Sherlock Holmes Investigates. The Lascar's Fate.(9)
Author:Philip van Wulven

    “Very good, everything isset, and we are on schedule for departure in an hour.” Smeenkrubbed his palms together, like a merchant who had just sold a boltof silk cloth to a customer for twice its worth.

    Holmes said, “Mr Smeenk, sir,I am overcome with thoughts of the possibilities you have opened withthis remarkable series of innovations. You have single-handedlyovercome a multiplicity of technical difficulties, and invented awhole series of important new techniques. Any one of your devices orprocesses would be enough to gain you riches and fame. I realise thatwas not your intent, but it remains true. You will be besieged byidle gawkers, journalists, scientists, Government representatives,businessmen and foreign powers, all wanting your secrets. Some willwant to participate with you in the development of your inventions,some will want to seize them for their own or their employer’sbenefit, some will try to plain steal from you, and of course somewill want you to marry their daughters, attend their garden parties,or donate to their favourite charity.”

    Smeenk busied himself with asuccession of checks and tests, to ensure the integrity of the craftbefore the flight. Holmes and I were content to rest in the shade ofthe trees nearby, and contemplate, respectively, the beauty of naturein my case, and the mathematical precision of the placement of leavesalong a branch of hazel, in the case of my companion. Holmes, ofcourse, also took opportunity to enjoy his customary Cavendishtobacco while we were at some remove from the vicinity of theflammable materials in the hangar.

    After an hour of these variedpursuits, Smeenk came over to us and said, “For this flight,wemight try a landing in open country, with a gradual approach and setdown, while using only the buoyancy controls to bring her down,rather than the winches.”

    The roof drew open, to show asky flecked with a few cumulus clouds, rounded, dense, and slowmoving. The wind would be at normal velocities, nothing like enoughto do much more than raise small whitecaps on the waves out on theSolent. Very good weather for yachtsmen, and nothing a farmer, or awoman with washing to dry, would worry about. Ideal for a test flightof the airship, intended to try her capabilities under optimumconditions.

    Tobias Smeenk quickly set forthhis intentions. “We will all be aboard, all three of us. There willbe occupation for each of us during this flight, never fear. Myintention is to teach the two of you to operate the vehicle, so thatany one of us can fly her. There are several good reasons for this,namely, the need for relief during long voyages, the projectedcommissioning of several more airships in the near future, andlastly, so that I can conduct research and experiments duringflights, while another sees to the tasks of steering and navigation.”

    Holmes and I looked at oneanother, and we both showed our delight. Just what each had secretlyhoped for, an opportunity to be a pilot, to control the greatmachine. Neither of us commented on his assumption that we would dropall other commitments, and devote ourselves entirely to hisinvention.

    This happy mood gave way tosomething rather different within the space of a mere thirty seconds.

    A shadow fell across the openhangar, as something gigantic blocked the sunlight. We all looked up,casually at first, then with growing puzzlement. Another airship?Nothing else fitted what loomed low overhead, a huge grey shape,barely above treetop height.

    There was no exterior frameworkon this craft, just a painted fabric envelope with a passengergondola suspended below. There were gigantic propellors fore and aft,and we heard engines of some type, noisier than steam, but probablyat low speed currently, running just enough to keep the gondola overtop of us.

    Holmes was the first to understand who this could be. “Ravendra! This must be thatreprobate! I heard he was doing something on these lines. Has he justcome to inspect his rival, then? I doubt he can land, there is nospace here for that clumsy craft.”

    Clumsy seemed an appropriatelabel, for the craft evinced difficulty in maintaining a stableposition overhead, even with the steady light wind conditions.

    Our puzzlement soon increased,as a hatch opened in the bottom of the gondola, and showed a blackcylinder, held by metal clamps. We watched as the clamps jerked, andbegan to swing open.

    Holmes called, “Look out,that thing is going to drop right on us!” He ran to the back of thehangar, and pressed up against the wall, while gesturing us others tofollow his example. When I looked up again the threatening airshiphad moved. It couldn’t hold a stable position, and a momentary gusthad blown it out of position.

    Crash! An earthshakingexplosion came from the edge of the clearing. The shockwave threw usall off our feet, with ringing ears and gaping mouths.

    “What was that? What ishappening? Did it crash?” asked Smeenk.

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