Every one on board the Ariel was astir the next morning as soon as the first rays of dawn were shooting across the vast plain that stretched away to the eastward, and by the time it was fairly daylight breakfast was over and all were anxiously speculating as to what they would find on the other side of the tremendous cliffs, on an eyrie in which they had found a resting-place for the night.
As soon as all was ready for a start, Arnold said to Natasha, who was standing alone with him on the after part of the deck —
“If you would like to steer the Ariel into your new kingdom, I shall be delighted to give you the lesson in steering that I promised you yesterday.”
Natasha saw the inner meaning of the offer at a glance, and replied with a smile that made his blood tingle —
“That would be altogether too great a responsibility for a beginner. I might run on to some of these fearful rocks. But if you will take the helm when the dangerous part comes, I will learn all I can by watching you.”
“As long as you are with me in the wheel-house for the next hour or so,” said Arnold, with almost boyish frankness, “I shall be content. I need scarcely tell you why I want to be alone with you when we first sight this new home of our future empire.”
“I have half a mind not to come after that very injudicious speech. Still, if only for the sake of its delightful innocence, I will forgive you this time. You really must practise the worldly art of dissimulation a little, or I shall have to get the Princess to play chaperon.”
Natasha spoke these words in a bantering tone, and with a flush on her lovely cheeks, that forced Arnold to cut short the conversation for the moment, by giving an order to Andrew Smith, who at that instant put his head out of the wheel-house door to say —
“All ready, sir!”
“Very well,” replied Arnold. “I will take the wheel, and do you tell every one to keep under cover.”
Smith saluted, and disappeared, and then Natasha and Arnold went into the wheel-house, while Colston and the Princess took their places in the deck-saloon, the two men off duty going into the conning tower forward.
“Why every one under cover, Captain Arnold?” asked Natasha, as soon as the two were ensconced in the wheel-house and the door shut.
“Because I am going to put the Ariel through her paces, and enter Aeria in style,” replied he, signalling for the fan-wheels to revolve. “The fact is that, so far as I can see, these mountains are too high for us to rise over them by means of the lifting-wheels, which are only calculated to carry the ship to a height of about five thousand feet. After that the air gets too rarefied for them to get a solid grip. Now, these mountains look to me more like seven thousand feet high.”
“Then how will you get over them?”
“I shall first take a cruise and see if I can find a negotiable gap, and then leap it.”
“What! Leap seven thousand feet?”
“No; you forget that we shall be over five thousand up when we take the jump, and I have no doubt that we shall find a place where a thousand feet or so more will take us over. That we shall rise easily with the planes and propellers, and you will see such a leap as man never made in the world before.”
While he was speaking the Ariel had risen from the ground, and was hanging a few hundred feet above the little plateau. He gave the signal for the wheels to be lowered, and the propellers to set to work at half-speed. Then he pulled the lever which moved the air-planes, and the vessel sped away forwards and upwards at about sixty miles an hour.
Arnold headed her away from the mountains until he had got an offing of a couple of miles, and then he swung her round and skirted the cliffs, rising ever higher and higher, and keeping a sharp look-out for a depression among the ridges that still towered nearly three thousand feet above them.
When he had explored some twenty miles of the mountain wall, Arnold suddenly pointed towards it, and said —
“There is a place that I think will do. Look yonder, between those two high peaks away to the southward. That ridge is not more than six thousand feet from the earth, and the Ariel can leap that as easily as an Irish hunter would take a five-barred gate.”
“It looks dreadfully high from here,” said Natasha, in spite of herself turning a shade paler at the idea of taking a six thousand foot ridge at a flying leap. She had splendid nerves, but this was her first aërial voyage, and it was also the first time that she had ever been brought so closely face to face with the awful grandeur of Nature in her own secret and solitary places.
She would have faced a levelled rifle without flinching, but as she looked at that frowning mass of rocks towering up into the sky, and then down into the fearful depths below, where huge trees looked like tiny shrubs, and vast forests like black patches of heather on the earth, her heart stood still in her breast when she thought of the frightful fate that would overwhelm the Ariel and her crew should she fail to rise high enough to clear the ridge, or if anything went wrong with her machinery at the critical moment.
“Are you sure you can do it?” she asked almost involuntarily.
“Perfectly sure,” replied Arnold quietly, “otherwise I should not attempt it with you on board. The Ariel contains enough explosives to reduce her and us to dust and ashes, and if we hit that ridge going over, she would go off like a dynamite shell. No, I know what she can do, and you need not have the slightest fear!”
“I am not exactly afraid, but it looks a fearful thing to attempt.”
“If there were any danger I should tell you — with my usual lack of dissimulation. But really there is none, and all you have to do is to hold tight when I tell you, and keep your eyes open for the first glimpse of Aeria.”
By this time the Ariel was more than ten miles away from the mountains. Arnold, having now got offing enough, swung her round again, headed her straight for the ridge between the two peaks, and signalled “full speed” to the engine-room.
In an instant the propellers redoubled their revolutions, and the Ariel gathered way until the wind sang and screamed past her masts and stays. She covered eight miles in less than four minutes, and it seemed to Natasha as though the rock-wall were rushing towards them at an appalling speed, still frowning down a thousand feet above them. For the instant she was all eyes. She could neither open her lips nor move a limb for sheer, irresistible, physical terror. Then she heard Arnold say sharply —
“Now, hold on tight!”
The nearest thing to her was his own arm, the hand of which grasped one of the spokes of the steering wheel. Instinctively she passed her own arm under it, and then clasped it with both her hands. As she did so she felt the muscles tighten and harden. Then with his other hand he pulled the lever back to the full, and inclined the planes to their utmost.
Suddenly, as though some Titan had overthrown it, the huge black wall of rock in front seemed to sink down into the earth, the horizon widened out beyond it, and the Ariel soared upwards and swept over it nearly a thousand feet to the good.
The exclamation was forced from her white lips by an impulse that Natasha had no power to resist. All the pride of her nature was conquered and humbled for the moment by the marvel that she had seen, and by the something, greater and stranger than all, that she saw in the man beside her who had worked this miracle with a single touch of his hand. A moment later she had recovered her self-possession. She unclasped her hands from his arm, and as the colour came back to her cheeks she said, as he thought, more sweetly than she had ever spoken to him before —
“My friend, you have glorious nerves where physical danger is concerned, and now I freely forgive you for fainting in the Council-chamber when Martinov was executed. But don’t try mine again like that if you can help it. For the moment I thought that the end of all things had come. Oh, look! What a paradise! Truly this is a lovely kingdom that you have brought me to!”
“And one that you and I will yet reign over together,” replied Arnold quietly, as he moved the lever again and allowed the Ariel to sink smoothly down the other side of the ridge over which she had taken her tremendous leap.
When she had called it a paradise, Natasha had used almost the only word that would fitly describe the scene that opened out before them as the Ariel sank down after her leap across the ridge. The interior of the mountain mass took the form of an oval valley, as nearly as they could guess about fifty miles long by perhaps thirty wide. All round it the mountains seemed to rise unbroken by a single gap or chasm to between three and four thousand feet above the lowest part of the valley, and above this again the peaks rose high into the sky, two of them to the snow-line, which in this latitude was over 15,000 feet above the sea.
Of the two peaks which reached to this altitude, one was at either end of a line drawn through the greater length of the valley, that is to say, from north to south. At least ten other peaks all round the walls of the valley rose to heights varying from eight to twelve thousand feet.
The centre of the valley was occupied by an irregularly shaped lake, plentifully dotted with islands about its shores, but quite clear of them in the middle. In its greatest length it would be about twelve miles long, while its breadth varied from five miles to a few hundred yards. Its sloping shores were covered with the most luxuriant vegetation, which reached upwards almost unbroken, but changing in character with the altitude, until there was a regular series of transitions, from the palms and bananas on the shores of the lake, to the sparse and scanty pines and firs that clung to the upper slopes of the mountains.
The lake received about a score of streams, many of which began as waterfalls far up the mountains, while two of them at least had their origin in the eternal snows of the northern and southern peaks. So far as they could see from the air-ship, the lake had no outlet, and they were therefore obliged to conclude that its surplus waters escaped by some subterranean channel, probably to reappear again as a river welling from the earth, it might be, hundreds of miles away.
Of inhabitants there were absolutely no traces to be seen, from the direction in which the Ariel was approaching. Animals and birds there seemed to be in plenty, but of man no trace was visible, until in her flight along the valley the Ariel opened up one of the many smaller valleys formed by the ribs of the encircling mountains.
There, close by a clump of magnificent tree-ferns, and nestling under a precipitous ridge, covered from base to summit with dark-green foliage and brilliantly-coloured flowers, was a well-built log-hut surrounded by an ample verandah, also almost smothered in flowers, and surmounted by a flagstaff from which fluttered the tattered remains of a Union–Jack.
In a little clearing to one side of the hut, a man, who might very well have passed for a modern edition of Robinson Crusoe, so far as his attire was concerned, was busily skinning an antelope which hung from a pole suspended from two trees. His back was turned towards them, and so swift and silent had been their approach that he did not hear the soft whirring of the propellers until they were within some three hundred yards of him.
Then, just as he looked round to see whence the sound came, Andrew Smith, who was standing in the bows near the conning tower, put his hands to his mouth and roared out a regular sailor’s hail —
“Thomas Jackson, ahoy!”
The man straightened himself up, stared open-mouthed for a moment at the strange apparition, and then, with a yell either of terror or astonishment, bolted into the house as hard as he could run.
As soon as he was able to speak for laughing at the queer incident, Arnold sent the fan-wheels aloft and lowered the Ariel to within about twenty feet of the ground over a level patch of sward, across which meandered a little stream on its way to the lake. While she was hanging motionless over this, the man who had fled into the house reappeared, almost dragging another man, somewhat similarly attired, after him, and pointing excitedly towards the Ariel.
The second comer, if he felt any astonishment at the apparition that had invaded his solitude, certainly betrayed none. On the contrary, he walked deliberately from the hut to the bit of sward over which the Ariel hung motionless, and, seeing two ladies leaning on the rail that ran round the deck, he doffed his goatskin cap with a well-bred gesture, and said, in a voice that betrayed not the slightest symptom of surprise —
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! Good morning, and welcome to Aeria! I see that the problem of aërial navigation has been solved; I always said it would be in the first ten years of the twentieth century, though I often got laughed at by the wiseacres who know nothing until they see a thing before their noses. May I ask whether that little message that I sent to the outside world some years ago has procured me the pleasure of this visit?”
“Yes, Mr. Holt. Your little balloon was picked up about three years ago in the Gulf of Guinea, and, after various adventures and much discussion, has led to our present voyage.”
“I am delighted to hear it. I suppose there were plenty of noodles who put it down to a practical joke or something of that sort? What’s become of Stanley? Why didn’t he come out and rescue me, as he did Emin? Not glory enough, I suppose? It would bother him, too, to get over these mountains, unless he flew over. By the way, has he got an air-ship?”
“No,” replied Arnold, with a laugh. “This is the only one in existence, and she has not been a week afloat. But if you’ll allow us, we’ll come down and get generally acquainted, and after that we can explain things at our leisure.”
“Quite so, quite so; do so by all means. Most happy, I’m sure. Ah! beautiful model. Comes down as easily as a bird. Capital mechanism. What’s your motive-power? Gas, electricity — no, not steam, no funnels! Humph! Very ingenious. Always said it would be done some day. Build flying navies next, and be fighting in the clouds. Then there’ll be general smash. Serve ’em right. Fools to fight. Why can’t they live in peace?”
While Louis Holt was running along in this style, jerking his words out in little short snappy sentences, and fussing about round the air-ship, she had sunk gently to the earth, and her passengers had disembarked.
Arnold for the time being took no notice of the questions with regard to the motive-power, but introduced first himself, then the ladies, and then Colston, to Louis Holt, who may be described here, as elsewhere, as a little, bronzed, grizzled man, anywhere between fifty-five and seventy, with a lean, wiry, active body, a good square head, an ugly but kindly face, and keen, twinkling little grey eyes, that looked straight into those of any one he might be addressing.
The introductions over, he was invited on board the Ariel, and a few minutes later, in the deck-saloon, he was chattering away thirteen to the dozen, and drinking with unspeakable gusto the first glass of champagne he had tasted for nearly five years.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08