It irritated him considerably that they left Joan quite unshaken. She continued to speak of it as a fact, admittedly unusual, but not fantastic. All his sharpest barbs shivered exasperatingly on a wall of cool indifference, and she did not show the weakness of attempting retaliation.
Froud and Grayson had contrived new material for argument. In the course of the lesson they had drifted into a discussion of the comparative merits of ideographic and alphabetical writing. The argument had risen over an attempt to classify the Martian script, but it soon reached the stage where Froud found himself passionately asserting the superiority of the ideograph (of which he knew extremely little) while the doctor defended the alphabet.
‘Take China,’ Froud was saying, with a generous wave of the hand, ‘a country with hundreds of dialects. Now, with an alphabet, any man wishing to write for the whole country would have to be translated or else have to learn all those dialects and languages, whereas, with ideographs, what happens?’
‘He has to learn thousands of ideographs,’ said the doctor brightly. ‘ It means that educated people throughout the country can communicate whatever their language. Now if Europe, instead of having two or three alphabets, wrote purely in ideas, think of the misunderstandings which would have been avoided, and think of the possibilities for international exchange.’
‘I don’t remember hearing that there was much less misunderstanding in Europe when every educated person spoke and wrote Latin,’ the doctor observed. ‘And it seems to me that ideographs are not only more limited than words, but even more capable of misinterpretation. Furthermore, is China in its present bogged condition an advertisement for anything? Now, when the Chinese adopt an alphabet ‘
‘They will also have to invent a kind of Chinese Esperanto. Unless they do, every book will have to be translated into dozens of languages and ‘
‘Hi,’ interrupted Dale. ‘Just leave China for a bit and consider where we are.’
‘Well,’ said Froud, ‘where are we?’
‘I’ll tell you. We’re exactly half way there.’
For some reason they all rose and made for the unshuttered windows and stood there, looking out into the familiar darkness.
‘Seems much the same to me,’ Froud muttered at last. ‘I remember feeling similarly swindled when I crossed the Line for the first time But then we did have some celebrations,’ he added pointedly.
Dale, with the air of a juggler. produced a bottle of whisky from behind his back. He held it up and patted it.
‘Brought specially for the occasion,’ he told them.
They watched him uncork it. The behaviour of liquids in the weightless Gloria Mundi never ceased to fascinate them, and this was an occasion of particular fascination.
Dale held the opened bottle horizontally, pointing towards Joan, and tapped the bottom lightly. A small quantity of whisky drifted out, wobbled a moment, then formed itself into a little amber sphere which wafted slowly across the room. Joan stopped it gently with one finger, leaving it suspended before her.
‘Doc,’ said Dale, tapping the bottle again.
In a few minutes all six had the translucent golden balls floating in front of them. Dale let go of the bottle and it drifted away.
‘Here’s to our continued success,’ he said.
They put their lips to the liquid and sucked it into their mouths.
‘Ah!’ said Froud. ‘The first in six weeks. I’ve never been dry so long before. And since one of the advantages of drinking here is that there is no washing up, what about another?’
Joan made her way to the intended sick room which had become her special cabin. The little celebration had reminded her uncomfortably of her status as an intruder, and the sense that though she was in, she was not of the group, prompted her to leave them to unhampered self congratulations. She had taken one drink with them, knowing that had she refused, Froud and the doctor at least would have insisted. After that she felt at liberty. She pulled herself on to the couch, fastening the covering partway up so that it might give a comforting sense of weight, and lay listening to the sound of muffled voices.
Back in the living room, the bottle made its third and last round. Dale had become unwontedly talkative and Froud was watching with a quiet amusement the enthusiastic back slapping in progress between him, the doctor and Dugan. It appeared that not even the treat of whisky could stir Burns into geniality, for he sat aloof and withdrawn into speculation as if the rest did not exist. Suddenly he hiccoughed twice, made his way to the trap door and closed it behind him. Dugan laughed.
‘See that? A Scot, too. I thought they weaned them on the stuff.’
‘Well, we’re all a bit out of practice,’ said Froud, his eye resting thoughtfully on the closed trap. ‘In fact, I’m not at all sure that I have the stomach for neat whisky that I used to have. Honestly, I feel a bit’ He gave a sheepish grin. ‘It might be safer if ‘ He allowed the sentence to trail unfinished as he, too, moved towards the storeroom.
Dugan laughed again.
‘And a journalist, too. Don’t say you’re going to come over queer next, Dale.”
Dale shook his head.
‘Probably the weightlessness,’ suggested the doctor. ‘Must be a lot of secondary effects from that, though I must say I feel quite all right myself.’
Froud’s grin vanished as he shut .the trap door behind him. He looked round the storeroom and saw no sign of Burns. Stepping as quietly as his metal soles would allow, he made his way to the little sick room and flung open the door. The place seemed pretty full already, but he managed to slide in.
‘Hullo! How interesting,’ he remarked.
Burns, handicapped by his lack of weight, had encountered difficulties. In the circumstances, the enterprise of holding down a muscular young woman, even though her movements were hindered by a couch cover, presented unusual problems in mechanics. Moreover, the one hand occupied in covering her mouth was encountering very sharp teeth.
At the sound of the voice Burns turned his head, glowering and breathing heavily.
‘Get out, you!’
Froud shook his head.
‘The hostess’s decision is final.’
‘Get out,’ Burns said again. But Froud made no move.
‘All right, if you won’t.’
The engineer shot out a large fist with all his strength behind it. Froud jerked his head aside and the knuckles crashed into the metal door frame. Before the other could move he had driven two rapid short arm jabs to the stomach. Burns folded up with an agonized grunt.
‘Short and neat,’ Froud murmured. ‘Excuse me.’
He lifted the magnetized shoes out of contact with the floor and towed the man into the storeroom. There he opened the trap door and thrust him through.
‘Hi, Doc,’ he called as the engineer’s still gasping form floated into the living room. ‘Job for you. Something seems to have disagreed with him.’ He shut the trap and returned to Joan. She still lay on the couch, and she looked up at him as he came in.
‘Thank you very much,’ she said.
‘Not at all.,’ he assured her. ‘Rescue from worse than death is my speciality. I’ve risked lots of unpopularity that way. There was a girl in San Francisco it turned out afterwards that he was her husband. You’d never have thought it most unfortunate.’ He paused. ‘Any damage?’
‘The buttons are off my shirt, otherwise I think he came off worst. And I hope his hand hurts it tasted nasty.’
‘M’m, wouldn’t fancy it myself. These engineers, you know. The ingrained oil of years and all that.’
‘How did you know about him?’ she asked curiously.
‘Oh, there was a sultry, broody sort of look in his eye. I’ve been expecting it. In fact, I expected it before.’
‘You were right,’ she said, ‘only that time it was in the storeroom, and I wasn’t at such a disadvantage. I managed to dodge back into the living room.’ She looked at him thoughtfully. ‘Anything else?’
‘Well,’ said Froud non-committally, ‘now you come to mention it, there has been an odd looking scratch on Dale’s face for the last four days. He mentioned something about having had a bad shave, and he didn’t take it kindly when I asked him if he usually used a circular saw for the purpose.’
Joan nodded. ‘He seemed very annoyed about it at the time.’
They looked at one another. Froud admired her attitude to the thing, but had the sense not to put it into words.
‘Awkward,’ he suggested.
‘A nuisance,’ she agreed, and added: ‘I dial wonder if I told Dale I was Burns’ mistress, and told Burns I was Dale’s, whether that wouldn’t head them off?’
Froud shook his head emphatically.
‘No, that wouldn’t do. It might work with Dale. But Burns is the sort of chap who would merely take it to mean that you weren’t very particular. Anyway, there would be an atmosphere of drawn daggers, and they’d probably find out that you’d been spoofing both of them. I knew when I first saw you that this trip was going to be interesting,’ he added.