Chapter 21

 

There is little now to be told that all the world does not already know as well as it knows the circumstances of Lord and Lady Redgrave’s departure from the Earth, at the beginning of that marvellous voyage, that desperate plunge into the unknown immensities of Space which began so happily, and yet with so many grave misgivings in the hearts of their friends, and which, after passing many perils, the adventurous voyagers finished even more happily than they had begun.

As I said at the beginning of this narrative the sole purpose of writing it has been to place before the reading public an account of the adventures experienced by Lord Redgrave and his beautiful Countess from the time of their departure from the Earth to the hour of their return to it. Therefore there is no need to re-tell a tale already told, and one that has been read and re-read a thousand times. Every one who has read his or her newspaper from Chamskatska to Cape Horn, and from Alaska to South Australia, knows how the Commander of the Astronef so nursed the remains which were left to him of the R. Force after overcoming the attraction of the Sun, that he was able to steer an oblique course between the Moon and the Earth, and to counteract what Zaidie called the all too-loving attraction of the Mother Planet, and, after sixty hours of agonising suspense, at last re-entered their native atmosphere.

The expenditure of the last few units of the R. Force enabled them to just clear the summits of the Bolivian Andes, to cross the foothills and western slopes of Peru, and finally to let the Astronef drop quietly on to the bosom of the broad Pacific about twenty miles westward of the Port of Mollendo.

All this time thousands of anxious eyes had been peering through telescopes every night in quest of the wanderers who must now be returning if ever they were to return, and a reward of ten thousand dollars, offered conjointly by the British and United States Governments for the first authentic tidings of the Astronef, was won by a smart young Californian, who was Assistant Astronomer at the Harvard University Observatory at Arequipa.

One night when he was on duty watching a lunar occultation, he saw something sweep across the disc of the full moon just as the captain and officers of the St. Louis had seen that same something sweep across the disc of the rising sun. What else could it be if not the Astronef? He rang for another assistant to go on with the occultation, and wired down to the coast requesting the British Consul at Mollendo to look out for an arrival from the skies.

Three hours later the gleam of an electric searchlight flickered down over the huge black cone of the Misti, and by dawn the next morning one of Her Majesty’s cruisers—most appropriately named Astræa—attached to the Pacific Squadron then en route from Lima to Valparaiso, steamed out westward from Mollendo and found the long, shining hull of the Astronef waiting quietly on the unrippled rollers of the Pacific, and Lord and Lady Redgrave having breakfast in the deck-chamber.

Compliments and congratulations having been duly exchanged, she was taken in tow by the cruiser, and so reached Valparaiso. Here she lay for a few days while the wires of the world were being kept hot with telegraphic accounts of her return to Earth, and while her Commander, with the assistance of the officers of the National Laboratory, was replenishing his stock of the R. Fluid from the chemicals which they had placed at his disposal.

It would, of course, have been quite possible for him and Zaidie to have taken steamer northward to Panama, crossed the Isthmus, and returned to New York and Washington viâ Jamaica. The British Admiral even offered to place his fastest cruiser at their disposal for a run to San Francisco, whence the Overland Limited would have landed them in New York in four days and a half, but Zaidie vetoed this as quickly as she had done the other proposition. If she had her way the Astronef should go back to Washington as she had left it, by means of her own motive force, and so, of course, it came to pass.

Even Murgatroyd’s grim and homely features seemed irradiated by a glow of what he afterwards thought unholy pride when he once more stood by his levers and heard the familiar signal coming from the conning-tower.

A tenth.”

And then—”Stand by steering-gear.”

The next moment there was another tinkle in the engine-room.

Redgrave, standing with Zaidie in the conning-tower, moved the power-wheel through ten degrees, and then to the amazement of tens of thousands of spectators, the hull of the Astronef rose perpendicularly from the waters of the Bay. The British Squadron and a detachment of the Chilian fleet thundered out a salute which was answered a few moments later by the shore batteries, Redgrave went down into the deck-chamber and fired twenty-one shots from one of the Maxim-Nordenfelts—the same with which he had mown down the crowds of Martians in the square of their great city a hundred and thirty million miles away, and while he was doing this Zaidie in the conning-tower ran the White Ensign up to the top of the flagstaff.

Then the glass doors were closed again, the propellers began to revolve at their utmost speed, and the Space-Navigator with one tremendous leap cleared the double chain of the Andes and vanished to the north-eastward.

To describe the reception of Lord and Lady Redgrave when the Astronef dropped a few hours later, on to the very spot in front of the steps of the Capitol at Washington from which she had risen just four months before, would only be to repeat what has already been told in the Press of the world, and especially of the United States, with a far more luxuriant wealth of detail than could possibly be emulated here. Suffice it to say that the first human form that Zaidie embraced after her long wanderings was that of Mrs. Van Stuyler, whom the President of the United States had escorted to the gangway.

The most marvellous of human adventures become commonplace by repetition, and Mrs. Van Stuyler had already spent nearly a fortnight devouring every item, whether of fact or fancy, with which the American Press had embroidered the adventures of the Astronef and her crew. And so when the first embracings and emotions were over, all she could find to say was:

Well, Zaidie dear, and how did you enjoy it, after all?”

It was just gorgeous, Mrs. Van, and if there was a more gorgeous word than that in the American language I’d use it,” replied Zaidie, with another hug, “Why didn’t you come? You’d have been—well no, perhaps I’d better not say what you would have been. But just think of it, or try to—A honeymoon trip of over two thousand million miles, and back—safe—thank God!”

As she said this, Zaidie threw her arm over Mrs. Van Stuyler’s shoulder, and drew her away towards the forward end of the deck-chamber. At the same moment the President’s hand met Lord Redgrave’s in a long, strong grip. They didn’t say anything just then. Men seldom do under such circumstances.