CHAPTER III. REPERCUSSIONS.
TUESDAY’S evening papers made considerable play with Dale’s announcement, but a citizenry hardened through the years to seeing the sensations of one day’s end amended or ignored at the beginning of the next, received the news on Wednesday morning as a novelty. It was impossible to ignore the headlines which erupted from Fleet Street.
CURTANCE TO DARE DEATH FLIGHT shrieked the Daily Hail.
‘CURTY’ TO ATTEMPT KEUNTZ PRIZE roared the Daily Excess, and the Views Record followed up with
BRITISH AIRMAN TO CHALLENGE SPACE The Poster and the Telegram printed leaders upon British pluck and daring with references to Nelson, General Gordon and Malcolm Campbell. (The Poster also revealed that Dale had once ridden to hounds.)
The Daily Socialist, after a front page eulogy very similar to that in the Hail, wondered, in the course of a short article in a less exposed part of the paper, whether the cost of such a venture might not be more profitably devoted to the social services. The Daily Artisan told the story under the somewhat biased heading: ‘Millionaire out for Another Million.’
The Thunderer referred in a brief paragraph to ‘this interesting project’. At nine o’clock in the morning the Evening Banner brought out special contents bills:
To which the Stellar replied: CAN HE DO IT?
At ten o’clock the editor’s telephone in the Daily Hail offices buzzed again. A voice informed him that Mrs. Dale Curtance wished to see him on urgent business.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘Shoot her up.’
At ten twenty he began to hold a long and complicated telephone conversation with Lord Dithernear, the proprietor of the Concentrated Press. At approximately ten forty he shook hands with Mrs. Curtance and returned to his desk with a revised policy.
At eleven o’clock, Mr. Fuller, on behalf of Mr. Curtance, told an agency that he was in need of half a dozen competent secretaries.
At twelve o’clock one Bill Higgins, workman, employed upon the construction of the Charing Cross Bridge, knocked off for lunch. As he fed his body upon meat pie and draughts of cold tea he regaled his mind with the world’s news as rendered by the Excess. Working gradually through the paper, he arrived in time at the front page. There he was impressed by a large photograph of Dale Curtance skilfully taken from a low viewpoint to enhance the heroic effect. His eyes wandered up to the headline whereat he frowned and nudged his neighbour.
‘What is this ‘ere Keuntz Prize. Alf?’ he demanded.
‘Coo!’ remarked Alf, spitting neatly into the Thames below. ‘You never ‘eard of the Keuntz Prize? Coo!’
‘No, I ‘aven’t,’ Bill told him. He was a patient man.
Alf explained, kindly. ‘Well, this bloke, Keuntz, was an American. ‘E ‘ad the first fact’ry for rocket planes in Chicago, it was, and ‘e got to be a millionaire in next to no time. But it wasn’t enough for ‘im that ‘is blasted rocket planes was banging and roarin’ all over the world; ‘e didn’t see why they couldn’t get right away from the world.’
‘Whadjer mean? The Moon?’ Bill inquired.
‘Yus, the Moon and other places. So in 1970 or thereabouts ‘e goes and puts down five million dollars what’s more’n a million pahnds for the first bloke wot gets to a planit and back.’
‘Coo! A million pahnds!’ Bill was impressed. ‘And nobody ain’t done it yet?’ ”
‘Naow not likely,’ Alf spoke with contempt. ‘Nor never will, neither,’ he added, spitting once more into the Thames.
At one o’clock two gentlemen with every appearance of being well fed were sitting down to more food at the Cafe Royal.
‘I see,’ remarked the taller, chattily, ‘that that nephew of yours has more or less signed his death warrant. Think he’ll go through with it?’
‘Dale? Oh, yes, he’ll have a shot at it, all right. I’ll say this for him, he’s never yet scratched in any event if he had a machine capable of starting.’
‘Well, well. I suppose that means you’ll come in for a pretty penny?’
‘Never count my chickens. Besides, Dale’s no fool. He knows what he’s doing. He might even make it, you know.’
‘Oh, rot. You don’t really believe that?’
‘I’m not so sure. Someday someone’s going to do it. Why not Dale?’
‘Nonsense! Get to another planet and back! It’s impossible. It is to this age what the philosopher’s stone was to an earlier one. It’s fantastic chimerical.’
‘So was flying once.’
At two o’clock a young schoolmaster looked earnestly at his charges.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is a history lesson. I wonder what history really means to you. I should like you to see it as I do not as a dull procession of facts and dates, but as the story of Man’s climb from the time when he was a dumb brute: a story that is still being told. If any of you saw the newspapers this morning, I wonder if it struck you as it struck me that within a year or so we may see a great piece of history in the making. You know what I refer to?’
‘Curty’s rocket flight, sir?’ cried a shrill voice.
The schoolmaster nodded. ‘Yes. Mr. Curtance is going to try to win the Keuntz Prize for the first interplanetary flight. Mr. Curtance, as you know, is a very brave man. A lot of people have already tried to win that prize, and, as. far as we know, they have all died in the attempt.
‘Many men lost their lives in trying to reach the Moon, and most people said it was impossible for them to do it there was even a movement to get their attempts banned. But the men went on trying. Duncan, K. K. Smith and Sudden actually got there, but they crashed on the surface and were killed. Then came the great Drivers. In 1969 he managed to take his rocket right round the Moon and bring it safely back to Earth. Everybody was astounded, and for the first time they really began to believe that we could leave the Earth if we tried hard enough. Mr. Keuntz, who lived in Chicago, said: “If man can reach the Moon, he can reach the planets.” And he put aside five million dollars to be given to the first men who should get there and back.
‘The first one to try was Jornsen. His rocket was too heavy. He fell back and landed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Then the great Drivers tried. He got up enough speed not to fall back, like Jornsen, but he wasn’t fast enough to get right away, and he stuck. His rocket is still up there; sometimes they catch a glimpse of it in the big telescopes, circling round the Earth for ever, like a tiny moon.’
‘Please, sir, what happened to Drivers himself?’
‘He must have starved to death, poor man unless his air gave out first. He had a friend with him, and perhaps theirs is the worst of all the tragedies trapped in an orbit where they could look down on the world, knowing that they would never get back.
‘After that came Simpson whose rocket was built in Keuntz’s own works. He took off somewhere in Illinois, but something went wrong. It fell on the lake shore, just outside Chicago, and blew up with a terrible explosion which wrecked hundreds of houses and killed I don’t know how many people.
‘Since then there have been ten or more attempts. Some have fallen back, others have got away and never been heard of since.’
‘Then somebody may have done it already, without our knowing it, sir?’
‘It is possible. We can’t tell.’
‘Do you think Curty will do it, sir?’
‘One can’t tell that, either. But if he does he will make a more important piece of history than did even Columbus.’
At three o’clock Mr. Jefferson, physics master in the same school, demonstrated to an interested if rather sceptical class that rocket propulsion was even more efficient in a vacuum than in air.
‘Newton taught us,’ he began, ‘that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction . . .’
At four o’clock the news came to a bungalow half way up the side of a Welsh mountain. The girl who brought it was breathing hard after her climb from the village below, and she addressed the middle aged man in the bungalow’s one sitting room excitedly.
‘Daddy, they’re saying that Dale Curtance is going to try for the Keuntz Prize.’
‘What? Let me see.’
He pounced on the copy of the Excess which protruded from her shopping bag, and settled down to it with a kind of desperate avidity.
‘At last,’ he said, as he reached the end of the column, ‘at last. Now they will find out that we were right. We shall be able to leave here, Joan. We shall be able to go back and look them in the face.’