‘I don’t think Curtance will do that, the other shook his head. ‘He’s a great man, and this Gloria Mundi of his is the greatest ship yet. He ought to do it.’
‘Suppose it blows up?’ asked the sergeant.
The small man smiled. ‘We shan’t know much about that, I think.’
The sergeant moved uneasily. ‘But it can’t ‘urt us ‘ere, can it? Look at the distance.’
‘But the distance is only to keep us out of the way of the exhausts. If the Gloria Mundi should blow up well, remember Simpson at Chicago; his rocket was only half the size of this.’
For a few silent moments the sergeant remembered Simpson uncomfortably.
‘But what do they want to do it for?’ he inquired again, plaintively.
The other shrugged his shoulders. ‘It seems not so much that they want to as that they must, I think. Something seems to drive them on and on whether they want it or not.’
The small circular door high up in the rocket’s side shut with a decisive thud. The few favoured pressmen who had been allowed upon the small staging beside it clattered down the wooden steps and joined their less privileged fellows on the ground. Almost before the last of them was clear a squad of workmen was tipping over staging and steps together to load them across a lorry. The movie vans and the journalists’ cars began to jolt over the grass towards the Press enclosure. Not far behind them followed the trucks carrying the last of the workmen. The Gloria Mundi, glowing in the rays of the sinking sun, was left sheer and solitary.
Barnes, of the Daily Photo, looked back at her with resentment.
‘No appeal,’ he grumbled. ‘No woman’s angle. That’s the trouble about this job. Damn it all, it’s a wife’s duty to show up at a time like this and to bring the kid. The public wants to see pictures of the final embrace it’s got a right to. Instead of that, his wife sits at home and watches it all over the radio. Can you beat it? It’s not fair on us nor on the public. If I were him, I’d damn’ well see that my wife’
‘Oh, shut up,’ said his neighbour. ‘What the hell do your people run an art department for if it isn’t to do a bit of montage at times like this. You have a look at our picture of the last farewell tomorrow. It’s good. Nearly brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it last week.’
The cars ran into the enclosure. Their freight disembarked and made for the bar. Once more the loudspeakers burst out with ‘Curty, the King of the Clouds’. The minute hands of thousands of watches passed the figure twelve and began to loiter down the final half hour.
CHAPTER VI. THE START.
‘TWENTY minutes,’ said Dale, unemotionally.
If the others heard him, they gave no sign of it. He looked at them, noticing their reactions to the strain of waiting as they stood clustered close to the circular windows. Of the five men in the steel room he was the least affected. His years of rocket racing had bred in him the ability to face the start of an adventure in a spirit of cold fatalism or, perhaps more accurately, to anaesthetize temporarily his natural emotions. The other four were gazing through the thick fused quartz panes across the unlovely Plain as though it were the most beautiful view on Earth.
Geoffrey Dugan, the youngest of them, took the least trouble to hide his feelings. Dale looked sympathetically at his eyes shining brightly with excitement, noted his parted lips and quick breathing through closed teeth. He knew just what Dugan was feeling. Had he not gone through it all himself’, He had been twenty four, just Dugan’s present age, when he had flown in the Equatorial race, and lie had not forgotten his sensations before the start. The lad was the right stuff. He was glad that he had chosen him out of the thousands of possibles to be his assistant pilot and navigator.
Frond, the journalist, turned and caught his eye, grinned unconvincingly, and then looked back to the window. Dale noticed that he was fidgeting. So the tension was getting under that cynical gentleman’s skin, was it?
James Burns, the engineer, leaned against the glass, looking out. To appearance he was almost as calm as Dale himself, but when he moved, it was with a tell tale, irritable jerk. The expression on his face maintained a proper solemnity as would become one about to attend his own funeral.
As far as his crew was concerned Dale’s only misgivings were on account of its last member. The sight of the doctor’s face, ominously white and haggard, worried him. There had been much criticism of his decision to include this man of fifty six in his party, and it began to look as if the critics might be justified. Still, it was too late now for regrets one could only hope for the best.
Doctor Grayson lifted his eyes to the clear blue sky and gave an involuntary shudder. His face felt clammy and he knew that it was pale. He knew, too, that his eyes were looking glassy behind his thick spectacle lenses and his utmost efforts could not altogether restrain the trembling of his hands. Moreover, his imagination was persistently perverse. It continually showed him pictures of city streets filled with crowds, noisy with rumbling traffic, brilliant with lights of all colours, blinking and twinkling. It repeatedly told him that if he had the sense to get out of this steel room, he could be in such a place this very night . . .
Froud looked across the Plain to the black line held in check by an army of police. Up on the Press tower were the small, dark figures of men he knew, fellow journalists to whom he had said goodbye a short while ago. They had all professed envy of him. He doubted whether one of them meant it or would have been willing to change places with him, given the chance. At the moment he himself would willingly have changed places with any one of them. He turned to look again at the closely packed crowds.
‘Thousands and thousands of them, all waiting for the big bang,’ he murmured. ‘They’ll probably get a bigger earful than they want——Hullo, there’s someone with a heliograph.’ He leaned forward, causing the characteristic sickle shaped lock of black hair to fall across his forehead.
‘G-O-O-D L-U-C-K,’ he spelt out from the flashes. ‘Hardly original, but kindly meant and that’s better than a lot of them. I wouldn’t mind betting that there’s a whole crowd out there not excluding my professional brethren who’d consider it a better show if we blew up than if we went up.’
‘Aye, you’re right there,’ agreed Burns, his deep voice according well with his gloomy expression. ‘They’re the kind who don’t feel they’ve had their money’s worth unless some poor body crashes in an air race. But they’re going to be disappointed with the Gloria Mundi. I helped to build her, and she’s not going to blow up.’
The doctor moved, irritably.
‘I wish you two wouldn’t talk about blowing up. Isn’t this waiting bad enough without imagining horrors?’
Young Geoffrey Dugan agreed with him. His look of eager anticipation was becoming supplanted by a worried frown.
‘I’m with you, Doc. I wish we could get going now. This hanging about’s getting me down. How much longer?’ he added, turning back to Dale.
‘Quarter of an hour,’ Dale told him. ‘We better be getting ready, Dugan. What’s it say on the weather tower?’
Dugan crossed to one of the other windows.
‘Wind speed twelve miles an hour,’ he said.
‘Good. Not much allowance necessary for that.’ Dale turned back to the others. ‘Put up the shutters now. It’s time we got to the hammocks.’
He switched on a small light set in the ceiling. The shutterplates, heavy pieces of steel alloy, were swung across and their rubber faced edges clamped into place. When the last had been screwed down to its utmost and made airtight, the men turned to their hammocks.
These were couches slung by metal rods. Finely tempered steel and softest down had been used in an effort to produce the acme of comfort. No fairy tale princess ever rested upon a bed one half so luxuriously yielding as those provided for the five men.
They climbed on to them without speaking, and felt for the safety straps. The doctor’s pale face had gone yet whiter. Little beads of sweat were gathering beneath his lower lip. Dugan saw him fumbling clumsily with the straps, and leaned across.
‘Here, let me do it, Doc,’ he suggested.
The doctor nodded his thanks and lay back while Dugan’s strong, steady hands slid the webbing into the buckles.