Chapter 2

 

At length Mrs. Van Stuyler, being a woman of large experience and some social deftness, recognised that a change of subject was the easiest way of retreat out of a rather difficult situation. So she put her cup down, leant back in her chair, and, looking straight into Lord Redgrave’s eyes, she said with purely feminine irrelevance:

I suppose you know, Lord Redgrave, that, when we left, the machine which we call in America Manhood Suffrage—which, of course, simply means the selection of a government by counting noses which may or may not have brains above them—was what some of our orators would call in full blast. If you are going to New York after Washington, as you said on the boat, we might find it a rather inconvenient time to arrive. The whole place will be chaos, you know; because when the citizen of the United States begins electioneering, New York is not a very nice place to stop in except for people who want excitement, and so if you will excuse me putting the question so directly, I should like to know what you just do mean to do——”

Lord Redgrave saw that she was going to add “with us,” but before he had time to say anything, Miss Zaidie turned round, walked deliberately towards her chair, sat down, poured herself out a fresh cup of coffee, added the milk and sugar with deliberation, and then after a preliminary sip said, with her cup poised half-way between her dainty lips and the table:

Mrs. Van, I’ve got an idea. I suppose it’s inherited, for dear old Pop had plenty. Anyhow we may as well get back to common-sense subjects. Now look here,” she went on, switching an absolutely convincing glance straight into her host’s eyes, “my father may have been a dreamer, but still he was a Sound Money man. He believed in honest dealings. He didn’t believe in borrowing a hundred dollars gold and paying back in fifty dollars silver. What’s your opinion, Lord Redgrave; you don’t do that sort of thing in England, do you? Uncle Russell is a Sound Money man too. He’s got too much gold locked up to want silver for it.”

My dear Zaidie,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler, “what have democratic and republican politics and bimetalism got to do with——”

With a trip in this wonderful vessel which Pop told me years ago could go up to the stars if it ever was made? Why just this, Lord Redgrave is an Englishman and too rich to believe in anything but sound money, so is Uncle Russell, and there you have it, or should have.”

I think I see what you mean, Miss Rennick,” said their host, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands behind his head, as steamboat travellers are wont to do when seas are smooth and skies are blue. “The Astronef might come down like a vision from the clouds and preach the Gospel of Gold in electric rays of silver through the commonplace medium of the Morse Code. How’s that for poetry and practice?”

I quite agree with his lordship as regards the practice,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler, talking somewhat rudely across him to Zaidie. “It would be an excellent use to put this wonderful invention to. And then, I am sure his lordship would land us in Central Park, so that we could go to your Uncle’s house right away.”

No, no, I’m afraid I must ask you to excuse me there, Mrs. Van Stuyler,” said Redgrave, with a change of tone which Miss Zaidie appreciated with a swiftly veiled glance. “You see, I have placed myself beyond the law. I have, as you have been good enough to intimate, abducted—to put it brutally—two ladies from the deck of an Atlantic liner. Further, in doing so I have selfishly spoiled the prospects of one of the ladies. But, seriously, I really must go to Washington first——”

I think, Lord Redgrave,” interrupted Mrs. Van Stuyler, ignoring the last unfinished sentence and assuming her best Knickerbocker dignity, “if you will forgive me saying so, that that is scarcely a subject for discussion here.”

And if that’s so,” interrupted Miss Zaidie, “the less we say about it the better. What I wanted to say was this. We all want the Republicans in, at least all of us that have much to lose. Now, if Lord Redgrave was to use this wonderful air-ship of his on the right side—why there wouldn’t be any standing against it.”

I must say that until just now I had hardly contemplated turning the Astronef into an electioneering machine. Still, I admit that she might be made use of in a good cause, only I hope——”

That we shan’t want you to paste her over with election bills, eh?—or start handbill-snowstorms from the deck—or kidnap Croker and Bryan just as you did us, for instance?”

If I could, I’m quite sure that I shouldn’t have as pleasant guests as I have now on board the Astronef. What do you think, Mrs. Van Stuyler?”

My dear Lord Redgrave,” she replied, “that would be quite impossible. The idea of being shut up in a ship like this which can soar not only from earth, but beyond the clouds, with people who would find out your best secrets and then perhaps shoot you so as to be the only possessors of them—well, that would be foolishness indeed.”

Why, certainly it would,” said Zaidie; “the only use you could have for people like that would be to take them up above the clouds and drop them out. But suppose we—I mean Lord Redgrave—took the Astronef down over New York and signalled messages from the sky at night with a searchlight——”

Good,” said their host, getting up from his deck-chair and stretching himself up straight, looking the while at Miss Zaidie’s averted profile. “That’s gorgeously good! We might even turn the election. I’m for sound money all the time, if I may be permitted to speak American.”

English is quite good enough for us, Lord Redgrave,” said Miss Zaidie a little stiffly. “We may have improved on the old language a bit, still we understand it, and—well, we can forgive its shortcomings. But that isn’t quite to the point.”

It seems to me,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler, “that we are getting nearly as far from the original subject as we are from the St. Louis. May I ask, Zaidie, what you really propose to do?”

Do is not for us to say,” said Miss Zaidie, looking straight up to the glass roof of the deck-chamber. “You see, Mrs. Van, we’re not free agents. We are not even first-class passengers who have paid their fares on a contract ticket which is supposed to get them there.”

If you’ll pardon me saying so,” said Lord Redgrave, stopping his walk up and down the deck, “that is not quite the case. To put it in the most brutally material form, it is quite true that I have kidnapped you two ladies and taken you beyond the reach of earthly law. But there is another law, one which would bind a gentleman even if he were beyond the limits of the Solar System, and so if you wish to be landed either in Washington or New York it shall be done. You shall be put down within a carriage drive of your own residence, or of Mr. Russell Rennick’s. I will myself see you to his door, and there we may say goodbye, and I will take my trip through the Solar System alone.”

There was another pause after this, a pause pregnant with the fate of two lives. They looked at each other—Mrs. Van Stuyler at Zaidie, Zaidie at Lord Redgrave, and he at Mrs. Van Stuyler again. It was a kind of three-cornered duel of eyes, and the eyes said a good deal more than common human speech could have done.

Then Lord Redgrave, in answer to the last glance from Zaidie’s eyes, said slowly and deliberately:

I don’t want to take any undue advantage, but I think I am justified in making one condition. Of course I can take you beyond the limits of the world that we know, and to other worlds that we know little or nothing of. At least I could do so if I were not bound by law as strong as gravitation itself; but now, as I said before, I just ask whether or not my guests or, if you think it suits the circumstances better, my prisoners, shall be released unconditionally wherever they choose to be landed.”

He paused for a moment and then, looking straight into Zaidie’s eyes, he added:

The one condition I make is that the vote shall be unanimous.”

Under the circumstances, Lord Redgrave,” said Mrs. Van Stuyler, rising from her seat and walking towards him with all the dignity that would have been hers in her own drawing-room, “there can only be one answer to that. Your guests or your prisoners, as you choose to call them, must be released unconditionally.”

Lord Redgrave heard these words as a man might hear words in a dream. Zaidie had risen too. They were looking into each other’s eyes, and many unspoken words were passing between them. There was a little silence, and then, to Mrs. Van Stuyler’s unutterable horror, Zaidie said, with just the suspicion of a gasp in her voice:

There’s one dissentient. We are prisoners, and I guess I’d better surrender at discretion.”

The next moment her captor’s arm was round her waist, and Mrs. Van Stuyler, with her twitching fingers linked behind her back, and her nose at an angle of sixty degrees, was staring away through the blue immensity, dumbly wondering what on earth or under heaven was going to happen next.