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   Chapter 4 THE MISSION OF SAMUEL BLOCK

The Great War Syndicate By Frank Richard Stockton Characters: 17979

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


Not far from the works at Sardis there was a large pond, which was formed by the damming of a stream which at this point ran between high hills. In order to obtain a sufficient depth of water for his marine experiments, Roland Clewe had built an unusually high and strong dam, and this body of water, which was called the lake, widened out considerably behind the dam and stretched back for more than half a mile.

He was standing on the shore of this lake, early the next morning, in company with several workmen, examining a curious-looking vessel which was moored near by, when Margaret Raleigh came walking towards him. When he saw her he left the men and went to meet her.

"You could not wait until I came to your house to tell you what I was going to do?" he said, smiling.

"No," she answered, "I could not. The Artesian ray kept me awake nearly all night, and I felt that I must quiet my mind as soon as I could by giving it something real and tangible to take hold of. Now what is it that you are going to do? Anything in the ship line?"

"Yes," said he, "it is something in that line. But let us walk back a little; I am not quite ready to tell the men everything. I have been thinking," he said, as they moved together from the lake, "of that practical enterprise which we must take up and finish, in order to justify ourselves to the public and those who have in various ways backed up our enterprises, and I have concluded that the best thing I can do is to carry out my plan of going to the north pole."

"What!" she exclaimed. "You are not going to try to do that-you, yourself?" And as she spoke, her voice trembled a little.

"Yes," said he, "I thought I would go myself, or else send Sammy."

She laughed.

"Ridiculous!" said she. "Send Sammy Block! You are joking?"

"No," said he, "I am not. I have been planning the expedition, and I think Sammy would be an excellent man to take charge of it. I might go part of the way-at least, far enough to start him-and I could so arrange matters that Sammy would have no difficulty in finishing the expedition, but I do not think that I could give up all the time that such an enterprise deserves. It is not enough to merely find the pole; one should stay there and make observations which would be of service."

"But if Sammy finishes the journey himself," she said, "his will be the glory."

"Let him have it," replied Clewe. "If my method of arctic exploration solves the great problem of the pole, I shall be satisfied with the glory I get from the conception. The mere journey to the northern end of the earth's axis is of slight importance. I shall be glad to have Sammy go first, and have as many follow him as may choose to travel in that direction."

"Yet it is a great achievement," said she. "I would give much to be the first human being who has placed his foot upon the north pole."

"You would get it wet, I am afraid," said Clewe, smiling; "but that is not the kind of glory I crave. If I can help a man to go there, I shall be very willing to do so, provided he will make me a favorable report of his discoveries."

"Tell me all about it," she said-"when will you start? How many will go?"

"There is some work to be done on that boat," said he. "Let me set the men at it, and then we will go into the office, and I will lay everything before you."

When they were seated in a quiet little room attached to one of the large buildings, Roland Clewe made ready to describe his proposed arctic expedition to his partner, in whose mind the wonderful enterprise had entered, driving out the disturbing thoughts of the Artesian ray.

"You have told me about it before," said she, "but I am not quite sure that I have it all straight in my mind. You will go, I suppose, in a submarine boat-that is, whoever goes will go in it?"

"Yes," said he, "for part of the way. My plan is to proceed in an ordinary vessel as far north as Cape Tariff, taking the Dipsey, my submarine boat, in tow. The exploring party, with the necessary stores and instruments, will embark on the Dipsey, but before they start they will make a telegraphic connection with the station at Cape Tariff. The Dipsey will carry one of those light, portable cables, which will be wound on a drum in her hold, and this will be paid out as she proceeds on her way. Thus, you see, by means of the cable from Cape Tariff to St. Johns, we can be in continual communication with Sammy, no matter where he may go; for there is no reason to suppose that the ocean in those northern regions is too deep to allow the successful placing of a telegraphic cable.

"My plan is a very simple one, but as we have not talked it over for some time, I will describe it in full. All explorers who have tried to get to the north pole have met with the same bad fortune. They could not pass over the vast and awful regions of ice which lay between them and the distant point at which they aimed; the deadly ice-land was always too much for them; they died or they turned back.

"When flying-machines were brought to supposed perfection, some twenty years ago, it was believed that the pole would easily be reached, but there were always the wild and wicked winds, in which no steering apparatus could be relied upon. We may steer and manage our vessels in the fiercest storms at sea, but when the ocean moves in one great tidal wave our rudders are of no avail. Everything rushes on together, and our strongest ships are cast high upon the land.

"So it happened to the Canadian Bagne, who went in 1927 in the best flying-ship ever made, and which it was supposed could be steadily kept upon its way without regard to the influence of the strongest winds; but a great hurricane came down from the north, as if square miles of atmosphere were driving onward in a steady mass, and hurled him and his ship against an iceberg, and nothing of his vessel but pieces of wood and iron, which the bears could not eat, was ever seen again. This was the last polar expedition of that sort, or any sort; but my plan is so easy of accomplishment-at least, so it seems to me-and so devoid of risk and danger, that it amazes me that it has never been tried before. In fact, if I had not thought that it would be such a comparatively easy thing to go to the pole, I believe I should have been there long ago; but I have always considered that it could be done at some season when more difficult and engrossing projects were not pressing upon me.

"What I propose to do is to sink down below the bottom of the ice in the arctic regions, and then to proceed in a direct line northward to the pole. The distance between the lower portions of the ice and the bottom of the Arctic Ocean I believe to be quite sufficient to allow me all the room needed for navigation. I do not think it necessary to even consider the contingency of the greatest iceberg or floe reaching the bottom of the arctic waters; consequently, without trouble or danger, the Dipsey can make a straight course for the extreme north.

"By means of the instruments the Dipsey will carry it will be comparatively easy to determine the position of the pole, and before this point is reached I believe she will find herself in an open sea, where she may rise to the surface. But if this should not be the case, a comparatively thin place in the ice will be chosen, and a great opening blown through it by means of an ascensional shell, several of which she will carry. She will then rise to the surface of the water in this opening, and the necessary operations will be carried on."

"Mr. Clewe," said Margaret Raleigh, "the thing is so terrible I cannot bear to think of it. The Dipsey may have to sail hundreds and hundreds of miles under the ice, shut in as if an awful lid were put over her. No matter what happened down there, she could not come up and get out; it would be the same thing as having a vast sky of ice stretched out above one. I should think the very idea of it would make people shudder and die."

"Oh, it is not so bad as all that," answered Clewe. "There is nothing so dear to the marine explorer as plenty of water, and plenty of room to sail in, and under the ice the Dipsey will find all that."

"But there are so many dangers," said she, "that you cannot provide against in advance."

"That is very true," said he, "but I have thought so much about them, and I have studied and consulted so much about them, that I think I have provided against all the dangers we have reason to expect. To me the whole business seems like very plain, straightforward sailing."

"It may seem so here," said Margaret Raleigh, "but it will be quite another thing out under the arctic ice."

Preparations for the expedition were pushed forward as rapidly as possible, and Clewe would have been delighted to make this voyage into the unseen regions of the nether ice, but he knew that it was his duty not to lose time or to risk his life when he was on the brink of

a discovery far more wonderful, far more important to the world, than the finding of the pole. Therefore he determined that he would go with the expedition no farther than the point where the ice would prevent the farther progress of the vessel in which they would sail from New York.

It was not to be supposed that Roland Clewe intended to intrust such an expedition to the absolute command of such a man as old Samuel Block. There would be on board the Dipsey an electrician who had long been preparing himself for this expedition; there were to be other scientific men; there would be a submarine engineer, and such minor officers and assistants as would be necessary; but Clewe wanted some one who would represent him, who could be trusted to act in his place in case of success or of failure, who could be thoroughly depended upon should a serious emergency arise. Such a man was Samuel Block, and, somewhat strange to say, old Sammy was perfectly willing to go to the pole. He was always ready for anything within bounds of his duty, and those bounds included everything which Mr. Clewe wished done.

Sammy was an old-fashioned man, and therefore, in talking over arrangements with Roland Clewe, he insisted upon having a sailor in the party.

"In old times," said he, "when I was a young man, nobody ever thought of settin' out on any kind of sea-voyagin' without havin' a sailor along. The fact is, they used to be pretty much all sailors."

"But in this expedition," said Clewe, "a sailor would be out of place. One of your old-fashioned mariners would not know what to do under the water. Submarine voyaging is an entirely different profession from that of the old-time navigator."

"I know all that," said Sammy. "I know how everything is a machine nowadays; but I shall never forget what a glorious thing it was to sail on the sea with the wind blowin' and the water curlin' beneath your keel. I lived on the coast, and used to go out whenever I had a chance, but things is mightily changed nowadays. Just think of that yacht-race in England the other day-a race between two electric yachts, with a couple of vessels ploughin' along to windward carryin' between 'em a board fence thirty feet high to keep the wind off the yachts and give 'em both smooth water and equal chance. I can't get used to that sort of thing, and I tell you, sir, that if I am goin' on a voyage to the pole, I want to have a sailor along. If everything goes all right, we must come to the top of the water some time, and then we ought to have at least one man who understands surface navigation."

"All right," said Clewe; "get your sailor."

"I've got my eye on him; he's a Cape Cod man, and he's not so very old either. When he was a boy people went about in ships with sails, and even after he grew up Cap'n Jim was a great feller to manage a catboat; for things has moved slower on the Cape than in many parts of the country."

So Captain Jim Hubbell was engaged as sailor to the expedition; and when he came on to Sardis and looked over the Dipsey he expressed a general opinion of her construction and capabilities which indicated a disposition on his part to send her, and all others fashioned after her plan, to depths a great deal lower than ever had been contemplated by their inventors. Still, as he wanted very much to go to the pole if it was possible that he could get there, and as the wages offered him were exceedingly liberal, Captain Jim enlisted, in the party. His duties were to begin when the Dipsey floated on the surface of the sea like a commonsense craft.

A day or two before the expedition was ready to start, Roland Clewe was very much surprised one morning by a visit from Sammy's wife, Mrs. Sarah Block, who lost no time in informing him that she had made up her mind to accompany her husband on the perilous voyage he was about to make.

"You!" said Clewe. "You could not go on such an expedition as that!"

"If Sammy goes, I go," said Mrs. Block. "If it is dangerous for me, it is dangerous for him. I have been tryin' to get sense enough in his head to make him stay at home, but I can't do it; so I have made up my mind that I go with him or he don't go. We have travelled together on top of the land, and we have travelled together on top of the water, and if there's to be travellin' under the water, why then we travel together all the same. If Sammy goes polin', I go polin'. I think he's a fool to do it; but if he's goin' to be a fool, I am goin' to be a fool. And as for my bein' in the way, you needn't think of that, Mr. Clewe. I can cook for the livin', I can take care of the sick, and I can sew up the dead in shrouds."

"All right, Mrs. Block," said Clewe. "If you insist on it, and Sammy is willing, you may go; but I will beg of you not to say anything about the third class of good offices which you propose to perform for the party, for it might cast a gloom over some of the weaker-minded."

"Cast a gloom!" said Mrs. Block. "If all I hear is true, there will be a general gloom over everything that will be like havin' a black pocket-handkercher tied over your head, and I don't know that anything I could say would make that gloom more gloomier."

When Margaret Raleigh parted with Clewe on the deck of the Go Lightly, the large electric vessel which was to tow the Dipsey up to the limits of navigable Northern waters, she knew he must make a long journey, nearly twice as far as the voyage to England, before she could hear from him; but when he arrived at Cape Tariff, a point far up on the northwestern coast of Greenland, she would hear from him; for from this point there was telegraphic communication with the rest of the world. There was a little station there, established by some commercial companies, and their agent was a telegraph-operator.

The passage from New York to Cape Tariff was an uneventful one, and when Clewe disembarked at the lonely Greenland station he was greeted by a long message from Mrs. Raleigh, the principal import of which was that on no account must he allow himself to be persuaded to go on the submarine voyage of the Dipsey. On his part, Clewe had no desire to make any change in his plans. During all the long voyage northward his heart had been at Sardis.

The Dipsey was a comparatively small vessel, but it afforded comfortable accommodations for a dozen or more people, and there was room for all the stores which would be needed for a year. She was furnished, besides, with books and every useful and convenient contrivance which had been thought desirable for her peculiar expedition.

When everything was ready, Roland Clewe took leave of the officers, the crew, and the passenger on board the Dipsey, and the last-mentioned, as she shook hands with him, shed tears.

"It seems to me like a sort of a congregational suicide, Mr. Clewe," said she. "And it can't even be said that all the members are doin' it of their own accord, for I am not. If Sammy did not go, I would not, but if he does, I do, and there's the end of that; and I suppose it won't be very much longer before there's the end of all of us. I hope you will tell Mrs. Raleigh that I sent my best love to her with my last words; for even if I was to see her again, it would seem to me like beginning all over again, and this would be the end of this part of my life all the same. What I hope and pray for is that none of the party may die of any kind of a disease before the rest all go to their end together; for remains on board an under-water vessel is somethin' which mighty few nerves would be able to stand."

When all farewells had been said, Mr. Clewe went on board the Go Lightly, on the deck of which were her officers and men and the few inhabitants of the station, and then the plate-glass hatchways of the Dipsey were tightly closed, and she began to sink, until she entirely disappeared below the surface of the water, leaving above her a little floating glass globe, connected with her by an electric wire.

As the Dipsey went under the sea, this little globe followed her on the surface, and the Go Lightly immediately began to move after her. This arrangement had been made, as Clewe wished to follow the Dipsey for a time, in order to see if everything was working properly with her. She kept on a straight course, flashing a light into the little globe every now and then; and finally, after meeting some floating ice, she shattered the globe with an explosion, which was the signal agreed upon to show that all was well, and that the Dipsey had started off alone on the submarine voyage to the pole.

Roland Clewe gazed out over the wide stretch of dark-green waves and glistening crests, where nothing could be seen which indicated life except a distant, wearily-flapping sea bird, and then, turning his back upon the pole, he made preparations for his return voyage to New York, at which port he might expect to receive direct news from Sammy Block and his companions.

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