Ben thought the Professor’s grand, theatrical announcement was overstating the situation a touch. A sliver of an inch was not much to shout about, although he had heard vague academic talk of other systems of measurement by which it might amount to more. No matter what you called it, the gap between the vessel and its resting blocks was not huge. And yet, here he was turning full round to stand and marvel. With his lower jaw dropping closer to the ground than the ship’s hull.
Miss Professor Quatrechamps – Chloette, as he remembered he was supposed to address her – left off her cranking of the wheel as the ceiling doors clanged into place. Wide open. It struck Ben as the proper cue for him to shut his trap. He’d been raised to always cover his mouth when yawning in the presence of company and with both hands occupied that was going to be impossible.
Ben had guessed the balloon’s inflation was linked to the same mechanics that had opened the warehouse ceiling, but now that the machinery had fallen quiet the scaly fabric appeared perfectly content to keep on swelling and expanding and generally pumping itself up. Like a big green and gold cloud steadily assuming the shape of an enormous melon. Ben had seen toffee-nosed sorts and town officials – and even his boss, Mr Mulbarrow from time to time – puff themselves up in similar fashion, although they tended less towards imitating fruit and more towards vegetables exhibiting a great deal of self-importance.
This melonic (?) balloon was still on its way to fully bloated but, in contrast to all those hob-nobbers and well-to-do mayoral and municipal types, doing an important job and doing it rather better than Ben would ever have expected. The Walrus hung, suspended from this gigantic bag by stout ropes and cables, and wobbled only marginally. A good deal steadier, as it happened, than Ben’s knees despite their more direct connection to the ground.
“Well, now. That is something. Proper magical.”
He’d somehow recovered from being lost for words to merely short on grammar.
“Magic? Phah!” Professor Chloette clapped in an impatient way not the least bit like applause. She tutted and muttered some sounds that might have been foreign words or, equally possibly, random exasperated noises. Stooping, she retrieved a footstool from her corner and carried it over to the Walrus. Set it down just under the door set amidships in the side of the hull. “People are too ready to attribute any phenomenon they don’t understand to magic. This is science! Next you’ll be telling me motor cars and electricity are the products of sorcerous spells.”
“Well, no.” Although now that she mentioned them, he had often been wonderstruck by such machines and technological mysteries. Motor cars were rarer than dragons and Ben had only ever glimpsed one from his place in the crowd, waving and cheering as Mayor Harpsburg had been driven around Tortenschloss on one of his parades. It was a shimmering beast, but noisy and Ben’s nose didn’t care for the smell of the stuff they fed it on or, for that matter, the gases it expelled from its tail end. As for electricity, he’d made deliveries to a few houses that were illuminated by strange bulbs and it had looked a lot like bottled magic.
Professor Quatrechamps planted her right foot on the stool and grasped the door handle. “Never mind. Adventure is a learning experience. The most exciting form of education you could ever wish for. Now, you had best please finish the loading while I attend to a few checks and preparations.” She tugged the door open and trotted up inside.
Leaving Ben with much to take on board.
In several manners of speaking.
Perhaps an hour of toil later, Ben wandered back to his wagon and set about unharnessing Equinox and George. Fine draft mares, they were both accustomed to routine and met her freedom with uncomprehending blinks. After an encouraging pat to each rump, they welcomed the chance to shake their manes and stretch their fetlocks. Together, they clomped off the road and into Professor Quatrechanps’ front garden, swishing tails and dipping for a graze or two.
“I won’t be gone long,” he assured the pair.
As much as he’d been bowled over by the sight of the Walrus hovering against all probability, he still harboured profound doubts about the ability of such a heavily-laden vessel travelling far or for long. Indeed, set such a ship in the ocean, he would expect her to ride so low in the water as to provide a nice new playground for coral and fishes. In the air, she’d carry him a few more slivers of a few more inches at most.
“Just long enough for a real short trip,” he added. “And maybe a consolatory cup of tea, you know. Because the nice Professor lady is going to be disheartened and it wouldn’t be polite to leave her right away once we’ve come right back down to earth.”
If he was lucky and a little creative with the truth, he would be able to persuade Mr Mulbarrow that he’d lingered at the property to assist Professor Quatrechamps with storing her items (not a huge lie), thinking the extra help would garner more business from her in future. And Mr Mulbarrow might not dock the time from his wages on his return to town.
Adventure might well have been a learning experience. But it certainly wouldn’t qualify as a reasonable excuse for delays in the delivery schedule. Not in Mr Mulbarrow’s books. Regardless of whether that adventure amounted to inches or a mile off the ground.
Fetching the last pair of items – a washboard and an umbrella stand – from the wagon, Ben wandered back to the warehouse.
He slowed up some, so he could aim his head high and take a length look at the intended destination.
Still a hazy disc. Silver in blue.
A mile away? Or more? Ben had no idea how far it might be. Or, now he came to think on it, what kept it from falling.
As ghostly and distant as its visage seemed right now, it struck Ben that it always appeared an object of some weight. Sitting in the sky, floating or hanging, it was no less remarkable than the Walrus.
What if – ?
No, don’t be daft.
But what if – ?
A nervous feeling crept into his chest and perched among his ribs like a caged canary.
What if, he forced himself to complete the thought, he was gone longer than expected? What if he strayed further than a few paltry inches? The horse and wagon ought to be okay, but would he? And there’d be no placating Mr Mulbarrow with tales of a trip to the Moon.
Unless there were brand new customers to be found up there.
Which, whether you believed in magic or science, seemed less likely than the Walrus taking flight.
Ben trudged on into the warehouse, full of hope and fear and trepidation. Fearing and hoping for failure. And fearing and hoping for adventure almost near as much.
[To Be Continued…]