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Chapter XXXIV


"ALL aboard, I think, Captain Roker," said Mr Parmenter, as he walked last to the top of the gangway ladder, and stood square-footed on the white deck of the Auriole.

"All aboard, sir," replied Hiram Roker, "and now I reckon you'll have to excuse me, because I've got to go below just to see that everything's in working order."

"That's all right, Mr Roker. I know where your affections are centred in this ship. You go right along to your engines, and Mr Hingeston will see about the rest of us. Now then, Mr Lennard, you come along into the conning-tower, and whatever you may have seen from the conning-tower of the Ithuriel, I reckon you'll see something more wonderful still before we get to London. You show the way, Newson. See, here it is, just about the same. We've stolen quite a lot of ideas from your friend Erskine; it's a way we've got on our side, you know. But this is going to be one of the exceptions; if we win we are going to pay."

Lennard followed Mr Parmenter down the companionway into the centre saloon of the Auriole, and through this into a narrow passage which led forward. At the end of this passage was a lift almost identical with that on the Ithuriel. He took his place with Mr Parmenter and Mr Hingeston on this and it rose with them into a little oval chamber almost exactly like the conning-tower of the Ithuriel, with the exception that it was built entirely of hardened papier-maché and glass.

"You see, Mr Lennard," said Mr Parmenter, "we don't want armour here. Anything that hits us smashes us, and that's all there is to it. Our idea is just to keep out of the way and do as much harm as we can from the other side of the clouds. And now, Newson, if you're ready, we might as well get to the other side and have a look at the sun. It's sort of misty and cheerless down here."

"Just as easy as saying so, my dear Ratliffe. I reckon Hiram's got about ten thousand horse-power waiting to be let loose; so we may as well let them go. Hold on, Mr Lennard, and don't breathe any more than you can help for a minute or two."

Lennard, remembering his cruise in the Ithuriel, held on, and also, after filling his lungs, held his breath. Mr Hingeston took hold of the steering-wheel, also very much like that of the Ithuriel, with his left hand, and touched in quick succession three buttons on a signal-board at his right hand.

At the first touch nothing happened as far as Lennard could see or hear. At the second, a soft, whirring sound filled the air, growing swiftly in intensity. At the third, the mist which enveloped Whernside began, as it seemed to him, to flow downwards from the sky in long wreaths of smoke-mingled steam which in a few moments fell away into nothingness. A blaze of sunlight burst out from above — the earth had vanished — and there was nothing visible save the sun and sky overhead, and an apparently illimitable expanse of cloud underneath.

"There's one good thing about airships," said Mr Hingeston, as he took a quarter turn at the wheel, "you can generally get the sort of climate and temperature you want in them." He put his finger on a fourth button and continued: "Now, Mr Lennard, we have so far just pulled her up above the mist. You'll have one of these ships yourself one day, so I may as well tell you that the first signal means 'Stand by'; the second, 'Full power on lifting fans'; the third, 'Stand by after screws'; and the fourth — just this—"

He pushed the button down as he spoke, and Lennard saw the brilliantly white surface of the sunlit mist fall away before and behind them. A few moments later he heard a sort of soft, sighing sound outside the conning-tower. It rose quickly to a scream, and then deepened into a roar. Everything seemed lost save the dome of sky and the sun rising from the eastward. There was nothing else save the silver-grey blur beneath them. As far as he was concerned for the present, the earth had ceased to exist for him five minutes ago.

He didn't say anything, because the circumstances in which he found himself appeared to be more suitable for thinking than talking; he just stood still, holding on to a hand-grip in the wall of the conning-tower, and looked at the man who, with a few touches of his fingers, was hurling this aerial monster through the air at a speed which, as he could see, would have left the Ithuriel out of sight in a few minutes.

In front of Hingeston as he sat at the steering-wheel were two dials. One was that of an aneroid which indicated the height. This now registered four thousand feet. The other was a manometer connected with the speed-gauge above the conning-tower, and the indicator on this was hovering between one hundred and fifty and a hundred and sixty.

"Does that really mean we're travelling over a hundred and fifty miles an hour?" he said.

"Getting on for a hundred and sixty," said Mr Parmenter, taking out his watch. "You see, according to that last wire I sent, we're due in the gardens of Buckingham Palace at ten-thirty sharp, and so we have to hustle a bit."

"Well," replied Lennard, "I must confess that I thought that my little trip in the Ithuriel took me to something like the limits of everyday experience; but this beats it. Whatever you do on the land or in the water you seem to have something under you — something you can depend on, as it were — but here, you don't seem to be anywhere. A friend of mine told me that, after he had taken a balloon trip above the clouds and across the Channel, but he was only travelling forty miles an hour. He had somewhat a trouble to describe that, but this, of course, gets rather beyond the capabilities of the English language."

"Or even the American," added Mr Hingeston, quietly.

"Why, yes," said Mr Parmenter, rolling a cigarette, "I believe we invented the saying about greased lightning, and here we are something like riding on a streak of it."

"Near enough!" laughed Lennard. "We may as well leave it at that, as you say. Still, it is very, very wonderful."

And so it was. As they sped south the mists that hung about the northern moors fell behind, and broken clouds took their place. Through the gaps between these he could see a blur of green and grey and purple. A few blotches of black showed that they were passing over the Lancashire and Midland manufacturing towns; then the clouds became scarcer and an enormous landscape spread out beneath them, intersected by white roads and black lines of railways, and dotted by big patches of woods, long lines of hedgerows and clumps of trees on hilltops. Here and there the white wall of a chalk quarry flashed into view and vanished; and on either side towns and villages came into sight ahead and vanished astern almost before he could focus his field-glasses upon them.

At about twenty minutes after the hour at which they had left Whernside, Mr Hingeston turned to Mr Parmenter and said, pointing downward with the left hand:

"There's London, and the clouds are going. What are we to do? We can't drop down there without being seen, and if we are that will give half the show away. You see, if Castellan once gets on to the idea that we've got airships and are taking them into London, he'll have a dozen of those Flying Fishes worrying about us before we know what we're doing. If we only had one of those good old London fogs under us we could do it."

"Then what's the matter with dropping under the smoke and using that for a fog," said Mr Parmenter, rather shortly. "The enemy is still a dozen miles to southward there; they won't see us, and anyhow, London's a big place. Why, look there now! Talking about clouds, there's the very thing you want. Oceans of it! Can't you run her up a bit and drop through it when the thing's just between us and the enemy?"

As he spoke, Lennard saw what seemed to him like an illimitable sea of huge spumy billows and tumbling masses of foam, which seemed to roll and break over each other without sound. The silent cloud-ocean was flowing up from the sou'west. Mr Hingeston took his bearings by compass, slowed down to fifty miles an hour, and then Lennard saw the masses of cloud rise up and envelop them.

For a few minutes the earth and the heavens disappeared, and he felt that sense of utter loneliness and isolation which is only known to those who travel through the air. He saw Mr Hingeston pull a lever with his right hand and turn the steering-wheel with his left. He felt the blood running up to his head, and then came a moment of giddiness. When he opened his eyes the Auriole was dropping as gently as a bird on the wing towards the trees of the garden behind Buckingham Palace.

"I reckon you did that quite well, Newson," said Mr Parmenter, looking at his watch. "One hour and twenty-five minutes as you said. And now I'm going to shake hands with a real king for the first time."

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