others ever learned. It was and must remain one of the unexplained mysteries of our great experience.

“Whither now, Yva?” I asked, staring about me at the radiant vastness.

“The Lord Oro would speak with you, Humphrey. Follow. And I pray you all do not make him wrath, for his mood is not gentle.”

So once more we proceeded down the empty streets of that underground abode which, except that it was better illuminated, reminded me of the Greek conception of Hades. We came to the sacred fountain over which stood the guardian statue of Life, pouring from the cups she held the waters of Good and Ill that mingled into one health-giving wine.

“Drink, all of you,” she said; “for I think before the sun sets again upon the earth we shall need strength, every one of us.”

So we drank, and she drank herself, and once more felt the blood go dancing through our veins as though the draught had been some nectar of the gods. Then, having extinguished the lanterns which we still carried, for here they were needless, and we wished to save our oil, we followed her through the great doors into the vast hall of audience and advanced up it between the endless, empty seats. At its head, on the dais beneath the arching shell, sat Oro on his throne. As before, he wore the jewelled cap and the gorgeous, flowing robes, while the table in front of him was still strewn with sheets of metal on which he wrote with a pen, or stylus, that glittered like a diamond or his own fierce eyes. Then he lifted his head and beckoned to us to ascend the dais.

“You are here. It is well,” he said, which was all his greeting. Only when Tommy ran up to him he bent down and patted the dog’s head with his long, thin hand, and, as he did so, his face softened. It was evident to me that Tommy was more welcome to him than were the rest of us.

There was a long silence while, one by one, he searched us with his piercing glance. It rested on me, the last of the three of us, and from me travelled to Yva.

“I wonder why I have sent for you?” he said at length, with a mirthless laugh. “I think it must be that I may convince Bickley, the sceptic, that there are powers which he does not understand, but that I have the strength to move. Also, perhaps, that your lives may be spared for my own purposes in that which is about to happen. Hearken! My labours are finished; my calculations are complete,” and he pointed to the sheets of metal before him that were covered with cabalistic signs. “Tomorrow I am about to do what once before I did and to plunge half the world in the deeps of ocean and lift again from the depths that which has been buried for a quarter of a million years.”

“Which half?” asked Bickley.

“That is my secret, Physician, and the answer to it lies written here in signs you cannot read. Certain countries will vanish, others will be spared. I say that it is my secret.”

“Then, Oro, if you could do what you threaten, you would drown hundreds of millions of people.”

“If I could do! If I could do!” he exclaimed, glaring at Bickley. “Well, to-morrow you shall see what I can do. Oh! why do I grow angry with this fool? For the rest, yes, they must drown. What does it matter? Their end will be swift; some few minutes of terror, that is all, and in one short century every one of them would have been dead.”

An expression of horror gathered on Bastin’s face.

“Do you really mean to murder hundreds of millions of people?” he asked, in a thick, slow voice.

“I have said that I intend to send them to that heaven or that hell of which you are so fond of talking, Preacher, somewhat more quickly than otherwise they would have found their way thither. They have disappointed me, they have failed; therefore, let them go and make room for others who will succeed.”

“Then you are a greater assassin than any that the world has bred, or than all of them put together. There is nobody as bad, even in the Book of Revelation!” shouted Bastin, in a kind of fury. “Moreover, I am not like Bickley. I know enough of you and your hellish powers to believe that what you plan, that you can do.”

“I believe it also,” sneered Oro. “But how comes it that the Great One whom you worship does not prevent the deed, if He exists, and it be evil?”

“He will prevent it!” raved Bastin. “Even now He commands me to prevent it, and I obey!” Then, drawing the revolver from his pocket, he pointed it at Oro’s breast, adding: “Swear not to commit this crime, or I will kill you!”

“So the man of peace would become a man of blood,” mused Oro, “and kill that I may not kill for the good of the world? Why, what is the matter with that toy of yours, Preacher?” and he pointed to the pistol.

Well might he ask, for as he spoke the revolver flew out of Bastin’s hand. High into the air it flew, and as it went discharged itself, all the six chambers of it, in rapid succession, while Bastin stood staring at his arm and hand which he seemed unable to withdraw.

“Do you still threaten me with that outstretched hand, Preacher?” mocked Oro.

“I can’t move it,” said Bastin; “it seems turned to stone.”

“Be thankful that you also are not turned to stone. But, because your courage pleases me, I will spare you, yes, and will advance you in my New Kingdom. What shall you be? Controller of Religions, I think, since all the qualities that a high priest should have are yours — faith, fanaticism and folly.”

“It is very strange,” said Bastin, “but all of a sudden my arm and hand are quite well again. I suppose it must have been ‘pins and needles’ or something of that sort which made me throw away the pistol and pull the trigger when I didn’t mean to do so.”

Then he went to fetch that article which had fallen beyond the dais, and quite forgot his intention of executing Oro in the interest of testing its mechanism, which proved to be destroyed. To his proposed appointment he made no illusion. If he comprehended what was meant, which I doubt, he took it as a joke.

“Hearken all of you,” said Oro, lifting his head suddenly, for while Bastin recovered the revolver he had been brooding. “The great thing which I shall do tomorrow must be witnessed by you because thereby only can you come to understand my powers. Also yonder where I bring it about in the bowels of the earth, you will be safer than elsewhere, since when and perhaps before it happens, the whole world will heave and shake and tremble, and I know not what may chance, even in these caves. For this reason also, do not forget to bring the little hound with you, since him least of all of you would I see come to harm, perhaps because once, hundreds of generations ago as you reckon time, I had a dog very like to him. Your mother loved him much, Yva, and when she died, this dog died also. He lies embalmed with her on her coffin yonder in the temple, and yesterday I went to look at both of them. The beasts are wonderfully alike, which shows the everlastingness of blood.”

He paused a while, lost in thought, then continued: “After the deed is done I’ll speak with you and you shall choose, Strangers, whether you will die your own masters, or live on to serve me. Now there is one problem that is left to me to solve — whether I can save a certain land — do not ask which it is, Humphrey, though I see the question in your eyes — or must let it go with the rest. I only answer you that I will do my best because you love it. So farewell for a while, and, Preacher, be advised by me and do not aim too high again.”

“It doesn’t matter where I aim,” answered Bastin sturdily, “or whether I hit or miss, since there is something much bigger than me waiting to deal with you. The countries that you think you are going to destroy will sleep quite as well tomorrow as they do tonight, Oro.”

“Much better, I think, Preacher, since by then they will have left sorrow and pain and wickedness and war far behind them.”


NEXT WEEK: “‘God of my forefathers, God of my lost people, I will hide naught from thee,’ he said. ‘I who fear nothing else, fear death. The priest-fool yonder with his new faith, has spoken blundering words of judgment and damnation which, though I do not believe them, yet stick in my heart like arrows. I will stamp out his faith, and with this ancient sword of thine drive back the new gods into the darkness whence they came.'”

Stay tuned!


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