Chapter 4

 

Above a tiny little writing-desk fixed to the wall of the conning-tower there was a square mahogany board with six white buttons in pairs. On one side of the board hung a telephone and on the other a speaking-tube. To the right hand opposite where Zaidie stood were two nickel-plated wheels and behind each of them a white disc, one marked off into 360 degrees, and the other into 100 with subdivisions of tens. Overhead hung an ordinary tell-tale compass, and compactly placed on other parts of the wall were barometers, thermometers, barographs, and, in fact, practically every instrument that the most exacting of aeronauts or Space-explorers could have asked for.

You see, Zaidie, this is what one might call the cerebral chamber of the Astronef, and, granted that my engines worked all right, I could make her do anything I wanted without moving out of here, but as a rule, of course, Murgatroyd is in the engine-room. If he wasn’t the most whole-souled Wesleyan that Yorkshire ever produced, I believe he’d become an idolater and worship the Astronef’s engines.”

And who is Murgatroyd, please?”

In the first place he is what I might call an hereditary retainer of the House of Redgrave. His ancestors have served mine for the last seven hundred years. When my ancestors were burglar-barons, his were men-at-arms. When we went on the Crusades they went too; when we raised a regiment for the King against the Parliament they were naturally the first to enlist in it; and as we gradually settled down into peaceful respectability they did the same. Lastly, when we went into trade as ironmasters and engineers they went in too. This Murgatroyd, for instance, was master-foreman of my works at Smeaton, and he was the only man I dared trust with the secrets of the Astronef, and the only one I would trust myself on board her with, and that’s why we’re a crew of two. You see the command of a vessel like this is a fairly big business, and if it got into the wrong sort of hands——”

Yes, I see,” said Zaidie with a little nod. “It would be just too awful to think about. Why you might keep the world in terror with it; but I know you wouldn’t do that, because, for one thing, I wouldn’t let you.”

Gently, gently, Ma’m’selle; permit me most humbly to remind you that you are still my prisoner, and that I am still Commander of the Astronef.”

Oh, very well then,” said Zaidie, interrupting him with a pretty little gesture of impatience, “and now suppose you let me see what the Astronef’s commander can do with her.”

Certainly,” replied Redgrave, “and with the greatest pleasure—but, by the way, that reminds me you haven’t paid your footing yet.”

When due payment had been given and taken, or perhaps it would be more correct to say taken and given, Redgrave put his finger on one of the buttons.

Immediately Zaidie heard the swish of the air past the smooth wall of the conning-tower grow fainter and fainter. Then there came a little check which nearly upset her balance, and presently the clouds beneath them began to take shape and great white continents of them with grey oceans in between went sweeping silently and swiftly away behind them.

Redgrave turned the wheel in front of the 100-degree disc a little to the left. The next instant the clouds rose up. For a moment Zaidie could see nothing but white mist on all sides. Then the atmosphere cleared again, and she saw far below her what looked like a vast expanse of ocean that had been suddenly frozen solid.

There were the long Atlantic rollers tipped with snowy foam. Here and there at wide intervals were little black dots, some of them with brown trails behind them, others with little patches of white which showed up distinctly against the dark grey-blue of the sea. Every moment they grew bigger. Then the white-crested waves began to move, and the big ocean steamers and full-rigged sailing ships looked less and less like toys. Just under them there was a very big one with four funnels pouring out dense volumes of black smoke. Redgrave took up a pair of glasses, looked at her for a moment and said:

That’s the Deutschland, the new Hamburg-American record-breaker. Suppose we go down and have a lark with her. I wonder if she’s taking news of the war. We’re in with Germany, and they may know something about it.”

That would be just too lovely!” said Zaidie. “Let’s go and show them how we can break records. I suppose they’ve seen us by this time and are just wondering with all their wits what we are. I guess they’ll feel pretty tired about poor Count Zeppelin’s balloon when they see us.”

Redgrave noted the “we” and the “us” with much secret satisfaction.

All right,” he said, “we’ll go and give them a bit of a startler.”

In front of the conning-tower there was a steel flagstaff about ten feet high, with halliards rove through a sheer in the top. He took a little roll of bunting out of a locker under the desk, opened a glass slide, brought in the halliards and bent the flag on.

Meanwhile the long shape of the great liner was getting bigger and bigger. Her decks were black, with people staring up at this strange apparition which was dropping upon them from the clouds. Another minute and the Astronef had dropped to within five hundred feet of the water, and about half a mile astern of the Deutschland. Redgrave turned the wheel back two or three inches and touched a second button.

The Astronef stopped her descent instantly, and then she shot forward. The new greyhound was making her twenty-two and a half knots, hurling a broad white torrent of foam away from under her counters. But in half a minute the Astronef was alongside her.

Redgrave ran the roll of bunting up to the top of the flagstaff, pulled one of the halliards, and the White Ensign of England floated out. Almost at the same moment the German flag went up to the staff at the stern of the Deutschland, and they heard a roar of cheers, mingled with cries of wonder, come up from her swarming decks.

Each flag was dipped thrice in due course. Redgrave took off his cap and bowed to the Captain on the bridge. Zaidie nodded and fluttered her handkerchief in reply to hundreds of others that were waving on the decks. Mrs. Van Stuyler woke up in wonder and waved hers instinctively, half longing to change crafts. In fact, if it hadn’t been for her absolute devotion to the proprieties she would have obeyed her first impulse and asked Lord Redgrave to put her on board the steamer.

While the officers and crew and passengers of the Deutschland were staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the graceful glittering shape of the Astronef, Redgrave touched the first button in the second row once, moved the 100-degree wheel on a few degrees, and then gave the other a quarter turn. Then he closed the window slide, and the next moment Zaidie saw the great liner sink down beneath them in a curious twisting sort of way. She seemed to stop still and then spin round on her centre, getting smaller and smaller every moment.

What’s the matter, Lenox?” she said, with a little gasp. “What’s the Deutschland doing? She seems to be spinning round on her own axis like a top.”

That’s only the point of view, dear. She’s just plugging along straight on her way to New York, and we’ve been making rings round her and going up all the time. But of course you don’t notice the motion here any more than you would if you were in a balloon.”

But I thought you were going to speak them. Surely you don’t mean to say that you intended that just as a little bit of showing off?”

That’s about what it comes to, I suppose, but you must not think it was altogether vanity. You see the German Government has bought Count Zeppelin’s air-ship or steerable balloon, as it ought to be called, always supposing that they can steer it in a wind, and of course their idea is to make a fighting machine of it. Now Germany is engaged to stand by us in this trouble that’s coming, and by way of cementing the alliance I thought it was just as well to let the wily Teuton know that there’s something flying the British flag which could make very small mincemeat of their gas-bags.”

And what about Old Glory?” said Miss Zaidie. “The Astronef was built with English money and English skill, but——”

She is the creature of American genius. Of course she is. In fact she is the first concrete symbol of the Anglo-American Alliance, and when the daughter of her creator has gone into partnership with the man who made her we’ll have two flagstaff’s, and the Jack and Old Glory will float side by side.”

And meanwhile where are we going?” asked Zaidie, after a moment’s interval. “Ah, there we are through the clouds again. What makes us rise? Is that the force that Pop told me he discovered?”

I’ll answer the last question first,” said Redgrave. “That was the greatest of your father’s discoveries. He got at the secret of gravitation, and was able to analyse it into two separate forces just as Volta did with electricity—positive and negative, or, to put it better, attractive and repulsive.

Three out of the five sets of engines in the Astronef develop the R. Force, as I call it for short. This wheel with the hundred degrees marked behind it regulates the development. The further I turn it this way to the right, the more the R. Force overcomes the attractive force of the earth or any other planet that we may visit. Turn it back, and gravitation asserts itself. If I put this arrow-head on the wheel opposite zero the weight of the Astronef is about a hundred and fifty tons, and of course she would go down like a stone, and a very big one at that. At ten she weighs nothing; that is to say the R. Force exactly counteracts gravitation. At eleven she begins to rise. At a hundred she would be hurled away from the earth like a shell from a twelve-inch gun, or even faster. Now, watch.”

He took up the speaking-tube. “Is she all tight everywhere, Andrew?”

Yes, my Lord,” came gurgling through the tube.

Then Redgrave slowly turned the wheel till the indicator pointed to twenty-five. Zaidie, all eyes and wonder, saw a vast sea of glittering white spread out beneath them, an ocean of snow with grey-blue patches here and there. It sank away from under them till the patches became spots and the sunlit clouds a vast, luminous blur. The air about them grew marvellously clear and limpid. The sun blazed down on them with a tenfold intensity of light, but Zaidie was astonished to find that very little heat penetrated the glass walls and roof of the conning-tower.

What an awful height!” she exclaimed, looking round at him with something like fear in her eyes. “How high are we, Lenox?”

You’ll find afterwards that the Astronef doesn’t take any account of high or low or up or down,” he replied, looking at the dial of an aneroid barometer by the side of him. “Roughly speaking, we’re rather over 60,000 feet—say ten miles—from the surface of the Atlantic. That’s why I asked Andrew whether everything was tight. You see we couldn’t breathe the air there is outside there—too thin and cold—and so the Astronef makes her own atmosphere as we go along. But I won’t spoil what you’re going to see by any more of this. So if you please, we’ll go down now and get along to Washington. Anyhow, I hope I’ve convinced you so far that I’ve kept my promise.”

Yes, dear, you have, and splendidly! I’ve only one regret. If he was only here now, what a happy man he’d be! Still, I daresay he knows all about it and is just as happy. In fact he must be. I feel certain he must. The very soul of his intellect was in the dream of this ship, and now that it’s a reality he must be here still. Isn’t it part of himself? Isn’t it his mind that’s working in these wonderful engines of yours, and isn’t it his strength that lifts us up from the earth and takes us down again just as you please to turn that wheel?”

There’s little doubt about that, Zaidie,” said Redgrave quietly, but earnestly. “You know we North-country folk all have our traditions and our ghosts; and what more likely than that the spirit of a dead man or a man gone to other worlds should watch over the realisation of his greatest work on earth? Why shouldn’t we believe that, we who are going away from this world to other ones?”

Why not?” interrupted Zaidie, “why, of course we will. And now suppose we come down in more ways than one and go and give poor Mrs. Van Stuyler something to eat and drink. The dear old girl must be frightened half out of her wits by this time.”

Very well,” replied Redgrave; “but we’ll come down literally first, so that we can get the propellers to work.”

He turned the wheel back till the indicator pointed to five. The cloud-sea came up with a rush. They passed through it, and stopped about a thousand feet above the sea. Redgrave touched the first button twice, and then the next one twice. The air began to hiss past the walls of the conning-tower. The crest-crowned waves of the Atlantic seemed to sweep in a hurrying torrent behind them, and then Redgrave, having made sure that Murgatroyd was at the after-wheel, gave him the course for Washington, and then went down to induct his bride-elect into the art and mystery of cooking by electricity as it was done in the kitchen of the Astronef.