As for me, I didn’t attempt to understand it. I just accepted it as a puzzle, and though it took me longer than it did him to lose my fear of it, I found myself after a few days thinking of it as what shall I say? Perhaps as a sort of large dog a very intelligent large dog—-Froud, unable to restrain himself, interrupted her for the first time: ‘What did your father think it was?’
He quite soon began to think, as he still thinks, that it was a kind of remote control mechanism operated and powered from its place of origin. It had several of the senses. It could see, it seemed to hear, it certainly had a tactile sense. and the noises which came from its diaphragm must have been speech of a kind, though we could make nothing of it. He got it into his head that it had been sent to establish communication between us and its makers, and, in effect, was a kind of transmitting and receiving station made self portable. He evolved the idea that perhaps the conditions on Earth were unsuitable for the race that had built it, although they had found a way of crossing space, and so they had constructed this ingenious way of getting round the difficulty.
On that theory he started working to develop two way communication. When we found that the vocal language was hopeless, we began on diagrams and signs. We established to our satisfaction that its place of origin was Mars, but it was less easy to understand what kind of space ship had brought it. Later on, we began to be able to translate slowly and with a lot of difficulty its written language. It left quite a lot of that behind. But just as we were hoping that communication would soon be fluent, it destroyed itself, as you heard.
Joan stopped speaking, and through a period of increasing discomfort each of the men waited for another to speak. She looked from face to face, her own expression quite inscrutable. It was Dale who broke the spell. His tone was coldly contemptuous.
‘And so you’ve no proof of a single word of all this except these?’ He pointed to the photographs.
‘None,’ she told him calmly.
‘Well, I’ve heard a few fairy tales in my time, but this ‘ He left the sentence uncompleted. When he went on, it was in a different tone: ‘Come on, you’re here now and you can’t be sent back, why not tell me the truth? Who put you up to this game? Movie company, news agency, what was it?’
‘Nobody “put me up to it”. I wanted to come, and I came. Nobody knew anything about it except the man who helped me. I didn’t even tell my father I left a letter for him.’
‘Now, look here, I won’t take it out on you, but I just want to know who’s behind it, that’s all.’
‘And I tell you there’s no one.’ For a moment she glared at him. Then, deliberately controlling her rising anger, she went on. ‘I’ll tell you why I’m here. It’s because I intend to clear my father and myself. We were branded as a pair of liars. He was thrown out of his job. We had to change our names and go to live in a place where no one knew us. For the last four years we’ve been exiled to a miserable village in the Welsh mountains. Scarcely anyone we knew in the old days will speak to us now if we happen to meet them. Either they think we’re swindlers, or else they smirk when they fancy we’re not looking and tap their heads. When the chance came to prove that we were right, do you think I was going to let it slip? I’m going to see for myself that we were right, and I’m going to tell the world about it when we get back.’
‘Good girl,’ said Frond approvingly.
Dale rounded on him.
‘Good God! You don’t mean to say that you believe this crazy yarn? Of all the damned thin tales I ever heard why, I could think up a better one myself in ten minutes.’
‘Quite. So could 1. So could Miss Shirning. So could anybody. And that’s one pretty good reason for believing it.’
Dale grunted with devastating contempt.
‘And I suppose that the sight of a badly built house convinces you that the builder’s materials are first class?’ he said.
‘A poor analogy. I know what’s getting you down and so do you, only you won’t admit it. It’s the thought So that if you believe Miss Shirning, you’ve got to admit that something else has crossed space in the opposite direction, and that your Gloria Mundi won’t be the first across after all.’
‘Indeed? Now, let me tell you something. The reason why you’re believing this rubbish is because you’ve spent so much of your life writing romantic vomit for morons that the mushy bit of brain you did have has gone rancid. You can go to hell. I’m sick of this twaddle.’ He crossed the floor and pulled himself through the trapdoor, closing it behind him.
Froud looked across at Joan, and grinned.
‘One in the eye for me.’
‘What will he do?’
‘What can he do except cool off after a bit? Now, just to clinch things, what about giving me my first lesson in literary Martian?’
CHAPTER XI. HALF-WAY.
THE occupants of the Gloria Mundi settled down into a routine. From custom they split up their time into days and hours according to the clock which showed terrestrial reckoning, and by it they arranged the frequency of meals and sleeping periods. To be able to speak of ‘this morning’ and ‘this afternoon’ eased the sense of exile from all familiar things and gave to them all a sense of reality and progress. The view through the surrounding blackness of far off suns and eternal, unchanging constellations grew depressing when its first novelty had worn off. It became impossible to believe that they were still dropping through space at the rate of seven miles a second; they felt, rather, that everything outside the rocket was wrapped in a state of suspended animation, and that conscious existence was only to be found in themselves and in the clock which ruled the living room.
But in spite of precautions boredom was not easily fended off. They began to think of it as a malignant force waiting to pounce on them in any unfilled moment, bringing with it dissatisfaction, regrets and an insidious suggestion of their futility in attempting the fantastic journey. Boredom had become public enemy number one, for the first week had taught them that once it was allowed to establish itself, it contrived speedily to infect the rest and to cause distressingly anti-social eruptions.
Joan contributed an alleviation when she consented to teach Froud the characters which she claimed to be Martian script. Before long, the doctor was also showing an interest in it. Dugan, too, after a period of noncommittal spectatorship, admitted that learning it would help to pass the time, and attached himself to the class. The fact that Froud and the doctor frequently fell into arguments most hindering to progress was, in the circumstances, no disadvantage. Joan had more than enough time to teach them the little she knew, and on such occasions she and Dugan listened, only dropping in occasional words to spur the disputants.
As they grew to know the girl better, Dale’s anxiety became less acute. Though he was still without a proper comprehension of the force which had driven her to stow away, he appreciated that she was not the type he had feared. Perhaps it was only Froud who realized that his worry had not been so much ill founded as ill directed.
Joan’s own perception of the situation was sharper than Dale’s, though less comprehensive than Froud’s. But her mind was set on a single mark, and objects aside of the direct line lacked something of definition and proportion. In spite of herself she minimized her circumstances in view of her aim the vindication of her father and herself. Nothing was to be allowed to interfere with that. For the duration of the journey she was putting all other personal considerations aside, intending to become, as far as lay in her power, only an instrument for justice; she imagined that it was possible for her to forget and to make the rest forget for three months that she was a woman.
The part she had cast herself for was that of a young man and an equal, and she did her best to play it. But her intention to treat all the five men with complete impartiality was defeated by Dale and the engineer. Dale remained unfriendly and sometimes aggressive, while Burns was unresponsive, occasionally varying his attitude of indifference with a touch of belittlement. It was impossible for her to treat either of them as she treated the three who took her, or appeared to take her, at the valuation she wished, for both the doctor and Dugan, while still non committal, had had the grace to regard her story as a hypothesis to be proved or disproved later. Burns, on the other hand, continued to dismiss it with silent contempt, and Dale not infrequently created opportunities for expressing his opinions of it.