Chapter 1. Mysterious Sounds ............................................................................................ 3
Chapter 2. Agreement Impossible....................................................................................... 8
Chapter 3. A Visitor Is Announced................................................................................... 11
Chapter 4. In Which A New Character Appears............................................................... 14
Chapter 5. Another Disappearance ................................................................................... 19
Chapter 6. The President And Secretary Suspend Hostilities........................................... 23
Chapter 7. On Board The Albatross.................................................................................. 29
Chapter 8. The Balloonists Refuse To Be Convinced ...................................................... 34
Chapter 9. Across The Prairie........................................................................................... 39
Chapter 10. Westward--But Whither? .............................................................................. 42
Chapter 11. The Wide Pacific........................................................................................... 46
Chapter 12. Through The Himalayas................................................................................ 51
Chapter 13. Over The Caspian.......................................................................................... 54
Chapter 14. The Aeronef At Full Speed ........................................................................... 61
Chapter 15. A Skirmish In Dahomey................................................................................ 66
Chapter 16. Over The Atlantic.......................................................................................... 73
Chapter 17. The Shipwrecked Crew ................................................................................. 78
Chapter 18. Over The Volcano ......................................................................................... 82
Chapter 19. Anchored At Last .......................................................................................... 87
Chapter 20. The Wreck Of The Albatross ........................................................................ 93
Chapter 21. The Institute Again........................................................................................ 97
Chapter 22. The Go-Ahead Is Launched ........................................................................ 103
Chapter 23. The Grand Collapse..................................................................................... 107
The pistol shots were almost simultaneous. A cow peacefully grazing fifty yards away received one of the bullets in her back. She had nothing to do with the quarrel all the same.
Neither of the adversaries was hit.
Who were these two gentlemen? We do not know, although this would be an excellent opportunity to hand down their names to posterity. All we can say is that the elder was an Englishman and the younger an American, and both of them were old enough to know better.
So far as recording in what locality the inoffensive ruminant had just tasted her last tuft of herbage, nothing can be easier. It was on the left bank of Niagara, not far from the suspension bridge which joins the American to the Canadian bank three miles from the falls.
The Englishman stepped up to the American.
"I contend, nevertheless, that it was 'Rule Britannia!'"
"And I say it was 'Yankee Doodle!'" replied the young American.
The dispute was about to begin again when one of the seconds-- doubtless in the interests of the milk trade--interposed.
"Suppose we say it was 'Rule Doodle' and 'Yankee Britannia' and adjourn to breakfast?"
This compromise between the national airs of Great Britain and the United States was adopted to the general satisfaction. The Americans and Englishmen walked up the left bank of the Niagara on their way to Goat Island, the neutral ground. between the falls. Let us leave them in the presence of the boiled eggs and traditional ham, and floods enough of tea to make the cataract jealous, and trouble ourselves no more about them. It is extremely unlikely that we shall again meet with them in this story.
Which was right; the Englishman or the American? It is not easy to say. Anyhow the duel shows how great was the excitement, not only in the new but also in the old world, with regard to an inexplicable phenomenon which for a month or more had driven everybody to distraction.
Never had the sky been so much looked at since the appearance of man on the terrestrial globe. The night before an aerial trumpet had blared its brazen notes through space immediately over that part of Canada between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Some people had heard those notes as "Yankee Doodle," others had heard them as "Rule Britannia," and hence the quarrel between the AngloSaxons, which ended with the breakfast on Goat Island. Perhaps it was neither one nor the other of these patriotic tunes, but what was undoubted by all was that these extraordinary sounds had seemed to descend from the sky to the earth. What could it be? Was it some exuberant aeronaut rejoicing on that sonorous instrument of which the Renommee makes such obstreperous use? No! There was no balloon and there were no aeronauts. Some strange phenomenon had occurred in the higher zones of the atmosphere, a phenomenon of which neither the nature nor the cause could be explained. Today it appeared over America; forty-eight hours afterwards it was over Europe; a week later it was in Asia over the Celestial Empire.
Hence in every country of the world--empire, kingdom, or republic-- there was anxiety which it was important to allay. If you hear in your house strange and inexplicable noises, do you not at once endeavor to discover the cause? And if your search is in vain, do you not leave your house and take up your quarters in another? But in this case the house was the terrestrial globe! There are no means of leaving that house for the moon or Mars, or Venus, or Jupiter, or any other planet of the solar system. And so of necessity we have to find out what it is that takes place, not in the infinite void, but within the atmospherical zones. In fact, if there is no air there is no noise, and as there was a noise--that famous trumpet, to wit-- the phenomenon must occur in the air, the density of which invariably diminishes, and which does not extend for more than six miles round our spheroid.
Naturally the newspapers took up the question in their thousands, and treated it in every form, throwing on it both light and darkness, recording many things about it true or false, alarming and tranquillizing their readers--as the sale required--and almost driving ordinary people mad. At one blow party politics dropped unheeded--and the affairs of the world went on none the worse for it. But what could this thing be? There was not an observatory that was not applied to. If an observatory could not give a satisfactory answer what was the use of observatories? If astronomers, who doubled and tripled the stars a hundred thousand million miles away, could not explain a phenomenon occurring only a few miles off, what was the use of astronomers?
The observatory at Paris was very guarded in what it said. In the mathematical section they had not thought the statement worth noticing; in the meridional section they knew nothing about it; in the physical observatory they had not come across it; in the geodetic section they had had no observation; in the meteorological section there had been no record; in the calculating room they had had nothing to deal with. At any rate this confession was a frank one, and the same frankness characterized the replies from the observatory of Montsouris and the magnetic station in the park of St. Maur. The same respect for the truth distinguished the Bureau des Longitudes.
The provinces were slightly more affirmative. Perhaps in the night of the fifth and the morning of the sixth of May there had appeared a flash of light of electrical origin which lasted about twenty seconds. At the Pic du Midi this light appeared between nine and ten in the evening. At the Meteorological Observatory on the Puy de Dome the light had been observed between one and two o'clock in the morning; at Mont Ventoux in Provence it had been seen between two and three o'clock; at Nice it had been noticed between three and four o'clock; while at the Semnoz Alps between Annecy, Le Bourget, and Le Leman, it had been detected just as the zenith was paling with the dawn.
Now it evidently would not do to disregard these observations altogether. There could be no doubt that a light had been observed at different places, in succession, at intervals, during some hours. Hence, whether it had been produced from many centers in the terrestrial atmosphere, or from one center, it was plain that the light must have traveled at a speed of over one hundred and twenty miles an hour.
In the United Kingdom there was much perplexity. The observatories were not in agreement. Greenwich would not consent to the proposition of Oxford. They were agreed on one point, however, and that was: "It was nothing at all!" But, said one, "It was an optical illusion!" While the, other contended that, "It was an acoustical illusion!" And so they disputed. Something, however, was, it will be seen, common to both "It was an illusion."
Between the observatory of Berlin and the observatory of Vienna the discussion threatened to end in international complications; but Russia, in the person of the director of the observatory at Pulkowa, showed that both were right. It all depended on the point of view from which they attacked the phenomenon, which, though impossible in theory, was possible in practice.
In Switzerland, at the observatory of Sautis in the canton of Appenzell, at the Righi, at the Gabriss, in the passes of the St. Gothard, at the St. Bernard, at the Julier, at the Simplon, at Zurich, at Somblick in the Tyrolean Alps, there was a very strong disinclination to say anything about what nobody could prove--and that was nothing but reasonable.
But in Italy, at the meteorological stations on Vesuvius, on Etna in the old Casa Inglesi, at Monte Cavo, the observers made no hesitation in admitting the materiality of the phenomenon, particularly as they had seen it by day in the form of a small cloud of vapor, and by night in that of a shooting star. But of what it was they knew nothing.
Scientists began at last to tire of the mystery, while they continued to disagree about it, and even to frighten the lowly and the ignorant, who, thanks to one of the wisest laws of nature, have formed, form, and will form the immense majority of the world's inhabitants. Astronomers and meteorologists would soon have dropped the subject altogether had not, on the night of the 26th and 27th, the observatory of Kautokeino at Finmark, in Norway, and during the night of the 28th and 29th that of Isfjord at Spitzbergen--Norwegian one and Swedish the other--found themselves agreed in recording that in the center of an aurora borealis there had appeared a sort of huge bird, an aerial monster, whose structure they were unable to determine, but who, there was no doubt, was showering off from his body certain corpuscles which exploded like bombs. In Europe not a doubt was thrown on this observation of the stations in Finmark and Spitzbergen. But what appeared the most phenomenal about it was that the Swedes and Norwegians could find themselves in agreement on any subject whatever.
There was a laugh at the asserted discovery in all the observatories of South America, in Brazil, Peru, and La Plata, and in those of Australia at Sydney, Adelaide, and Melbourne; and Australian laughter is very catching. To sum up, only one chief of a meteorological station ventured on a decided answer to this question, notwithstanding the sarcasms that his solution provoked. This was a Chinaman, the director of the observatory at Zi-Ka-Wey which rises in the center of a vast plateau less than thirty miles from the sea, having an immense horizon and wonderfully pure atmosphere. "It is possible," said he, "that the object was an aviform apparatus--a flying machine!"
But if the controversy was keen in the old world, we can imagine what it was like in that portion of the new of which the United States occupy so vast an area. A Yankee, we know, does not waste time on the road. He takes the street that leads him straight to his end. And the observatories of the American Federation did not hesitate to do their best. If they did not hurl their objectives at each other's heads, it was because they would have had to put them back just when they most wanted to use them. In this much-disputed question the observatories of Washington in the District of Columbia, and Cambridge in Massachusetts, found themselves opposed by those of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Ann Arbor in Michigan. The subject of their dispute was not the nature of the body observed, but the precise moment of its observation. All of them claimed to have seen it the same night, the same hour, the same minute, the same second, although the trajectory of the mysterious voyager took it but a moderate height above the horizon. Now from Massachusetts to Michigan, from New Hampshire to Columbia, the distance is too great for this double observation, made at the same moment, to be considered possible.
Dudley at Albany, in the state of New York, and West Point, the military academy, showed that their colleagues were wrong by an elaborate calculation of the right ascension and declination of the aforesaid body.
But later on it was discovered that the observers had been deceived in the body, and that what they had seen was an aerolite. This aerolite could not be the object in question, for how could an aerolite blow a trumpet?
It was in vain that they tried to get rid of this trumpet as an optical illusion. The ears were no more deceived than the eyes. Something had assuredly been seen, and something had assuredly been heard. In the night of the 12th and 13th of May--a very dark night-- the observers at Yale College, in the Sheffield Science School, had been able to take down a few bars of a musical phrase in D major, common time, which gave note for note, rhythm for rhythm, the chorus of the Chant du Depart.
"Good," said the Yankee wags. "There is a French band well up in the air." "But to joke is not to answer." Thus said the observatory at Boston, founded by the Atlantic Iron Works Society, whose opinions in matters of astronomy and meteorology began to have much weight in the world of science.
Then there intervened the observatory at Cincinnati, founded in 1870, on Mount Lookout, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Kilgour, and known for its micrometrical measurements of double stars. Its director declared with the utmost good faith that there had certainly been something, that a traveling body had shown itself at very short periods at different points in the atmosphere, but what were the nature of this body, its dimensions, its speed, and its trajectory, it was impossible to say. It was then a journal whose publicity is immense--the "New York Herald"-received the anonymous contribution hereunder.
"There will be in the recollection of most people the rivalry which existed a few years ago between the two heirs of the Begum of Ragginahra, the French doctor Sarrasin, the city of Frankville, and the German engineer Schultze, in the city of Steeltown, both in the south of Oregon in the United States.
"It will not have been forgotten that, with the object of destroying Frankville, Herr Schultze launched a formidable engine, intended to beat down the town and annihilate it at a single blow.
"Still less will it be forgotten that this engine, whose initial velocity as it left the mouth of the monster cannon had been erroneously calculated, had flown off at a speed exceeding by sixteen times that of ordinary projectiles--or about four hundred and fifty miles an hour--that it did not fall to the ground, and that it passed into an aerolitic stag, so as to circle for ever round our globe. "Why should not this be the body in question?"
Very ingenious, Mr. Correspondent on the "New York Herald!" but how about the trumpet? There was no trumpet in Herr Schulze's projectile!
So all the explanations explained nothing, and all the observers had observed in vain. There remained only the suggestion offered by the director of Zi-Ka-Wey. But the opinion of a Chinaman!
The discussion continued, and there was no sign of agreement. Then came a short period of rest. Some days elapsed without any object, aerolite or otherwise, being described, and without any trumpet notes being heard in the atmosphere. The body then had fallen on some part of the globe where it had been difficult to trace it; in the sea, perhaps. Had it sunk in the depths of the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Indian Ocean? What was to be said in this matter?
But then, between the 2nd and 9th of June, there came a new series of facts which could not possibly be explained by the unaided existence of a cosmic phenomenon.
In a week the Hamburgers at the top of St. Michael's Tower, the Turks on the highest minaret of St. Sophia, the Rouennais at the end of the metal spire of their cathedral, the Strasburgers at the summit of their minister, the Americans on the head of the Liberty statue at the entrance of the Hudson and on the Bunker Hill monument at Boston, the Chinese at the spike of the temple, of the Four Hundred Genii at Canton, the Hindus on the sixteenth terrace of the pyramid of the temple at Tanjore, the San Pietrini at the cross of St. Peter's at Rome, the English at the cross of St. Paul's in London, the Egyptians at the appex of the Great Pyramid of Ghizeh, the Parisians at the lighting conductor of the iron tower of the Exposition of 1889, a thousand feet high, all of them beheld a flag floating from some one of these inaccessible points.
And the flag was black, dotted with stars, and it bore a golden sun in its center.
"And the first who says the contrary --"
"Indeed! But we will say the contrary so long as there is a place to say it in!" "And in spite of your threats --"
"Mind what you are saying, Bat Fynn!"
"Mind what you are saying, Uncle Prudent!"
"I maintain that the screw ought to be behind!"
"And so do we! And so do we!" replied half a hundred voices confounded in one. "No! It ought to be in front!" shouted Phil Evans.
"In front!" roared fifty other voices, with a vigor in no whit less remarkable. "We shall never agree!"
"Then what is the use of a dispute?"
"It is not a dispute! It is a discussion!"
One would not have thought so to listen to the taunts, objurgations, and vociferations which filled the lecture room for a good quarter of an hour. The room was one of the largest in the Weldon Institute, the well-known club in Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U. S. A. The evening before there had been an election of a lamplighter, occasioning many public manifestations, noisy meetings, and even interchanges of blows, resulting in an effervescence which had not yet subsided, and which would account for some of the excitement just exhibited by the members of the Weldon Institute. For this was merely a meeting of balloonists, discussing the burning question of the direction of balloons. In this great saloon there were struggling, pushing, gesticulating, shouting, arguing, disputing, a hundred balloonists, all with their hats on, under the authority of a president, assisted by a secretary and treasurer. They were not engineers by profession, but simply amateurs of all that appertained to aerostatics, and they were amateurs in a fury, and especially foes of those who would oppose to aerostats "apparatuses heavier than the air," flying machines, aerial ships, or what not. That these people might one day discover the method of guiding balloons is possible. There could be no doubt that their president had considerable difficulty in guiding them.
This president, well known in Philadelphia was the famous Uncle Prudent, Prudent being his family name. There is nothing surprising in America in the qualificative uncle, for you can there be uncle without having either nephew or niece. There they speak of uncle as in other places they speak of father, though the father may have had no children.
Uncle Prudent was a personage of consideration, and in spite of his name was well known for his audacity. He was very rich, and that is no drawback even in the United States; and how could it be otherwise when he owned the greater part of the shares in Niagara Falls? A society of engineers had just been founded at Buffalo for working the cataract. It seemed to be an excellent speculation. The seven thousand five hundred cubic meters that pass over Niagara in a second would produce seven millions of horsepower. This enormous power, distributed amongst all the workshops within a radius of three hundred miles, would return an annual income of three hundred million dollars, of which the greater part would find its way into the pocket of Uncle Prudent. He was a bachelor, he lived quietly, and for his only servant had his valet Frycollin, who was hardly worthy of being the servant to so audacious a master.
Uncle Prudent was rich, and therefore he had friends, as was natural; but he also had enemies, although he was president of the club-- among others all those who envied his position. Amongst his bitterest foes we may mention the secretary of the Weldon Institute.
This was Phil Evans, who was also very rich, being the manager of the Wheelton Watch Company, an important manufactory, which makes every day five hundred movements equal in every respect to the best Swiss workmanship. Phil Evans would have passed for one of the happiest men in the world, and even in the United States, if it had not been for Uncle Prudent. Like him he was in his forty-sixth year; like him of invariable health; like him of undoubted boldness. They were two men made to understand each other thoroughly, but they did not, for both were of extreme violence of character. Uncle Prudent was furiously hot; Phil Evans was abnormally cool.
And why had not Phil Evans been elected president of the club? The votes were exactly divided between Uncle Prudent and him. Twenty times there had been a scrutiny, and twenty times the majority had not declared for either one or the other. The position was embarrassing, and it might have lasted for the lifetime of the candidates.
One of the members of the club then proposed a way out of the difficulty. This was Jem Chip, the treasurer of the Weldon Institute. Chip was a confirmed vegetarian, a proscriber of all animal nourishment, of all fermented liquors, half a Mussulman, half a Brahman. On this occasion Jem Chip was supported by another member of the club, William T. Forbes, the manager of a large factory where they made glucose by treating rags with sulphuric acid. A man of good standing was this William T. Forbes, the father of two charming girls -- Miss Dorothy, called Doll, and Miss Martha, called Mat, who gave the tone to the best society in Philadelphia.
It followed, then, on the proposition of Jem Chip, supported by William T. Forbes and others, that it was decided to elect the president "on the center point." This mode of election can be applied in all cases when it is desired to elect the most worthy; and a number of Americans of high intelligence are already thinking of employing it in the nomination of the President of the Republic of the United States.
On two boards of perfect whiteness a black line is traced. The length of each of these lines is mathematically the same, for they have been determined with as much accuracy as the base of the first triangle in a trigonometrical survey. That done, the two boards were erected on the same day in the center of the conference room, and the two candidates, each armed with a fine needle, marched towards the board that had fallen to his lot. The man who planted his needle nearest the center of the line would be proclaimed President of the Weldon Institute.
The operation must be done at once--no guide marks or trial shots allowed; nothing but sureness of eye. The man must have a compass in his eye, as the saying goes; that was all.
Uncle Prudent stuck in his needle at the same moment as Phil Evans did his. Then there began the measurement to discover which of the two competitors had most nearly approached the center.
Wonderful! Such had been the precision of the shots that the measures gave no appreciable difference. If they were not exactly in the mathematical center of the line, the distance between the needles was so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.
The meeting was much embarrassed.
Fortunately one of the members, Truck Milnor, insisted that the measurements should be remade by means of a rule graduated by the micrometrical machine of M. Perreaux, which can divide a millimeter into fifteen-hundredths of a millimeter with a diamond splinter, was brought to bear on the lines; and on reading the divisions through a microscope the following were the results: Uncle Prudent had approached the center within less than six fifteenth-hundredths of a millimeter. Phil Evans was within nine fifteen-hundredths.
And that is why Phil Evans was only secretary of the Weldon Institute, whereas Uncle Prudent was president. A difference of three fifteen-hundredths of a millimeter! And on account of it Phil Evans vowed against Uncle Prudent one of those hatreds which are none the less fierce for being latent.
The many experiments made during this last quarter of the nineteenth century have given considerable impetus to the question of guidable balloons. The cars furnished with propellers attached in 1852 to the aerostats of the elongated form introduced by Henry Giffard, the machines of Dupuy de Lome in 1872, of the Tissandier brothers in 1883, and of Captain Krebs and Renard in 1884, yielded many important results. But if these machines, moving in a medium heavier than themselves, maneuvering under the propulsion of a screw, working at an angle to the direction of the wind, and even against the wind, to return to their point of departure, had been really "guidable," they had only succeeded under very favorable conditions. In large, covered halls their success was perfect. In a calm atmosphere they did very well. In a light wind of five or six yards a second they still moved. But nothing practical had been obtained. Against a miller's wind-- nine yards a second--the machines had remained almost stationary. Against a fresh breeze--eleven yards a second--they would have advanced backwards. In a storm--twenty-seven to thirty-three yards a second--they would have been blown about like a feather. In a hurricane--sixty yards a second--they would have run the risk of being dashed to pieces. And in one of those cyclones which exceed a hundred yards a second not a fragment of them would have been left. It remained, then, even after the striking experiments of Captains Krebs and Renard, that though guidable aerostats had gained a little speed, they could not be kept going in a moderate breeze. Hence the impossibility of making practical use of this mode of aerial locomotion.
With regards to the means employed to give the aerostat its motion a great deal of progress had been made. For the steam engines of Henry Giffard, and the muscular force of Dupuy de Lome, electric motors had gradually been substituted. The batteries of bichromate of potassium of the Tissandier brothers had given a speed of four yards a second. The dynamo-electric machines of Captain Krebs and Renard had developed a force of twelve horsepower and yielded a speed of six and a half yards per second.
With regard to this motor, engineers and electricians had been approaching more and more to that desideratum which is known as a steam horse in a watch case. Gradually the results of the pile of which Captains Krebs and Renard had kept the secret had been surpassed, and aeronauts had become able to avail themselves of motors whose lightness increased at the same time as their power.
In this there was much to encourage those who believed in the utilization of guidable balloons. But yet how many good people there are who refuse to admit the possibility of such a thing! If the aerostat finds support in the air it belongs to the medium in which it moves; under such conditions, how can its mass, which offers so much resistance to the currents of the atmosphere, make its way against the wind?
In this struggle of the inventors after a light and powerful motor, the Americans had most nearly attained what they sought. A dynamo-electric apparatus, in which a new pile was employed the composition of which was still a mystery, had been bought from its inventor, a Boston chemist up to then unknown. Calculations made with the greatest care, diagrams drawn with the utmost exactitude, showed that by means of this apparatus driving a screw of given dimensions a displacement could be obtained of from twenty to twenty-two yards a second.
Now this was magnificent!
"And it is not dear," said Uncle Prudent, as he handed to the inventor in return for his formal receipt the last installment of the hundred thousand paper dollars he had paid for his invention.
Immediately the Weldon Institute set to work. When there comes along a project of practical utility the money leaps nimbly enough from American pockets. The funds flowed in even without its being necessary to form a syndicate. Three hundred thousand dollars came into the club's account at the first appeal. The work began under the superintendence of the most celebrated aeronaut of the United States, Harry W. Tinder, immortalized by three of his ascents out of a thousand, one in which he rose to a height of twelve thousand yards, higher than Gay Lussac, Coxwell, Sivet, Croce-Spinelli, Tissandier, Glaisher; another in which he had crossed America from New York to San Francisco, exceeding by many hundred leagues the journeys of Nadar, Godard, and others, to say nothing of that of John Wise, who accomplished eleven hundred and fifty miles from St. Louis to Jefferson county; the third, which ended in a frightful fall from fifteen hundred feet at the cost of a slight sprain in the right thumb, while the less fortunate Pilatre de Rozier fell only seven hundred feet, and yet killed himself on the spot!
At the time this story begins the Weldon institute had got their work well in hand. In the Turner yard at Philadelphia there reposed an enormous aerostat, whose strength had been tried by highly compressed air. It well merited the name of the monster balloon.
How large was Nadar's Geant? Six thousand cubic meters. How large was John Wise's balloon? Twenty thousand cubic meters. How large was the Giffard balloon at the 1878 Exhibition? Twenty-five thousand cubic meters. Compare these three aerostats with the aerial machine of the Weldon Institute, whose volume amounted to forty thousand cubic meters, and you will understand why Uncle Prudent and his colleagues were so justifiably proud of it.
This balloon not being destined for the exploration of the higher strata of the atmosphere, was not called the Excelsior, a name which is rather too much held in honor among the citizens of America. No! It was called, simply, the "GoAhead," and all it had to do was to justify its name by going ahead obediently to the wishes of its commander.
The dynamo-electric machine, according to the patent purchased by the Weldon Institute, was nearly ready. In less than six weeks the "Go-Ahead" would start for its first cruise through space.
But, as we have seen, all the mechanical difficulties had not been overcome. Many evenings had been devoted to discussing, not the form of its screw nor its, dimensions, but whether it ought to be put behind, as the Tissandier brothers had done, or before as Captains Krebs and Renard had done. It is unnecessary to add that the partisans of the two systems had almost come to blows. The group of "Beforists" were equaled in number by the group of "Behindists." Uncle Prudent, who ought to have given the casting vote--Uncle Prudent, brought up doubtless in the school of Professor Buridan-- could not bring himself to decide. Hence the impossibility of getting the screw into place. The dispute might last for some time, unless the government interfered. But in the United States the government meddles with private affairs as little as it possibly can. And it is right. Things were in this state at this meeting on the 13th of June, which threatened to end in a riot--insults exchanged, fisticuffs succeeding the insults, cane thrashings succeeding the fisticuffs, revolver shots succeeding the cane thrashings--when at thirty-seven minutes past eight there occurred a diversion.
The porter of the Weldon Institute coolly and calmly, like a policeman amid the storm of the meeting, approached the presidential desk. On it he placed a card. He awaited the orders that Uncle Prudent found it convenient to give. Uncle Prudent turned on the steam whistle, which did duty for the presidential bell, for even the Kremlin clock would have struck in vain! But the tumult slackened not.
Then the president removed his hat. Thanks to this extreme measure a semisilence was obtained.
"A communication!" said Uncle Prudent, after taking a huge pinch from the snuffbox which never left him.
"Speak up!" answered eighty-nine voices, accidentally in agreement on this one point.
"A stranger, my dear colleagues, asks to be admitted to the meeting." "Never!" replied every voice.
"He desires to prove to us, it would appear," continued Uncle Prudent, 'that to believe in guiding balloons is to believe in the absurdest of Utopias!" "Let him in! Let him in!"
"What is the name of this singular personage?" asked secretary Phil Evans. "Robur," replied Uncle Prudent.
"Robur! Robur! Robur!" yelled the assembly. And the welcome accorded so quickly to the curious name was chiefly due to the Weldon Institute hoping to vent its exasperation on the head of him who bore it!
"Citizens of the United States! My name is Robur. I am worthy of the name! I am forty years old, although I look but thirty, and I have a constitution of iron, a healthy vigor that nothing can shake, a muscular strength that few can equal, and a digestion that would be thought first class even in an ostrich!"
They were listening! Yes! The riot was quelled at once by the totally unexpected fashion of the speech. Was this fellow a madman or a hoaxer? Whoever he was, he kept his audience in hand. There was not a whisper in the meeting in which but a few minutes ago the storm was in full fury.
And Robur looked the man he said he was. Of middle height and geometric breadth, his figure was a regular trapezium with the greatest of its parallel sides formed by the line of his shoulders. On this line attached by a robust neck there rose an enormous spheroidal head. The head of what animal did it resemble from the point of view of passional analogy? The head of a bull; but a bull with an intelligent face. Eyes which at the least opposition would glow like coals of fire; and above them a permanent contraction of the superciliary muscle, an invariable sign of extreme energy. Short hair, slightly woolly, with metallic reflections; large chest rising and falling like a smith's bellows; arms, hands, legs, feet, all worthy of the trunk. No mustaches, no whiskers, but a large American goatee, revealing the attachments of the jaw whose masseter muscles were evidently of formidable strength. It has been calculated--what has not been calculated?--that the pressure of the jaw of an ordinary crocodile can reach four hundred atmospheres, while that of a hound can only amount to one hundred. From this the following curious formula has been deduced: If a kilogram of dog produces eight kilograms of masseteric force, a kilogram of crocodile could produce twelve. Now, a kilogram of, the aforesaid Robur would not produce less than ten, so that he came between the dog and the crocodile.
From what country did this remarkable specimen come? It was difficult to say. One thing was noticeable, and that was that he expressed himself fluently in English without a trace of the drawling twang that distinguishes the Yankees of New England.
He continued: "And now, honorable citizens, for my mental faculties. You see before you an engineer whose nerves are in no way inferior to his muscles. I have no fear of anything or anybody. I have a strength of will that has never had to yield. When I have decided on a thing, all America, all the world, may strive in vain to keep me from it. When I have an idea, I allow no one to share it, and I do not permit any contradiction. I insist on these details, honorable citizens, because it is necessary you should quite understand me. Perhaps you think I am talking too much about myself? It does not matter if you do! And now consider a little before you interrupt me, as I have come to tell you something that you may not be particularly pleased to hear."
A sound as of the surf on the beach began to rise along the first row of seats--a sign that the sea would not be long in getting stormy again.
"Speak, stranger!" said Uncle Prudent, who had some difficulty in restraining himself.
And Robur spoke as follows, without troubling himself any more about his audience.
"Yes! I know it well! After a century of experiments that have led to nothing, and trials giving no results, there still exist ill-balanced minds who believe in guiding balloons. They imagine that a motor of some sort, electric or otherwise, might be applied to their pretentious skin bags which are at the mercy of every current in the atmosphere. They persuade themselves that they can be masters of an aerostat as they can be masters of a ship on the surface of the sea. Because a few inventors in calm or nearly calm weather have succeeded in working an angle with the wind, or even beating to windward in a gentle breeze, they think that the steering of aerial apparatus lighter than the air is a practical matter. Well, now, look here; You hundred, who believe in the realization of your dreams, are throwing your thousands of dollars not into water but into space! You are fighting the impossible!"
Strange as it was that at this affirmation the members of the Weldon Institute did not move. Had they become as deaf as they were patient? Or were they reserving themselves to see how far this audacious contradictor would dare to go?
Robur continued: "What? A balloon! When to obtain the raising of a couple of pounds you require a cubic yard of gas. A balloon pretending to resist the wind by aid of its mechanism, when the pressure of a light breeze on a vessel's sails is not less than that of four hundred horsepower; when in the accident at the Tay Bridge you saw the storm produce a pressure of eight and a half hundredweight on a square yard. A balloon, when on such a system nature has never constructed anything flying, whether furnished with wings like birds, or membranes like certain fish, or certain mammalia --"
"Mammalia?" exclaimed one of the members.
"Yes! Mammalia! The bat, which flies, if I am not mistaken! Is the gentleman unaware that this flyer is a mammal? Did he ever see an omelette made of bat's eggs?"
The interrupter reserved himself for future interruption, and Robur resumed: "But does that mean that man is to give up the conquest of the air, and the transformation of the domestic and political manners of the old world, by the use of this admirable means of locomotion? By no means. As he has become master of the seas with the ship, by the oar, the sail, the wheel and the screw, so shall he become master of atmospherical space by apparatus heavier than the air--for it must be heavier to be stronger than the air!"
And then the assembly exploded. What a broadside of yells escaped from all these mouths, aimed at Robur like the muzzles of so many guns! Was not this hurling a declaration of war into the very camp of the balloonists? Was not this a stirring up of strife between 'the lighter" and 'the heavier" than air? Robur did not even frown. With folded arms he waited bravely till silence was obtained.
By a gesture Uncle Prudent ordered the firing to cease.
"Yes," continued Robur, "the future is for the flying machine. The air affords a solid fulcrum. If you will give a column of air an ascensional movement of fortyfive meters a second, a man can support himself on the top of it if the soles of his boots have a superficies of only the eighth of a square meter. And if the speed be increased to ninety meters, he can walk on it with naked feet. Or if, by means of a screw, you drive a mass of air at this speed, you get the same result." What Robur said had been said before by all the partisans of aviation, whose work slowly but surely is leading on to the solution of the problem. To Ponton d'Amecourt, La Landelle, Nadar, De Luzy, De Louvrie, Liais, Beleguir, Moreau, the brothers Richard, Babinet, Jobert, Du Temple, Salives, Penaud, De Villeneuve, Gauchot and Tatin, Michael Loup, Edison, Planavergne, and so many others, belongs the honor of having brought forward ideas of such simplicity. Abandoned and resumed times without number, they are sure, some day to triumph. To the enemies of aviation, who urge that the bird only sustains himself by warming the air he strikes, their answer is ready. Have they not proved that an eagle weighing five kilograms would have to fill fifty cubic meters with his warm fluid merely to sustain himself in space?
This is what Robur I demonstrated with undeniable logic amid the uproar that arose on all sides. And in conclusion these are the words he hurled in the faces of the balloonists: "With your aerostats you can do nothing--you will arrive at nothing--you dare do nothing! The boldest of your aeronauts, John Wise, although he has made an aerial voyage of twelve hundred miles above the American continent, has had to give up his project of crossing the Atlantic! And you have not advanced one step--not one step--towards your end." "Sir," said the president, who in vain endeavored to keep himself cool, "you forget what was said by our immortal Franklin at the first appearance of the fire balloon, "It is but a child, but it will grow!" It was but a child, and it has grown. "No, Mr. President, it has not grown! It has got fatter--and this is not the same thing!"
This was a direct attack on the Weldon Institute, which had decreed, helped, and paid for the making of a monster balloon. And so propositions of the following kind began to fly about the room: 'turn him out!" 'throw him off the platform!" "Prove that he is heavier than the air!"
But these were only words, not means to an end.
Robur remained impassible, and continued: "There is no progress for your aerostats, my citizen balloonists; progress is for flying machines. The bird flies, and he is not a balloon, he is a piece of mechanism!"
"Yes, he flies!" exclaimed the fiery Bat T. Fynn; "but he flies against all the laws of mechanics."
"Indeed!" said Robur, shrugging his shoulders, and resuming, "Since we have begun the study of the flight of large and small birds one simple idea has prevailed--to imitate nature, which never makes mistakes. Between the albatross, which gives hardly ten beats of the wing per minute, between the pelican, which gives seventy --"
"Seventy-one," said the voice of a scoffer.
"And the bee, which gives one hundred and ninety-two per second --" "One hundred and ninety-three!" said the facetious individual.
"And, the common house fly, which gives three hundred and thirty --" "And a half!"
"And the mosquito, which gives millions --"
But Robur, the interrupted, interrupted not his demonstration. "Between these different rates --" he continued.
"There is a difference," said a voice.
"There is a possibility of finding a practical solution. When De Lucy showed that the stag beetle, an insect weighing only two grammes, could lift a weight of four hundred grammes, or two hundred times its own weight, the problem of aviation was solved. Besides, it has been shown that the wing surface decreases in proportion to the increase of the size and weight of the animal. Hence we can look forward to such contrivances --"
"Which would never fly!" said secretary Phil Evans.
"Which have flown, and which will fly," said Robur, without being in the least disconcerted, "and which we can call streophores, helicopters, orthopters--or, in imitation of the word 'nef,' which comes from 'navis,' call them from 'avis,' 'efs,'-by means of which man will become the master of space. The helix --" "Ah, the helix!" replied Phil Evans. "But the bird has no helix; that we know!" "So," said Robur; "but Penaud has shown that in reality the bird makes a helix, and its flight is helicopteral. And the motor of the future is the screw --" "From such a maladee Saint Helix keep us free!" sung out one of the members, who had accidentally hit upon the air from Herold's "Zampa."
And they all took up the chorus: "From such a maladee Saint Helix keep us free!" with such intonations and variations as would have made the French composer groan in his grave.
As the last notes died away in a frightful discord Uncle Prudent took advantage of the momentary calm to say, "Stranger, up to now, we let you speak without interruption." It seemed that for the president of the Weldon Institute shouts, yells, and catcalls were not interruptions, but only an exchange of arguments. "But I may remind you, all the same, that the theory of aviation is condemned beforehand, and rejected by the majority of American and foreign engineers. It is a system which was the cause of the death of the Flying Saracen at Constantinople, of the monk Volador at Lisbon, of De Leturn in 1852, of De Groof in 1864, besides the victims I forget since the mythological Icarus --" "A system," replied Robur, "no more to be condemned than that whose martyrology contains the names of Pilatre de Rozier at Calais, of Blanchard at Paris, of Donaldson and Grimwood in Lake Michigan, of Sivel and of CroceSpinelli, and others whom it takes good care, to forget."
This was a counter-thrust with a vengeance.
"Besides," continued Robur, "With your balloons as good as you can make them you will never obtain any speed worth mentioning. It would take you ten years to go round the world--and a flying machine could do it in a week!"
Here arose a new tempest of protests and denials which lasted for three long minutes. And then Phil Evans look up the word.
"Mr. Aviator," he said "you who talk so much of the benefits of aviation, have you ever aviated?"
"And made the conquest of the air?"
"Hooray for Robur the Conqueror!" shouted an ironical voice.
"Well, yes! Robur the Conqueror! I accept the name and I will bear it, for I have a right to it!"
"We beg to doubt it!" said Jem Chip.
"Gentlemen," said Robur, and his brows knit, "when I have just seriously stated a serious thing I do not permit anyone to reply to me by a flat denial, and I shall be glad to know the name of the interrupter."
"My name is Chip, and I am a vegetarian."
"Citizen Chip," said Robur, "I knew that vegetarians had longer alimentary canals than other men--a good foot longer at the least. That is quite long enough; and so do not compel me to make you any longer by beginning at your ears and --" "Throw him out."
"Into the street with him!"
The rage of the balloonists burst forth at last. They rushed at the platform. Robur disappeared amid a sheaf of hands that were thrown about as if caught in a storm. In vain the steam whistle screamed its fanfares on to the assembly. Philadelphia might well think that a fire was devouring one of its quarters and that all the waters of the Schuyllkill could not put it out.
Suddenly there was a recoil in the tumult. Robur had put his hands into his pockets and now held them out at the front ranks of the infuriated mob. In each hand was one of those American institutions known as revolvers which the mere pressure of the fingers is enough to fire -- pocket mitrailleuses in fact. And taking advantage not only of the recoil of his assailants but also of the silence which accompanied it.
"Decidedly," said he, "it was not Amerigo that discovered the New World, it was Cabot! You are not Americans, citizen balloonists! You are only Cabo-" Four or five shots cracked out, fired into space. They hurt nobody. Amid the smoke, the engineer vanished; and when it had thinned away there was no trace of him. Robur the Conqueror had flown, as if some apparatus of aviation had borne him into the air.
This was not the first occasion on which, at the end of their stormy discussions, the members of the Weldon Institute had filled Walnut Street and its neighborhood with their tumult. Several times had the inhabitants complained of the noisy way in which the proceedings ended, and more than once had the policemen had to interfere to clear the thoroughfare for the passersby, who for the most part were supremely indifferent on the question of aerial navigation. But never before had the tumult attained such proportions, never had the complaints been better founded, never had the intervention of the police been more necessary.
But there was some excuse for the members of the Weldon Institute. They had been attacked in their own house. To these enthusiasts for "lighter than air" a no less enthusiast for "heavier than air" had said things absolutely abhorrent. And at the moment they were about to treat him as he deserved, he had disappeared. So they cried aloud for vengeance. To leave such insults unpunished was impossible to all with American blood in their veins. Had not the sons of Amerigo been called the sons of Cabot? Was not that an insult as unpardonable as it happened to be just--historically?
The members of the club in several groups rushed down Walnut Street, then into the adjoining streets, and then all over the neighborhood. They woke up the householders; they compelled them to search their houses, prepared to indemnify them later on for the outrage on their privacy. Vain were all their trouble and searching. Robur was nowhere to be found; there was no trace of him. He might have gone off in the "Go-Ahead," the balloon of the Institute, for all they could tell. After an hour's hunt the members had to give in and separate, not before they had agreed to extend their search over the whole territory of the twin Americas that form the new continent.
By eleven o'clock quiet had been restored in the neighborhood of Walnut Street. Philadelphia was able to sink again into that sound sleep which is the privilege of non-manufacturing towns. The different members of the club parted to seek their respective houses. To mention the most distinguished amongst them, William T. Forbes sought his large sugar establishment, where Miss Doll and Miss Mat had prepared for him his evening tea, sweetened with his own glucose. Truck Milnor took the road to his factory in the distant suburb, where the engines worked day and night. Treasurer Jim Chip, publicly accused of possessing an alimentary canal twelve, inches longer than that of other men, returned to the vegetable soup that was waiting for him.
Two of the most important balloonists--two only--did not seem to think of returning so soon to their domicile. They availed themselves of the opportunity to discuss the question with more than usual acrimony. These were the irreconcilables, Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans, the president and secretary of the Weldon Institute.
At the door of the club the valet Frycollin waited for Uncle Prudent, his master, and at last he went after him, though he cared but little for the subject which had set the two colleagues at loggerheads.
It is only an euphemism' that the verb "discuss" can be used to express the way in which the duet between the president and secretary was being performed. As a matter of fact they were in full wrangle with an energy born of their old rivalry. "No, Sir, no," said Phil Evans. "If I had had the honor of being president of the Weldon Institute, there never, no, never, would have been such a scandal." "And what would you have done, if you had had the honor?" demanded Uncle Prudent.
"I would have stopped the insulter before he had opened his mouth." "It seems to me it would have been impossible to stop him until he had opened his mouth," replied Uncle Prudent.
"Not in America, Sir; not in America."
And exchanging such observations, increasing in bitterness as they went, they walked on through the streets farther and farther from their homes, until they reached a part of the city whence they had to go a long way round to get back. Frycollin followed, by no means at ease to see his master plunging into such deserted spots. He did not like deserted spots, particularly after midnight. in fact the darkness was profound, and the moon was only a thin crescent just beginning its monthly life. Frycollin kept a lookout to the left and right of him to see if he was followed. And he fancied he could see five or six hulking follows dogging his footsteps. Instinctively he drew nearer to his master, but not for the world would be have dared to break in on the conversation of which the fragments reached him.
In short it so chanced that the president and secretary of the Weldon Institute found themselves on the road to Fairmount Park. In the full heat of their dispute they crossed the Schuyllkill river by the famous iron bridge. They met only a few belated wayfarers, and pressed on across a wide open tract where the immense prairie was broken every now and then by the patches of thick woodland--which make the park different to any other in the world.
There Frycollin's terror became acute, particularly as he saw the five or six shadows gliding after him across the Schuyllkill bridge. The pupils of his eyes broadened out to the circumference of his iris, and his limbs seemed to diminish as if endowed with the contractility peculiar to the mollusca and certain of the articulate; for Frycollin, the valet, was an egregious coward.
He was a pure South Carolina Negro, with the head of a fool and the carcass of an imbecille. Being only one and twenty, he had never been a slave, not even by birth, but that made no difference to him. Grinning and greedy and idle, and a magnificent poltroon, he had been the servant of Uncle Prudent for about three years. Over and over again had his master threatened to kick him out, but had kept him on for fear of doing worse. With a master ever ready to venture on the most audacious enterprises, Frycollin's cowardice had brought him many arduous trials. But he had some compensation. Very little had been said about his gluttony, and still less about his laziness.
Ah, Valet Frycollin, if you could only have read the future! Why, oh why, Frycollin, did you not remain at Boston with the Sneffels, and not have given them up when they talked of going to Switzerland? Was not that a much more suitable place for you than this of Uncle Prudent's, where danger was daily welcomed? But here he was, and his master had become used to his faults. He had one advantage, and that was a consideration. Although he was a Negro by birth he did not speak like a Negro, and nothing is so irritating as that hateful jargon in which all the pronouns are possessive and all the verbs infinitive. Let it be understood, then, that Frycollin was a thorough coward.
And now it was midnight, and the pale crescent of the moon began to sink in the west behind the trees in the park. The rays streaming fitfully through the branches made the shadows darker than ever. Frycollin looked around him anxiously. "Brrr!" he said, "There are those fellows there all the time. Positively they are getting nearer! Master Uncle!" he shouted.
It was thus he called the president of the Weldon Institute, and thus did the president desire to be called.
At the moment the dispute of the rivals had reached its maximum, and as they hurled their epithets at each other they walked faster and faster, and drew farther and farther away from the Schuyllkill bridge. They had reached the center of a wide clump of trees, whose summits were just tipped by the parting rays of the moon. Beyond the trees was a very large clearing--an oval field, a complete amphitheater. Not a hillock was there to hinder the gallop of the horses, not a bush to stop the view of the spectators.
And if Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans had not been so deep in their dispute, and had used their eyes as they were accustomed to, they would have found the clearing was not in its usual state. Was it a flour mill that had anchored on it during the night? It looked like it, with its wings and sails--motionless and mysterious in the gathering gloom.
But neither the president nor the secretary of the Weldon Institute noticed the strange modification in the landscape of Fairmount Park; and neither did Frycollin. It seemed to him that the thieves were approaching, and preparing for their attack; and he was seized with convulsive fear, paralyzed in his limbs, with every hair he could boast of on the bristle. His terror was extreme. His knees bent under him, but he had just strength enough to exclaim for. the last time, "Master Uncle! Master Uncle!"
"What is the matter with you?" asked Uncle Prudent.
Perhaps the disputants would not have been sorry to have relieved their fury at the expense of the unfortunate valet. But they had no time; and neither even had he time to answer.
A whistle was heard. A flash of electric light shot across the clearing. A signal, doubtless? The moment had come for the deed of violence. In less time that it takes to tell, six men came leaping across from under the trees, two onto Uncle Prudent, two onto Phil Evans, two onto Frycollin--there was no need for the last two, for the Negro was incapable of defending himself. The president and secretary of the Weldon Institute, although taken by surprise, would have resisted.
They had neither time nor strength to do so. In a second they were rendered speechless by a gag, blind by a bandage, thrown down, pinioned and carried bodily off across the clearing. What could they think except that they had fallen into the hands of people who intended to rob them? The people did nothing of the sort, however. They did not even touch Uncle Prudent's pockets, although, according to his custom, they were full of paper dollars.
Within a minute of the attack, without a word being passed, Uncle Prudent, Phil Evans, and Frycollin felt themselves laid gently down, not on the grass, but on a sort of plank that creaked beneath them. They were laid down side by side. A door was shut; and the grating of a bolt in a staple told them that they were prisoners.
Then there came a continuous buzzing, a quivering, a frrrr, with the rrr unending. And that was the only sound that broke the quiet of the night.
Great was the excitement next morning in Philadelphia Very early was it known what had passed at the meeting of the Institute. Everyone knew of the appearance of the mysterious engineer named Robur--Robur the Conqueror-and the tumult among the balloonists, and his inexplicable disappearance. But it was quite another thing when all the town heard that the president and secretary of the club had also disappeared during the night.
Long and keen was the search in the city and neighborhood! Useless! The newspapers of Philadelphia, the newspapers of Pennsylvania, the newspapers of the United States reported the facts and explained them in a hundred ways, not one of which was the right one. Heavy rewards were offered, and placards were pasted up, but all to no purpose. The earth seemed to have opened and bodily swallowed the president and secretary of the Weldon Institute.
A bandage over the eyes, a gag in the mouth, a cord round the wrists, a cord round the ankles, unable to see, to speak, or to move, Uncle Prudent, Phil Evans, and Frycollin were anything but pleased with their position. Knowing not who had seized them, nor in what they had been thrown like parcels in a goods wagon, nor where they were, nor what was reserved for them--it was enough to exasperate even the most patient of the ovine race, and we know that the members of the Weldon Institute were not precisely sheep as far as patience went. With his violence of character we can easily imagine how Uncle Prudent felt. One thing was evident, that Phil Evans and he would find it difficult to attend the club next evening.
As to Frycollin, with his eyes shut and his mouth closed, it was impossible for him to think of anything. He was more dead than alive.
For an hour the position of the prisoners remained unchanged. No one came to visit, them, or to give them that liberty of movement and speech of which they lay in such need. They were reduced to stifled sighs, to grunts emitted over and under their gags, to everything that betrayed anger kept dumb and fury imprisoned, or rather bound down. Then after many fruitless efforts they remained for some time as though lifeless. Then as the sense of sight was denied them they tried by their sense of hearing to obtain some indication of the nature of this disquieting state of things. But in vain did they seek for any other sound than an interminable and inexplicable f-r-r-r which seemed to envelop them in a quivering atmosphere.
At last something happened. Phil Evans, regaining his coolness, managed to slacken the cord which bound his wrists. Little by little the knot slipped, his fingers slipped over each other, and his hands regained their usual freedom. A vigorous rubbing restored the circulation. A moment after he had slipped off the bandage which bound his eyes, taken the gag out of his mouth, and cut the cords round his ankles with his knife. An American who has not a bowie-knife in his pocket is no longer an American.
But if Phil Evans had regained the power of moving and speaking, that was all. His eyes were useless to him--at present at any rate. The prison was quite dark, though about six feet above him a feeble gleam of light came in through a kind of loophole.
As may be imagined, Phil Evans did not hesitate to at once set free his rival. A few cuts with the bowie settled the knots which bound him foot and hand. Immediately Uncle Prudent rose to his knees and snatched away his bandage and gag.
"Thanks," said he, in stifled voice.
"Here we are no longer the president and secretary of the Weldon Institute. We are adversaries no more."
"You are right," answered Evans. "We are now only two men agreed to avenge ourselves on a third whose attempt deserves severe reprisals. And this third is --" "Robur!"
"It is Robur!"
On this point both were absolutely in accord. On this subject there was no fear of dispute.
"And your servant?" said Phil Evans, pointing to Frycollin, who was puffing like a grampus. "We must set him free."
"Not yet," said Uncle Prudent. "He would overwhelm us with his jeremiads, and we have something else to do than abuse each other."
"What is that, Uncle Prudent?"
"To save ourselves if possible."
"You are right, even if it is impossible."
"And even if it is impossible."
There could be no doubt that this kidnapping was due to Robur, for an ordinary thief would have relieved them of their watches, jewelry, and purses, and thrown their bodies into the Schuyllkill with a good gash in their throats instead of throwing them to the bottom of--Of what? That was a serious question, which would have to be answered before attempting an escape with any chance of success.
"Phil Evans," began Uncle Prudent, "if, when we came away from our meeting, instead of indulging in amenities to which we need not recur, we had kept our eyes more open, this would not have happened. Had we remained in the streets of Philadelphia there would have been none of this. Evidently Robur foresaw what would happen at the club, and had placed some of his bandits on guard at the door. When we left Walnut Street these fellows must have watched us and followed us, and when we imprudently ventured into Fairmount Park they went in for their little game."
"Agreed," said Evans. "We were wrong not to go straight home."
"It is always wrong not to be right," said Prudent.
Here a long-drawn sigh escaped from the darkest corner of the prison. "What is that?" asked Evans.
"Nothing! Frycollin is dreaming."
"Between the moment we were seized a few steps out into the clearing and the moment we were thrown in here only two minutes elapsed. It is thus evident that those people did not take us out of Fairmount Park."
"And if they had done so we should have felt we were being moved." "Undoubtedly; and consequently we must be in some vehicle, perhaps some of those long prairie wagons, or some show-caravan --"
"Evidently! For if we were in a boat moored on the Schuyllkill we should have noticed the movement due to the current --"
"That is so; and as we are still in the clearing, I think that now is the time to get away, and we can return later to settle with this Robur --"
"And make him pay for this attempt on the liberty of two citizens of the United States."
"And he shall pay pretty dearly!"
"But who is this man? Where does he come from? Is he English, or German, or French --"
"He is a scoundrel, that is enough!" said Uncle Prudent. "Now to work." And then the two men, with their hands stretched out and their fingers wide apart, began to feel round the walls to find a joint or crack.
Nothing. Nothing; not even at the door. It was closely shut and it was impossible to shoot back the lock. All that could be done was to make a hole, and escape through the hole. It remained to be seen if the knives could cut into the walls. "But whence comes this never-ending rustling?" asked Evans, who was much impressed at the continuous f-r-r-r.
"The wind, doubtless," said Uncle Prudent.
"The wind! But I thought the night was quite calm."
"So it was. But if it isn't the wind, what can it be?"
Phil Evans got out the best blade of his knife and set to work on the wall near the door. Perhaps he might make a hole which would enable him to open it from the outside should it be only bolted or should the key have been left in the lock. He worked away for some minutes. The only result was to nip up his knife, to snip off its point, and transform what was left of the blade into a saw.
"Doesn't it cut?" asked Uncle Prudent.
"Is the wall made of sheet iron?"
"No; it gives no metallic sound when you hit it."
"Is it of ironwood?"
"No; it isn't iron and it isn't wood."
"What is it then?"
"Impossible to say. But, anyhow, steel doesn't touch it." Uncle Prudent, in a sudden outburst of fury, began to rave and stamp on the sonorous planks, while his hands sought to strangle an imaginary Robur.
"Be calm, Prudent, he calm! You have a try."
Uncle Prudent had a try, but the bowie-knife could do nothing against a wall which its best blades could not even scratch. The wall seemed to be made of crystal.
So it became evident that all flight was impracticable except through the door, and for a time they must resign themselves to their fate-- not a very pleasant thing for the Yankee temperament, and very much to the disgust of these eminently practical men. But this conclusion was not arrived at without many objurgations and loud-sounding phrases hurled at this Robur--who, from what had been seen of him at the Weldon Institute, was not the sort of man to trouble himself much about them.
Suddenly Frycollin began to give unequivocal signs of being unwell. He began to writhe in a most lamentable fashion, either with cramp in his stomach or in his limbs; and Uncle Prudent, thinking it his duty to put an end to these gymnastics, cut the cords that bound him.
He had cause to be sorry for it. Immediately there was poured forth an interminable litany, in which the terrors of fear were mingled with the tortures of hunger. Frycollin was no worse in his brain than in his stomach, and it would have been difficult to decide to which organ the chief cause of the trouble should be assigned.
"Frycollin!" said Uncle Prudent.
"Master Uncle! Master Uncle!" answered the Negro between two of his lugubrious howls.
"It is possible that we are doomed to die of hunger in this prison, but we have made up our minds not to succumb until we have availed ourselves of every means of alimentation to prolong our lives,"
"To eat me?" exclaimed Frycollin.
"As is always done with a Negro under such circumstances! So you had better not make yourself too obvious --"
"Or you'll have your bones picked!" said Evans.
And as Frycollin saw he might be used to prolong two existences more precious than his own, he contented himself thenceforth with groaning in quiet. The time went on and all attempts to force the door or get through the wall proved fruitless. What the wall was made of was impossible to say. It was not metal; it was not wood; it was not stone, And all the cell seemed to be made of the same stuff. When they stamped on the floor it gave a peculiar sound that Uncle Prudent found it difficult to describe; the floor seemed to sound hollow, as if it was not resting directly on the ground of the clearing. And the inexplicable f-rr-r-r seemed to sweep along below it. All of which was rather alarming. "Uncle Prudent," said Phil Evans.
"Do you think our prison has been moved at all?"
"Not that I know of."
"Because when we were first caught I distinctly remember the fresh fragrance of the grass and the resinous odor of the park trees. While now, when I take in a good sniff of the air, it seems as though all that had gone."
"So it has."
"We cannot say why unless we admit that the prison has moved; and I say again that if the prison had moved, either as a vehicle on the road or a boat on the stream, we should have felt it."
Here Frycollin gave vent to a long groan, which might have been taken for his last had he not followed it up with several more.
"I expect Robur will soon have us brought before him," said Phil Evans. "I hope so," said Uncle Prudent. "And I shall tell him --"
"That he began by being rude and ended in being unbearable."
Here Phil Evans noticed that day was beginning to break. A gleam, still faint, filtered through the narrow window opposite the door. It ought thus to be about four o'clock in the morning for it is at that hour in the month of June in this latitude that the horizon of Philadelphia is tinged by the first rays of the dawn. But when Uncle Prudent sounded his repeater--which was a masterpiece from his colleague's factory--the tiny gong only gave a quarter to three, and the watch had not stopped.
"That is strange!" said Phil Evans. "At a quarter to three it ought still to be night". "Perhaps my watch has got slow," answered Uncle Prudent.
"A watch of the Wheelton Watch Company!" exclaimed Phil Evans. Whatever might be the reason, there was no doubt that the day was breaking. Gradually the window became white in the deep darkness of the cell. However, if the dawn appeared sooner than the fortieth parallel permitted, it did not advance with the rapidity peculiar to lower latitudes. This was another observation--of Uncle Prudent's - a new inexplicable phenomenon.
"Couldn't we get up to the window and see where we are?"
"We might," said Uncle Prudent. "Frycollin, get up!"
The Negro arose.
"Put your back against the wall," continued Prudent, "and you, Evans, get on his shoulders while I buttress him up."
"Right!" said Evans.
An instant afterwards his knees were on Frycollin's shoulders, and his eyes were level with the window. The window was not of lenticular glass like those on shipboard, but was a simple flat pane. It was small, and Phil Evans found his range of view was much limited.
"Break the glass," said Prudent, "and perhaps you will be able to see better." Phil Evans gave it a sharp knock with the handle of his bowie-knife. It gave back a silvery sound, but it did not break.
Another and more violent blow. The same result.
"It is unbreakable glass!" said Evans.
It appeared as though the pane was made of glass toughened on the Siemens system--as after several blows it remained intact.
The light had now increased, and Phil Evans could see for some distance within the radius allowed by the frame.
"What do you see?" asked Uncle Prudent.
"What? Not any trees?"
"Not even the top branches?"
"Then we are not in the clearing?:
"Neither in the clearing nor in the park."
"Don't you see any roofs of houses or monuments?" said Prudent, whose disappointment and anger were increasing rapidly.
"What! Not a flagstaff, nor a church tower, nor a chimney?"
"Nothing but space."
As he uttered the words the door opened. A man appeared on the threshold. It was Robur.
"Honorable balloonists" he said, in a serious voice, "you are now free to go and come as you like."
"Free!" exclaimed Uncle Prudent.
"Yes--within the limits of the "Albatross!" "
Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans rushed out of their prison. And what did they see? Four thousand feet below them the face of a country they sought in vain to recognize.
"When will man cease to crawl in the depths to live in the azure and quiet of the sky?"
To this question of Camille Flammarion's the answer is easy. It will be when the progress of mechanics has enabled us to solve the problem of aviation. And in a few years--as we can foresee--a more practical utilization of electricity will do much towards that solution.
In 1783, before the Montgolfier brothers had built their fire-balloon, and Charles, the physician, had devised his first aerostat, a few adventurous spirits had dreamt of the conquest of space by mechanical means. The first inventors did not think of apparatus lighter than air, for that the science of their time did not allow them to imagine. It was to contrivances heavier than air, to flying machines in imitation of the birds, that they trusted to realize aerial locomotion. This was exactly what had been done by that madman Icarus, the son of Daedalus, whose wings, fixed together with wax, had melted as they approached the sun.
But without going back to mythological times, without dwelling on Archytas of Tarentum, we find, in the works of Dante of Perugia, of Leonardo da Vinci and Guidotti, the idea of machines made to move through the air. Two centuries and a half afterwards inventors began to multiply. In 1742 the Marquis de Bacqueville designed a system of wings, tried it over the Seine, and fell and broke his arm. In 1768 Paucton conceived the idea of an apparatus with two screws, suspensive and propulsive. In 1781 Meerwein, the architect of the Prince of Baden, built an orthopteric machine, and protested against the tendency of the aerostats which had just been invented. In 1784 Launoy and Bienvenu had maneuvered a helicopter worked by springs. In 1808 there were the attempts at flight by the Austrian Jacques Degen. In 1810 came the pamphlet by Denian of Nantes, in which the principles of "heavier than air" are laid down. From 1811 to 1840 came the inventions and researches of Derblinger, Vigual, Sarti, Dubochet, and Cagniard de Latour. In 1842 we have the Englishman Henson, with his system of inclined planes and screws worked by steam. In 1845 came Cossus and his ascensional screws. In 1847 came Camille Vert and his helicopter made of birds' wings. in 1852 came Letur with his system of guidable parachutes, whose trial cost him his life; and in the same year came Michel Loup with his plan of gliding through the air on four revolving wings. In 1853 came Beleguic and his aeroplane with the traction screws, Vaussin-Chardannes with his guidable kite, and George Cauley with his flying machines driven by gas. From 1854 to 1863 appeared Joseph Pline with several patents for aerial systems. Breant, Carlingford, Le Bris, Du Temple, Bright, whose ascensional screws were left-handed; Smythies, Panafieu, Crosnier, &c. At length, in 1863, thanks to the efforts of Nadar, a society of "heavier than air" was founded in Paris. There the inventors could experiment with the machines, of which many were patented. Ponton d'Amecourt and his steam helicopter, La Landelle and his system of combining screws with inclined planes and parachutes, Louvrie and his aeroscape, Esterno and his mechanical bird, Groof and his apparatus with wings worked by levers. The impetus was given, inventors invented, calculators calculated all that could render aerial locomotion practicable. Bourcart, Le Bris, Kaufmann, Smyth, Stringfellow, Prigent, Danjard, Pomes and De la Pauze, Moy, Penaud, Jobert, Haureau de Villeneuve, Achenbach, Garapon, Duchesne, Danduran, Pariesel, Dieuaide, Melkiseff, Forlanini, Bearey, Tatin, Dandrieux, Edison, some with wings or screws, others with inclined planes, imagined, created, constructed, perfected, their flying machines, ready to do their work, once there came to be applied to thereby some inventor a motor of adequate power and excessive lightness. This list may be a little long, but that will be forgiven, for it is necessary to give the various steps in the ladder of aerial locomotion, on the top of which appeared Robur the Conqueror. Without these attempts, these experiments of his predecessors, how could the inquirer have conceived so perfect an apparatus? And though he had but contempt for those who obstinately worked away in the direction of balloons, he held in high esteem all those partisans of "heavier than air," English, American, Italian, Austrian, French--and particularly French--whose work had been perfected by him, and led him to design and then to build this flying engine known as the "Albatross," which he was guiding through the currents of the atmosphere.
"The pigeon flies!" had exclaimed one of the most persistent adepts at aviation. "They will crowd the air as they crowd the earth!" said one of his most excited partisans.
"From the locomotive to the aeromotive!" shouted the noisiest of all, who had turned on the trumpet of publicity to awaken the Old and New Worlds. Nothing, in fact, is better established, by experiment and calculation, than that the air is highly resistant. A circumference of only a yard in diameter in the shape of a parachute can not only impede descent in air, but can render it isochronous. That is a fact.
It is equally well known that when the speed is great the work of the weight varies in almost inverse ratio to the square of the speed, and therefore becomes almost insignificant.
It is also known that as the weight of a flying animal increases, the less is the proportional increase in the surface beaten by the wings in order to sustain it, although the motion of the wings becomes slower.
A flying machine must therefore be constructed to take advantage of these natural laws, to imitate the bird, "that admirable type of aerial locomotion," according to Dr. Marcy, of the Institute of France.
In short the contrivances likely to solve the problem are of three kinds:-- 1. Helicopters or spiralifers, which are simply screws with vertical axes. 2. Ornithopters, machines which endeavour to reproduce the natural flight of birds.
3. Aeroplanes, which are merely inclined planes like kites, but towed or driven by screws.
Each of these systems has had and still has it partisans obstinately resolved to give way in not the slightest particular. However, Robur, for many reasons, had rejected the two first.
The ornithopter, or mechanical bird, offers certain advantages, no doubt. That the work and experiments of M. Renard in 1884 have sufficiently proved. But, as has been said, it is not necessary to copy Nature servilely. Locomotives are not copied from the hare, nor are ships copied from the fish. To the first we have put wheels which are not legs; to the second we have put screws which are not fins. And they do not do so badly. Besides, what is this mechanical movement in the flight of birds, whose action is so complex? Has not Doctor Marcy suspected that the feathers open during the return of the wings so as to let the air through them? And is not that rather a difficult operation for an artificial machine? On the other hand, aeroplanes have given many good results. Screws opposing a slanting plane to the bed of air will produce an ascensional movement, and the models experimented on have shown that the disposable weight, that is to say the weight it is possible to deal with as distinct from that of the apparatus, increases with the square of the speed. Herein the aeroplane has the advantage over the aerostat even when the aerostat is furnished with the means of locomotion.
Nevertheless Robur had thought that the simpler his contrivance the better. And the screws--the Saint Helices that had been thrown in his teeth at the Weldon Institute--had sufficed for all the needs of his flying machine. One series could hold it suspended in the air, the other could drive it along under conditions that were marvelously adapted for speed and safety.
If the ornithopter--striking like the wings of a bird--raised itself by beating the air, the helicopter raised itself by striking the air obliquely, with the fins of the screw as it mounted on an inclined plane. These fins, or arms, are in reality wings, but wings disposed as a helix instead of as a paddle wheel. The helix advances in the direction of its axis. Is the axis vertical? Then it moves vertically. Is the axis horizontal? Then it moves horizontally.
The whole of Robur's flying apparatus depended on these two movements, as will be seen from the following detailed description, which can be divided under three heads--the platform, the engines of suspension and propulsion, and the machinery.
Platform.--This was a framework a hundred feet long and twelve wide, a ship's deck in fact, with a projecting prow. Beneath was a hull solidly built, enclosing the engines, stores, and provisions of all sorts, including the watertanks. Round the deck a few light uprights supported a wire trellis that did duty for bulwarks. On the deck were three houses, whose compartments were used as cabins for the crew, or as machine rooms. In the center house was the machine which drove the suspensory helices, in that forward was the machine that drove the bow screw, in that aft was the machine that drove the stern screw. In the bow were the cook's galley and the crew's quarters; in the stern were several cabins, including that of the engineer, the saloon, and above them all a glass house in which stood the helmsman, who steered the vessel by means of a powerful rudder. All these cabins were lighted by port-holes filled with toughened glass, which has ten times the resistance of ordinary glass. Beneath the hull was a system of flexible springs to ease off the concussion when it became advisable to land.
Engines of suspension and propulsion.--Above the deck rose thirty-seven vertical axes, fifteen along each side, and seven, more elevated, in the centre. The "Albatross" might be called a clipper with thirty-seven masts. But these masts instead of sails bore each two horizontal screws, not very large in spread or diameter, but driven at prodigious speed. Each of these axes had its own movement independent of the rest, and each alternate one spun round in a different direction from the others, so as to avoid any tendency to gyration. Hence the screws as they rose on the vertical column of air retained their equilibrium by their horizontal resistance. Consequently the apparatus was furnished with seventy-four suspensory screws, whose three branches were connected by a metallic circle which economized their motive force. In front and behind, mounted on horizontal axes, were two propelling screws, each with four arms. These screws were of much larger diameter than the suspensory ones, but could be worked at quite their speed. In fact, the vessel combined the systems of Cossus, La Landelle, and Ponton d'Amecourt, as perfected by Robur. But it was in the choice and application of his motive force that he could claim to be an inventor.
Machinery.--Robur had not availed himself of the vapor of water or other liquids, nor compressed air and other mechanical motion. He employed electricity, that agent which one day will be the soul of the industrial world. But he required no electro-motor to produce it. All he trusted to was piles and accumulators. What were the elements of these piles, and what were the acids he used, Robur only knew. And the construction of the accumulators was kept equally secret. Of what were their positive and negative plates? None can say. The engineer took good care--and not unreasonably--to keep his secret unpatented. One thing was unmistakable, and that was that the piles were of extraordinary strength; and the accumulators left those of Faure-Sellon-Volckmar very far behind in yielding currents whose amperes ran into figures up to then unknown. Thus there was obtained a power to drive the screws and communicate a suspending and propelling force in excess of all his requirements under any circumstances. But--it is as well to repeat it--this belonged entirely to Robur. He kept it a close secret. And, if the president and secretary of the Weldon Institute did not happen to discover it, it would probably be lost to humanity.
It need not be shown that the apparatus possessed sufficient stability. Its center of gravity proved that at once. There was no danger of its making alarming angles with the horizontal, still less of its capsizing.
And now for the metal used by Robur in the construction of his aeronef--a name which can be exactly applied to the "Albatross." What was this material, so hard that the bowie-knife of Phil Evans could not scratch it, and Uncle Prudent could not explain its nature? Simply paper!
For some years this fabrication had been making considerable progress. Unsized paper, with the sheets impregnated with dextrin and starch and squeezed in hydraulic presses, will form a material as hard as steel. There are made of it pulleys, rails, and wagon-wheels, much more solid than metal wheels, and far lighter. And it was this lightness and solidity which Robur availed himself of in building his aerial locomotive. Everything--framework, hull, houses, cabins-- were made of straw-paper turned hard as metal by compression, and - what was not to be despised in an apparatus flying at great heights-- incombustible. The different parts of the engines and the screws were made of gelatinized fiber, which combined in sufficient degree flexibility with resistance. This material could be used in every form. It was insoluble in most gases. and liquids, acids or essences, to say nothing of its insulating properties, and it proved most valuable in the electric machinery of the "Albatross."
Robur, his mate Tom Turner, an engineer and two assistants, two steersman and a cook--eight men all told--formed the crew of the aeronef, and proved ample for all the maneuvers required in aerial navigation. There were arms of the chase and of war; fishing appliances; electric lights; instruments of observation, compasses, and sextants for checking the course, thermometers for studying the temperature, different barometers, some for estimating the heights attained, others for indicating the variations of atmospheric pressure; a storm-glass for forecasting tempests; a small library; a portable printing press; a field-piece mounted on a pivot; breech loading and throwing a three-inch shell; a supply of powder, bullets, dynamite cartridges; a cooking-stove, warmed by currents from the accumulators; a stock of preserves, meats and vegetables sufficient to last for months. Such were the outfit and stores of the aeronef-- in addition to the famous trumpet.
There was besides a light india-rubber boat, insubmersible, which could carry eight men on the surface of a river, a lake, or a calm sea.
But were there an parachutes in case of accident? No. Robur did not believe in accidents of that kind. The axes of the screws were independent. The stoppage of a few would not affect the motion of the others; and if only half were working, the "Albatross" could still keep afloat in her natural element.
"And with her," said Robur to his guests--guests in spite of themselves--"I am master of the seventh part of the world, larger than Africa, Oceania, Asia, America, and Europe, this aerial Icarian sea, which millions of Icarians will one day people."
The President of the Weldon Institute was stupefied; his companion was astonished. But neither of them would allow any of their very natural amazement to be visible.
The valet Frycollin did not conceal his terror at finding himself borne through space on such a machine, and he took no pains whatever to hide it. The suspensory screws were rapidly spinning overhead. Fast as they were going, they would have to triple their speed if the "Albatross" was to ascend to higher zones. The two propellers were running very easily and driving the ship at about eleven knots an hour.
As they leaned over the rail the passengers of the "Albatross" could perceive a long sinuous liquid ribbon which meandered like a mere brook through a varied country amid the gleaming of many lagoons obliquely struck by the rays of the sun. The brook was a river, one of the most important in that district. Along its left bank was a chain of mountains extending out of sight.
"And will you tell us where we are?" asked Uncle Prudent, in a voice tremulous with anger.
"I have nothing to teach you," answered Robur.
"And will you tell us where we are going?" asked Phil Evans.
"And how long will that last?"
"Until it ends."
"Are we going round the world?" asked Phil Evans ironically.
"Further than that," said Robur.
"And if this voyage does not suit us?" asked Uncle Prudent.
"It will have to suit you."
That is a foretaste of the nature of the relations that were to obtain between the master of the "Albatross" and his guests, not to say his prisoners. Manifestly he wished to give them time to cool down, to admire the marvelous apparatus which was bearing them through the air, and doubtless to compliment the inventor. And so he went off to the other end of the deck, leaving them to examine the arrangement of the machinery and the management of the ship or to give their whole attention to the landscape which was unrolling beneath them. "Uncle Prudent," said Evans, "unless I am mistaken we are flying over Central Canada. That river in the northwest is the St. Lawrence. That town we are leaving behind is Quebec."
It was indeed the old city of Champlain, whose zinc roofs were shining like reflectors in the sun. The "Albatross" must thus have reached the forty-sixth degree of north latitude, and thus was explained the premature advance of the day with the abnormal prolongation of the dawn.
"Yes," said Phil Evans, "There is the town in its amphitheater, the hill with its citadel, the Gibraltar of North America. There are the cathedrals. There is the Custom House with its dome surmounted by the British flag!"
Phil Evans had not finished before the Canadian city began to slip into the distance.
The clipper entered a zone of light clouds, which gradually shut off a view of the ground.
Robur, seeing that the president and secretary of the Weldon Institute had directed their attention to the external arrangements of the "Albatross," walked up to them and said: "Well, gentlemen, do you believe in the possibility of aerial locomotion by machines heavier than air?"
It would have been difficult not to succumb to the evidence. But Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans did not reply.
"You are silent," continued the engineer. "Doubtless hunger makes you dumb! But if I undertook to carry you through the air, I did not think of feeding you on such a poorly nutritive fluid. Your first breakfast is waiting for you." As Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans were feeling the pangs of hunger somewhat keenly they did not care to stand upon ceremony, A meal would commit them to nothing; and when Robur put them back on the ground they could resume full liberty of action.
And so they followed into a small dining-room in the aftermost house. There they found a well-laid table at which they could take their meals during the voyage. There were different preserves; and, among other things, was a sort of bread made of equal parts of flour and meat reduced to powder and worked together with a little lard, which boiled in water made excellent soup; and there were rashers of fried ham, and for drink there was tea.
Neither had Frycollin been forgotten. He was taken forward and there found some strong soup made of this bread. In truth he had to be very hungry to eat at all, for his jaws shook with fear, and almost refused to work. "If it was to break! If it was to break!" said the unfortunate Negro. Hence continual faintings. Only think! A fall of over four thousand feet, which would smash him to a jelly! An hour afterwards Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans appeared on the deck. Robur was no longer there. At the stem the man at the wheel in his glass cage, his eyes fixed on the compass, followed imperturbably without hesitation the route given by the engineer.
As for the rest of the crew, breakfast probably kept them from their posts. An assistant engineer, examining the machinery, went from one house to the other. If the speed of the ship was great the two colleagues could only estimate it imperfectly, for the "Albatross" had passed through the cloud zone which the sun showed some four thousand feet below.
"I can hardly believe it," said Phil Evans.
"Don't believe it!" said Uncle Prudent. And going to the bow they looked out towards the western horizon.
"Another town," said Phil Evans.
"Do you recognize it?"
"Yes! It seems to me to be Montreal."
"Montreal? But we only left Quebec two hours ago!"
"That proves that we must be going at a speed of seventy-five miles an hour." Such was the speed of the aeronef; and if the passengers were not inconvenienced by it, it was because they were going with the wind. In a calm such speed would have been difficult and the rate would have sunk to that of an express. In a head-wind the speed would have been unbearable.
Phil Evans was not mistaken. Below the "Albatross" appeared Montreal, easily recognizable by the Victoria Bridge, a tubular bridge thrown over the St. Lawrence like the railway viaduct over the Venice lagoon. Soon they could distinguish the town's wide streets, its huge shops, its palatial banks, its cathedral, recently built on the model of St. Peter's at Rome, and then Mount Royal, which commands the city and forms a magnificent park.
Luckily Phil Evans had visited the chief towns of Canada, and could recognize them without asking Robur. After Montreal they passed Ottawa, whose falls, seen from above, looked like a vast cauldron in ebullition, throwing off masses of steam with grand effect.
"There is the Parliament House."
And he pointed out a sort of Nuremburg toy planted on a hill top. This toy with its polychrome architecture resembled the House of Parliament in London much as the Montreal cathedral resembles St. Peter's at Rome. But that was of no consequence; there could be no doubt it was Ottawa.
Soon the city faded off towards the horizon, and formed but a luminous spot on the ground.
It was almost two hours before Robur appeared. His mate, Tom Turner, accompanied him. He said only three words. These were transmitted to the two assistant engineers in the fore and aft engine-houses. At a sign the helmsman changed the-direction of the "Albatross" a couple of points to the southwest; at the same time Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans felt that a greater speed had been given to the propellers.
In fact, the speed had been doubled, and now surpassed anything that had ever been attained by terrestrial Engines. Torpedo-boats do their twenty-two knots an hour; railway trains do their sixty miles an hour; the ice-boats on the frozen Hudson do their sixty-five miles an hour; a machine built by the Patterson company, with a cogged wheel, has done its eighty miles; and another locomotive between Trenton and Jersey City has done its eighty-four. But the "Albatross," at full speed, could do her hundred and twenty miles an hour, or 176 feet per second. This speed is that of the storm which tears up trees by the roots. It is the mean speed of the carrier pigeon, and is only surpassed by the flight of the swallow (220 feet per second) and that of the swift (274 feet per second).
In a word, as Robur had said, the "Albatross," by using the whole force of her screws, could make the tour of the globe in two hundred hours, or less than eight days.
Is it necessary to say so? The phenomenon whose appearance had so much puzzled the people of both worlds was the aeronef of the engineer. The trumpet which blared its startling fanfares through the air was that of the mate, Tom Turner. The flag planted on the chief monuments of Europe, Asia, America, was the flag of Robur the Conqueror and his "Albatross."
And if up to then the engineer had taken many precautions against being recognized, if by preference he traveled at night, clearing the way with his electric lights, and during the day vanishing into the zones above the clouds, he seemed now to have no wish to keep his secret hidden. And if he had come to Philadelphia and presented himself at the meeting of the Weldon Institute, was it not that they might share in his prodigious discovery, and convince "ipso facto" the most incredulous? We know how he had been received, and we see what reprisals he had taken on the president and secretary of the club. Again did Robur approach his prisoners, who affected to be in no way surprised at what they saw, of what had succeeded in spite of them. Evidently beneath the cranium of these two Anglo-Saxon heads there was a thick crust of obstinacy, which would not be easy to remove.
On his part, Robur did not seem to notice anything particular, and coolly continued the conversation which he had begun two hours before. "Gentlemen," said he, "you ask yourselves doubtless if this apparatus, so marvelously adapted for aerial locomotion, is susceptible of receiving greater speed. It is not worth while to conquer space if we cannot devour it. I wanted the air to be a solid support to me, and it is. I saw that to struggle against the wind I must be stronger than the wind, and I am. I had no need of sails to drive me, nor oars nor wheels to push me, nor rails to give me a faster road. Air is what I wanted, that was all. Air surrounds me as it surrounds the submarine boat, and in it my propellers act like the screws of a steamer. That is how I solved the problem of aviation. That is what a balloon will never do, nor will any machine that is lighter than air."
Silence, absolute, on the part of the colleagues, which did not for a moment disconcert the engineer. He contented himself with a half-smile, and continued in his interrogative style, "Perhaps you ask if to this power of the "Albatross" to move horizontally there is added an equal power of vertical movement--in a word, if, when, we visit the higher zones of the atmosphere, we can compete with an aerostat? Well, I should not advise you to enter the "Go-Ahead" against her!" The two colleagues shrugged their shoulders. That was probably what the engineer was waiting for.
Robur made a sign. The propelling screws immediately stopped, and after running for a mile the "Albatross" pulled up motionless.
At a second gesture from Robur the suspensory helices revolved at a speed that can only be compared to that of a siren in acoustical experiments. Their f-r-r-r-r rose nearly an octave in the scale of sound, diminishing gradually in intensity as the air became more rarified, and the machine rose vertically, like a lark singing his song in space.
"Master! Master!" shouted Frycollin. "See that it doesn't break!"
A smile of disdain was Robur's only reply. In a few minutes the "Albatross" had attained the height of 8,700 feet, and extended the range of vision by seventy miles, the barometer having fallen 480 millimeters.
Then the "Albatross" descended. The diminution of the pressure in high altitudes leads to the diminution of oxygen in the air, and consequently in the blood. This has been the cause of several serious accidents which have happened to aeronauts, and Robur saw no reason to run any risk.
The "Albatross" thus returned to the height she seemed to prefer, and her propellers beginning again, drove her off to the southwest.
"Now, sirs, if that is what you wanted you can reply." Then, leaning over the rail, he remained absorbed in contemplation.
When he raised his head the president and secretary of the Weldon Institute stood by his side.
"Engineer Robur," said Uncle Prudent, in vain endeavoring to control himself, "we have nothing to ask about what you seem to believe, but we wish to ask you a question which we think you would do well to answer."
"By what right did you attack us in Philadelphia in Fairmount Park? By what right did you shut us up in that prison? By what right have you brought us against our will on board this flying machine?"
"And by what right, Messieurs Balloonists, did you insult and threaten me in your club in such a way that I am astonished I came out of it alive?"
"To ask is not to answer," said Phil Evans, "and I repeat, by what right?" "Do you wish to know?"
"If you please."
"Well, by the right of the strongest!"
"That is cynical."
"But it is true."
"And for how long, citizen engineer," asked Uncle Prudent, who was nearly exploding, "for how long do you intend to exercise that right?"
"How can you?" said Robur, ironically, "how can you ask me such a question when you have only to cast down your eyes to enjoy a spectacle unparalleled in the world?"
The "Albatross" was then sweeping across the immense expanse of Lake Ontario. She had just crossed the country so poetically described by Cooper. Then she followed the southern shore and headed for the celebrated river which pours into it the waters of Lake Erie, breaking them to powder in its cataracts. In an instant a majestic sound, a roar as of the tempest, mounted towards them and, as if a humid fog had been projected into the air, the atmosphere sensibly freshened. Below were the liquid masses. They seemed like an enormous flowing sheet of crystal amid a thousand rainbows due to refraction as it decomposed the solar rays. The sight was sublime.
Before the falls a foot-bridge, stretching like a thread, united one bank to the other. Three miles below was a suspension-bridge, across which a train was crawling from the Canadian to the American bank.
"The falls of Niagara!" exclaimed Phil Evans. And as the exclamation escaped him, Uncle Prudent was doing all could do to admire nothing of these wonders. A minute afterwards the "Albatross" had crossed the river which separates the United States from Canada, and was flying over the vast territories of the West.
In one, of the cabins of the after-house Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans had found two excellent berths, with clean linen, change of clothes, and traveling-cloaks and rugs. No Atlantic liner could have offered them more comfort. If they did not Sleep soundly it was that they did not wish to do so, or rather that their very real anxiety prevented them. In what adventure had they embarked? To what series of experiments had they been invited? How would the business end? And above all, what was Robur going to do with them?
Frycollin, the valet, was quartered forward in a cabin adjoining that of the cook. The neighborhood did not displease him; he liked to rub shoulders with the great in this world. But if he finally went to sleep it was to dream of fall after fall, of projections through space, which made his sleep a horrible nightmare. However, nothing could be quieter than this journey through the atmosphere, whose currents had grown weaker with the evening. Beyond the rustling of the blades of the screws there was not a sound, except now and then the whistle from some terrestrial locomotive, or the calling of some animal. Strange instinct! These terrestrial beings felt the aeronef glide over them, and uttered cries of terror as it passed. On the morrow, the 14th of June, at five o'clock, Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans were walking on the deck of the "Albatross." Nothing had changed since the evening; there was a lookout forward, and the helmsman was in his glass cage. Why was there a look-out? Was there any chance of collision with another such machine? Certainly not. Robur had not yet found imitators. The chance of encountering an aerostat gliding through the air was too remote to be regarded. In any case it would be all the worse for the aerostat--the earthen pot and the iron pot. The "Albatross" had nothing to fear from the collision.
But what could happen? The aeronef might find herself like a ship on a lee shore if a mountain that could not be outflanked or passed barred the way. These are the reefs of the air, and they have to be avoided as a ship avoids the reefs of the sea. The engineer, it is true, had given the course, and in doing so had taken into account the altitude necessary to clear the summits of the high lands in the district. But as the aeronef was rapidly nearing a mountainous country, it was only prudent to keep a good lookout, in case some slight deviation from the course became necessary.
Looking at the country beneath them, Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans noticed a large lake, whose lower southern end the "Albatross" had just reached. They concluded, therefore, that during the night the whole length of Lake Erie had been traversed, and that, as they were going due west, they would soon be over Lake Michigan. "There can be no doubt of it," said Phil Evans, "and that group of roofs on the horizon is Chicago."
He was right. It was indeed the city from which the seventeen railways diverge, the Queen of the West, the vast reservoir into which flow the products of Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, and all the States which form the western half of the Union.
Uncle Prudent, through an excellent telescope he had found in his cabin, easily recognized the principal buildings. His colleague pointed out to him the churches and public edifices, the numerous "elevators" or mechanical, granaries, and the huge Sherman Hotel, whose windows seemed like a hundred glittering points on each of its faces.
"If that is Chicago," said Uncle Prudent, "it is obvious that we are going farther west than is convenient for us if we are to return to our starting-place." And, in fact, the "Albatross" was traveling in a straight line from the Pennsylvania capital.
But if Uncle Prudent wished to ask Robur to take him eastwards he could not then do so. That morning the engineer did not leave his cabin. Either he was occupied in some work, or else he was asleep, and the two colleagues sat down to breakfast without seeing him.
The speed was the same as that during last evening. The wind being easterly the rate was not interfered with at all, and as the thermometer only falls a degree centigrade for every seventy meters of elevation the temperature was not insupportable. And so, in chatting and thinking and waiting for the engineer, Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans walked about beneath the forest of screws, whose gyratory movement gave their arms the appearance of semi-diaphanous disks. The State of Illinois was left by its northern frontier in less than two hours and a half; and they crossed the Father of Waters, the Mississippi, whose doubledecked steam-boats seemed no bigger than canoes. Then the "Albatross" flew over Iowa after having sighted Iowa City about eleven o'clock in the morning. A few chains of hills, "bluffs" as they are called, curved across the face of the country trending from the south to the northwest, whose moderate height necessitated no rise in the course of the aeronef. Soon the bluffs gave place to the large plains of western Iowa and Nebraska--immense prairies extending all the way to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Here and there were many rios, affluents or minor affluents of the Missouri. On their banks were towns and villages, growing more scattered as the "Albatross" sped farther west. Nothing particular happened during this day. Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans were left entirely to themselves. They hardly noticed Frycollin sprawling at full length in the bow, keeping his eyes shut so that he could see nothing. And they were not attacked by vertigo, as might have been expected. There was no guiding mark, and there was nothing to cause the vertigo, as there would have been on the top of a lofty building. The abyss has no attractive power when it is gazed at from the car of a balloon or deck of an aeronef. It is not an abyss that opens beneath the aeronaut, but an horizon that rises round him on all sides like a cup. In a couple of hours the "Albatross" was over Omaha, on the Nebraskan frontier-Omaha City, the real head of the Pacific Railway, that long line of rails, four thousand five hundred miles in length, stretching from New York to San Francisco. For a moment they could see the yellow waters of the Missouri, then the town, with its houses of wood and brick in the center of a rich basin, like a buckle in the iron belt which clasps North America round the waist. Doubtless, also, as the passengers in the aeronef could observe all these details, the inhabitants of Omaha noticed the strange machine. Their astonishment at seeing it gliding overhead could be no greater than that of the president and secretary of the Weldon Institute at finding themselves on board.
Anyhow, the journals of the Union would be certain to notice the fact. It would be the explanation of the astonishing phenomenon which the whole world had been wondering over for some time.
In an hour the "Albatross" had left Omaha and crossed the Platte River, whose valley is followed by the Pacific Railway in its route across the prairie. Things looked serious for Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans.
"It is serious, then, this absurd project of taking us to the Antipodes." "And whether we like it or not!" exclaimed the other.
"Robur had better take care! I am not the man to stand that sort of thing." "Nor am I!" replied Phil Evans. "But be calm, Uncle Prudent, be calm." "Be calm!"
"And keep your temper until it is wanted."
By five o'clock they had crossed the Black Mountains covered with pines and cedars, and the "Albatross" was over the appropriately named Bad Lands of Nebraska--a chaos of ochre-colored hills, of mountainous fragments fallen on the soil and broken in their fall. At a distance these blocks take the most fantastic shapes. Here and there amid this enormous game of knucklebones there could be traced the imaginary ruins of medieval cities with forts and dungeons, pepperbox turrets, and machicolated towers. And in truth these Bad Lands are an immense ossuary where lie bleaching in the sun myriads of fragments of pachyderms, chelonians, and even, some would have us believe, fossil men, overwhelmed by unknown cataclysms ages and ages ago.
When evening came the whole basin of the Platte River had been crossed, and the plain extended to the extreme limits of the horizon, which rose high owing to the altitude of the "Albatross."
During the night there were no more shrill whistles of locomotives or deeper notes of the river steamers to trouble the quiet of the starry firmament. Long bellowing occasionally reached the aeronef from the herds of buffalo that roamed over the prairie in search of water and pasturage. And when they ceased, the trampling of the grass under their feet produced a dull roaring similar to the rushing of a flood, and very different from the continuous f-r-r-r-r of the screws. Then from time to time came the howl of a wolf, a fox, a wild cat, or a coyote, the "Canis latrans," whose name is justified by his sonorous bark.
Occasionally came penetrating odors of mint, and sage, and absinthe, mingled with the more powerful fragrance of the conifers which rose floating. through the night air.
At last came a menacing yell, which was not due to the coyote. It was the shout of a Redskin, which no Tenderfoot would confound with the cry of a wild beast.
The next day, the 15th of June, about five o'clock in the morning, Phil Evans left his cabin. Perhaps he would today have a chance of speaking to Robur? Desirous of knowing why he had not appeared the day before, Evans addressed himself to the mate, Tom Turner.
Tom Turner was an Englishman of about forty-five, broad in the shoulders and short in the legs, a man of iron, with one of those enormous characteristic heads that Hogarth rejoiced in.
Shall we see Mr. Robur to-day?" asked Phil Evans.
"I don't know," said Turner.
"I need not ask if he has gone out."
"Perhaps he has."
"And when will he come back?"
"When he has finished his cruise."
And Tom went into his cabin.
With this reply they had to be contented. Matters did not look promising, particularly as on reference to the compass it appeared that the "Albatross" was still steering southwest.
Great was the contrast between the barren tract of the Bad Lands passed over during the night and the landscape then unrolling beneath them.
The aeronef was now more than six hundred miles from Omaha, and over a country which Phil Evans could not recognize because he had never been there before. A few forts to keep the Indians in order crowned the bluffs with their geometric lines, formed oftener of palisades than walls. There were few villages, and few inhabitants, the country differing widely from the auriferous lands of Colorado many leagues to the south.
In the distance a long line of mountain crests, in great confusion as yet, began to appear. They were the Rocky Mountains.
For the first time that morning Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans were sensible of a certain lowness of temperature which was not due to a change in the weather, for the sun shone in superb splendor.
"It is because of the "Albatross" being higher in the air," said Phil Evans. In fact the barometer outside the central deck-house had fallen 540 millimeters, thus indicating an elevation of about 10,000 feet above the sea. The aeronef was at this altitude owing to the elevation of the ground. An hour before she had been at a height of 13,000 feet, and behind her were mountains covered with perpetual snow.
There was nothing Uncle Prudent and his companion could remember which would lead them to discover where they were. During the night the "Albatross" had made several stretches north and south at tremendous speed, and that was what had put them out of their reckoning.
After talking over several hypotheses more or less plausible they came to the conclusion that this country encircled with mountains must be the district declared by an Act of Congress in March, 1872, to be the National Park of the United States. A strange region it was. It well merited the name of a park--a park with mountains for hills, with lakes for ponds, with rivers for streamlets, and with geysers of marvelous power instead of fountains.
In a few minutes the "Albatross" glided across the Yellowstone River, leaving Mount Stevenson on the right, and coasting the large lake which bears the name of the stream. Great was the variety on the banks of this basin, ribbed as they were with obsidian and tiny crystals, reflecting the sunlight on their myriad facets. Wonderful was the arrangement of the islands on its surface; magnificent were the blue reflections of the gigantic mirror. And around the lake, one of the highest in the globe, were multitudes of pelicans, swans, gulls and geese, bernicles and divers. In places the steep banks were clothed with green trees, pines and larches, and at the foot of the escarpments there shot upwards innumerable white fumaroles, the vapor escaping from the soil as from an enormous reservoir in which the water is kept in permanent ebullition by subterranean fire. The cook might have seized the opportunity of securing an ample supply of trout, the only fish the Yellowstone Lake contains in myriads. But the "Albatross" kept on at such a height that there was no chance of indulging in a catch which assuredly would have been miraculous.
In three quarters of an hour the lake was overpassed, and a little farther on the last was seen of the geyser region, which rivals the finest in Iceland. Leaning over the rail, Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans watched the liquid columns which leaped up as though to furnish the aeronef with a new element. There were the Fan, with the jets shot forth in rays, the Fortress, which seemed to be defended by waterspouts, the Faithful Friend, with her plume crowned with the rainbows, the Giant, spurting forth a vertical torrent twenty feet round and more than two hundred feet high.
Robur must evidently have been familiar with this incomparable spectacle, unique in the world, for he did not appear on deck. Was it, then, for the sole pleasure of his guests that he had brought the aeronef above the national domain? If so, he came not to receive their thanks. He did not even trouble himself during the daring passage of the Rocky Mountains, which the "Albatross" approached at about seven o'clock.
By increasing the speed of her wings, as a bird rising in its flight, the "Albatross" would clear the highest ridges of the chain, and sink again over Oregon or Utah, But the maneuver was unnecessary. The passes allowed the barrier to be crossed without ascending for the higher ridges. There are many of these canyons, or steep valleys, more or less narrow, through which they could glide, such as Bridger Gap, through which runs the Pacific Railway into the Mormon territory, and others to the north and south of it.
It was through one of these that the "Albatross" headed, after slackening speed so as not to dash against the walls of the canyon. The steersman, with a sureness of hand rendered more effective by the sensitiveness of the rudder, maneuvered his craft as if she were a crack racer in a Royal Victoria match. It was really extraordinary. In spite of all the jealousy of the two enemies of "lighter than air," they could not help being surprised at the perfection of this engine of aerial locomotion.
In less than two hours and a half they were through the Rockies, and the "Albatross" resumed her former speed of sixty-two miles an hour. She was steering southwest so as to cut across Utah diagonally as she neared the ground. She had even dropped several hundred yards when the sound of a whistle attracted the attention of Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans. It was a train on the Pacific Railway on the road to Salt Lake City.
And then, in obedience to an order secretly given, the "Albatross" dropped still lower so as to chase the train, which was going at full speed. She was immediately sighted. A few heads showed themselves at the doors of the cars. Then numerous passengers crowded the gangways. Some did not hesitate to climb on the roof to get a better view of the flying machine. Cheers came floating up through the air; but no Robur appeared in answer to them.
The "Albatross" continued her descent, slowing her suspensory screws and moderating her speed so as not to leave the train behind. She flew about it like an enormous beetle or a gigantic bird of prey. She headed off, to the right and left, and swept on in front, and hung behind, and proudly displayed her flag with the golden sun, to which the conductor of the train replied by waving the Stars and Stripes.
In vain the prisoners, in their desire to take advantage of the opportunity, endeavored to make themselves known to those below. In vain the president of the Weldon Institute roared forth at the top of his voice, "I am Uncle Prudent of Philadelphia!" And the secretary followed suit with, "I am Phil Evans, his colleague!" Their shouts were lost in the thousand cheers with which the passengers greeted the aeronef.
Three or four of the crew of the "Albatross" had appeared on the deck, and one of them, like sailors when passing a ship less speedy than their own, held out a rope, an ironical way of offering to tow them.
And then the "Albatross" resumed her original speed, and in half an hour the express was out of sight. About one o'clock there appeared a vast disk, which reflected the solar rays as if it were an immense mirror.
"That ought to be the Mormon capital, Salt Lake City," said Uncle Prudent. And so it was, and the disk was the roof of the Tabernacle, where ten thousand saints can worship at their ease. This vast dome, like a convex mirror, threw off the rays of the sun in all directions.
It vanished like a shadow, and the "Albatross" sped on her way to the southwest with a speed that was not felt, because it surpassed that of the chasing wind. Soon she was in Nevada over the silver regions, which the Sierra separates from the golden lands of California.
"We shall certainly reach San Francisco before night," said Phil Evans. "And then?" asked Uncle Prudent.
It was six o'clock precisely when the Sierra Nevada was crossed by the same pass as that taken by the railway. Only a hundred and eighty miles then separated them from San Francisco, the Californian capital.
At the speed the "Albatross" was going she would be over the dome by eight o'clock.
At this moment Robur appeared on deck. The colleagues walked up to him. "Engineer Robur," said Uncle Prudent, "we are now on the very confines of America! We think the time has come for this joke to end."
"I never joke," said Robur.
He raised his hand. The "Albatross" swiftly dropped towards the ground, and at the same time such speed was given her as to drive the prisoners into their cabin. As soon as the door was shut, Uncle Prudent exclaimed,
"I could strangle him!"
"We must try to escape." said Phil Evans.
"Yes; cost what it may!"
A long murmur greeted their ears. It was the beating of the surf on the seashore. It was the Pacific Ocean!
Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans had quite made up their minds to escape. If they had not had to deal with the eight particularly vigorous men who composed the crew of the aeronef they might have tried to succeed by main force. But as they were only two--for Frycollin could only be considered as a quantity of no importance--force was not to be thought of. Hence recourse must be had to strategy as soon as the "Albatross" again took the ground. Such was what Phil Evans endeavored to impress on his irascible colleague, though he was in constant fear of Prudent aggravating matters by some premature outbreak. In any case the present was not the time to attempt anything of the sort. The aeronef was sweeping along over the North Pacific. On the following morning, that of June 16th, the coast was out of sight. And as the coast curves off from Vancouver Island up to the Aleutians-- belonging to that portion of America ceded by Russia to the United States in 1867--it was highly probable that the "Albatross" would cross it at the end of the curve, if her course remained unchanged.
How long the night appeared to be to the two friends! How eager they were to get out of their cabins! When they came on deck in the morning the dawn had for some hours been silvering the eastern horizon. They were nearing the June solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, when there is hardly any night along the sixtieth parallel.
Either from custom or intention Robur was in no hurry to leave his deck-house, When he came out this morning be contented himself with bowing to his two guests as he passed them in the stern of the aeronef.
And now Frycollin ventured out of his cabin. His eyes red with sleeplessness, and dazed in their look, he tottered along, like a man whose foot feels it is not on solid ground. His first glance was at the suspensory screws, which were working with gratifying regularity without any signs of haste. That done, the Negro stumbled along to the rail, and grasped it with both hands, so as to make sure of his balance. Evidently he wished to view the country over which the "Albatross" was flying at the height of seven hundred feet or more.
At first he kept himself well back behind the rail. Then he shook it to make sure it was firm; then he drew himself up; then he bent forward; then he stretched out his head. It need not be said that while he was executing these different maneuvers he kept his eyes shut. At last he opened them.
What a shout! And how quickly he fled! And how deeply his head sank back into his shoulders! At the bottom of the abyss he had seen the immense ocean. His hair would have risen on end--if it had not been wool.
"The sea! The sea!" he cried. And Frycollin would have fallen on the deck had not the cook opened his arms to receive him.
This cook was a Frenchman, and probably a Gascon, his name being Francois Tapage. If he was not a Gascon he must in his infancy have inhaled the breezes of the Garonne. How did this Francois Tapage find himself in the service of the engineer? By what chain of accidents had be become one of the crew of the "Albatross?" We can hardly say; but in any case be spoke English like a Yankee. "Eh, stand up!" he said, lifting the Negro by a vigorous clutch at the waist. "Master Tapage!" said the poor fellow, giving a despairing look at the screws. "At your service, Frycollin."
"Did this thing ever smash?"
"No, but it will end by smashing."
"Because everything must end.
"And the sea is beneath us!"
"If we are to fall, it is better to fall in the sea."
"We shall be drowned."
"We shall be drowned, but we shall not be smashed to a jelly."
The next moment Frycollin was on all fours, creeping to the back of his cabin. During this day the aeronef was only driven at moderate speed. She seemed to skim the placid surface of the sea, which lay beneath. Uncle Prudent and his companion remained in their cabin, so that they did not meet with Robur, who walked about smoking alone or talking to the mate. Only half the screws were working, yet that was enough to keep the apparatus afloat in the lower zones of the atmosphere,
The crew, as a change from the ordinary routine, would have endeavored to catch a few fish had there been any sign of them; but all that could be seen on the surface of the sea were a few of those yellow-bellied whales which measure about eighty feet in length. These are the most formidable cetaceans in the northern seas, and whalers are very careful in attacking them, for their strength is prodigious. However, in harpooning one of these whales, either with the ordinary harpoon, the Fletcher fuse, or the javelin-bomb, of which there was an assortment on board, there would have been danger to the men of the "Albatross."
But what was the good of such useless massacre? Doubtless to show off the powers of the aeronef to the members of the Weldon Institute. And so Robur gave orders for the capture of one of these monstrous cetaceans. At the shout of "A whale! "A whale!" Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans came out of their cabin. Perhaps there was a whaler in sight! In that case all they had to do to escape from their flying prison was to jump into the sea, and chance being picked up by the vessel.
The crew were all on deck. "Shall we try, sir?" asked Tom Turner. "Yes," said Robur.
In the engine-room the engineer and his assistant were at their posts ready to obey the orders signaled to them. The "Albatross" dropped towards the sea, and remained, about fifty feet above it.
There was no ship in sight--of that the two colleagues soon assured themselves-nor was there any land to be seen to which they could swim, providing Robur made no attempt to recapture them.
Several jets of water from the spout holes soon announced the presence of the whales as they came to the surface to breathe. Tom Turner and one of the men were in the bow. Within his reach was one of those javelin-bombs, of Californian make, which are shot from an arquebus and which are shaped as a metallic cylinder terminated by a cylindrical shell armed with a shaft having a barbed point. Robur was a little farther aft, and with his right hand signaled to the engineers, while with his left, he directed the steersman. He thus controlled the aeronef in every way, horizontally and vertically, and it is almost impossible to conceive with what speed and precision the "Albatross" answered to his orders. She seemed a living being, of which he was the soul.
"A whale! A whale!" shouted Tom Turner, as the back of a cetacean emerged from the surface about four cable-lengths in front of the "Albatross." The "Albatross" swept towards it, and when she was within sixty feet of it she stopped dead.
Tom Turner seized the arquebus, which was resting against a cleat on the rail. He fired, and the projectile, attached to a long line, entered the whale's body. The shell, filled with an explosive compound, burst, and shot out a small harpoon with two branches, which fastened into the animal's flesh.
"Look out!" shouted Turner.
Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans, much against their will, became greatly interested in the spectacle.
The whale, seriously wounded, gave the sea such a slap with his tail, that the water dashed up over the bow of the aeronef. Then he plunged to a great depth, while the line, which had been previously wetted in a tub of water to prevent its taking fire, ran out like lightning. When the whale rose to the surface he started off at full speed in a northerly direction.
It may be imagined with what speed the "Albatross" was towed in pursuit. Besides, the propellers had been stopped. The whale was let go as he would, and the ship followed him. Turner stood ready to cut the line in case a fresh plunge should render this towing dangerous.
For half an hour, and perhaps for a distance of six miles, the "Albatross" was thus dragged along, but it was obvious that the whale was tiring. Then, at a gesture from Robur the assistant engineers started the propellers astern, so as to oppose a certain resistance to the whale, who was gradually getting closer. Soon the aeronef was gliding about twenty-five feet above him. His tail was beating the waters with incredible violence, and as he turned over on his back an enormous wave was produced.
Suddenly the whale turned up again, so as to take a header, as it were, and then dived with such rapidity that Turner had barely time to cut the line. The aeronef was dragged to the very surface of the water. A whirlpool was formed where the animal had disappeared. A wave dashed up on to the deck as if the aeronef were a ship driving against wind an tide,
Luckily, with a blow of the hatchet the mate severed the line, and the "Albatross," freed from her tug, sprang aloft six hundred feet under the impulse of her ascensional screws. Robur had maneuvered his ship without losing his coolness for a moment.
A few minutes afterwards the whale returned to the surface--dead. From every side the birds flew down on to the carcass, and their cries were enough to deafen a congress. The "Albatross," without stopping to share in the spoil, resumed her course to the west.
In the morning of the 17th of June, at about six o'clock, land was sighted on the horizon. This was the peninsula of Alaska, and the long range of breakers of the Aleutian Islands.
The "Albatross" glided over the barrier where the fur seals. swarm for the benefit of the Russo-American Company. An excellent business is the capture of these amphibians, which are from six to seven feet long, russet in color, and weigh from three hundred to four hundred pounds. There they were in interminable files, ranged in line of battle, and countable by thousands.
Although they did not move at the passage of the "Albatross," it was otherwise with the ducks, divers, and loons, whose husky cries filled the air as they disappeared beneath the waves and fled terrified from the aerial monster. The twelve hundred miles of the Behring Sea between the first of the Aleutians and the extreme end of Kamtschatka were traversed during the twenty-four hours of this day and the following night. Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans found that here was no present chance of putting their project of escape into execution. Flight was not to be thought of among the deserts of Eastern Asia, nor on the coast of the sea of Okhotsk. Evidently the "Albatross" was bound for Japan or China, and there, although it was not perhaps quite safe to trust themselves to the, mercies of the Chinese or Japanese, the two friends had made up their minds to run if the aeronef stopped.
But would she stop? She was not like a bird which grows fatigued by too long a flight, or like a balloon which has to descend for want of gas. She still had food for many weeks and her organs were of marvelous strength, defying all weakness and weariness.
During the 18th of June she swept over the peninsula of Kamtschatka, and during the day there was a glimpse of Petropaulovski and the volcano of Kloutschew. Then she rose again to cross the Sea of Okhotsk, running down by the Kurile Isles, which seemed to be a breakwater pierced by hundreds of channels. On the 19th, in the morning, the "Albatross" was over the strait of La Perouse between Saghalien and Northern Japan, and had reached the mouth of the great Siberian river, the Amoor.
Then there came a fog so dense that the aeronef had to rise above it. At the altitude she was there was no obstacle to be feared, no elevated monuments to hinder her passage, no mountains against which there was risk of being shattered in her flight. The country was only slightly varied. But the fog was very disagreeable, and made everything on board very damp.
All that was necessary was to get above this bed of mist, which was nearly thirteen hundred feet thick, and the ascensional screws being increased in speed, the "Albatross" was soon clear of the fog and in the sunny regions of the sky. Under these circumstances, Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans would have found some difficulty in carrying out their plan of escape, even admitting that they could leave the aeronef.
During the day, as Robur passed them he stopped for a moment, and without seeming to attach any importance to what he said, addressed them carelessly as follows: "Gentlemen, a sailing-ship or a steamship caught in a fog from which it cannot escape is always much delayed. It must not move unless it keeps its whistle or its horn going. It must reduce its speed, and any instant a collision may be expected. The "Albatross" has none of these things to fear. What does fog matter to her? She can leave it when she chooses. The whole of space is hers." And Robur continued his stroll without waiting for an answer, and the puffs of his pipe were lost in the sky.
"Uncle Prudent," said Phil Evans, "it seems that this astonishing "Albatross" never has anything to fear."
"That we shall see!" answered the president of the Weldon Institute. "The fog lasted three days, the 19th, 20th, and 21st of June, with regrettable persistence. An ascent had to be made to clear the Japanese mountain of Fujiyama. When the curtain of mist was drawn aside there lay below them an immense city, with palaces, villas, gardens, and parks. Even without seeing it Robur had recognized it by the barking of the innumerable dogs, the cries of the birds of prey, and above all, by the cadaverous odor which the bodies of its executed criminals gave off into space.
The two colleagues were out on the deck while the engineer was taking his observations in case. he thought it best to continue his course through the fog. "Gentlemen," said he, "I have no reason for concealing from you that this town is Tokyo, the capital of Japan."
Uncle Prudent did not reply. In the presence of the engineer he was almost choked, as if his lungs were short of air.
"This view of Tokyo," continued Robur, "is very curious."
"Curious as it may be --" replied Phil Evans.
"It is not as good as Peking?" interrupted the engineer.
"That is what I think, and very shortly you shall have an opportunity of judging." Impossible to be more agreeable!
The "Albatross" then gliding southeast, had her course changed four points, so as to head to the eastward.