A RUNAWAY WORLD (4)
November 26, 2022
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize “A Runaway World,” by Clare Winger Harris. This story, her first, appeared in the July 1926 issue of Weird Tales; it entered the public domain in 2022.
I opened the door but returned immediately for my overcoat. The breath of winter was out of doors, though it was the month of June. The streets were lighted, and in the imperfect glow I could see panicky figures flitting to and fro. I hurried toward the square, which was exactly what everyone else seemed to be doing. A man bumped my elbow. Each of us turned and regarded the other with wide eyes. I recognized old Sam McSweeu.
“My God, Griffin,” he cried, “what does it all mean? Ella’s been laid up for a week — no food, and I thought I’d —”
I left him to relate his woes to the next passer-by. My goal was Barnes’ Cash Grocery. There was a mob inside the store, but old man Barnes, his son and daughter and two extra clerks were serving the crowd as quickly as possible. Guy Barnes’ nasal tones reached my ears as I stood shivering in the doorway.
“No — terms are strictly cash, friends.”
“Cash!” bawled a voice near my ear. “What good will cash do you, pard, in the place we’re all headed for?”
“I have cash, Guy. Gimme ten dollars worth o’ canned goods and make it snappy,” yelled another.
Petty thievery was rife, but no one was vested with authority to attempt to stop it. One thought actuated all: to get food, either by fair means or foul.
At length I found myself near the counter frantically waving in the air a ten-dollar bill and two ones.
“You’ve always let me have credit for a month or two at a time. Guy.” I said coaxingly.
The old grocer shook his head in a determined manner. “Cash is the surest way to distribute this stuff fairly. The bank’s open, Jim, but the mob’s worse there than here. they tell me.”
I shrugged my shoulders in resignation. “Give me ten dollars worth of condensed milk, meat tablets, some fruits and vegetables.”
He handed me my great basket of groceries and I forced a passage through the crowd and gained the street. There were fewer people on the square than there had been an hour earlier. On their faces had settled a grim resignation that was more tragic than the first fright had been.
On the corner of Franklin and Main Streets I net little Dora Schofield, a playmate of Eleanor’s. She was crying pitifully, and the hands that held her market basket were purple with the cold that grew more intense every moment.
“Where are you going, Dora?” I asked.
“Mother’s ill and I am going to Barnes’ grocery for her, replied the little girl.
“You can never get in there,” I said. My heart was wrung at the sight of the pathetic little figure. “Put your basket down and I’ll fill it for you. Then you can hurry right back to mother.”
She ceased her crying and did as I bade her. I filled her smaller basket from my own.
“Now hurry home,” I cried, “and tell your mother not to let you out again.”
I had a walk of five blocks before me. I hurried on with other scurrying figures through the deepening gloom. I lifted my eyes to the sky and surveyed the black vault above. It was noon, and yet it had every appearance of night. Suddenly I stopped and gazed fixedly at a heavenly body, the strangest I had ever seen. It did not seem to be a star, nor was it the moon, for it was scarcely a quarter the size of the full moon.
“Can it be a comet?” I asked, half aloud.
Then with a shock I realized it was our su, which we were leaving at an inconceivably rapid rate. The thought appalled me, and I stood for some seconds overwhelmed by the realization of what had occurred.
“I suppose Venus will give us a passing thought, as we did Mars, if she even —”
My train of thoughts came to an abrupt conclusion as I became aware of a menacing figure approaching me from Brigham Street. I tried to proceed, assuming a jaunty air, though my emotions certainly belied my mien. I had recognized Carl Hoarder, a typical town bully with whom I had had a previous unfortunate encounter when serving on a civic improvement committee.
“Drop them groceries and don’t take all day to do it neither,” demanded Hoarder, coming to a full stop and eyeing me pugnaciously.
“This is night, not day, Carl,” I replied quietly.
“Don’t you ‘Carl’ me!” roared the bully. “Hand over that grub, and I don’t mean maybe!”
I stooped to place the basket of provisions upon the walk between us, but at the same time I seized a can. As Carl bent to pick up the basket I threw the can with all the strength I possessed full at his head. He crumpled up with a groan and I snatched the precious burden and fled. When I was a block away I looked back and saw him rise and stoop uncertainly. He was picking up the can with which I had hit him. I did not begrudge him the food contained therein. That can had done me more good than it could ever possibly do Carl Hoarder.
The last lap of my journey proved the most tedious, for I was suffering with cold, and depressed at the fate of humanity, but at last I spied the observatory.
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master” | Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom” | Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fifth Dimension” | Francis Stevens’s “Behind the Curtain” | more to come.