Planetoid 127, by Edgar Wallace

Chapter 5

“Then it was Mars!” cried Chap triumphantly.

“Of course it was not Mars,” interrupted his sister scornfully. “Mr. Colson told us distinctly that there was no life on Mars.”

“Where is it, Tim?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Tim shook his head. “I have been questioning his assistants — there were two at the house — but he never took them into his confidence. The only hint they can give me is that when poor Mr. Colson was listening-in to these mysterious voices he invariably had the receiving gear directed towards the sun. You know, of course, that he did not use the ordinary aerial, but an apparatus shaped like a convex mirror.”

“Towards the sun?” gasped Chap. “But there can’t be any life on the sun! Dash it all, I don’t profess to be a scientific Johnny but I know enough of physics to see that it’s as impossible for life to exist on the sun as it would be to exist in a coke oven! Why, the temperature of the sun is umpteen thousand degrees centigrade . . . and anyway, nobody has ever seen the sun: you only see the photoscope . . . ”

“All this I know,” said Tim, listening patiently, “but there is the fact: the receiving mirror was not only directed towards the sun, but it moved by clockwork so that it was directed to the sun at all hours of the day, even when the sky was overcast and the sun was invisible. I admit that the whole thing sounds incredible, but Colson was not mad. That voice we heard was very distinct.”

“But from what planet could it be?” insisted Chap, pushing back his untidy hair and glaring at his friend. “Go over ’em all: eliminate Mars and the Sun, of course, and where is this world? Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune — phew! You’re not suggesting that it is one of the minor planets, are you? Ceres, Pallas, Juno, Vesta . . .?”

Tim shook his head.

“I am as much puzzled as you, but I am going to spend my life onwards looking for that world.”

He went back to the house. The body of the old man had been moved to a near-by hospital, and the place was alive with detectives. Mr. Stamford was there when he returned, and placed him in possession of a number of names and addresses which he thought might be useful to the young man.

“I don’t know that I want to know any stockbrokers,” said Tim, looking at the list with a wry face.

“You never know,” said Mr. Stamford. “After all, Mr. Colson expected you to carry on his work, and probably it will be part of your duties to continue his operations. I happen to know that he paid minute attention to the markets.”

He indicated a number of financial newspapers that lay unopened on the table, and Tim took up one, opened it and glanced down the columns. In the main the items of news were meaningless to him. All he saw were columns of intricate figures which were so much Greek; but presently his eye caught a headline:

“BLACK SEA OIL SYNDICATE. CHARLES HILDRETH’S GLOOMY REPORT TO THE SHAREHOLDERS.

“A meeting of the Black Sea Oil Syndicate was held at the Cannon Street Hotel yesterday afternoon, and Mr. Hildreth, Chairman of the Company, presiding, said that he had very little news for the shareholders that was pleasant. A number of the wells had run dry, but borings were being made on a new part of the concession, though there was scarcely any hope that they would be successful.”

Tim frowned. Black Sea Oil Syndicate . . .? Hildreth? He put a question to the lawyer.

“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Stanford. “Hildreth is deep in the oil market. There’s some talk of his rigging Black Seas.”

“What do you mean by ‘rigging’?” asked Tim.

“In this case the suggestion, which was made to me by a knowledgeable authority,” said Mr. Stamford, “is that Hildreth was depressing the shares issuing unpromising reports which would induce shareholders to put their shares on the market at a low figure. Of course, there may be nothing in it: Black Sea Oils are not a very prosperous concern. On the other hand, he may have secret information from his engineers.”

“Such as —?” suggested Tim.

“They may have struck oil in large quantities on another part of the property and may be keeping this fact dark, in which case they could buy up shares cheaply, and when the news was made known the scrip would go sky-high and they would make a fortune.”

Tim read the report again. “Do you think there is any chance of oil being found on this property?”

Stamford smiled. “I am a lawyer, not a magician,” he said good-humouredly.

After he had gone, Tim found himself reading the paper: the paragraph fascinated him. Black Sea Oil . . .

Suddenly he leapt to his feet with a cry. That was the message which Mr. Colson had written on the paper — the Oilfields of the Inland Sea!

He ran out of the room and went in search of Stamford.

“I am going to buy Black Sea Oils,” he said breathlessly. “Will you tell me what I must do?”

In a few moments the telephone wire was busy.

Mr. Hildreth had not been to his office that day, and when he strolled in to dinner, and the footman handed him his paper, he opened the page mechanically at the Stock Exchange column and ran his eyes down the list of quotations. That morning Black Sea Oils had stood in the market at 3s. 3d., and almost the first note that reached his eye was in the stop-press column.

“Boom in Black Sea Oils. There have been heavy buyings in Black Sea Oil shares, which stood this morning in the neighbourhood of 3s., but which closed firm at 42s. 6d.”

Hildreth’s face went livid. His great coup had failed!

In the weeks which followed the death and funeral of Professor Colson, Tim found every waking minute occupied. He had enlisted the services of the cleverest of scientists, and from the shattered apparatus one of the most brilliant of mechanical minds of the country was rebuilding the broken instruments. Sir Charles Layman, one of the foremost scientific minds in England, had been called into consultation by the lawyer, and to him Tim had related as much as he knew of Professor Colson’s secret.

“I knew Colson,” said Sir Charles; “he was undoubtedly a genius. But this story you tell me takes us into the realm of fantasy. It isn’t possible that life can exist on the sun; and really, young gentleman, I can’t help feeling that you have been deceived over these mysterious voices.”

“Then three people were deceived,” said Tim firmly. “My friend Chap West and his sister both heard the speaker. And Mr. Colson was not the kind of man who would descend to trickery.”

Sir Charles pursed his lips and shook his head.

“It does seem most extraordinary. And frankly, I cannot understand the functions of these instruments. It is quite possible, as Colson said, that there are sounds come to this earth so fine, and pitched in such a key, that the human ear cannot catch them. And I am pretty sure that what he called a ‘sound strainer’ was an amplifier on normal lines. But the mysterious world — where is it? Life in some form may exist on a planetoid, but it is almost certain that these small masses which whirl through space in the zone between Mars and Jupiter are barren globules of rock as dead as the moon and innocent of atmosphere. There are a thousand-and-one reasons why life could not exist on these planetoids; and of course the suggestion that there can be life on the sun is preposterous.”

He walked up and down the library, smoothing his bushy white beard, his brows corrugated in a grimace of baffled wonder.

“Most scientists,” he said at last, “work to the observations of some pet observer — did the Professor ever mention an astronomer whose calculations he was endeavouring to verify?”

Tim thought for a moment.

“Yes, sir, I remember he spoke once or twice of Professor Watson, an American. I remember once he was lecturing to our school on Kepler’s Law, and he mentioned the discoveries of Mr. Watson.”

“Watson?” said Sir Charles slowly. “Surely he was the fellow who thought he found Vulcan, a planet supposed by some people to revolve about the sun within the orbit of Mercury. As a matter of fact, what he saw, during an eclipse of the sun, was the two stars, Theta and Zeta Cankri, or, more likely, the star 20 Cankri, which must have been somewhere in the position that Watson described on the day he made his discovery.”

Then he asked, with sudden interest:

“Did Professor Colson believe in the existence of Vulcan?”

Tim shook his head. “No, sir, he derided the idea.”

“He was right,” nodded Sir Charles. “Vulcan is a myth. There may be intra-Mercurial bodies revolving about the sun, but it is extremely unlikely. You have found no data, no photographs?”

The word “photograph” reminded Tim. “Yes, there is a book full of big enlargements, but mostly of a solar eclipse,” he said. “They were taken on Friday Island last year.”

“Would you get them for me?” asked Sir Charles, interested.

Tim went out and returned with a portfolio, which he opened on the table. Sir Charles turned picture after picture without speaking a word, then he laid half a dozen apparently similar photographs side by side and pored over them with the aid of a magnifying-glass. They were the conventional type of astronomical photo: the black disc of the moon, the bubbling white edges of the corona; but evidently Sir Charles had seen something else, for presently he indicated a speck with a stylo.

“These photographs were taken by different cameras,” he said. “And yet they all have this.”

He pointed to the pin-point of white which had escaped Tim’s observation. It was so much part of the flame of the corona that it seemed as though it were a spark thrown out by one of those gigantic irruptions of ignited gas that flame up from the sun’s surface.

“Surely that is a speck of dust on the negative?” said Tim.

“But it is on all the negatives,” said Sir Charles emphatically. “No, I cannot be sure for the moment, but if that is not Zeta or Theta Cankris — it is too large for the star 20 Cankris — then we may be on the way to rediscovering Professor Colson’s world!”

At his request, Tim left him, whilst, with the aid of charts and almanacs, he plunged into intricate calculations.

When Tim closed the door and came into the corridor he saw the old butler waiting.

“Mr. Hildreth is here, sir,” said the man in a low voice, as though he also suspected the sinister character of the financier. “I’ve put him in the blue drawing-room: will you see him, sir?”

Tim nodded and followed the servant.

Hildreth was standing by a window, looking out upon the lawn, his hands behind him, and he turned, with a quick, bird-like motion as he heard the sound of the turning handle.

“Mr. Lensman,” he said, “I want a few words with you alone.”

The young man dismissed the butler with a gesture.

“Well, sir?” he asked quietly.

“I understand that you have engaged in a little speculation. You are rather young to dabble in high finance,” drawled Hildreth.

“Do you mean Black Sea Oils?” asked Tim bluntly.

“I had that stock in mind. What made you buy, Mr. Lensman — or rather, what made your trustee buy, for I suppose that, as you’re under age, you would hardly carry out the transaction yourself.”

“I bought because I am satisfied that Black Sea Oils will rise.”

A slow smile dawned on Hildreth’s hawklike face.

“If you had come to me,” he said coolly, “I could have saved you a great deal of money. Black Sea Oils to-day stand at fifty shillings: they are worth less than fivepence! You are little more than a boy,” he went on suavely, “and I can well understand how the temptation to gamble may have overcome you. But I was a friend of Colson’s, and I do not like the thought of your money being wasted. I will take all the stock off your hands, paying you at the price you paid for it.”

“That is very generous of you,” said Tim drily, “but I am not selling. And as for Mr. Colson being a friend of yours —”

“A very good friend,” interrupted the other quickly, “and if you tell people that he and I were enemies it may cost you more than you bargain for!”

There was no mistaking the threat in his tone, but Tim was not to be brow-beaten.

“Mr. Hildreth,” he said quietly, “nobody knows better than you that you were bad friends with Mr. Colson. He was constantly spoiling your market — you said as much. You believed that he was possessed of information which enabled him to operate to your detriment, and you knew this information came by wireless, because you had listened-in, without, however, understanding the language in which the messages came. You guessed there was a code, and I believe that you made one or two efforts to secure that code. Your last effort ended in the death of my friend!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30