Sherlock Holmes Investigates. The Lascar's Fate.(3)
Author:Philip van Wulven

    I noted a number of cablesreached from the building into the mouth of a tunnel, close by theone from which we had emerged.

    “I say, those have theappearance of electrical cables, Holmes. Do you see that? How odd,that someone should hide such a modern technological enterprise inthe woods, away from the facilities of a civic setting.”

    Holmes took his pipe from hismouth, where it had been firmly clenched these several hours, andcarefully knocked the ashes out onto the ground. He ground themfirmly into the earth, and inspected his pipe bowl a moment, thentook out his pocket knife and scraped the bowl diligently. “Is thatlantern extinguished, Watson? I think we must take great care thatthere is no ignition source about us. Your boots have no hobnails, dothey? For any spark could cause a fearsome conflagration. I thinkthere is a quantity of hydrogen gas around us here.”

    My lantern was snuffed beforewe left the cave, as his had been, so I merely nodded in affirmation.I understood his point at once. Hydrogen can be extracted from waterwith the use of electricity, and is a buoyant gas, if flammable.Thus, the setting was ideally suited to this enterprise, with water,a supply of electrical current generated by a nearby waterfall in theunderground caverns we had emerged from, and a lesser likelihood ofaccidental ignition from the ignorant use of tobacco or open flame inthe vicinity.

    “Hello, is anyone here?” Icalled.

    No answer came, save from myfriend, who said, “I think they are engaged in monitoring thehydrogen production facility, which must be underground, in some suchcavern as that we have just explored. More care is needed there thanaboveground at this stage. There is very probably a reservoirunderground, which the pump draws on and further compresses into thefloat-envelope above. Now, that reservoir must not be allowed to drawin any air as it is depleted, lest an explosive mixture is created.Pure hydrogen cannot ignite, but mixed with air, or at least oxygen,becomes dangerous.”

    I asked, “If that is thecase, why the caution in regard to open flames and sparks?”

    “Any gas that leaks from thepipes, or the fixtures and fittings, will immediately mix withambient air, and become a hazard.”

    We walked under the great gasbag, and entered the log building, where we found a mechanicalworkshop worthy of a veritable Brunel, an engineer of skill, multipleinterests, and considerable means. There was no machinist at thelathe, drill press, or any of the other equipment, though metalshavings in a corner showed recent use, in the fabrication or repairof some sort of machinery.

    I said, “I wonder, has allthis anything to do with the smuggling? After all, this sort ofenterprise must cost a pretty penny, and from the location, thosefellows must be at the least aware of one another’s activities.”

    “This would most certainly beuseful in transporting goods across land and sea, but I don’t thinkillicit usage sufficiently lucrative to compel the inventor to forgothe rewards of legitimate trade and passenger transport. Then thereare the military applications. A few demonstration flights, and I amsure the Government would be very interested in purchasing several,if only for use as observation platforms.”

    I said, “With that engine andpropeller I see the intention is to be mobile. I wonder what sort offuel is to be used, and how it will fare in a strong wind?”

    “Good questions, sir. I can’tyet answer you with certainty about how she will handle in acrosswind, but I can say the fuel is hydrogen gas.”

    I jumped, because I had notseen him approach, but there he stood, evidently the inventor, andlikely chief fabricator, of the vehicle we were admiring. He stoodsomewhat shorter than myself, at perhaps five feet and six inches, asturdy man with piercing blue eyes beneath shaggy brows and an unrulyshock of brown hair, streaked with grey at the temples and forelock.

    Holmes said, “Good day, sir.We are delighted to meet you. I am Sherlock Holmes, and my companionis Dr John Watson, both of London.

    Various pleasantries wereexchanged, and possible mutual acquaintances mentioned, but TobiasSmeenk seemed to move in rather different social circles, thoughseveral people he mentioned, members of the Royal Society orprominent scientists, were persons I had heard of, but never met.

    In any case, a trial flight wasintended within the hour, and our presence resolved a difficulty. MrSmeenk had awaited, with growing impatience, the arrival of some menhe had hired in the nearby village of Kinson to assist in casting offthe mooring ropes, and to act as ground crew when he returned from ashort test flight.

    The sight of the great airshipwas staggering. The size was comparable to one of the navy ships inPortsmouth Dockyard, lying stranded in the dry-dock. The blue colourof the outer skin gave it a festive air, like a gigantic child’srubber balloon, as it hung a few feet above the floor, restinglightly on top of the passenger cabin, which was the only partactually in contact with the ground.

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