Tim Lensman could only stare at the professor.
“I don’t understand you, Mr. Colson,” he said, puzzled. “You mean that book is a code . . . an ordinary commercial code?”
Colson shook his head.
“No, my boy,” he said quietly; “that is something more than a code, it is a vocabulary — a vocabulary of six thousand words, the simplest and the most comprehensive language that humanity has ever known! That is why they are so infinitely more clever than we,” he mused. “I have not yet learned the process by which this language was evolved, but it is certain that it is their universal tongue.”
He turned with a smile to the bewildered boy.
“You speak English, probably French; you may have a smattering of German and Spanish and Italian. And when you have named these languages, you probably imagine that you have exhausted all that matter, and that the highest expression of human speech is bound up in one or the other, or perhaps all, of these tongues. Yet there is a tribe on the Upper Congo which has a vocabulary of four thousand words with which to voice its hopes, its sufferings and its joys. And in those four thousand words lies the sum of their poetry, history, and science! If we were as intelligent as we think we are, we should adopt the language of the Upper Congolese as the universal speech.”
Tim’s head was swimming: codes, languages, Upper Congolese and the mysterious “they.” . . . Surely there must be something in Dawes’ ominous hints, and this old man must be sick of overmuch learning. As though he realised what was passing through the boy’s mind, Colson shook his head.
“No, I am not mad,” he said, as he locked the book away in the safe and put the key in his pocket, “unless this is a symptom of my dementia.”
He waved his hand to the wire-laden room, and presently Tim, as in a dream, heard his companion explaining the functions of the various instruments with which the room was littered. For the most part it was Greek to him, for the professor had reached that stage of mechanical knowledge where he outstripped his pupil’s understanding. It was as though a professor of higher mathematics had strolled into the algebra class and lectured upon ultimate factors. Now and again he recognized some formula, or caught a mental glimpse of the other’s meaning, but for the main part the old man was talking in a language he did not comprehend.
“I’m afraid you’re going a little beyond me, sir,” he said, with a smile, and the old man nodded.
“Yes, there is much for you to learn,” he said; “and it must be learnt!”
He paused before a large glass case, which contained what looked to Tim to be a tiny model of a reciprocating engine, except that dozens of little pistons thrust out from unexpected cylinders, and all seemed to be working independent of the others, producing no central and general result.
“What is that, sir?”
Colson smoothed his chin thoughtfully.
“I’m trying to bring the description within the scope of your understanding,” he said. “It would not be inexact to describe this as a ‘strainer of sound.’ Yet neither would it be exact.”
He touched a switch and a dozen coloured lights gleamed and died amidst the whirling machinery. The hum which Tim had heard was broken into staccato dots and dashes of sound. He turned the switch again and the monotonous hum was resumed.
“Let us go back to the library,” said the professor abruptly.
He came out of the room last, turned out the lights and double-locked the door, before he took his companion’s arm and led him back to the library they had recently vacated.
“Do you realise, Lensman,” he said as he closed the door, “that there are in this world sounds which never reach the human brain? The lower animals, more sensitive to vibratory waves, can hear noises which are never registered upon the human ear. The wireless expert listened in at the approach of Mars to the earth, hoping to secure a message of some kind. But what did he expect? A similar clatter to that which he could pick up from some passing steamer. And, suppose somebody was signalling — not from Mars, because there is no analogy to human life on that planet, but from some — some other world, big or little — is it not possible that the sound may be of such a character that not only the ear, even when assisted by the most powerful of microphones, cannot detect, but which no instrument man has devised can translate to an audible key?”
“Do you suggest, sir, that signals of that nature are coming through from outer space?” asked Tim in surprise. And Mr. Colson inclined his head.
“Undoubtedly. There are at least three worlds signalling to us,” said the science master. “Sometimes the operators make some mechanical blunder, and there is an accidental emission of sound which is picked up on this earth and is credited to Mars. One of the most definite of the three comes from a system which is probably thousands of light-years away. In other words, from a planet that is part of a system beyond our ken. The most powerful telescope cannot even detect the sun around which this planet whirls! Another, and fainter, signal comes from an undetected planet beyond the orbit of Neptune.”
“But life could not exist beyond the orbit of Neptune?” suggested Tim.
“Not life as we understand it,” said the professor. “I admit that these signals are faint and unintelligible. But the third planet —”
“Is it your Planetoid 127?” asked Tim eagerly; and Colson nodded.
“I asked you to stay to-night,” he said, “because I wanted to tell you something of vital interest to me, if not to science. I am an old man, Lensman, and it is unlikely that I shall live for many years longer. I wish somebody to share my secret — somebody who can carry on the work after I have gone into nothingness. I have given the matter a great deal of thought, passing under review the great scientists of the age. But they are mainly old men: it is necessary that I should have an assistant who has many years before him, and I have chosen you.”
For a second the horrible responsibility which the professor was putting upon him struck a chill to the boy’s heart. And then the curiosity of youth, the adventurous spirit which is in every boy’s heart, warmed him to enthusiasm.
“That will be topping, sir,” he said. “Of course, I’m an awful duffer, but I’m willing to learn anything you can teach me. It was about Planetoid 127 you wanted to speak?”
The professor nodded.
“Yes,” he said, “it is about Planetoid 127. I have left nothing to chance. As I say, I am an old man and anything may happen. For the past few months I have been engaged in putting into writing the story of my extraordinary discovery: a discovery made possible by the years of unremitting thought and toil I have applied to perfecting the instruments which have placed me in contact with this strange and almost terrifying world.”
It seemed as though he were going to continue, and Tim was listening with all ears, but in his definite way the old man changed the subject.
“You would like to see round the rest of the house?” he said; and the next hour was spent in strolling around the outhouses, the little farmery which formed part of the house, and the magnificent range of hothouses, for Mr. Colson was an enthusiastic gardener.
As Tim was shown from one point of interest to another, it began to dawn upon him that there was truth in Hildreth’s accusation, that Mr. Colson was something of a speculator. The house and grounds must have cost thousands; the renovations which had been recently introduced, the erection of the telescope — when Colson mentioned the cost of this, the sum took his breath away — could only have been possible to a man of unlimited income. Yet it was the last thing in the world he would have imagined, for Colson was of the dreamy, unmaterial type, and it was difficult to associate him with a successful career on the Stock Exchange. When Mr. Colson opened the gates of the big garage the boy expected to see something magnificent in the way of cars; but the building was empty except for his old motor-bicycle, which was so familiar to the boys of Mildram.
“No, I do not drive a car,” said Colson, in answer to his question. “I have so little time, and I find that a motor-bicycle supplies all my needs.”
They dined at eight. Neither during the meal nor the period which intervened before bedtime did Mr. Colson make any further reference to his discoveries. He disappeared about ten, after showing Tim to his room. The boy had undressed and was dozing off, when there came a tap at his door.
“Come in, sir,” he said, and the professor entered. From his face Tim guessed that something had happened.
He set down the electric lantern he was carrying and came slowly towards the bed.
“Lensman,” he said, and there was a sharp quality in his voice. “Do you remember somebody speaking . . . the wireless voice? I was not in the library when the call came through, so I did not hear it distinctly.”
Tim recalled the mysterious voice that had spoken in the library from the aperture above the fireplace.
“Yes, sir; you told me, it was Colson —”
“I know, I know,” said the professor impatiently. “But tell me how he spoke?” His tone was almost querulous with anxiety. “I only heard the end. Was it a gruff voice, rather like mine?”
Tim shook his head.
“No, sir,” he said in surprise; “it was a very thin voice, a sort of whine . . . ”
“A whine?” The professor almost shouted the question.
“Yes, sir.” Colson was fingering his chin with a tremulous hand.
“That is strange,” he said, speaking half to himself. “I have been trying to get him all the evening, and usually it is simple. I received his carrier wave . . . why should his assistant speak . . .? I have not heard him for three days. What did he say?”
Tim told him, as far as he could remember, the gist of the message which had come through, and for a long time the professor was silent.
‘“He does not speak English very well — the assistant, I mean — and he would find a difficulty in putting into words . . . you see, our language is very complicated.” And then, with a smile: “I interrupted your sleep.”
He walked slowly to the door and stood for a while, the handle in his hand, his chin on his breast.
“If anything should happen, you will find my account in the most obvious place.” He smiled faintly. “I’m afraid I am not a very good amateur mason —”
With these cryptic words he took his departure. Tim tossed from side to side and presently dropped into an uneasy doze. He dreamt that he and the professor were stalking through black, illimitable space. Around, above, below them blazed golden suns, and his ears were filled with a roar of whirling planets. Then suddenly the professor cried out in a terrible voice: “Look, look!” And there was a sharp crash of sound, and Tim sat up in bed, the perspiration streaming from every pore. Something had wakened him. In an instant he had slipped out of bed, pulled on his dressing-gown, thrust his feet into his slippers, and had raced out into the corridor. A deep silence reigned, broken only by the sound of an opening door and the tremulous voice of the butler.
“Is anything wrong, sir?”
“What did you hear?” asked Tim quickly.
“I thought I heard a shot.”
Tim waited for no more: he ran down the stairs, stumbling in the darkness, and presently came to the passage from which opened the doors of the library and the room of Planetoid 127.
The library was empty: two lights burned, accentuating the gloom. A quick glance told him that it was not here the professor was to be sought. He had no doubt that in his sleep he had heard the cry of the old man. He turned on the light in the corridor, and, trying the door of the Planetoid room, to his consternation found it was open. The room was in darkness, but again memory served him. There were four light switches near the door, and these he found. Even as he had opened the door he could detect the acrid smell of cordite, and when the light switched on he was not unprepared for the sight which met his eyes. The little machine which Colson had described as the “sound strainer” was a mass of tangled wreckage. Another instrument had been overturned; ends of cut wires dangled from roof and wall. But his eyes were for the moment concentrated upon the figure that lay beneath the open safe. It was Professor Colson, and Tim knew instinctively that the old man was dead.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14