“Chap” West, who was never an enthusiast for work, laid down the long pole that had brought him from Bisham to the shade of a backwater west of Hurley Lock, and dropped to the cushions at the bottom of the punt, groaning his relief. He was a lank youth, somewhat short-sighted, and the huge horn-rimmed spectacles which decorated his knobbly face lent him an air of scholarship which his school record hardly endorsed.
Elsie West woke from a doze, took one glance at her surroundings and settled herself more comfortably.
“Light the stove and make some tea,” she murmured.
“I’m finished for the day,” grunted her brother. “The hooter sounded ten minutes ago; and cooking was never a hobby of mine.”
“Light the stove and make tea,” she said faintly.
Chap glared down at the dozing figure; then glared past her to where, paddle in hand, Tim Lensman was bringing the punt to the shore.
Tim was the same age as his school friend, though he looked younger. A good-looking young man, he had been head of the house which had the honour of sheltering Chapston West. They had both been school prefects at Mildram and had entered and passed out on the same day.
Tim Lensman was looking disparagingly at the tangle of bush and high grass which fringed the wooded slope.
“Trespassers will be prosecuted,” he read. “That seems almost an invitation — can you see the house, Chap?”
Chap shook his head.
“No; I’ll bet it is the most horrible shanty you can imagine. Old Colson is just naturally a fug. And he’s a science master — one of those Johnnies who ought to know the value of fresh air and ventilation.”
Elsie, roused by the bump of the punt side against the bank, sat up and stared at the unpromising landing-place.
“Why don’t you go farther along?” she asked. “You can’t make tea here without —”
“Woman, have you no thought before food?” demanded her brother sternly. “Don’t you thrill at the thought that you are anchored to the sacred terrain of the learned Professor Colson, doctor of science, bug expert, performer on the isobar and other musical instruments and —”
“Chap, you talk too much — and I should love a cup of tea.”
“We’ll have tea with the professor,” said Chap firmly. “Having cut through the briars to his enchanted palace, we will be served in crystal cups while reclining on couches of lapis lazuli.”
She frowned up at the dark and unpromising woods.
“Does he really live here?” she addressed Tim, and he nodded.
“He really lives here,” he said; “at least, I think so; his driving directions were very explicit and I seem to remember that he said we might have some difficulty in finding the house —”
“He said, ‘Keep on climbing until you come to the top,’” interrupted Chap.
“But how does he reach the house?” asked the puzzled girl.
“By aeroplane,” said Chap, as he tied the punt to the thick root of a laurel bush. “Or maybe he comes on his magic carpet. Science masters carry a stock of ’em. Or perhaps he comes through a front gate from a prosaic road — there must be roads even in Berkshire.”
Tim was laughing quietly. “It is the sort of crib old Colson would choose,” he said. “You ought to meet him, Elsie. He is the queerest old bird. Why he teaches at all I don’t know, because he has tons of money, and he really is something of a magician. I was on the science side at Mildram and it isn’t his amazing gifts as a mathematician that are so astounding. The head told me that Colson is the greatest living astronomer. Of course the stories they tell about his being able to foretell the future —”
“He can, too!”
Chap was lighting the stove, for, in spite of his roseate anticipations, he wished to be on the safe side, and he was in need of refreshment after a strenuous afternoon’s punting.
“He told the school the day the war would end — to the very minute! And he foretold the big explosion in the gas works at Helwick — he was nearly pinched by the police for knowing so much about it. I asked him last year if he knew what was going to win the Grand National and he nearly bit my head off. He’d have told Timothy Titus, because Tim’s his favourite child.”
He helped the girl to land and made a brief survey of the bank. It was a wilderness of a place, and though his eyes roved around seeking a path through the jungle, his search was in vain. An ancient signboard warned all and sundry that the land was private property, but at the spot at which they had brought the punt to land the bank had, at some remote period, been propped up.
“Do you want me to come with you?” asked Elsie, obviously not enamoured with the prospect of the forthcoming call.
“Would you rather stay here?” asked Chap looking up from his stove.
She gave one glance along the gloomy backwater with its weedy bed and the overhanging osiers. A water-rat was swimming across the still water and this spectacle decided her.
“No; I think I will come with you,” she said; and added, “I don’t like rats.”
“That was a vole,” said Tim, shying a stone in the direction of the swimming rodent.
Her pretty face puckered in an expression of distaste.
“It looks horribly like a rat to me,” she said. Chap poured out the tea and the girl was raising it to her lips when her eyes caught sight of the man who was watching them from between the trees, and she had hard work to suppress the scream that rose to her lips.
“What is it?”
Tim had seen her face change and now, following the direction of her eyes, he too saw the stranger.
There was nothing that was in the slightest degree sinister about the stranger; he was indeed the most commonplace figure Tim had ever seen. A short, stout man with a round and reddish face, which was decorated with a heavy ginger moustache; he stood twiddling his watch chain, his small eyes watching the party.
“Hello!” said Tim as he walked toward the stranger. “We have permission to land here.”
He thought the man was some sort of caretaker or bailiff of “Helmwood.”
“Got permission?” he repeated. “Of course you have — which of you is Lensman?”
“That’s my name,” smiled Tim, and the man nodded.
“He is expecting you and West and Miss Elsie West.”
Tim’s eyes opened wide in astonishment. He had certainly promised the professor that he would call one day during vacation, but he had not intended taking Chap nor his sister. It was only by accident he had met his school friend at Bisham that morning, and Chap had decided to come with him.
As though divining his thoughts, the stout man went on: “He knows a lot of things. If he’s not mad he’s crook. Where did he get all his information from? Why, fifteen years ago he hadn’t fifty pounds! This place cost him ten thousand, and the house cost another ten thousand; and he couldn’t have got his instruments and things under another ten thousand!”
Tim had been too much taken aback to interrupt. “Information? I don’t quite understand . . .?”
“About stocks and things . . . he’s made a hundred thousand this year out of cotton. How did he know that the boll-weevil was going to play the devil with the South, eh? How did he know? And when I asked him just now to tell me about the corn market for a friend of mine, he talked to me like a dog!”
Chap had been listening open-mouthed. “Are you a friend of Mr. Colson?” he asked.
“His cousin,” was the reply. “Harry Dewes by name. His own aunt’s child — and his only relation.”
Suddenly he made a step towards them and his voice sank to a confidential tone.
“You young gentlemen know all about him — he’s got delusions, hasn’t he? Now, suppose I brought a couple of doctors to see him, maybe they’d like to ask you a few questions about him . . . ”
Tim, the son of a great barrister, and himself studying for the bar, saw the drift of the question and would have understood, even if he had not seen the avaricious gleam in the man’s eyes.
“You’d put him into an asylum and control his estate, eh?” he asked with a cold smile. “I’m afraid that you cannot rely upon us for help.”
The man went red.
“Not that exactly,” he said awkwardly. “And listen, young fellow . . . ” he paused. “When you see Colson, I’d take it as a favour if you didn’t mention the fact that you’ve seen me . . . I’m going to walk down to the lock . . . you’ll find your way up between those poplars . . . so long!”
And turning abruptly he went stumbling through the bushes and was almost at once out of sight.
“What a lad!” said Chap admiringly. “And what a scheme! And to jump it at us straight away almost without an introduction — that fellow will never need a nerve tonic.”
“How did Mr. Colson know I was coming?” asked Elsie in wonder.
Tim was not prepared with an answer. After some difficulty they found the scarcely worn track that led up through the trees, and a quarter of an hour’s stiff climb brought them to the crest and in view of the house.
Tim had expected to find a residence in harmony with the unkempt grounds. But the first view of “Helmwood” made him gasp. A solid and handsome stone house stood behind a broad stretch of shaven lawn. Flower beds bright with the blooms of late summer surrounded the lawn and bordered the walls of the house itself. At the farther end, but attached to the building, was a stone tower, broad and squat, and on the top of this was erected a hollow structure — criss-crossed without any apparent order or method — with a network of wires which glittered in the sunlight.
“A silver wire-box aerial!” said Chap. “That is a new idea, isn’t it? Gosh, Tim! Look at the telescope!”
By the side of the tower was the bell-roof of a big observatory. The roof was closed, so that Chap’s “telescope” was largely imaginary.
“Great Moses!” said Chap awe-stricken. “Why, it’s as big as the Lick!”
Tim was impressed and astounded. He had guessed that the old science master was in comfortable circumstances, and knew that indeed he could afford the luxury of a car, but he had never dreamt that the professor was a man wealthy enough to own a house like this and an observatory which must have cost thousands to equip.
“Look, it’s turning!” whispered Elsie.
The big, square superstructure on the tower was moving slowly, and then Tim saw two projecting cones of some crystalline material, for they glittered dazzlingly in the sunlight.
“That is certainly new,” he said. “It is rather like the gadget they are using for the new beam transmission; or whatever they call it — and yet it isn’t —”
As he stood there, he saw a long trench window open and a bent figure come out on to the lawn. Tim hastened towards the man of science and in a few minutes Chap was introducing his sister.
“I hope you didn’t mind my coming, sir,” said Chap. “Lensman told me he was calling.”
“You did well to come,” said Mr. Colson courteously. “And it is a pleasure to meet your sister.”
Elsie was observing him closely and her first impression was one of pleasant surprise. A thin, clean-shaven old man, with a mass of white hair that fell over his collar and bushy eye-brows, beneath which twinkled eyes of deepest blue. There was a hint of good humour in his delicately-moulded face. Girl-like, she first noted his extraordinary cleanliness. His linen was spotless, his neat black suit showed no speck of dust.
“You probably met a — er — relative of mine,” he said gently. “A crude fellow — a very crude fellow. The uncouth in life jars me terribly. Will you come in, Miss West?”
They passed into a wide hall and down a long, broad corridor which was lighted on one side by narrow windows through which the girl had a glimpse of a neatly flagged courtyard, also surrounded by gay flower beds.
On the other side of the corridor, doors were set at intervals and it was on the second of these that Tim, in passing, read an inscription. It was tidily painted in small, gold lettering:
The professor saw the young man’s puzzled glance and smiled. “A little conceit of mine,” he said.
“Is that the number of an asteroid?” asked Tim, a dabbler in astronomy.
“No — you may search the Berlin Year Book in vain for No. 127,” said the professor as he opened the door of a large and airy library and ushered them in. “There must be an asteroid — by which, young lady, is meant one of those tiny planets which abound in the zone between Mars and Jupiter, and of which, Witts D.Q. — now named Eros — is a remarkable example. My Planetoid was discovered on a certain 12th of July — 127. And it was not even an asteroid!”
He chuckled and rubbed his long white hands together.
The library with its walnut bookshelves, its deep chairs and faint fragrance of Russian leather, was a pleasant place, thought Elsie. Huge china bowls laden with roses stood in every possible point where bowls could stand. Through the open windows came a gentle breeze laden with the perfume of flowers.
“Tea will be ready in a minute,” said Mr. Colson. “I ordered it when I saw you. Yes, I am interested in asteroids.”
His eyes went mechanically to the cornice of the room above the stone fire-place and Tim, looking up, saw that there was a square black cavity in the oaken panelling and wondered what was its significance.
“They are more real and tangible to me than the great planetary masses. Jupiter — a vapour mass; Saturn — a molten mass, yielding the secret of its rings to the spectroscope; Vulcan — no planet at all, but a myth and a dream of imaginative and romantic astronomers — there are no intra-Mercurial planets, by which I mean”— he seemed to find it necessary to explain to Elsie, for which Chap was grateful —“that between Mercury, which is the nearest planet to the sun and the sun itself, there is no planetary body, though some foolish people think there is and have christened it Vulcan —”
An elderly footman had appeared in the doorway and the professor hurried across to him. There was a brief consultation (Elsie suspected a domestic problem, and was right) and with a word of apology, he went out.
“He’s a rum bird,” began Chap and stopped dead. From the black cavity above the fireplace came a thin whine of sound, and then a deafening splutter like exaggerated and intensified “atmospherics.”
“What is that?” whispered the girl.
Before Tim could answer, the spluttering ceased, and then a soft, sweet voice spoke:
“‘Lo . . . Col — son! Ja’ze ga shil? I speak you, Col — son . . . Planetoid 127 . . . Big fire in my zehba . . . city . . . big fire . . . ”
There was a click and the voice ceased abruptly, and at that moment Professor Colson came in.
He saw the amazed group staring at the square hole in the wall, and his lips twitched.
“You heard —? I cut off the connection, though I’m afraid I may not get him again to-night.”
“Who is he, sir?” asked Tim frowning. “Was that a transmission from any great distance?”
The professor did not answer at once. He glanced keenly and suspiciously at the girl, as though it was her intelligence he feared. And then:
“The man who spoke was a man named Colson,” he said deliberately; “and he spoke from a distance of 186 million miles!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56