‘It isn’t. It’s Joan. Joan!’ He dropped the glasses and waved frantically. An arm lifted in reply as the machine passed round the rocket and out of his sight.
All four of them crowded round the inner door of the airlock watching for the glow of the indicator. .
‘How are they going to get her up to it?’ Dugan asked anxiously.
‘Don’t you worry. A little thing like that’s not going to—-There!’ Froud finished as the warning light switched on. Dugan pulled over his lever and turned the valve wheel. A few seconds later the door opened and Joan stepped out.
She did not seem to notice their welcome. She unscrewed her glass like helmet and slipped off her overall suit without heeding the questions fired at her. When she looked up they saw that she was crying.
‘Please, not now. I’ll tell you later,’ she said.
They watched in astonished silence as she ran to the trap door and disappeared into the room below. At last Froud scratched his head ruefully. He bent down and picked up the silvery suit she had dropped.
‘Now where on earth on Mars, I mean—do you suppose that she got hold of this?’
Joan lay on the couch in the little cabin. She was speaking softly in a voice which did not reach to the other room. He had promised that he would switch on the screen. She knew that in that room, far away in Hanno, her face was looking at him from the wall and her voice whispering in his ears. She had so much to tell hire so many might-have-beens . . .
It seemed no more than a minute or two before Dale’s voice called:
‘Couches everyone!’ and, ‘Don’t forget your straps, Joan.’
‘All right,’ she told him weakly as her hands reached for them.
Only a few minutes left. She whispered more urgently in the empty room. Seconds now. She could hear Dale counting the past away, slowly and deliberately . . .
‘Oh, Vaygan. Vaygan . . .’
CHAPTER XXIV. FINALE.
THE story of the Gloria Mundi’s return is well known. Since even the schoolbooks will tell you how she landed in North Africa on the seventh of April, 1982, with only a litre or two of spare fuel in her tanks, it is unnecessary for me to give a detailed account. And if you want figures to explain why the return journey took seventy days whereas the outward journey took seventy four, or if you want to know how many minutes and seconds more than forty hours she spent on Mars, I cannot do better than refer you again to The Bridging of Space which Dale has crammed with vast (and, to me, indigestible) quantities of mathematical and technical information.
The experiences of her crew and particularly those of Joan started arguments which are not dead yet, for while one school of thought regards them as evidence that man on Mars has really mastered the machine and used it for his own ends, the other adduces them as proving the direct opposite. And there, for lack of corroborative detail, the matter see saws to the contempt of a third body of opinion which does not believe a word of their stories and declares that the whole flight was a hoax.
In the early excitement of their return it was enough for the people of Earth that man had at last flung his first flimsy feeler into space. Dale and his crew were feted; even the learned societies rivalled one another in honouring them, and never perhaps has so great a publicity value been attached to so few names.
And never before, thought Mary Curtance, had the floodlight on the Curtance family reached one tenth of its present candle power. But now, in the months of waiting, she had learnt to tolerate it with a better grace; she accepted it for Dale’s sake and kept secret her hope that the noise and the shouting would soon die away. It was a hope destined to be granted far sooner than she expected.
The carping spirit, which accused the expedition in general and Joan in particular of failing to take full advantage of the chances, began to show itself very soon, and the swing of popular opinion from hero worship to recrimination was as painful as it was surprising. The animosity against Joan was said to have its origin in the American refusal to believe her report of the wreck of their rocket. Be that as it may, within a few weeks she was incurring revilement and persecution for every one of her actions since the start. In a few short days she fell from the position of a heroine to, at best, a liar and a waster of opportunities. It was no good that the others should stand by her. They were shouted down. Nor was it considered sufficient excuse that Froud should say:
‘What right have you to blame the girl? She’s human. Why, damn it, when the last trump blows half the women will miss it because they are in the middle of some love affair.’
The gale of public opinion was dead against her and she could only run for shelter.
Out of Russia, too, came trouble in the form of a rumour that Dale had deliberately disabled the Tovaritch on Mars and left Karaminoff and his crew there to die. And as the weeks and months passed away without sign of her the slander gained wider credence. And so ended the flight of the Gloria Mundi.
It was five years before the public mind could forget its pettiness and reinstate Dale in a position analogous with that of Christopher Columbus. Dugan, Froud and Doctor Grayson shared with him in this return to public esteem, but Joan did not.
Six months after the Gloria Mundi’s return, in a little cottage among the Welsh mountains, Joan had died in giving birth to her child. But the tale of Vaygan’s son belongs to a different story.