On the sixth stroke of twelve that night the Scotch express drew out of Euston Station. At half-past nine the next morning, the Lurline, Lord Alanmere’s yacht, steamed out of Port Patrick Harbour, and at one o’clock precisely she dropped her anchor in the little inlet that served for a harbour at Drumcraig.
Colston had the quarter-boat lowered and pulled ashore without a moment’s delay, and as his foot touched the shore Arnold grasped his hand, and, after the first words of welcome, asked for the latest news of Natasha.
Without immediately answering, Colston put his arm through his, drew him away from the men who were standing about, and told him as briefly and gently as he could the terrible news of the calamity that had befallen the Brotherhood, and the errand upon which he had come.
Arnold received the blow as a brave man should — in silence. His now bronzed face turned pale, his brows contracted, and his teeth clenched till Colston could hear them gritting upon each other. Then a great wave of agony swept over his soul as a picture too horrible for contemplation rose before his eyes, and after that came calm, the calm of rapid thought and desperate resolve.
He remembered the words that Natasha had used in a letter that she had given him when she took leave of him in Russia. “We shall trust to you to rescue us, and, if that is no longer possible, to avenge us.”
Yes, and now the time had come to justify that trust and prove his own devotion. It should be proved to the letter, and if there was cause for vengeance, the proof should be written in blood and flame over all the wide dominions of the Tsar. Grief might come after, when there was time for it; but this was the hour of action, and a strange savage joy seemed to come with the knowledge that the safety of the woman he loved now depended mainly upon his own skill and daring.
Colston respected his silence, and waited until he spoke. When he did he was astonished at the difference that those few minutes had made in the young engineer. The dreamer and the enthusiast had become the man of action, prompt, stern, and decided. Colston had never before heard from his lips the voice in which he at length said to him —
“Where is this place? How far is it as the crow flies from here?”
“At a rough guess I should say about two thousand two hundred miles, almost due east, and rather less than two hundred miles on the other side of the Ourals.”
“Good! That will be twenty hours’ flight for us, or less if this south-west wind holds good.”
“What!” exclaimed Colston. “Twenty hours, did you say? You must surely be making some mistake. Don’t you mean forty hours? Think of the enormous distance. Why, even then we should have to travel over sixty miles an hour through the air.”
“My dear fellow, I don’t make mistakes where figures are concerned. The paradox of aërial navigation is ‘the greater the speed the less the resistance.’
“In virtue of that paradox I am able to tell you that the speed of the Ariel in moderate weather is a hundred and twenty miles an hour, and a hundred and twenty into two thousand two hundred goes eighteen times and one-third. This is Wednesday, and we have to be on the Asiatic frontier at daybreak on Friday. We shall start at dusk to-night, and you shall see tomorrow’s sun set over the Ourals.”
“That means from the eastern side of the range!”
“Of course. There will be no harm in being a few hours too soon. In case we may have a long cruise, I must have additional stores, and power-cylinders put on board. Come, you have not seen the Ariel yet.
“I have made several improvements on the model, as I expected to do when I came to the actual building of the ship, and, what is more important than that, I have immensely increased the motive power and economised space and weight at the same time. In fact, I don’t despair now of two hundred miles an hour before very long. Come!”
The engineer and the enthusiast had now come to the fore again, and the man and the lover had receded, put back, as it were, until the time for love, or perchance for sorrow, had come.
He put his arm through Colston’s, and led him up a hill-path and through a little gorge which opened into a deep valley, completely screened on all sides by heather-clad hills. Sprinkled about the bottom of this valley were a few wooden dwelling-houses and workshops, and in the centre was a huge shed, or rather an enclosure now, for its roof had been taken off.
In this lay, like a ship in a graving-dock, a long, narrow, grey-painted vessel almost exactly like a sea-going ship, save for the fact that she had no funnel, and that her three masts, instead of yards, each carried a horizontal fan-wheel, while from each of her sides projected, level with the deck, a plane twice the width of the deck and nearly as long as the vessel herself.
They entered the enclosure and walked round the hull. This was seventy feet long and twelve wide amidships, and save for size it was the exact counterpart of the model already described.
As soon as he had taken Colston round the hull, and roughly explained its principal features, reserving more detailed description and the inspection of the interior for the voyage, he gave the necessary orders for preparing for a lengthy journey, and the two went on board the Lurline to dinner, which Colston had deferred in order to eat it in Arnold’s company.
After dinner they carefully discussed the situation in order that every possible accident might be foreseen, argued the pros and cons of the venture in all their bearings, and even went so far as to plan the vengeance they would take should, by any chance, the rescue fail or come too late.
The instructions, signed by Natas himself, were very precise on certain essential points, and in their broad outlines, but, like all wisely planned instructions to such men as these, they left ample margin for individual initiative in case of emergency.
Some of the stores of the Lurline had to be transferred to the Ariel, and these were taken ashore after dinner, and at the same time Colston made his first inspection of the interior of the air-ship, under the guidance of her creator. What struck him most at first sight was the apparent inadequacy of the machinery to the attainment of the tremendous speed at which Arnold had promised they should travel.
There were four somewhat insignificant-looking engines in all. Of these, one drove the stern propeller, one the side propellers, and two the fan-wheels on the masts. He learnt as soon as the voyage began, that, by a very simple switch arrangement, the power of the whole four engines could be concentrated on the propellers; for, once in the air, the lifting wheels were dispensed with and lowered on deck, and the ship was entirely sustained by the pressure of the air under her planes.
There was not an ounce of superfluous wood or metal about the beautifully constructed craft, but for all that she was complete in every detail, and the accommodation she had for crew and passengers was perfectly comfortable, and in some respects cosy in the extreme. Forward there was a spacious cabin with berths for six men, and aft there were separate cabins for six people, and a central saloon for common use.
On deck there were three structures, a sort of little conning tower forward, a wheel-house aft, and a deck saloon amidships. All these were, of course, so constructed as to offer the least possible resistance to the wind, or rather the current created by the vessel herself when flying through the air at a speed greater than that of the hurricane itself.
All were closely windowed with toughened glass, for it is hardly necessary to say that, but for such a protection, every one who appeared above the level of the deck would be almost instantly suffocated, if not whirled overboard, by the rush of air when the ship was going at full speed. Her armament consisted of four long, slender cannon, two pointing over the bows, and two over the stem.
The crew that Arnold had chosen for the voyage consisted, curiously enough, of men belonging to the four nationalities which would be principally concerned in the Titanic struggle which a few weeks would now see raging over Europe. Their names were Andrew Smith, Englishman, and coxswain; Ivan Petrovitch, Russian; Franz Meyer, German; and Jean Guichard, Frenchman. Diverse as they were, there never were four better workers, or four better friends.
They had no country but the world, and no law save those which governed their Brotherhood. They conversed in assorted but perfectly intelligible English, for the very simple reason that Mr. Andrew Smith consistently refused to attempt even the rudiments of any other tongue.
While the stores were being put on board, Arnold made a careful examination of every part of the machinery, and then of the whole vessel, in order to assure himself that everything was in perfect order. This done, he gave his final instructions to those of the little community who were left behind to await the arrival of the steamer, and as the sun sank behind the western ridges of the island, he went on board the Ariel with Colston, took his place at the wheel, and ordered the fan-wheels to be set in motion.
Colston was standing by the open door of the wheel-house as Arnold communicated his order to the engine-room by pressing an electric button, one of four in a little square of mahogany in front of the wheel.
There was no vibration or grinding, as would have been the case in starting a steamer, but only a soft whirring, humming sound, that rose several degrees in pitch as the engines gained speed, and the fan-wheels revolved faster and faster until they sang in the air, and the Ariel rose without a jar or a tremor from the ground, slowly at first, and then more and more swiftly, until Colston saw the ground sinking rapidly beneath him, and the island growing smaller and smaller, until it looked like a little patch on the dark grey water of the sea.
Away to the north and west he could see the innumerable islands of the Hebrides, while to the east the huge mountainous mass of the mainland of Scotland loomed dark upon the horizon.
When the barometer marked eight hundred feet above the sea-level, the Ariel passed through a stratum of light clouds, and on the upper side of this the sun was still shining, shooting his almost level rays across it as though over some illimitable sea of white fleecy billows, whose crests were tipped with rosy, golden light.
Above the surface of this fairy sea rose north-eastward the black mass of Ben More on the Island of Mull, and to the southward, the lesser peaks of Jura and Islay.
While he was still wrapped in admiration of the strange beauty of this, to him, marvellous scene, the Ariel had risen to a thousand feet, still almost in a vertical line from the island. Arnold now pressed another button, and the stern propeller began to revolve swiftly and noiselessly, and Colston saw the waves of the cloud-sea begin to slip behind, although so smooth was the working of the machinery, and the motion of the air-ship, that, but for this, he could hardly have guessed that he was in motion.
Arnold now turned a few spokes of the wheel, and headed the Ariel due east by the compass. Then he touched a third button. The side propellers began to turn swiftly on their axes, and, at the same time the speed of the fan-wheels slackened, and gradually stopped.
Colston now began to feel the air rushing by him in a stream so rapid and strong, that he had to take hold of the side of the wheel-house doorway to steady himself.
“I think you had better come inside and shut the door,” said Arnold. “We are getting up speed now, and in a few minutes you won’t be able to hold yourself there. You’ll be able to see just as well inside.”
Colston did as he was bidden, and as soon as he was safely inside Arnold pulled a lever beside the wheel, and slightly inclined the planes from forward aft. At the same time the fan-wheels began to slide down the masts until they rested upon the deck.
“Now, you shall see her fly,” said Arnold, taking a speaking-tube from the wall and whistling thrice into it.
Colston felt a slight tremor in the deck beneath his feet, and then a lifting movement. He staggered a little, and said to Arnold —
“What’s that? Are we going higher still?”
“Yes,” replied the engineer. “She is feeling the air-planes now under the increased speed. I am going up to fifteen hundred feet, so that we shall only have the highest peaks to steer clear of in crossing Scotland. Now, use your eyes, and you will see something worth looking at.”
The upper part of the wheel-house was constructed almost entirely of glass, and so Colston could see just as well as if he had been on deck outside. He did use his eyes. In fact, for some time to come, all his other senses seemed to be merged in that of sight, for the scene was one of such rare and marvellous beauty, and the sensations that it called up were of so completely novel a nature, that, for the time being, he felt as though he had been suddenly transported into fairyland.
The cloud-sea now lay about seven hundred feet beneath them. The sun had sunk quite below the horizon, even at that elevation; but his absence was more than made up for by the nearly full moon, which had risen to the southward, as though to greet the conqueror of the air, and was spreading a flood of silvery radiance over the snowy plain beneath, through the great gaps in which they could see the darker sheen of the moving sea-waves.
Their course lay almost exactly along the fifty-sixth parallel of latitude, and took them across Argyle, Dumbarton, and Stirlingshire to the head of the Firth of Forth. As they approached the mainland, Colston saw one or two peaks rise up out of the clouds, and soon they were sweeping along in the midst of a score or so of these. To the left Ben Lomond towered into the clear sky above his attendant peaks, and to the right the lower summits of the Campsie Fells soon rose a few miles ahead.
The rapidity with which these mountain-tops rose up on either side, and were left behind, proved to Colston that the Ariel must be travelling at a tremendous speed, and yet, but for a very slight quivering of the deck, there was no motion perceptible, so smoothly did the air-ship glide through the elastic medium in which she floated.
So engrossed was he with the unearthly beauty of the new world into which he had risen, that for nearly two hours he stood without speaking a word. Arnold, wrapped in his own thoughts, maintained a like silence, and so they sped on amidst a stillness that was only broken by the soft whirring of the propellers, and the singing of the wind past the masts and stays.
At length a faint sound like the dashing of breakers on a rocky coast roused Colston from his reverie, and he turned to Arnold and said —
“What is that? Not the sea, surely!”
“Yes, those are the waves of the Firth of Forth breaking on the shores of Fife.”
“What! Do you mean to tell me that we have crossed Scotland already? Why, we have not been an hour on the way yet!”
“Oh yes, we have,” replied the engineer. “We have been nearly two. You have been so busy looking about you that you have not noticed how the time has passed. We have travelled a little over two hundred and forty miles. We are over the German Ocean now, and as there will be no more hills until we reach the Ourals we can go down a little.”
As he spoke he moved the lever beside him about an inch, and instantly the clouds seemed to rise up toward them as the Ariel swept downwards in her flight. A hundred feet above them Arnold touched the lever again, and the air-ship at once resumed her horizontal course.
Then he put her head a little more to the northward, and called down the speaking tube for Andrew Smith to come and relieve him. A minute later Smith’s head appeared at the top of the companion-ladder which led from the saloon to the wheel-house, and Arnold gave him the wheel and the course, saying at the same time to Colston —
“Now, come down and have something to eat, and then we will have a smoke and a chat and go to bed. There is nothing more to be seen until the morning, and then I will show you Petersburg as it looks from the clouds.”
“If you told me you would show me the Ourals themselves, I should believe you after what I have seen,” replied Colston, as together they descended the companion-way from the wheel-house to the saloon.
“Ah, I’m afraid that would be too much even for the Ariel to accomplish in the time,” said Arnold. “Still, I think I can guarantee that you shall cross Europe in such time as no man ever crossed it before.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54