When they returned to the house, the windows were all in darkness and the door was ajar, just as they had left it; Krag presumably was not there. Maskull went all over the house, striking matches in every room — at the end of the examination he was ready to swear that the man they were expecting had not even stuck his nose inside the premises. Groping their way into the library, they sat down in the total darkness to wait, for nothing else remained to be done. Maskull lit his pipe, and began to drink the remainder of the whisky. Through the open window sounded in their ears the trainlike grinding of the sea at the foot of the cliffs.
“Krag must be in the tower after all,” remarked Maskull, breaking the silence.
“Yes, he is getting ready.”
“I hope he doesn’t expect us to join him there. It was beyond my powers — but why, heaven knows. The stairs must have a magnetic pull of some sort.”
“It is Tormantic gravity,” muttered Nightspore.
“I understand you — or, rather, I don’t — but it doesn’t matter.”
He went on smoking in silence, occasionally taking a mouthful of the neat liquor. “Who is Surtur?” he demanded abruptly.
“We others are gropers and bunglers, but he is a master.”
Maskull digested this. “I fancy you are right, for though I know nothing about him his mere name has an exciting effect on me. . . . Are you personally acquainted with him?”
“I must be . . . I forget . . . ” replied Nightspore in a choking voice.
Maskull looked up, surprised, but could make nothing out in the blackness of the room.
“Do you know so many extraordinary men that you can forget some of them? . . . Perhaps you can tell me this . . . will we meet him, where we are going?”
“You will meet death, Maskull. . . . Ask me no more questions — I can’t answer them.”
“Then let us go on waiting for Krag,” said Maskull coldly.
Ten minutes later the front door slammed, and a light, quick footstep was heard running up the stairs. Maskull got up, with a beating heart.
Krag appeared on the threshold of the door, bearing in his hand a feebly glimmering lantern. A hat was on his head, and he looked stern and forbidding. After scrutinising the two friends for a moment or so, he strode into the room and thrust the lantern on the table. Its light hardly served to illuminate the walls.
“You have got here, then, Maskull?”
“So it seems — but I shan’t thank you for your hospitality, for it has been conspicuous by its absence.”
Krag ignored the remark. “Are you ready to start?”
“By all means — when you are. It is not so entertaining here.”
Krag surveyed him critically. “I heard you stumbling about in the tower. You couldn’t get up, it seems.”
“It looks like an obstacle, for Nightspore informs me that the start takes place from the top.”
“But your other doubts are all removed?”
“So far, Krag, that I now possess an open mind. I am quite willing to see what you can do.”
“Nothing more is asked. . . . But this tower business. You know that until you are able to climb to the top you are unfit to stand the gravitation of Tormance?”
“Then I repeat, it’s an awkward obstacle, for I certainly can’t get up.”
Krag hunted about in his pockets, and at length produced a clasp knife.
“Remove you coat, and roll up your shirt sleeve,” he directed.
“Do you propose to make an incision with that?”
“Yes, and don’t start difficulties, because the effect is certain, but you can’t possibly understand it beforehand.”
“Still, a cut with a pocket-knife — ” began Maskull, laughing.
“It will answer, Maskull,” interrupted Nightspore.
“Then bare your arm too, you aristocrat of the universe,” said Krag. “Let us see what your blood is made of.”
Krag pulled out the big blade of the knife, and made a careless and almost savage slash at Maskull’s upper arm. The wound was deep, and blood flowed freely.
“Do I bind it up?” asked Maskull, scowling with pain.
Krag spat on the wound. “Pull your shirt down, it won’t bleed any more.”
He then turned his attention to Nightspore, who endured his operation with grim indifference. Krag threw the knife on the floor.
An awful agony, emanating from the wound, started to run through Maskull’s body, and he began to doubt whether he would not have to faint, but it subsided almost immediately, and then he felt nothing but a gnawing ache in the injured arm, just strong enough to make life one long discomfort.
“That’s finished,” said Krag. “Now you can follow me.”
Picking up the lantern, he walked toward the door. The others hastened after him, to take advantage of the light, and a moment later their footsteps, clattering down the uncarpeted stairs, resounded through the deserted house. Krag waited till they were out, and then banged the front door after them with such violence that the windows shook.
While they were walking swiftly across to the tower, Maskull caught his arm. “I heard a voice up those stairs.”
“What did it say?”
“That I am to go, but Nightspore is to return.”
Krag smiled. “The journey is getting notorious,” he remarked, after a pause. “There must be ill-wishers about. . . . Well, do you want to return?”
“I don’t know what I want. But I thought the thing was curious enough to be mentioned.”
“It is not a bad thing to hear voices,” said Krag, “but you mustn’t for a minute imagine that all is wise that comes to you out of the night world.”
When they had arrived at the open gateway of the tower, he immediately set foot on the bottom step of the spiral staircase and ran nimbly up, bearing the lantern. Maskull followed him with some trepidation, in view of his previous painful experience on these stairs, but when, after the first half-dozen steps, he discovered that he was still breathing freely, his dread changed to relief and astonishment, and he could have chattered like a girl.
At the lowest window Krag went straight ahead without stepping, but Maskull clambered into the embrasure, in order to renew his acquaintance with the miraculous spectacle of the Arcturian group. The lens had lost its magic property. It had become a common sheet of glass, through which the ordinary sky field appeared.
The climb continued, and at the second and third windows he again mounted and stared out, but still the common sights presented themselves. After that, he gave up and looked through no more windows.
Krag and Nightspore meanwhile had gone on ahead with the light, so that he had to complete the ascent in darkness. When he was near the top, he saw yellow light shining through the crack of a half-opened door. His companions were standing just inside a small room, shut off from the staircase by rough wooden planking; it was rudely furnished and contained nothing of astronomical interest. The lantern was resting on a table.
Maskull walked in and looked around him with curiosity. “Are we at the top?”
“Except for the platform over our heads,” replied Krag.
“Why didn’t that lowest window magnify, as it did earlier in the evening?”
“Oh, you missed your opportunity,” said Krag, grinning. “If you had finished your climb then, you would have seen heart-expanding sights. From the fifth window, for example, you would have seen Tormance like a continent in relief; from the sixth you would have seen it like a landscape. . . . But now there’s no need.”
“Why not — and what has need got to do with it?”
“Things are changed, my friend, since that wound of yours. For the same reason that you have now been able to mount the stairs, there was no necessity to stop and gape at illusions en route.”
“Very well,” said Maskull, not quite understanding what he meant. “But is this Surtur’s den?”
“He has spent time here.”
“I wish you would describe this mysterious individual, Krag. We may not get another chance.”
“What I said about the windows also applies to Surtur. There’s no need to waste time over visualising him, because you are immediately going on to the reality.”
“Then let us go.” He pressed his eyeballs wearily.
“Do we strip?” asked Nightspore.
“Naturally,” answered Krag, and he began to tear off his clothes with slow, uncouth movements.
“Why?” demanded Maskull, following, however, the example of the other two men.
Krag thumped his vast chest, which was covered with thick hairs, like an ape’s. “Who knows what the Tormance fashions are like? We may sprout limbs — I don’t say we shall.”
“A-ha!” exclaimed Maskull, pausing in the middle of his undressing.
Krag smote him on the back. “New pleasure organs possible, Maskull. You like that?”
The three men stood as nature made them. Maskull’s spirits rose fast, as the moment of departure drew near.
“A farewell drink to success!” cried Krag, seizing a bottle and breaking its head off between his fingers. There were no glasses, but he poured the amber-coloured wine into some cracked cups.
Perceiving that the others drank, Maskull tossed off his cupful. It was as if he had swallowed a draught of liquid electricity. . . . Krag dropped onto the floor and rolled around on his back, kicking his legs in the air. He tried to drag Maskull down on top of him, and a little horseplay went on between the two. Nightspore took no part in it, but walked to and fro, like a hungry caged animal.
Suddenly, from out-of-doors, there came a single prolonged, piercing wail, such as a banshee might be imagined to utter. It ceased abruptly, and was not repeated.
“What’s that?” called out Maskull, disengaging himself impatiently from Krag.
Krag rocked with laughter. “A Scottish spirit trying to reproduce the bagpipes of its earth life — in honour of our departure.”
Nightspore turned to Krag. “Maskull will sleep throughout the journey?”
“And you too, if you wish, my altruistic friend. I am pilot, and you passengers can amuse yourselves as you please.”
“Are we off at last?” asked Maskull.
“Yes, you are about to cross your Rubicon, Maskull. But what a Rubicon! . . . Do you know that it takes light a hundred years or so to arrive here from Arcturus? Yet we shall do it in nineteen hours.”
“Then you assert that Surtur is already there?”
“Surtur is where he is. He is a great traveller.”
“Won’t I see him?”
Krag went up to him and looked him in the eyes. “Don’t forget that you have asked for it, and wanted it. Few people in Tormance will know more about him than you do, but your memory will be your worst friend.”
He led the way up a short iron ladder, mounting through a trap to the flat roof above. When they were up, he switched on a small electric torch.
Maskull beheld with awe the torpedo of crystal that was to convey them through the whole breadth of visible space. It was forty feet long, eight wide, and eight high; the tank containing the Arcturian back rays was in front, the car behind. The nose of the torpedo was directed toward the south-eastern sky. The whole machine rested upon a flat platform, raised about four feet above the level of the roof, so as to encounter no obstruction on starting its flight.
Krag flashed the light on to the door of the car, to enable them to enter. Before doing so, Maskull gazed sternly once again at the gigantic, far-distant star, which was to be their sun from now onward. He frowned, shivered slightly, and got in beside Nightspore. Krag clambered past them onto his pilot’s seat. He threw the flashlight through the open door, which was then carefully closed, fastened, and screwed up.
He pulled the starting lever. The torpedo glided gently from its platform, and passed rather slowly away from the tower, seaward. Its speed increased sensibly, though not excessively, until the approximate limits of the earth’s atmosphere were reached. Krag then released the speed valve, and the car sped on its way with a velocity more nearly approaching that of thought than of light.
Maskull had no opportunity of examining through the crystal walls the rapidly changing panorama of the heavens. An extreme drowsiness oppressed him. He opened his eyes violently a dozen times, but on the thirteenth attempt he failed. From that time forward he slept heavily.
The bored, hungry expression never left Nightspore’s face. The alterations in the aspect of the sky seemed to possess not the least interest for him.
Krag sat with his hand on the lever, watching with savage intentness his phosphorescent charts and gauges.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11