FROM 10 P.M. TO 10 46' 40''.
The moment that the great clock belonging to the works at Stony Hill had struck ten, Barbican, Ardan and M'Nicholl began to take their last farewells of the numerous friends surrounding them. The two dogs intended to accompany them had been already deposited in the Projectile. The three travellers approached the mouth of the enormous cannon, seated themselves in the flying car, and once more took leave for the last time of the vast throng standing in silence around them. The windlass creaked, the car started, and the three daring men disappeared in the yawning gulf.
The trap-hole giving them ready access to the interior of the Projectile, the car soon came back empty; the great windlass was presently rolled away; the tackle and scaffolding were removed, and in a short space of time the great mouth of the Columbiad was completely rid of all obstructions.
M'Nicholl took upon himself to fasten the door of the trap on the inside by means of a powerful combination of screws and bolts of his own invention. He also covered up very carefully the glass lights with strong iron plates of extreme solidity and tightly fitting joints.
Ardan's first care was to turn on the gas, which he found burning rather low; but he lit no more than one burner, being desirous to economize as much as possible their store of light and heat, which, as he well knew, could not at the very utmost last them longer than a few weeks.
Under the cheerful blaze, the interior of the Projectile looked like a comfortable little chamber, with its circular sofa, nicely padded walls, and dome shaped ceiling.
All the articles that it contained, arms, instruments, utensils, etc., were solidly fastened to the projections of the wadding, so as to sustain the least injury possible from the first terrible shock. In fact, all precautions possible, humanly speaking, had been taken to counteract this, the first, and possibly one of the very greatest dangers to which the courageous adventurers would be exposed.
Ardan expressed himself to be quite pleased with the appearance of things in general.
"It's a prison, to be sure," said he "but not one of your ordinary prisons that always keep in the one spot. For my part, as long as I can have the privilege of looking out of the window, I am willing to lease it for a hundred years. Ah! Barbican, that brings out one of your stony smiles. You think our lease may last longer than that! Our tenement may become our coffin, eh? Be it so. I prefer it anyway to Mahomet's; it may indeed float in the air, but it won't be motionless as a milestone!"
Barbican, having made sure by personal inspection that everything was in perfect order, consulted his chronometer, which he had carefully set a short time before with Chief Engineer Murphy's, who had been charged to fire off the Projectile.
"Friends," he said, "it is now twenty minutes past ten. At 10 46' 40'', precisely, Murphy will send the electric current into the gun-cotton. We have, therefore, twenty-six minutes more to remain on earth."
"Twenty-six minutes and twenty seconds," observed Captain M'Nicholl, who always aimed at mathematical precision.
"Twenty-six minutes!" cried Ardan, gaily. "An age, a cycle, according to the use you make of them. In twenty-six minutes how much can be done! The weightiest questions of warfare, politics, morality, can be discussed, even decided, in twenty-six minutes. Twenty-six minutes well spent are infinitely more valuable than twenty-six lifetimes wasted! A few seconds even, employed by a Pascal, or a Newton, or a Barbican, or any other profoundly intellectual being Whose thoughts wander through eternity—"
"As mad as Marston! Every bit!" muttered the Captain, half audibly.
"What do you conclude from this rigmarole of yours?" interrupted Barbican.
"I conclude that we have twenty-six good minutes still left—"
"Only twenty-four minutes, ten seconds," interrupted the Captain, watch in hand.
"Well, twenty-four minutes, Captain," Ardan went on; "now even in twenty-four minutes, I maintain—"
"Ardan," interrupted Barbican, "after a very little while we shall have plenty of time for philosophical disputations. Just now let us think of something far more pressing."
"More pressing! what do you mean? are we not fully prepared?"
"Yes, fully prepared, as far at least as we have been able to foresee. But we may still, I think, possibly increase the number of precautions to be taken against the terrible shock that we are so soon to experience."
"What? Have you any doubts whatever of the effectiveness of your brilliant and extremely original idea? Don't you think that the layers of water, regularly disposed in easily-ruptured partitions beneath this floor, will afford us sufficient protection by their elasticity?"
"I hope so, indeed, my dear friend, but I am by no means confident."
"He hopes! He is by no means confident! Listen to that, Mac! Pretty time to tell us so! Let me out of here!"
"Too late!" observed the Captain quietly. "The trap-hole alone would take ten or fifteen minutes to open."
"Oh then I suppose I must make the best of it," said Ardan, laughing. "All aboard, gentlemen! The train starts in twenty minutes!"
"In nineteen minutes and eighteen seconds," said the Captain, who never took his eye off the chronometer.
The three travellers looked at each other for a little while, during which even Ardan appeared to become serious. After another careful glance at the several objects lying around them, Barbican said, quietly:
"Everything is in its place, except ourselves. What we have now to do is to decide on the position we must take in order to neutralize the shock as much as possible. We must be particularly careful to guard against a rush of blood to the head."
"Correct!" said the Captain.
"Suppose we stood on our heads, like the circus tumblers!" cried Ardan, ready to suit the action to the word.
"Better than that," said Barbican; "we can lie on our side. Keep clearly in mind, dear friends, that at the instant of departure it makes very little difference to us whether we are inside the bullet or in front of it. There is, no doubt, some difference," he added, seeing the great eyes made by his friends, "but it is exceedingly little."
"Thank heaven for the some!" interrupted Ardan, fervently.
"Don't you approve of my suggestion, Captain?" asked Barbican.
"Certainly," was the hasty reply. "That is to say, absolutely. Seventeen minutes twenty-seven seconds!"
"Mac isn't a human being at all!" cried Ardan, admiringly. "He is a repeating chronometer, horizontal escapement, London-made lever, capped, jewelled,—"
His companions let him run on while they busied themselves in making their last arrangements, with the greatest coolness and most systematic method. In fact, I don't think of anything just now to compare them to except a couple of old travellers who, having to pass the night in the train, are trying to make themselves as comfortable as possible for their long journey. In your profound astonishment, you may naturally ask me of what strange material can the hearts of these Americans be made, who can view without the slightest semblance of a flutter the approach of the most appalling dangers? In your curiosity I fully participate, but, I'm sorry to say, I can't gratify it. It is one of those things that I could never find out.
Three mattresses, thick and well wadded, spread on the disc forming the false bottom of the Projectile, were arranged in lines whose parallelism was simply perfect. But Ardan would never think of occupying his until the very last moment. Walking up and down, with the restless nervousness of a wild beast in a cage, he kept up a continuous fire of talk; at one moment with his friends, at another with the dogs, addressing the latter by the euphonious and suggestive names of Diana and Satellite.
"Ho, pets!" he would exclaim as he patted them gently, "you must not forget the noble part you are to play up there. You must be models of canine deportment. The eyes of the whole Selenitic world will be upon you. You are the standard bearers of your race. From you they will receive their first impression regarding its merits. Let it be a favorable one. Compel those Selenites to acknowledge, in spite of themselves, that the terrestrial race of canines is far superior to that of the very best Moon dog among them!"
"Dogs in the Moon!" sneered M'Nicholl, "I like that!"
"Plenty of dogs!" cried Ardan, "and horses too, and cows, and sheep, and no end of chickens!"
"A hundred dollars to one there isn't a single chicken within the whole Lunar realm, not excluding even the invisible side!" cried the Captain, in an authoritative tone, but never taking his eye off the chronometer.
"I take that bet, my son," coolly replied Ardan, shaking the Captain's hand by way of ratifying the wager; "and this reminds me, by the way, Mac, that you have lost three bets already, to the pretty little tune of six thousand dollars."
"And paid them, too!" cried the captain, monotonously; "ten, thirty-six, six!"
"Yes, and in a quarter of an hour you will have to pay nine thousand dollars more; four thousand because the Columbiad will not burst, and five thousand because the Projectile will rise more than six miles from the Earth."
"I have the money ready," answered the Captain, touching his breeches pocket. "When I lose I pay. Not sooner. Ten, thirty-eight, ten!"
"Captain, you're a man of method, if there ever was one. I think, however, that you made a mistake in your wagers."
"How so?" asked the Captain listlessly, his eye still on the dial.
"Because, by Jove, if you win there will be no more of you left to take the money than there will be of Barbican to pay it!"
"Friend Ardan," quietly observed Barbican, "my stakes are deposited in the Wall Street Bank, of New York, with orders to pay them over to the Captain's heirs, in case the Captain himself should fail to put in an appearance at the proper time."
"Oh! you rhinoceroses, you pachyderms, you granite men!" cried Ardan, gasping with surprise; "you machines with iron heads, and iron hearts! I may admire you, but I'm blessed if I understand you!"
"Ten, forty-two, ten!" repeated M'Nicholl, as mechanically as if it was the chronometer itself that spoke.
"Four minutes and a half more," said Barbican.
"Oh! four and a half little minutes!" went on Ardan. "Only think of it! We are shut up in a bullet that lies in the chamber of a cannon nine hundred feet long. Underneath this bullet is piled a charge of 400 thousand pounds of gun-cotton, equivalent to 1600 thousand pounds of ordinary gunpowder! And at this very instant our friend Murphy, chronometer in hand, eye on dial, finger on discharger, is counting the last seconds and getting ready to launch us into the limitless regions of planetary—"
"Ardan, dear friend," interrupted Barbican, in a grave tone, "a serious moment is now at hand. Let us meet it with some interior recollection. Give me your hands, my dear friends."
"Certainly," said Ardan, with tears in his voice, and already at the other extreme of his apparent levity.
The three brave men united in one last, silent, but warm and impulsively affectionate pressure.
"And now, great God, our Creator, protect us! In Thee we trust!" prayed Barbican, the others joining him with folded hands and bowed heads.
"Ten, forty-six!" whispered the Captain, as he and Ardan quietly took their places on the mattresses.
Only forty seconds more!
Barbican rapidly extinguishes the gas and lies down beside his companions.
The deathlike silence now reigning in the Projectile is interrupted only by the sharp ticking of the chronometer as it beats the seconds.
Suddenly, a dreadful shock is felt, and the Projectile, shot up by the instantaneous development of 200,000 millions of cubic feet of gas, is flying into space with inconceivable rapidity!