It's notable as one of the first scientific romances to feature a future of routine commercial space travel; also for its use of radio, friendly Martians, "computing machines," and electrical gravity-repelling screens.
For more on Bishop see his Wikipedia entry
I am greatly indebted to David Salo for typing this story from a microfilm original and bringing it to my attention. He's not responsible for the subsequent HTML conversion, and any errors are entirely my responsibility.
(Copyright 1909, by Benj. B. Hampton.)
The New York office force of the R.D. Jones Co. caught its breath in a gasp of astonishment when it was announced that Captain Goff was to take out the Columbia with passengers only. Even the superintendent seemed ashamed of the directors' decision, for he had sent the word out to old Williams, the veteran chief clerk, scribbled on a slip of paper, and had then promptly gone out by way of his private entrance.
Williams read the note with rapidly rising indignation and broke up the office routine for a full thirty minutes, while he raged about the room, alternately denouncing the superintendent, the president and the board of directors, and assailing luckless clerks for stopping work to listen to him.
"Why," he cried, "old R. D. would turn over in his grave if he knew how these boys are running the company into the ground. It was bad enough when they commenced fillin' up empty cargo space with furniture, vegetables and dry goods, but now turnin' the Columbia into a passenger boat! A man-hauler! And not ordinary, healthy passengers with sound legs and good digestions, but a lot of consumptives, anaemics, and sick babies, raked up from the East Side, on account of" — here referring to the superintendent's note — "on account of the New York Eagle's Fresh Air Fund. Wish old R. D. was here for about five minutes." And then he added most prophetically, "It's bad business this haulin' of passengers and the company'll regret it."
The R. D. Jones Co. was a fast freight line making weekly sailings to Mars from their Westchester station. The older Jones, long since gathered to his forefathers, had begun life as a clerk on a Lunar tramp, graduated from that to purser on a Martian oil boat. Being naturally a keen observer he soon discovered that while the people of Mars were particularly partial to mutton, the genus sheep failed to thrive on that husky planet. Those were the days when concessions were being granted right and left, and upon his second return to the earth, after this important discovery, young Jones brought back such valuable iron-clad rights to certain trade privileges that a fast freight line carrying outward-bound refrigerated meat and returning either in ballast or fruit-laden, was put into being by New York capitalists. From the two old tramp tubs originally leased the "Mutton Run" had grown to a corporation, owning outright thirty boats and leasing a score more.
But hard times come, even to corporations as wealthy and powerful as the R. D. Jones Co. Some of the concessions were now expiring and the profits had been horribly mutilated. Martians, too, seemed to be losing their appetites for American meat and the R. D. Jones Co. was now bidding for other classes of freight at ridiculous margins. Then, to cap the climax, the Montezuma and the Princess Irene, two immense, brand new boats, carrying valuable cargoes and running neck and neck, outward bound, had dashed, head on, into an unpredicted meteoric shower and had gone to join the vast congregation of inter-stellar derelicts.
So, although it was a mighty departure from a policy now well-nigh a century old, the directors had decided that instead of putting the Columbia out of commission, they would charter her to the Eagle for at least one passenger run, and notwithstanding old Williams, busy workmen were soon transferring her cargo compartments into dormitories and hospital wards.
The chief dispatcher of the R. D. Jones Co. was one Winston, a clean-cut, steady-going man, just turned thirty, for whom great things were predicted by his friends, for nature had endowed him with a reasoning ability and a genius for mathematics far above the ordinary. Furthermore, he was a direct descendant of the great Sir Francis Winston who had first expounded and proved that the gravitational attraction of any mass had characteristics peculiarly its own; and that just as certain substances arrest certain colors of the spectrum and permit others to pass through, certain magnetic fields could be created which were impermeable to the attraction of certain masses, though uninfluencing that of others; thus first rendering interplanetary passage possible.
On the fifteenth of October the Columbia was reported ready, and on the eighteenth Winston received his instruction from the traffic manager.
He was too busy that day to attend to the matter, for the Chryse, an ancient Jones tub, inward bound with a heavy cargo, was having trouble with Venus, and some rapid calculations and appropriate orders for her anxious skipper, who was keeping the receivers hot with appeals for help, were needed, to keep that planet from adding another satellite to her train.
At last Winston slammed down the covers on the two computing machines and was reaching for his coat when the messenger handed him two envelopes. One was official, a radiogram addressed to the chief dispatcher of the R. D. Jones Co. He tore it open and read:
"The devil!" Winston gasped. "It means calculating over again the whole of the second leg. However, that can be done tomorrow forenoon." He thrust the radiogram into his pocket and started for the door opening the other envelope, which was addressed to him personally in a woman's bold, black handwriting.
There wasn't much in the note. Winston read it almost at a glance, but the light suddenly died out of his eyes and in its place came a frightened, hunted look; his face turned an ashy white; things seemed to whirl about him and then grow black. Some one gave him water, and he stumbled out into the light of the setting sun with unseeing eyes.
It was the old story of those who love and are loved by woman. A high-spirited girl, brooding over a fancied inattention; a sleepless night; a hastily penned note ending all for ever.
Just what he did that night Winston never knew. At the trial they testified that he had come into the club about ten o'clock. Somebody had won on the aerial races that afternoon and was buying champagne, and Winston drank, drank, drank, until friends, knowing his usual temperate habits had put him to bed. They testified also that he had written a receipt for a radiogram about eleven o'clock, giving the details of the comet's orbit.
All that night an army of workmen swarmed in and over the hull of the Columbia, giving her the finishing touches for her flight, and at daybreak their places were taken by another shift.
At ten o'clock Winston came in and mechanically sat down at his desk, pale, heavy-eyed, his mind a blank. His first assistant handed him the sailing orders and together they rechecked the calculations. The computations balanced; and the instructions for laying the different courses were concise and clear.
"We haven't missed anything, have we?" he asked, passing a trembling hand across his hot, dry forehead. "Something seems to tell me that there is an error somewhere."
"Errors!" sniffed the assistant. "We don't make errors here."
Winston took the neatly typed sheets and walked out into the main office where old Captain Goff was talking earnestly with the second vice president, a smug-faced German Jew, who was in charge of the company's communication system.
"Don't you vorry, gapting," he was saying, "dose radio receivers will vork like all get oudt shust as soon as you glear der earth's atmosvere. Don't vorry, de vill be O. K."
"But remember, Mr. Oldstein," the captain added, gently stroking his long white beard and fixing his deep blue eyes anxiously on the Jew's shifting gaze — "remember I carry passengers this trip, and I would feel greatly relieved if you would have De Muth & Co. send up one of their experts to have a look at them."
"Vot! Und delay der sailing!" exclaimed the second vice president. "Und vot you t'ink dem eggsperts cost? Vun t'ousand dollars! Ach! But here is Meester Vinston mit der orders. Good-by, gapting."
The old man smiled sadly at the departing official and turned to Winston, grasping his hand and glancing benignantly at him over the gold rims of his spectacles as he took the orders and read them through aloud, as required by law, and affixed his signature to the retained copy in token of understanding.
"It has always been my desire," said the captain in his deep, solemn voice — a voice that seemed to have acquired some peculiar magnetic quality from the unfathomable depths of the ever-mysterious voids between the worlds in which he had spent almost half of his three score years — "to some day command a passenger boat; and it has pleased the good Lord to gratify at last my worldly wishes in a manner far surpassing my fondest dreams, for what could be greater or grander than to command a boat filled with these poor unfortunates? God grant us a safe and speedy voyage."
The grand old man bade an affectionate farewell to the office force from old Williams down to the office boys and messengers; and with Winston walked over to the launching cradles.
A few belated passengers were hurrying aboard, and the decks of the Columbia still open to the sunshine were teeming with life.
Hunchbacks and dwarfs, their little beady eyes glistening with excitement, gazed eagerly about; consumptives and asthmatics lined the rails, their faces reflecting the hope of a speedy cure in the rarified Martian atmosphere; babies of all colors and nationalities, some sitting quietly content or speechlessly frightened, others loudly wailing, and a few clapping diminutive hands and kicking tiny feet to the time of the big band up forward on the observation deck. Two little Martian orphans, going back to relatives, a boy and a girl, each clasping a hand of their special nurse, were dancing boisterously around her, their big pear-shaped heads, stocky chests and pipestem legs contrasting strangely with the other children. Off to one side, a group of bored doctors were trying to retort amiably to the raillery of friends in the yards below.
The old man bade a cheery good-by, and mounting to the pilot bridge, stood for a moment looking backward over his boat, his long white hair waving in the gentle spring breeze. Then he gave a signal and the lights flared up over the vessel, hull shutters slid suddenly into place, and the craft was sealed up for her long flight through the heavens.
Winston never forgot that morning, brain-clouded though he was. The great black hull of the Columbia, with her white-haired captain up forward at his post; and the pitiful unfortunates swarming her decks; the sudden obliteration of the scene as the shutters closed over it was indelibly imprinted on his imagination. There was a turning and grinding of the great motors at the rear of the cradle as they worked the gravitation screens under the vessel, one from the front and one from the rear; then, as the earth's attraction reluctantly gave up its grip on the mighty mass of iron and steel gouged from her own vitals, it slowly rose, level keeled, until its stern butted against the top girders of the cradle. He remembered the loose ends of several cables, knocked over on the screens, suddenly rose uncannily and stood straight up, serpent-like in the air. A careless workman had left a pipe-wrench lying on the framework, and it had suddenly leaped upward, banged against the hull, danced around a moment like a thing possessed, then sliding swiftly up along the sloping side had shot off into space. Winston remembered he had laughed, when the wrench started on its journey. But the laugh had died on his lips. There was something queer about this launching. He had felt it vaguely all morning and it recurred then with added intensity.
As the yard master, high up on the launching deck of the cradle, shouted his directions to the operators at the motors, in response to the captain's signals, Winston closed his eyes, and his brilliant mind, drink-clouded though it was, went far out into space, going over again, step by step, the calculations for the flight. There was no mistake in the figures, but something was wrong. He started toward the yard master's station to stop the launching. He even cried out. But he was too late.
Twelve minutes later the Westchester station radiograph receivers picked up Captain Goff's message, saying that he had safely cleared the earth's atmosphere, had rigged all his earth screens and thanks to the greedy attraction of the sun and two handy planets, her nose was set to the proper point on the celestial sphere and she was bowling along the first leg at seventy miles a second.
At three o'clock that afternoon the first assistant in the dispatcher's department found the De Saussure radiograms lying on Winston's desk, read them, hastily recalculated the second leg and rushed white-faced into the traffic manager's office.
"What's that you are saying?" demanded the traffic manager whirling about in his swivel chair and facing the breathless computer.
"Simply this," returned the man, controlling himself with difficulty, "I just found these radiograms on Mr. Winston's desk, reporting the re-appearance of Biela's comet, with an orbit intersecting the Martian routes about November 15th. For some reason Winston had forgotten them and the Columbia is off with sailing orders that will run her plump into the comet's mass if she isn't held back."
"Hell!" exclaimed the traffic manager, springing to his feet. "Where's Winston?"
"Don't know," replied the computer. "Haven't seen him since the sailing. He got a letter last night that seemed to upset him and he acted dippy all morning."
It is unnecessary to recite in detail all that occurred during the next three weeks. Old and middle aged persons will recall that the papers talked of little else, and that the civilized worlds of three planets followed day by day the course of the white-haired skipper and his boat of 1,800 happy, excited women, children and the earth's unfortunates, speeding through the black night of the imponderable ether to their sure destruction. Nor is it necessary to again tell how sweating, heat-blistered engineers at every interplanetary radiograph station on three planets, stood by their generators until they were carried out unconscious, speeding up their machines, to the calls of set-faced operators for higher voltage, as they hurled radiogram after radiogram out into space, under a pressure that damaged receivers on boats as far away as Jupiter but which failed to excite the wornout and leaky induction coils of the Columbia's instruments. Day after day, regularly at the twelfth hour, came the punctilious, diurnal "report of progress" from Captain Goff, for his sending apparatus was working beautifully, and day after day as he reported another six million miles put astern of the Columbia's flaming tail lights, the worlds shuddered with renewed horror.
Winston had been found early on the morning after the sailing, wandering the streets, still dazed and unknowing, and had been taken to the Tombs, where two companies of federal troops were guarding him from an East Side mob. Here also, soon came Oldstein, for with the Eagle in the lead, the press and populace were frantic for the blood of those persons held responsible.
On the 4th of November Captain Goff reported successfully that he had turned the "angles."
On the 6th he reported by heliocentric co-ordinates the appearance of a strange, luminous mass, which — so he had calculated, was moving in a path likely to carry it across his own. On the 8th he was evidently ill at ease, for he apologetically referred to the inability of his subordinates to get the receiving apparatus in order, and again referred to the unknown mass coming up on him. His "progress report" showed that he had diminished speed.
On the 9th he reported that the Columbia was "wobbling," apparently under the influence of the comet, as he had now determined that body to be; that he had reversed and rigged screens to hold her steady. Two hours later he sent another message that the Columbia was drifting from her course. Another hour and he "regretted to report that he could no longer keep her head up." Short, sharp messages they were, indicating that the old man was using every resource to avoid the danger and was wasting little time over the radiograph.
At twenty minutes past two on the morning of the 10th of November Captain Robert Goff's last message began to spark from the induction coils at the Westchester station.
Here the receiver gave a final gasp and the spark died away.
The trial came soon and was pushed to a speedy finish, but all too slow for an insistent press and an almost riotous populace. Without leaving their seats, the jury found Winston guilty of criminal carelessness, and the judge said: "Fifteen years." The second vice president was given ten years.
Every night when the turnkey closed his cell door, Winston's spirit went out and rode hour after hour along the Milky Way in the blistered, heat-warped hull of the Columbia. Sometimes he rode in the pilot bridge compartment with a gentle, silent old man, who was forever straining ahead with a sextant to his eyes; sometimes below, where a phantom crew was eternally struggling with gravitation screens.
Winston shook hands silently with the warden and walked dumbly out of the penitentiary. He had two years yet to serve and the pardon was a total surprise to him. They had not taken him out to work that morning, but had almost immediately given him a suit of civilian's clothes, told him to dress, and opened the gates to him. He was free. Free to work or idle as he chose; to come and go at his will; to eat and drink the things he liked. How often in the long thirteen years of his confinement he had pictured this moment!
But now that the time had actually come he felt old and oppressed, infinitely old; his steps were heavy and slow, like those of a man carrying a weight.
For a month Winston wandered about lower New York, glutting himself with all manner of excesses and wonderingly surveying the changes that had occurred during his thirteen years' absence; but his money was running low, and clearly he must go to work. But where? There was only one business of which he knew anything and his soul revolted at the thought of ever again seeing an interplanetary vessel. Yet in the end he found himself up at the Three Hundred and Fortieth street yards of the Mercantile Company sharing the subdued excitement that always existed about such places.
The vast concourse sheltered a busy crowd, for not only was the Trenton sailing for Mars that forenoon, but a Jupiter liner was due at any moment. Winston worked his way through the throng to the dispatcher's office and gazed longingly in at the scene of activity. From the flashes of the radiograph receiver he made out that Hamburg firm was asking permission for one of their liners, which had met with some mishap, to drop back into the Mercantile Company's cradles for repairs. He saw her in a few minutes, a gradually growing blur in the heavens, that soon resolved itself into one of the big, fat, snub-nosed boats so indicative of German construction, her cautious Teutonic skipper dropping her gently, a hundred feet at a time, between pauses.
Winston saw two person within the dispatcher's office whom he took to be the chief dispatcher and the traffic manager in serious conversation.
"And you've got only two radiograph operators aboard the Trenton?" the traffic manager was asking.
"Yes," answered the chief dispatcher, "not another operator in New York to be had for love or money."
"It won't do, it won't do," snarled the manager. "The Trenton must sail at noon and you've got to get another man. You know the law requires three." And he stalked out of the office.
Winston waited for no more, but bolted inside and over to the dispatcher's desk.
"I can operate a radiograph, and I want a job," he said, when the dispatcher looked up at him.
"Who're you?" he demanded.
"I'll tell you in your private office," Winston answered.
Thirty minutes later he was aboard the Trenton, and had scarce time to stow away a few articles of clothing he had picked up from nearby shops, when a sudden lightness in his legs and a lack of weight in the suitcase he held in his hand told him that the boat was sealed, and that the gravitation screens were in place, while the sudden succeeding rise in temperature gave evidence that the craft was under way and scudding through the thin layer of the earth's atmosphere at a rate that was warming her hull to a bright red.
The radiographs were located in a little compartment just aft the pilot bridge room, and Winston soon picked up all the details of the course. The work was not heavy, and hour after hour, during his tours of duty, he stood in the doorway of the instrument room, watching the deck officers taking the angles of the various celestial bodies noted in their sailing orders as markers. He heard the low spoken orders to the quartermasters at the controllers to shift the screens this way and that way until the thirty thousand tons of steel had been steadied to its course after some far-off mass had caught her in the relentless grip of its gravitation and sucked her a hundred thousand miles from her computed path before their watchful eyes could detect the diversion. And thus day by day with ever increasing velocity the Trenton put the earth behind her; and Mars stood out bright and clear, with a rapidly growing parallax amid the multitude of heavenly bodies.
They were routed for the passage in twenty-eight days, but on the twentieth day Winston, sitting moodily over his instruments, heard voices on the bridge pitched a little higher than usual. He went to the door and looked up. The captain and most of the officers were there and appeared to be making simultaneous observations on some of the fixed stars. For an hour they worked, shifting the screens, taking observations, making computations. Then the captain spoke:
"Gentlemen, we are hung up on the neutral. But not one word of this anywhere in the boat but here on the bridge."
Winston understood and smiled grimly. Faulty calculations had routed the Trenton closer to the sun than the power of her sun screens warranted, and that great incandescent mass had seized her in a relentless grip and was holding her powerless and immovable against the pull of the planet, like a fly in a spider web, but so nicely balanced that the feeble strength of a little child against her big hulk would again put her in the friendly grasp of the planet.
But what did he care. He felt that he might as well die now as live the life of a pariah. He found himself wishing that the generators would fail for one brief instant and the full power of the sun come tearing through the frail network of wires, whose magnetic vitality was holding him at bay, and suck them down into his fiery abyss.
For forty-eight hours the Trenton's engineers struggled manfully in an effort to cut off even an ounce of the back pull; then they gave it up, staring hopelessly at the whirring dynamos that alone were keeping them from a swift and fiery death.
Things were getting serious. No word of the predicament had as yet reached the passengers, but some Yale students aboard had been amusing themselves and improving their astronomy by taking observations with an old sextant and they suddenly announced that the boat was standing still so far as Mars was concerned, notwithstanding the bogus daily runs, hung out as usual in the saloon, and people were holding up the officers and asking embarrassing questions.
Then a wild idea came into Winston's head as he hammered out a despairing message for the captain. The more he thought of it the more he liked it. When his "relief" came he walked down one of the gangways and out on the balcony above the passenger's dining room. It was the dinner hour and the passengers were at the tables. Men in evening clothes and women in all the splendor of the modiste's art were talking and laughing, all unconscious that death in its most horrible form was lurking only a few inches beyond the upholstered walls. Dark-skinned waiters in the liner's gorgeous livery darted here and there in well-ordered precision.
On the platform, at the forward end of the room, half concealed by swaying silken portieres and mammoth palms, the orchestra was discoursing some weird Martian melody. Over all, the hundreds of incandescent lamps shed a soft pale light, reflected in a thousand scintillating brilliant points from napery, silver, glass and wonderful jeweled ornaments.
He passed on and out over the saloon. In one corner a fair-haired girl and a youth sat in silent happiness watching the amusing gesticulations of a big Martian professor expounding his theory of the fourth dimensions to a group of the Yale men. Winston turned back into the gangway and peered out through one of the heavily glazed ports into the inky blackness of space. He shuddered as he thought of the awful cold, but as he looked he seemed to see flitting by a long black craft, a white-haired old man peering through the forward conning port, and he turned and walked rapidly to the captain's office, his jaws set and his eyes narrowed to tiny slits.
Three times he tried before he was admitted, but once within he remained an hour, and when he left the captain came out with him.
Shortly there was unusual activity below the passenger decks. All the heavy freight was slowly moved forward, and the tired engineers stood by their machines ready to speed them up for a last attempt to diminish the back pull. Even the passengers, on one pretext or another were collected in the forward end of the boat, to lighten as much as possible that part of her pointing sun-wards. Then Winston, the captain and the first officer silently made their way aft until they came to the ports leading to the lifeboats secured outside on the Trenton's hull. The annular cover of one of these ports was unscrewed. The two officers wrung Winston's hands silently but with fervor that made words unnecessary, and he disappeared into the dark cavity and the cover was replaced.
Through the after port they saw the metal case release its grip on the hull and slide slowly along the Trenton's back until it hung suspended in the illimitable void, directly in prolongation of her length, glistening with reflected light like a ball of fire. There was a pause of a few minutes, then both men were conscious of a perceptible jar. The shining lifeboat silently parted from the Trenton's stern and floated gracefully away. They watched it as it slowly gathered headway, moving always on, on, towards where the Sun glowed, a blood-red orb, and both men stood, still, silent and thoughtful long after it was invisible to the eye. On the pilot bridge, the third officer suddenly dropped his sextant and exclaimed, "By the Lord! we are under way again."
The following is from the New York Commercial Review, a trade journal devoted to interplanetary traffic:
|We are informed that the International Astronomical Society has determined that the infinitesimal body lately discovered revolving as another satellite of Venus is the life-boat containing the remains of John R. Winston, who sacrificed himself to rescue the Mercantile (N. Y.) Company's passenger boat Trenton, last June by pushing her off when she lay stranded on the "neutral" between Mars and the Sun. The society has named it Winstonius Venus (satellite fourteen). Muller computes its sidereal period 7 h. 14 m. 11.5 s. Dist. in equatorial radii of planet, 2.841; dis. in miles, 5,463.|