"Professor von Schwenitz is here," he announced, and immediately returned to take up the thread of his conversation in the centre of the hall.
The general turned gruffly to greet his visitor. "I have sent for you, Professor," said he, without removing his cigar, "in order that I may fully understand the method by which you say you have ascertained the place of origin of the wireless messages and electrical disturbances referred to in our communications of last week. This may be a serious matter. The accuracy of your information is of vital importance."
The professor hesitated in embarrassment, and the general scowled.
"Well?" he demanded, biting off the chewed end of his cigar. "Well? This is not a lecture room. Time is short. Out with it."
"Your Excellency!" stammered the poor professor, "I--I----The observations are so--inadequate--one cannot determine----"
"What?" roared Von Helmuth. "But you said you had!"
"Only approximately, your Excellency. One cannot be positive, but within a reasonable distance----" He paused.
"What do you call a reasonable distance? I supposed your physics was an exact science!" retorted the general.
"But the data----"
"What do you call a reasonable distance?" bellowed the Imperial Commissioner.
"A hundred kilometres!" suddenly shouted the overwrought professor, losing control of himself. "I won't be talked to this way, do you hear? I won't! How can a man think? I'm a member of the faculty of the Imperial University. I've been decorated twice--twice!"
"Fiddlesticks!" returned the general, amused in spite of himself. "Don't be absurd. I merely wish you to hurry. Have a cigar?"
"Oh, your Excellency!" protested the professor, now both ashamed and frightened. "You must excuse me. The war has shattered my nerves. May I smoke? Thank you."
"Sit down. Take your time," said Von Helmuth, looking out and up at a monoplane descending toward the landing in slowly lessening spirals.
"You see, your Excellency," explained Von Schwenitz, "the data are fragmentary, but I used three methods, each checking the others."
"The first?" shot back the general. The monoplane had landed safely.
"I compared the records of all the seismographs that had registered the earthquake wave attendant on the electrical discharges accompanying the great yellow auroras of July. These shocks had been felt all over the globe, and I secured reports from Java, New Guinea, Lima, Tucson, Greenwich, Algeria, and Moscow. These showed the wave had originated somewhere in Eastern Labrador."
"Yes, yes. Go on!" ordered the general.
"In the second place, the violent magnetic storms produced by the helium aurora appear to have left their mark each time upon the earth in a permanent, if slight, deflection of the compass needle. The earth's normal magnetic field seems to have had superimposed upon it a new field comprised of lines of force nearly parallel to the equator. My computations show that these great circles of magnetism centre at approximately the same point in Labrador as that indicated by the seismographs--about fifty-five degrees north and seventy-five degrees west."
The general seemed struck with this.
"Permanent deflection, you say!" he ejaculated.
"Yes, apparently permanent. Finally the barometer records told the same story, although in less precise form. A compressional wave of air had been started in the far north and had spread out over the earth with the velocity of sound. Though the barographs themselves gave no indication whence this wave had come, the variation in its intensity at different meteorological observatories could be accounted for by the law of inverse squares on the supposition that the explosion which started the wave had occurred at fifty-five degrees north, seventy-five degrees west."
The professor paused and wiped his glasses. With a roar a Taube slid off the landing stage, shot over toward the hangars, and soared upward.
"Is that all?" inquired the general, turning again to the chart.
"That is all, your Excellency," answered Von Schwenitz.
"Then you may go!" muttered the Imperial Commissioner. "If we find the source of these disturbances where you predict you will receive the Black Eagle."
"Oh, your Excellency!" protested the professor, his face shining with satisfaction.
"And if we do not find it--there will be a vacancy on the faculty of the Imperial University!" he added grimly. "Good afternoon."
He pressed a button and the departing scholar was met by an orderly and escorted from the War Bureau, while the adjutant joined Von Helmuth.
"He's got him! I'm satisfied!" remarked the Commissioner. "Now outline your plan."
The bullet-headed man took up the calipers and indicated a spot on the coast of Labrador: "Our expedition will land, subject to your approval, at Hamilton Inlet, using the town of Rigolet as a base. By availing ourselves of the Nascopee River and the lakes through which it flows, we can easily penetrate to the highland where the inventor of the Ring machine has located himself. The auxiliary brigantine Sea Fox is lying now under American colours at Amsterdam, and as she can steam fifteen knots an hour she should reach the Inlet in about ten days, passing to the north of the Orkneys."
"What force have you in mind?" inquired Von Helmuth, his cold gray eyes narrowing.
"Three full companies of sappers and miners, ten mountain howitzers, a field battery, fifty rapid-fire standing rifles, and a complete outfit for throwing lyddite. Of course we shall rely principally on high explosives if it becomes necessary to use force, but what we want is a hostage who may later become an ally."
"Yes, of course," said the general with a laugh. "This is a scientific, not a military, expedition."
"I have asked Lieutenant Munster to report upon the necessary equipment."
Von Helmuth nodded, and the adjutant stepped to the door and called out: "Lieutenant Munster!"
A trim young man in naval uniform appeared upon the threshold and saluted.
"State what you regard as necessary as equipment for the proposed expedition," said the general.
"Twenty motor boats, each capable of towing several flat-bottomed barges or native canoes, forty mules, a field telegraph, and also a high-powered wireless apparatus, axes, spades, wire cables and drums, windlasses, dynamite for blasting, and provisions for sixty days. We shall live off the country and secure artisans and bearers from among the natives."
"When will it be possible to start?" inquired the general.
"In twelve days if you give the order now," answered the young man.
"Very well, you may go. And good luck to you!" he added.
The young lieutenant saluted and turned abruptly on his heel.
Over the parade ground a biplane was hovering, darting this way and that, rising and falling with startling velocity.
"Who's that?" inquired the general approvingly.
"Schoningen," answered the adjutant.
The Imperial Commissioner felt in his breast-pocket for another cigar.
"Do you know, Ludwig," he remarked amiably as he struck a meditative match, "sometimes I more than half believe this 'Flying Ring' business is all rot!"
The adjutant looked pained.
"And yet," continued Von Helmuth, "if Bismarck could see one of those things," he waved his cigar toward the gyrating aeroplane, "he wouldn't believe it."
All day the International Assembly of Scientists, officially known as Conference No. 2, had been sitting, but not progressing, in the large lecture hall of the Smithsonian Institution, which probably had never before seen so motley a gathering. Each nation had sent three representatives, two professional scientists, and a lay delegate, the latter some writer or thinker renowned in his own country for his wide knowledge and powers of ratiocination. They had come together upon the appointed day, although the delegates from the remoter countries had not yet arrived, and the Committee on Credentials had already reported. Germany had sent Gasgabelaus, Leybach, and Wilhelm Lamszus; France--Sortell, Amand, and Buona Varilla; Great Britain--Sir William Crookes, Sir Francis Soddy, and Mr. H. G. Wells, celebrated for his "The War of the Worlds" and The "World Set Free," and hence supposedly just the man to unravel a scientific mystery such as that which confronted this galaxy of immortals.
The Committee on Data, of which Thornton was a member, having been actively at work for nearly two weeks through wireless communication with all the observatories--seismic, meteorological, astronomical, and otherwise--throughout the world, had reduced its findings to print, and this matter, translated into French, German, and Italian, had already been distributed among those present. Included in its pages was Quinn's letter to the State Department.
The roll having been called, the president of the National Academy of Sciences made a short speech in which he outlined briefly the purpose for which the committee had been summoned and commented to some extent upon the character of the phenomena it was required to analyze.
And then began an unending series of discussions and explanations in French, German, Dutch, Russian, and Italian, by goggle-eyed, bushy-whiskered, long-haired men who looked like anarchists or sociologists and apparently had never before had an unrestricted opportunity to air their views on anything.
Thornton, listening to this hodgepodge of technicalities, was dismayed and distrustful. These men spoke a language evidently familiar to them, which he, although a professional scientist, found a meaningless jargon. The whole thing seemed unreal, had a purely theoretic or literary quality about it that made him question even their premises. In the tainted air of the council room, listening to these little pot-bellied Professoren from Amsterdam and Munich, doubt assailed him, doubt even that the earth had changed its orbit, doubt even of his own established formulae and tables. Weren't they all just talking through their hats? Wasn't it merely a game in which an elaborate system of equivalents gave a semblance of actuality to what in fact was nothing but mind-play? Even Wells, whose literary style he admired as one of the beauties as well as one of the wonders of the world, had been a disappointment. He had seemed singularly halting and unconvincing.
"I wish I knew a practical man--I wish Bennie Hooker were here!" muttered Thornton to himself. He had not seen his classmate Hooker for twenty-six years; but that was one thing about Hooker: you knew he'd be exactly the same--only more so--as he was when you last saw him. In those years Bennie had become the Lawson Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard. Thornton had read his papers on induced radiation, thermic equilibrium, and had one of Bennie's famous Gem Home Cookers in his own little bachelor apartment. Hooker would know. And if he didn't he'd tell you so, without befogging the atmosphere with a lot of things he did know, but that wouldn't help you in the least. Thornton clutched at the thought of him like a falling aeronaut at a dangling rope. He'd be worth a thousand of these dreaming lecturers, these beer-drinking visionaries! But where could he be found? It was August, vacation time. Still, he might be in Cambridge giving a summer course or something.
At that moment Professor Gasgabelaus, the temporary chairman, a huge man, the periphery of whose abdomen rivalled the circumference of the "working terrestrial globe" at the other end of the platform, pounded perspiringly with his gavel and announced that the conference would adjourn until the following Monday morning. It was Friday afternoon, so he had sixty hours in which to connect with Bennie, if Bennie could be discovered. A telegram of inquiry brought no response, and he took the midnight train to Boston, reaching Cambridge about two o'clock the following afternoon.
The air trembled with heat. Only by dodging from the shadow of one big elm to another did he manage to reach the Appian Way--the street given in the university catalogue as Bennie's habitat--alive. As he swung open the little wicket gate he realized with an odd feeling that it was the same house where Hooker had lived when a student, twenty-five years before.
"Board" was printed on a yellow, fly-blown card in the corner of the window beside the door.
Up there over the porch was the room Bennie had inhabited from '85 to '89. He recalled vividly the night he, Thornton, had put his foot through the lower pane. They had filled up the hole with an old golf stocking. His eyes searched curiously for the pane. There it was, still broken and still stuffed--it couldn't be!--with some colourless material strangely resembling disintegrating worsted. The sun smote him in the back of his neck and drove him to seek the relief of the porch. Had he ever left Cambridge? Wasn't it a dream about his becoming an astronomer and working at the Naval Observatory? And all this stuff about the earth going on the loose? If he opened the door wouldn't he find Bennie with a towel round his head cramming for the "exams"? For a moment he really imagined that he was an undergraduate. Then as he fanned himself with his straw hat he caught, on the silk band across the interior, the words: "Smith's Famous Headwear, Washington, D.C." No, he was really an astronomer.
He shuddered in spite of the heat as he pulled the bell knob. What ghosts would its jangle summon? The bell, however, gave no sound; in fact the knob came off in his hand, followed by a foot or so of copper wire. He laughed, gazing at it blankly. No one had ever used the bell in the old days. They had simply kicked open the door and halloed: "O-o-h, Bennie Hooker!"
Thornton laid the knob on the piazza and inspected the front of the house. The windows were thick with dust, the "yard" scraggly with weeds. A piece of string held the latch of the gate together. Then automatically, and without intending to do so at all, Thornton turned the handle of the front door, assisting it coincidentally with a gentle kick from his right toe, and found himself in the narrow cabbage-scented hallway. The old, familiar, battered black-walnut hatrack of his student days leaned drunkenly against the wall--Thornton knew one of its back legs was missing--and on the imitation marble slab was a telegram addressed to "Professor Benjamin Hooker." And also, instinctively, Thornton lifted up his adult voice and yelled: "O-o-h, ye-ay! Bennie Hooker!"
The volume of his own sound startled him. Instantly he saw the ridiculousness of it--he, the senior astronomer at the Naval Observatory, yelling like that---- "O-o-h, ye-ay!" came in smothered tones from above.
Thornton bounded up the stairs, two, three steps at a time, and pounded on the old door over the porch.
"Go away!" came back the voice of Bennie Hooker. "Don't want any lunch!"
Thornton continued to bang on the door while Professor Hooker wrathfully besought the intruder to depart before he took active measures. There was the cracking of glass.
"Oh, damn!" came from inside.
Thornton rattled the knob and kicked. Somebody haltingly crossed the room, the key turned, and Prof. Bennie Hooker opened the door.
"Well?" he demanded, scowling over his thick spectacles.
"Hello, Bennie!" said Thornton, holding out his hand.
"Hello, Buck!" returned Hooker. "Come in. I thought it was that confounded Ethiopian."
As far as Thornton could see, it was the same old room, only now crammed with books and pamphlets and crowded with tables of instruments. Hooker, clad in sneakers, white ducks, and an undershirt, was smoking a small "T. D." pipe.
"Where on earth did you come from?" he inquired good-naturedly.
"Washington," answered Thornton, and something told him that this was the real thing--the "goods"--that his journey would be repaid.
Hooker waved the "T. D." in a general sort of way toward some broken-down horsehair armchairs and an empty crate.
"Sit down, won't you?" he said, as if he had seen his guest only the day before. He looked vaguely about for something that Thornton might smoke, then seated himself on a cluttered bench holding a number of retorts, beside which flamed an oxyacetylene blowpipe. He was a wizened little chap, with scrawny neck and protruding Adam's apple. His long hair gave no evidence of the use of the comb, and his hands were the hands of Esau. He had an alertness that suggested a robin, but at the same time gave the impression that he looked through things rather than at them. On the mantel was a saucer containing the fast oxidizing cores of several apples and a half-eaten box of oatmeal biscuits.
"My Lord! This is an untidy hole! No more order than when you were an undergrad!" exclaimed Thornton, looking about him in amused horror.
"Order?" returned Bennie indignantly. "Everything's in perfect order! This chair is filled with the letters I have already answered; this chair with the letters I've not answered; and this chair with the letters I shall never answer!"
Thornton took a seat on the crate, laughing. It was the same old Bennie!
"You're an incorrigible!" he sighed despairingly.
"Well, you're a star gazer, aren't you?" inquired Hooker, relighting his pipe. "Some one told me so--I forget who. You must have a lot of interesting problems. They tell me that new planet of yours is full of uranium."
Thornton laughed. "You mustn't believe all that you read in the papers. What are you working at particularly?"
"Oh, radium and thermic induction mostly," answered Hooker. "And when I want a rest I take a crack at the fourth dimension--spacial curvature's my hobby. But I'm always working at radio stuff. That's where the big things are going to be pulled off, you know."
"Yes, of course," answered Thornton. He wondered if Hooker ever saw a paper, how long since he had been out of the house. "By the way, did you know Berlin had been taken?" he asked.
"Berlin--in Germany, you mean?"
"Yes, by the Russians."
"No! Has it?" inquired Hooker with politeness. "Oh, I think some one did mention it."
Thornton fumbled for a cigarette and Bennie handed him a match. They seemed to have extraordinarily little to say for men who hadn't seen each other for twenty-six years.
"I suppose," went on the astronomer, "you think it's deuced funny my dropping in casually this way after all this time, but the fact is I came on purpose. I want to get some information from you straight."
"Go ahead!" said Bennie. "What's it about?"
"Well, in a word," answered Thornton, "the earth's nearly a quarter of an hour behind time."
Hooker received this announcement with a polite interest but no astonishment.
"That's a how-de-do!" he remarked. "What's done it?"
"That's what I want you to tell me," said Thornton sternly. "What could do it?"
Hooker unlaced his legs and strolled over to the mantel.
"Have a cracker?" he asked, helping himself. Then he picked up a piece of wood and began whittling. "I suppose there's the devil to pay?" he suggested. "Things upset and so on? Atmospheric changes? When did it happen?"
"About three weeks ago. Then there's this Sahara business."
"What Sahara business?"