The ship was a monster. Like a huge brass-and-bolts shark with the top skimmed off, creating a sleek boatish hull with a door and portholes along the sides. There was a twin-rudder arrangement at the stern and a voluptuous walrus figurehead at the prow. Whorls like coiling octopus tentacles had been embossed into the metal and, as he’d previously observed, the upper deck was absolutely chock-a-block with cargo, very little of it block or chock-shaped. It just amounted to one lumpy, angular mess concealed under the tarpaulin that – now that he took a second look at the embroidered patterns of flowers and birds – seemed to have been stitched together from the manor’s entire supply of curtains.
A most bizarre vessel which would remain on earth. Indeed, the only reasons it wasn’t currently in contact with the ground were the two hefty wooden blocks on which it was mounted, like a ship in dry dock. So, again, what on earth did he have to worry about? Nothing. And if there were causes for anxiety off the earth, well, he need never know anything of them because they were the province of birds and dragons and other winged ilk. While even if he accepted the Professor’s ridiculous invitation to adventure he would keep both boots as firmly planted as weeds.
“It’s a fine craft, Miss.” He backed up his compliment with a wave of his cap.
“Chloette. Thank you. She is called The Walrus.”
“Chloette. Professor. Walrus,” Ben mumbled.
“Well then, what do you say, Ben? I can’t go by myself, I simply can’t. For one thing, like any scientist worth their sodium chloride I need an independent witness to observe and verify my results. For quite another, I cannot lift many of the heavier items on board. And if we are to stand any chance of generating lift, we will need your muscle.”
Ben nodded his understanding. Perhaps prematurely. Surely she couldn’t be so mad as to expect him to lift her craft off the ground. Much as he’d developed his strength over years of service to Mr Mulbarrow he deeply doubted he could nudge the ship in its blocks, let alone propel it aloft. “Um, Professor Chloette, I’m not sure I can help – ”
“Nonsense. Self-effacement is endearing but it is of no practical purpose to either of us.” She turned to face him and gripped his arms. “These are the surest instruments we have at our disposal for generating lift. And what could be more appropriate than to have the man who helped supply all our ballast actually crew our proud venture?”
“Well, now – ”
Ben was flummoxed. She was by far the most attractive of ladies to have ever grasped him by the arms in such an insistent and complimentary manner. He felt a flush in his cheeks and was surprised at what a hot day it was proving despite having so far carried only two zithers from the wagon. He searched about for somewhere convenient to set the stringed instruments down.
“Come, I will assist with the loading. I was only joking about that. Scientist I may be, but I am not afraid of getting my hands dirty if necessity demands.” She rubbed her velvet gloves together. Then marched past him. Bee-lining, Ben would have said, for the wagon, except he’d never seen a bee move with so much purpose. “It is possible we will not need absolutely every item on the list, but it is best to travel prepared. I have endeavoured to gauge the Moon’s altitude as accurately as I can, but we must allow for my calculations being out by a few tens of yards at the very least.”
Ben set the zithers down, gentle enough to produce only the faintest of strums. Then raced after the lady once more, his chivalrous heart eager to make sure he shouldered the heavier burdens. Moreover, his mind was made up to humour her now, as far as he could, and have a shoulder in place for that terrible, awkward moment when her dreams came crashing down. Fortunately, in real terms, they would not have to crash from a great height, but who knew how far her aspirations soared?
Her promises of assistance, it emerged, only stretched as far as a single trip from wagon to warehouse. Because one minute she was swanning off with a few choice lighter items in hand, the next Ben was aware she’d disappeared. If her mansion hadn’t appeared so bereft of furnishings, he might have imagined her putting her feet up somewhere. But when he returned to the warehouse with his burden of a wine rack and a yodelmacher he spotted her in the corner.
She wasn’t idle. She was cranking.
Quite vigorously, it had to be said. And in her defence, Ben reckoned it looked more laborious labour than the offloading.
More machinery clanked and ground as she turned a brass wheel. The huge tarpaulin writhed like it had come alive. Steadily, it grew, swelling like the scaled chest of some dragon that only knew how to inhale. As it puffed up and up, it lifted itself from the heaps of jumble on the ship’s upper deck. Revealing, as Ben had suspected, all the contents of all those deliveries he’d made and a host of other items besides. Jumble was not a strictly accurate term, as he realised it had all been arranged in alphabetical order from bow to stern.
Balloon science. Well, there as the balloon at least.
Daylight began a slow invasion of the warehouse, conquering more of the interior by degrees. Ben looked up at the widening crack in the ceiling. Two halves slid leadenly apart, scraping like some thunder god’s battleaxe being sharpened on the turning stone of heaven’s blacksmith. Sky opened its eye on the Professor’s invention and gazed in with all its blueness and far less scepticism, it seemed, than Ben harboured.
It was like some great gateway opening. A majestic invitation.
Or a dare, almost, to enter.
Ben could understand how this had become a dream of hers. Grand dreams gave rise to mad schemes. Driving his wagon, he’d occasionally looked to the mountain range on the horizon and stopped himself from wondering what the lands were like beyond. Because like the Moon, he would never have cause to go there on his rounds.
He supposed such seeds found more fertile soil in more adventurous minds.
But this wasn’t adventure. This was a road to disappointment. He felt sorrier than ever for this poor deluded woman. Such a shame. She seemed so bright and smart in other respects.
The balloon continued to fatten up, beginning to blot out the sky and regain some territory on behalf of the gloom.
“Come on!” The Professor paused in her cranking long enough to wave. “No time to stand and gawp. Departure in – oh – seven minutes, I expect and we’ll be needing the rest of those goods.”
Dear oh dear. She really meant to go through with this.
Ben turned, as much to hide his expression as to stow the wine rack and yodelmacher next to the zithers and such forth. He was about to bend to set the things down when he heard an ominous creak.
Glanced over his shoulder.
The Walrus lurched a tiny sliver of an inch off its blocks.
[To Be Continued…]