Melbourne and Mars/Chapter 15
In the North.
AS I expected, I received a note from the Secretary of the Central asking me if I could make it convenient to supervise the subwarming of a strip of level and pretty good land twenty miles in length, from east to west, and five in width, from north to south. I had not to consider myself bound to go, and I was to have a special swift air boat to take me to and from as often as I choose.
I at once and gladly accepted the commission, knowing that I could at any time go on with my studies at the College.
I wrote mother and father asking them to defer for a little while their visit to Sidonia, and next day found me rapidly flying to the north. I took with me Fred Harley, an aspiring young engineer, who had completed his college course, and wanted to make himself useful. For several weeks I directed the operations of the staff of men employed, and had the satisfaction of making a practical test. For a late snowstorm came and covered my completed work and suspended operations in other parts, I turned on my heat and had the satisfaction of seeing the snow melt and the land grew green, while all around was locked up in a wintry sleep.
Sometimes Harley and I would go about twenty miles of a flight up the snow farther north, partly for pleasure and partly to see whether or not we could extend operations. We would have taken longer flights had our boat been fitted to carry more stores of force. As it was, we on one occasion went too far, and had to walk home over the snow, sometimes through it. Our boat had to he carried five miles next day. We had a sleigh also, but the snow surface was broken up too much, and we could not make much use of it.
Government boats, specially equipped, have been at the north and south poles. The snowcaps, however, are very great. They extend for twenty degrees of latitude even in summer, and in winter they come twenty degrees further. Indeed, the subsoil is almost always frozen above the fiftieth parallel of latitude. Winter begins to be felt as positive cold at thirty degrees from the equator, ice and snow forming in great quantities.
I had almost finished my task and was thinking of returning to Sidonia, pushing on with my studies, and of the pleasure of going to all the grand sights of the metropolis with father, mother and sister, when one night something happened to modify my plans.
It was about twenty-three o'clock, and I was just about to retire, when Fred Harley came running in with the news that an air boat with three people in it was supposed to be lost on the snow-fields.
We had two air boats and a sleigh at our disposal, and I requested Harley to charge all the accumulators while I got particulars, I found that a boat containing three travellers had called about seventy-five minutes, three-quarters of an hour ago. It was going to the village of Ayreton, eighty miles to the west, and would have to call at the next station to renew its electrical supply in about thirty minutes. In such cases it was usual to report arrival. The report had not come, and the man in charge had seen nothing of the boat. It was already half-an-hour behind time, and its route lay over a desolate snow-field with an atmospheric temperature below zero. The boat would not have warning appliances; it was described as a common family one.
The large boat was ready when I got back, and I left Fred to make ready for the starved strangers if I could find them. I turned the light into a couple of search lamps that Fred had attached, and flying as low as I dared went after the missing ones. I had travelled quite twenty miles when I saw something dark on the snow surface, and went down to see if it was anything dropped from the missing boat. Truly it was something: dropped; the dark object was the covering of a woman's head. She was all but buried in loose, powdery, dry snow, and could not have extricated herself, If I had not had the good fortune to find her she would soon have perished. When I attempted to lift her out of the drift into my boat she made some effort to send me away in search of her father and brother, who were in some difficulty further on. Evidently she wanted me to leave her.
This I could not do. I lifted her up and wrapped her in a rug, and went forward on the track of the missing boat. In another fifteen minutes I found it. It was disabled owing to an accident. The old man, feeling down in the bottom of the boat for something in the dark, had mistaken his position and accidentally slipped his hand in the joint or hinge of the propellor. It had, of course, smashed his hand, and even his wrist, and the jerk had thrown his daughter out. For some time neither father nor son knew that anything had happened to the girl; they were busy, the son in trying to bind up the hand, the father in bearing his pain. When the loss was discovered they flew back and round about and across and across their track until their supply of power gave out, and they dropped helplessly to the ground.
There was nothing before these two also but death before morning. It was very fortunate that I had taken the larger boat, for I took them on board and calculating how far I had come decided to go forward as it would be nearer than going back. In a few minutes more we were at the station and could see each other and look at the wounded hand. It was very badly injured; all we could do was to bind it up and stop the bleeding. There was no help to be had there and if they had come back with me I could not have done much more for them so we went to Ayreton. It was fifty miles due west, but mine being a first-class boat and fully charged cleared the distance in less than half an hour.
After I got to Ayreton I meant to return but was persuaded to remain; this was not a very difficult task for I had told Fred that I might not come back and I was a little interested in the family and desired to know more about its members—especially one of them.
When first I heard this girl speak her voice had a strange thrill that seemed to run through me and I knew not what memories. I wanted to hear her speak again and yet again and each time she spoke the same sensation stole over or through me. I felt that the voice had something to say to me and that no other voice could say it. I could not define the effect; I could not tell in what it differed from other voices, but it had a charm for me. I cannot be in love I have only heard her speak a few times; I have never had a conversation with her, I have never looked fairly into her face; I know nothing of her and yet her voice runs through me and keeps ringing in my brain. The first thing I listen for in the morning is that voice and hearing it amongst others at a distance the same feeling comes over me again. Had I not better go? Why should I stay to see her I can be back at my work in less than an hour, why wait? And yet I wait and as I look upon her from my window I can see that she is certainly looking for me. Perhaps I had better let her have the opportunity of thanking me for the little service I rendered them; besides it would be cruel to go away without enquiring about the old man's hand, he must have had a terrible night of pain with that smashed member. Does fate hang on these little things?
'Good morning, Helen, I hope you are not injured by the severe experiences last evening.' These common-place words I managed to get out someway and then I became silent, I had approached to within a few feet of her and got the first glance of her eye and the first fair look at her face. So far she had not spoken but she just glanced at me and her eyes dropped and her face changed color.
'Thank you, I am quite well; we have all to thank you that we are not dead in the snow this morning. Father is in great trouble and pain. Dr. Simmons is with him and she says he will have to undergo amputation, some of the bones in the wrist being completely pulverised.'
While speaking about her father she became quite natural again and looked a very pleasant, winsome, and happy girl of about nine years of age. The Martial women are all beautiful and well proportioned. To say that Helen Vance is beautiful is but to utter a platitude. She is fair, her eyes are blue, her hair has plenty of golden sunshine in it; not, red, but rich gold, fine, bright, and full of rippling wavelets and curly masses.
Her eye is a puzzle to me. It seems to be looking at something faraway in the distance one moment and the next it has a deep pleading beauty like that seen in some well-bred and superior animals. I have seen it before and I have heard that voice before sometime, somewhere. Bodily she may be a stranger to me, but there is something familiar in those two great soul revealers; the eye and the voice.
'Is your father unwilling to have the hand removed? It may be a question of life and death in a few days, perhaps hours. He must be already much weakened through the shock and what he has suffered since.'
'Quite true; but he thinks that if he could get to the metropolis early he might have the powdered bones taken out and replaced with silver; there are such wonders in surgery performed in these days.'
'We can have him in the metropolis in two days or very little more if that is all. I can take you and your father; and Fred Hurley can bring your brother; but we cannot travel night and day at this season of the year. We cannot go much more than a thousand miles a day.'
'How kind you are,' said Helen, 'our own boat might be made to serve, however. My brother says it is not disabled; that it only had to stop because its power was spent. If you would let my brother have your boat he could half fill our accumulators and bring both back, one at once. We then could return as we came.'
I did not relish this idea; I wanted, to take the sufferer and his daughter myself. I could send for Fred to help with the boat. 'Perhaps I had better see your father; mine is a new government boat and very powerful; if your father and you can bear to travel in the night I will have you in Sidonia, in the metropolitan hospital in thirty hours or less.'
'Oh, that will be best,' said Helen, 'do see him before the Dr. goes. I will go first and tell them of your readiness and ability to help; I can travel in the night; if father can, and maybe we will start at once.'
A moment later Helen called me into her father's room and the Dr., who for the present had given up the idea of persuading her patient to undergo an amputation, asked me a few questions. For a moment she seemed inclined to treat me as as a very young man, but her manner changed when she saw the badge. She said, 'I am sorry to have to tell you Frankston that you are undertaking a very difficult if not a dangerous task I advise an immediate start. The nerve shock and the intense pain have almost brought on collapse. I dare not make free use of sedatives under the circumstances. Hern must be kept still and well wrapped. You will be in a warmer latitude to night and so may travel right on. Still; taking what care you may I cannot guarantee that he will reach Sidonia alive.'
I had sent for Fred half-an-hour before, and as he had only eighty miles to come I knew he might be expected any minute. And before we had got Thomas Hern comfortably settled he was at hand. I introduced him to Henry Hern, Helen Vance's brother and left the two to bring on the boats to Sidonia. I told them my route and advised them to follow it so that if anything happened they would know in a few minutes.
Away I went, up into the space above all law; and then bearing S.W. by S. I shot along at the rate of one hundred and fifty miles an hour. I had to recharge at the each hundred miles: what a pity we cannot carry an indefinite supply of electricity. I will invent some plan. At seventeen o'clock we had travelled a thousand miles; if I could keep up the same speed, during the night we should be in Sidonia before daylight and at the hospital by ten o'clock, twenty-six hours after starting.
We were now travelling over a populous district almost town-like in the number of its inhabitants to the square mile. I dropped in a small village, and got a recharge and some refreshments, for in our haste we had forgotten our usual meal, and we knew that our strength would be wanted during the night. Our patient was asleep, and to all appearance doing well, so we soon shot off again. I could not now fly quite so high and so quickly, for I had to keep an eye upon the lights below that tell of charging places. At out next drop I found that Fred Harly and Harry Hern were following, and that the boats were all right. I told them where we were and reported 'All well.' After this I spoke them twice more.
When I alighted a third time, however, and was filling up with power, I heard a wild cry of grief and pain break the silence of the night. I flung down my insulators and went astern to see what was the matter, and there found Helen thrown full length on the dead body of her father. The man had passed away in his sleep without a word or sign. Only the coldness of his face under its loose covering told her what had happened.
As a rule the Martials do not fear death, and do not make much of it. They never wear mourning, and never indulge in a grand funeral. This girl was a very affectionate one, and had been her father's favourite from birth, and so the sudden loss was a terrible affliction. I did not try to check her tears: I knew that they would bring relief, and so merely got her away from her father's body. I communicated with her brother and Fred, and went to the nearest hostel for the night. I gave Helen up to the matron, who was very kind and sympathetic, and left the body laid out in the boat until Harry and Fred could arrive.
It was morning when they came. They were weary, and had forgot to take dinner the day before. I saw that they had breakfast, and we all rested until noon. We then decided to take the old man's body to his home. Harry sent word to Mother Vance. Fred and Harry went in Hern's boat and I carried Helen and the corpse. We were a silent company. We had to go to Highton, section 725, a district some three hundred miles north-east of Sidonia. We arrived at nineteen o'clock, and found all in readiness for our burden. Fred and I were invited to remain with the family, but thinking they would be better without us we went to the hostel.
The next day, at noon, a special boat, with a recepticle for the corpse, came to Hern's. We were ready to follow it. A married sister of Helen's and her husband, Mother Vance, Helen, Harry, Fred and I followed in three boats. We flew slowly to the nearest crematory.
There we alighted on a beautifully kept lawn, and four men came for the corpse. It was carried into the building and placed on a kind of shelf near one of the walls. There was nothing about the building that we could see to suggest fire or death or anything painful or unpleasant. We followed the body in, and each placed upon it a stick of perfumed wood and a few flowers. Then one of our religious teachers, a friend of the family, came and made a few appropriate remarks, mostly of a consoling and thanksgiving character. What he said ended in something like this strain:—'The untenanted body of our friend who has passed from amongst us we reverently commit to the elements from whence it has been derived. It was to him a clothing and a useful working servant; he treated it properly as a gift of God; he has left it for us to dispose of, and we set its various component parts free that they may again be of use in other structures. This is not our friend whom we return to nature's storehouse, but a shell that he has worn and done with. Our friend is in God's hands, and is therefore safe. Nothing evil can happen to him, for the Giver of Life gave Death as the end of Life, its natural conclusion, and what is natural is also right and good.' Here the speaker pressed a spring, and the shelf and its burden slowly drew into the wall. As it went he said, 'What we have known as Thomas Hern passes from our sight for ever. The real man is as real as ever, and is working out his destiny of eternal progress to better and better states of being.' We then stood in silence for a few minutes and went our various ways.
I spent the remainder of the day in Highton, and made friends of Mother Vance and Henry. I saw but little of Helen, but was probably more interested in her on that account. Her voice, whenever I heard it, rang through my brain as before, and as I shook hands with her next morning I got one glance of her strange, deep, dumb pleading eye that I could never forget.
Fred and I returned to Sidonia. I promised to see the Hern's in the autumn. When I got back to Sidonia I received a complimentary letter from the Central Executive.
One of my first acts was to tell Grayson of my adventures. He listened with pleasure and attention. When I spoke of Helen Vance he looked grave and troubled, especially when I told him of the strange effect of her eye and voice.
The next day he told me that he had discovered Helen was an earthborn, and frequently, though not constantly, conscious of her earth life. She would be eligible shortly to become a member of the 'Earthborn.' He also said that I had possibly seen her before."
From this time to the end of the sixty-fifth of our diarist's earth years there is nothing of importance recorded in either life. Frankston goes on with his studies in Mars, and Adams with his commission agencies in Melbourne. Occasionally he speaks of his wife as ailing, and evidently business is not prosperous on his side. His wife and sons have had something better in hand than he has.
Near the end of seventy-nine he writes:—"My greatest bereavement has fallen upon me. My wife is dead. For forty years we have travelled the world together, and we have been faithful to each other all the time. Our love was a quiet current on which our lives floated: it has taken death to show me how deep and strong that current is. I had no idea that I could suffer so much. My only hope is that, we may meet again; eternity will be an empty void without her. In anguish of soul I cry out for my lost love."
His loss must have stirred him to the depths of his soul before he left the matter of fact style so far.
His notes for the next two years are very prosy, and mixed up much with business transactions. Sometimes there is not a word from Mars for days together. His double is living quietly and happily. He has the friendship of many good and wise people. He sees Helen Vance now and then. She has become a member of the Earthborn's, and is working in the metropolis. His family have spent some time in Sidonia, and have seen some of the sights there only to be seen. As for seeing them all that is out of the question; even a Martial lifetime would not suffice for that. Dr. Edith Somers continues to take an interest in him and his practical answer to Croakers. Several more areas are being redeemed from the snowfields in the north, and he goes now and then to spend a week in supervision. The reclaimed lands are much sought after, and are very productive, the soil being new. He continues to to spend afternoons and evenings frequently with the Graysons. He is now in his twelfth year, and has fully decided to make Sidonia his home. This partly because he likes metropolitan life, and partly because, when there, he is in communication with the Central Executive. He is always progressing in knowledge, and likes to remain in touch with the leaders of thought and action in the centre of his world.
We now return to the diary.