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Chapter XVIII


THE morning was spent in a general overhaul of the observatory and the laboratory in which Lennard had discovered and perfected the explosive which had been used with such deadly effect in the guns of the Ithuriel. Lunch was an entirely delightful meal, and when it was over Auriole took Mrs O'Connor and Norah up to her own particular domain in the house to indulge in that choicest of feminine luxuries, a good long talk. Mr Parmenter excused himself and disappeared into his study to get ready for the evening mail, and so Lord Westerham and Lennard were left to their own devices for a couple of hours or so. This was just what Lennard wanted, and so he proposed a stroll and a smoke in the Park.

They lit their cigars and walked for a few minutes along a pine-shaded path. His lordship had an intuitive idea that his companion had something to say to him — albeit he was very far from imagining what that something was to be — and so he thought he had better let him begin. When they were out of sight or hearing of anyone, Lennard slowed down his pace a little and said somewhat abruptly:

"Westerham, I am going to ask you a question which you will probably think a rather impertinent one, and, moreover, whether you choose to answer it or not, I hope you will not for the present ask me why I ask it. Now there are a good many 'asks' in that, but as the matter is somewhat important to both of us, I wanted to put the thing plainly, even at the expense of a little tautology."

Lord Westerham, in addition to being a gentleman and a soldier, was also one of the most frankly open-minded men that another honest man could wish to have anything to do with, and so, after a long pull at his cigar, he looked round and said:

"My dear Lennard, we were schoolfellows once, and we managed to worry through Cambridge together — you with a great deal more kudos than I did — and we have been very good friends since, so there can't be any question of impertinence between us, although there might be some unpleasantness for one or both of us. But, anyhow, whatever it is, out with it. Honestly, I don't think you could offend me if you tried."

"That's just what I thought you would say," replied Lennard. "And I think you are about the only man I should like to ask such a question; but after what you've just said I'll put it just as shortly as it can be made."

"And the question is?" asked Lord Westerham, blowing a long stream of blue smoke up through the still air towards the tops of the pine trees.

There was a little pause, during which Lennard bit off about half an inch of the end of his cigar, spat it out, and took two or three more puffs from what was left. Then he said, in a dry, almost harsh tone:

"The question is quite a short one, Westerham, and you can answer it by a simple yes or no. It's just this: Do you intend to make Miss Parmenter Marchioness of Westerham or not? Other things of course being equal, as we used to say at school."

Somewhat to Lennard's astonishment, Lord Westerham's cigar shot from his lips like a torpedo from a tube, and after it came an explosion of laughter, which fully accounted for its sudden ejectment. His lordship leant up against a convenient pine and laughed till he was almost speechless.

"What the devil's the matter with you, Westerham?" said Lennard, with a note of anger in his voice. "You'll excuse my saying so, but it seems hardly a question for a sort of explosion like that. I have been asking you a question which, as you might have seen, concerns me rather closely."

Lord Westerham sobered down at once, although his voice was still somewhat tremulous with suppressed laughter when he said:

"My dear chap, I'm very sorry. It was beastly rude of me to laugh, but I'm quite sure you'll forgive me when you know the facts or, at least, the fact, and that is as follows, as they say in the newspapers. When I tell you that your sweetheart drove my sweetheart up to the house to-day from Settle—"

"What, Norah Castellan!" exclaimed Lennard. "I didn't even know that you had met her before."

"Haven't I!" replied Lord Westerham. "Look here, it was this way."

And then he began a story of a fishing and shooting trip to Connemara, where he had rented certain salmon streams and shooting moors from a squire of the county, named Lismore, who was very much in love with Norah Castellan, and how he had fished and shot and yachted with her and the brother who had sold his diabolical inventions to the enemies of England, until he had come to love the sister as much as he hated the brother. And when he had done, Lennard told him of the swimming race in Clifden Bay, and many other things to which Lord Westerham listened with an interest which grew more and more intense as every minute passed; until when Lennard stopped, he crossed the road and held out his hand and said:

"I've got the very place to suit you. A cannel-coal mine near Bolton in Lancashire with a perpendicular shaft, twelve hundred feet deep. The very place to do your work. It's yours from to-day, and if the thing comes off, Papa Parmenter shall give a couple of hundred thousand dowry instead of buying the mine. I don't think he'll kick at that. Now, let's go back and have a whisky-and-soda. I've got to be off recruiting to-morrow."

"I wish I could join the Yeomanry and come with you, if you would have me," laughed Lennard, whose spirits had been rising rapidly during the last half-hour or so, "only I reckon, as Mr Parmenter would put it, that I shall have all my work cut out getting ready to give our celestial invader a warm reception. To begin with, it won't exactly be child's play building a cannon twelve hundred feet long."

"I wonder what they'd think of a proposition like that at the War Office?" laughed Lord Westerham in reply. "Several permanent officials would certainly faint on the spot."

A sharp frost set in during the night, and the sky was brilliantly clear. After dinner, when the ladies had left the table, Lennard said to Mr Parmenter:

"I am going to renew my acquaintance with our celestial visitor to-night. I shall want a couple of hours to run over my calculations and verify the position of the comet up to date; and then, say at eleven o'clock, I should like you and Lord Westerham to come up to the observatory and have a somewhat serious talk."

The owner of the great reflector looked up quickly over his wine-glass and said:

"Look here, Mr Lennard, I guess this poor old country of yours has about enough serious matters on hand just now without worrying about comets. What's the trouble now?"

"My dear sir," replied Lennard, gravely "this is a matter which not only England, but every other country in the world, will have to trouble about before very long."

"Say, that sounds pretty serious," said Mr Parmenter. "What's the worry with this old comet of yours, anyhow?"

Lord Westerham smiled, and Lennard could not help smiling too as he replied:

"It is too long a story to tell now, sir, and what is more, I cannot tell it until I have reverified my observations and figures, and, besides, the ladies will be expecting us. I shall be quite ready for you by eleven. By the way, I haven't told you yet that those shells were a perfect success, from our point of view, at least. It seems rather curious how that all came about, I must say. Here's Denis Castellan, the brother of the traitor, a British naval officer, and like his sister an acquaintance of Westerham's. I discover the explosive, tell you about it, you tell Westerham, and send me off to try it on the Ithuriel, and here I come back from London with Miss Castellan and her aunt."

"Quite an excellent arrangement of things on the part of the Fates," remarked Lord Westerham with a meaning which Mr Parmenter did not understand.

"Why, yes," said their host, "quite like a piece out of a story, isn't it? And so that explosive got its work in all right, Mr Lennard?"

"As far as we could see," replied Lennard. "It tore steel armour into shreds as if it had been cardboard, and didn't leave a living thing anywhere within several yards of the focus of the explosion. Erskine and Castellan are filling up with it, and I expect we shall hear something about it from London before long. I am glad to say that Lord Beresford told me that after what he had seen of our fire, Government and private gun factories were going to work night and day turning out pneumatic guns to use it. The effect of it on land if a battery once gets within reach of large masses of men will be something frightful."

"Sounds pretty useful," said Lord Westerham, who was one of those soldiers who rightly believe that the most merciless methods of waging war are in the end most merciful.

By nine o'clock Lennard was in the equatorial chamber of the observatory, taking his first observations since he had left for Portsmouth the week before. The ghostly shape pictured on the great reflector was bigger and brighter now, although, to his great comfort, none of the scientific papers had made any mention of its discovery by other observers. When he had noted its exact position, he went to his desk and plunged into a maze of calculations.

Precisely at eleven. there was a tap at the door and Mr Parmenter and Lord Westerham came in. Lord Westerham, as the guest, had the first look at the approaching World Peril; then Mr Parmenter took a long squint into the eye-piece and then they sat down, and Lennard told Mr Parmenter, in the cold, precise language of science, the story which he had already told to Auriole and Lord Westerham.

The millionaire, who had listened with an attention that even he had never given to any subject before, smoked in silence for a few moments after Lennard had finished, and then he said quietly:

"Well, I reckon that's about the biggest order that two or three human beings have ever been called upon to fill. One thing's certain. It'd make these fighting fellows feel pretty foolish if they could be got to believe it, which they couldn't. No disrespect to you, Lord Westerham, because I take it you do believe it."

"Certainly I do," he replied. "Lennard was never known to make a mistake in figures, and I am perfectly certain that he would not make any in working out such a terrific problem as this. I think I may also say that I have equal confidence in his plan for saving humanity from the terrible fate which threatens it."

"That's good hearing," said Mr Parmenter, drily. "Personally, I don't quite feel that I've finished up with this old world yet, and if it's a question of dollars — as far as I'm concerned, as I've got a few millions hanging around loose, I might as well use them to help to save the human race from being burnt to death as to run corners and trusts, which won't be much use anyhow if we can't stop this comet, or whatever it is. Now, Mr Lennard, what's your plan for the scientific salvation of the world?"

"There is nothing new about the idea," replied Lennard, "except its application to the present circumstances. Of course you have read Jules Verne's Journey to the Moon? Well, my plan is simply to do the same thing on a much bigger scale, only instead of firing men and dogs and chickens out of my cannon, I am going to fire something like a ton and a half of explosives.

"The danger is in the contact of the nucleus of the comet with the earth's atmosphere. If that can be prevented there is no further cause for alarm; so, to put the matter quite shortly, my projectile will have an initial velocity of ten miles a second, and therefore a range that is practically infinite, for that velocity will carry it beyond the sphere of the earth's attraction.

"Hence, if the gun is properly trained and fired at precisely the right moment, and if the fuse does its work, the projectile will pass into the nucleus of the comet, and, before the heat has time to melt the shell, the charge will explode and the nucleus — the only dangerous part — will either be blown to fragments or dissipated in gas. Therefore, instead of what I might be allowed to call a premature Day of Judgment, we shall simply have a magnificent display of celestial fireworks, which will probably amount to nothing more than an unparalleled shower of shooting stars, as they are popularly called.

"The details of the experiment will be practically the same as those Jules Verne described — I mean as regards the making and firing of the cannon -only, as we haven't time to get a big enough hole dug, I should strongly advise the acceptance of Lord Westerham's very opportune offer."

"That's so," said Mr Parmenter, quietly, "but I've got a sort of fancy for running this business myself. My reflector discovered this comet, thanks, of course, to the good use you made of it, and it seems to me that I'm in a way responsible for making it harmless if that can be done, and so I'm not disposed to take that convenient colliery as a gift from anyone, no, not even you, Lord Westerham. You see, my lord, all that I can do here is just finding the dollars, and to a man in your position, doing his best to get as many men and horses and guns together for the defence of his country, money is money. Will you take a quarter of a million pounds for that colliery?"

"No, I won't, Mr Parmenter," laughed Lord Westerham. "In the first place, the colliery isn't worth a tenth of that, and this country can very well afford to pay for her own defence. Besides, you must remember that you will have to pay for the work: I mean casing the pit-shaft, smelting the metal and building the shell, to say nothing of the thousand and one other expenses of which Lennard can tell you more than I. For one thing, I expect you will have a hundred thousand or so to pay in damage to surrounding property after that cannon has gone off. In other words, if you do save the world you'll probably have to pay pretty stiffly for doing it. They're excellent business people in Lancashire, you know."

"I don't quite see the logic of that, Lord Westerham," replied Mr Parmenter a little testily. "If we can put this business through, the dollars couldn't be much better used, and if we can't they won't be much use to me or anyone else. It's worth doing, anyhow, if it's only to show what new-world enterprise helped with old-world brains can do in bringing off a really big thing, and that's why I want to buy that colliery."

"Well, Mr Parmenter," laughed Lord Westerham again, "we won't quarrel over that. I'm not a businessman, but I believe it's generally recognised that the essence of all business is compromise. I'll meet you half way. For the present you shall take the pit for nothing and pay all expense connected with making a cannon of it. If that cannon does its work you shall pay me two hundred thousand pounds for the use of it — and I'll take your I.O.U. for the amount now. Will that suit you?"

"That's business," said Mr Parmenter, getting up and going to Lennard's desk. "There you are, my lord," he continued, as he came back with a half sheet of notepaper in his hand, "and I only hope I shall have to pay that money."

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