The wind was a screaming fury.
It caught the great balloon and whirled it, tossing it as if its silken mass and the great gondola suspended from its netting were of no more weight than a fallen leaf. Clouds were high above; below, the jagged peaks of the Scottish highlands made a craggy wilderness, stretching upward as if to embrace the men clinging so perilously to the suspension ropes.
This wind was the dreaded haur, that black gale which whips across the highlands in an easterly or westerly direction according to its moods. It whistled through the guide ropes and brought tears to the eyes of the four men whose muscles ached from the strain of their handholds. When they spoke, they had to shout against its blustering and found their words carried away almost instantly.
"Fergusson—we're going down!”
"Lift her, man—get her up higher!"
Professor Samuel Fergusson shook his graying head, but did not speak. No need for him to talk; his companions were doing enough of that; he only tightened his fingers on the gondola moldboard and waited. This balloon which flirted so closely with the jagged highland rocks looming closer and closer below their feet was his invention. His also had been the invitation which had brought Major General Sir Henry Vining aloft with him, his the proposition which so interested his assistant, young Jacques Verlaine, who was staring down at the nearness of the giant crags, his the reputation as explorer and scientist which intrigued Dr. Morton who stood just beyond the others, swaying to the violence of the haur.
He believed in his invention—in this magnificent balloon whose red and purple bag appeared to be failing them in their desperate need, in this ornate gondola which seemed destined to be splintered to fragments within short minutes—and he well knew its capabilities. Down and down it swept, nearer and nearer to the grim death waiting amid those crags, yet he stood clinging to the rail capping and made no move.
"Do something,” screamed Sir Henry, forgetting his dignity and military discipline in the anxiety which paralyzed him. "Are we to be hurled into oblivion by this—this infernal contraption of yours, Fergusson?”
Gone for the moment was the stuffy, arrogant cavalry commander, the soldier who boasted Sandhurst as his background, who had served his queen with distinction at Khartoum in the Sudan. His usually rigid back was bowed before the wind, his normally ruddy face pale in despair, the monocle he affected long since swept away.
Fergusson turned his gaze toward Morton.
Fright had crumpled his features into a caricature of themselves. Forgotten was the fact that he was treasurer of the Royal Geographical Society; instead he was merely a man terrified of dying, intent only on remaining alive as he regarded the inventor with dismay in his eyes.
"There must be something you can think of, Sam."
“Ballast!" bellowed Sir Henry. "Isn't that what you do? Throw it out or some such thing?"
Fergusson appeared to ponder, nodding his head. "That is true. Throwing ballast overboard is the accepted way to make a balloon rise. The only trouble is, gentlemen—we have no ballast."
Morton groaned and closed his eyes. Major General Sir Henry Vining screeched, “Imbecility! Stark raving insanity! You brought us here to demonstrate this wretched balloon of yours and—and you neglect to take the most fundamental precautions for our safety."
Upward came the jagged Grey peaks of the Grampians. Less than fifty feet now separated these four men from the deaths which awaited them on those sharp gneiss needles. Now they could see the slate veins in the rock, the blue waters of the loch, the pine needles strewing the ground where the conifers raised their green height skyward.
All the bag need do was scrape against the jutting rocks. The silk would be slit as if with a Scottish claymore. The hydrogen would explode outward, the silken remnants collapse—and the four men would plunge downward to be crushed on jagged stone or on the smooth waters of the loch which, from such a great height, would be like hitting a stone wall.
Fergusson cleared his throat. "In a sense, gentlemen, we do have some ballast of sorts aboard."
"Ah, now—that's better," declared Sir Henry with a trace of his old military stiffness. "Get to it, man. Get to it."
"The ballast I was referring to is human ballast, Sir Henry. One of ourselves, so to speak. If one of us will volunteer to jump overboard—sacrifice himself so the other three may, go on living,"
Vining was apoplectic, face purple and eyes bulging. "Can't believe my ears. Must have heard you wrong. Otherwise were you joking, sir?” he roared.
Morton was shaking uncontrollably. The crags were thirty feet away and rapidly coming closer. Twenty feet! Any second now the bottom of the gondola would hit the great rock which towered before them—overturn as it splintered—spilling its living cargo earthward to their doom.
With a harsh cry, Morton covered his eyes with his palms. "I can't look. I can't!" Echoing his despair, Sir Henry Vining followed his example.
Neither man saw Professor Fergusson nod and wink at his young assistant. As if that were a signal previously agreed upon, the young Frenchman whirled toward an iron heater fitted with pipes leading upward toward the great valves of the huge balloon. His hands went out, closing on a handle.
The red and purple bag quivered like a living thing in response to that turning handle. It strained until its gores hummed with tension as it battled gravity and the black haur wind.
The highland crags remained stationary, twenty feet below.
Upward rose the great balloon, slowly at first and then a little faster. The great tongue of rock ahead of them dropped away as the gondola skimmed above it by mere inches. The bag was lifting perceptibly now, ascending more swiftly at every second.
Doctor Morton and Sir Henry felt the lift of the gondola floor against their legs. Their hands fell away and they stared wildly about them, seeing the dropping highlands, the humming creaking bag overhead, the strumming suspension ropes.
"Wha—what happened?” whispered Sir Henry. "What miracle saved us just when—when I was preparing myself to meet my Maker?”
"No miracle, Sir Henry—but an application of what I fondly call 'the Fergusson secret."
"Fergusson secret?” echoed Doctor Morton. "What's that?”
"A ballooning 'break through', gentlemen—in which the use of heat is applied to the hydrogen in the envelope causing it to expand, thereby giving our craft the ability to ascend or descend at will."
The major general gaped at him. Twice he strove to speak but no sound came from his lips; then in a rush, he exploded.
“Do you mean to say, Professor Fergusson, that you had this contraption under control all the way? Even back there where Morton and I were reconciling ourselves to the inevitable?”
The professor made a little inclination of his head. “So often in the past my inventions have been shrugged off as mere 'contraptions' that I planned this little trip exactly as it took place. Melodramatic, perhaps. But I think you will agree—highly effective!"
Sir Henry Vining stared back at the inventor, his mottled cheeks revealing the flush of anger still inside him, mixed only slightly with relief at finding himself alive and likely to remain so for some time to come. He was a proud man, this ex-commandant of Khartoum. There was a subdued shame in him when he realized how he must have looked to Fergusson with his big hands covering his eyes, as if cowering in fear from imminent death.
The professor wondered uneasily if he had made an enemy.
In the days of Robert Bruce, Fergusson Manor had been a small castle housing the chief of the Clan Fergusson and his tartaned retainers. From its Grey stone walls and over its drawbridge, armored men had clattered out to victory at Bannockburn and later to defeat at Flodden Field and, in the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie, at Culloden.
Now its moat was gone and from the turret poles which once had flown the red lion of Scotland, the Union Jack flapped lazily in the breeze. Bayberry bushes supplanted the old outbuildings. Smooth green lawn replaced the smithy and the tilting yard.
Those lawns were crowded now with people staring upward.
Å hand pointed. A voice cried out, sharply and with pleasure.
“There they are. Can you make them out?”
“Yes, yes. I see them. The black dot."
The dot grew larger until it widened to become the great red and purple bag with its dependent gondola. Downward it swept in a graceful curve, ropes taut, painted gondola gleaming in the bright sunlight. Arms lifted and waved. Voices rose into a great cheer. The four men in the car contented themselves with waving their arms, since at such a height it would have been impossible to make themselves heard.
Swiftly yet gracefully the balloon came ground-ward The young Frenchman reached for the whistle cord and as he tugged it, a loud blast heralded both their approach and the triumph they had achieved. The crowd roared in delight, then surged forward. As if to meet them, the balloon itself came skimming the treetops, rose above the fence-work bordering a distant field and valved down on the wide stretch of lawn.
Professor Fergusson leaned on the gondola rail and drew a deep breath. Victory! At long last, he had triumphed. Over ranting critics, over unbelievers and skeptics, over such august personages as the members of the Royal Geographical Society who, with a dozen newsmen, made up the crowd running to share his moment of glory. No longer would his name be the target for snickers behind upraised hands. From this day on he would be one with other aerostats, with Pilatre de Rozier who had been, with the Marquis d'Arlandes as his passenger, the first man ever to make a free ascent, with Joseph Montgolfier who first had filled a balloon with hot air and sent it aloft carrying a sheep, a rooster and a duck.
Yes, with his Fergusson secret, he would rank with the immortals. Even that martinet Vining must admit as much. Inner satisfaction made him swing about and smile at the British officer.
"And now, Sir Henry? You’ll admit I have the Royal Geographical Society's blessing? I may count on its financial backing for my venture to Africa?”
Sir Henry went red with anger. "Blessing? Blessing, indeed! Financial backing? Not a penny, sir! You must be out of your mind to suppose me so gullible as to lend my support to any such hare-brained voyage as you contemplate."
"But I surely thought—"
"You thought to gull me with your mountebank methods!”
The professor looked down his nose. "Melodramatic, yes. But—"
Major General Sir Henry Vining drew himself up as if on parade before Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. "Professor, let me speak plainly. I am an expert on Africa. I have served in the dark continent many years. Your toy—"
"Toy!" bellowed Fergusson.
“I repeat, your toy would not last out the week in such a climate. So you want to go exploring East Africa in a wooden basket, do you? Hah! Stuff and nonsense! Both you and your toy would perish in seven days."
Fergusson felt his veins distend in fury. He extended a hand toward the baronet, shook a finger in his face as he opened his mouth to speak. It was then that his young assistant, Jacques Verlaine, thrust forward to brave the brunt of the Vining temper.
"M'sieu," he began smoothly, “surely there has never been such a balloon as the professor's! You yourself have seen how easily she handles. She goes up. She goes down."
"As does the stock market," retorted Sir Henry, slinging a leg over the gondola railing and reaching for the eager hands rising to support him. With both feet firmly planted on the ground, he swung about, his back like a ramrod.
"Not one penny shall you receive, Professor Fergusson. Not one blasted cent. And take my advice. The next time you contemplate any such tomfoolery—be advised to choose some victim other than the President of the society from which you seek to obtain your backing!"
His bellowed words fell like thunderclaps in the sudden stillness which held the crowd spellbound. Men turned embarrassed stares toward one another. Reporters for the Daily Telegraph and other British papers were hurriedly scribbling on their scratch pads.
Sir Henry expelled his breath with a last, "Good day to you, sir!” He whirled on a heel as if at drill and marched off toward a waiting carriage.
Professor Fergusson looked around him, shrugging, attempting to fight his despair at this unexpected reverse in fortune. He had counted so much on this demonstration! Money from the Society with which to blaze an aerial pathway over unexplored East Africa, mapping it as he traveled, was his lifetime dream. Fergusson believed in aerial cartography. As of now, it was relatively unknown. With the help of his balloon, he hoped to demonstrate that it could be converted into an exact science.
Instead, he had met bitter defeat, ending all his hopes.
Tired and disillusioned, bowing his head as if his graying hair had become an intolerably heavy helmet, he made his way from the balloon, shaking off questioners, greeting the newsmen with helpless little gestures of his hands. He had no heart to meet them with words, nor any stomach for explanations and evasions.
"Sorry, gentlemen,” he murmured. "I'm very sorry. No, no comment.” What comment could he possibly make for publication? "Let's just say that this is another of my projects which died aborning."
"Maybe not, professor,” exclaimed a voice with a strong American accent.
At first the words did not register with him, he was so sunk in gloom. Then as the tall man in the expensive sack coat, with velvet collar cleared his throat and smiled in genial fashion, the professor found himself looking more sharply at him. He noted little details, seeing the engraved card he was holding out, the cut of his garments, his gray derby, the gold-handled cane he carried.
Faintly bewildered, he accepted the card, staring down at it.
Cornelius P. Randolph.
"Of the Randolph Newspaper Chain, Professor Fergusson," went on the tall man with another expansive smile. "Here by invitation of one of my British fellow journalists. I want to tell you I like what I saw today. Very much. So much so that—if you're willing to gamble your life, I'm willing to gamble my money."
"You are?” asked the professor, not quite accepting the evidence of his ears.
"Exactly. The Randolph Chain will be happy to finance your African expedition. Naturally, we'll want sole rights to the story. I'll have one of my top reporters go along with you, write it up for publication in my newspapers. Young fellow by the name of O'Shay. Now, then. How long will it take to ship your balloon to your starting point?"
Still somewhat dazedly, Fergusson said, “I'd intended to launch from Zanzibar on the east coast."
"Zanzibar, eh? Good. What's your earliest launch date?” "Three months from now. I—I couldn't make it sooner."
"Good enough. Young O'Shay is in Paris at the moment. Give him time to take a steamer there himself. Make it sooner, naturally, if the canal at Suez were finished.”
"I hardly know what to say," murmured Fergusson.
“You'll like O'Shay," went on the American expansively, ignoring Fergusson's words. “Nice quiet, inoffensive fellow."
The fog rolled in off the Thames across the West India docks, blotting out the high-masted schooners, Black Ball packets and clipper ships riding their anchors in the river waters. Its whiteness crept across the cobblestones of docks and quays, coating them with wetness that glistened in the few gas-lamps visible on shed walls and iron posts. In the distance the deep moan of a horn betrayed an oncoming steam brig seeking passage.
Two men in heavy woolen greatcoats walked out of the darkness around Thames Street and stood a moment staring at a windjammer, listening to the scrape of its heavy anchor-chain and the low voices of the men dragging at it as they chanted in unison with their moving arms and straining backs.
The two men looked at one another in alarm.
"We'd best hurry," said the taller.
They broke into a run, heading toward the ship.
Professor Fergusson was poring over a map of the African coastal waters when the knock sounded on his cabin door. At first he did not hear it, being too absorbed in his calculations. Instead of ink and paper and the curlicues which marked the east coast of Africa, he was seeing green waters and a low sandy shore rimmed with mangrove trees. The circle of brightness from his Argyl lamp had an almost hypnotic effect upon him. His eyelids were heavy but there was an inner excitement sustaining him. His fingers moved for a caliper.
The knock sounded a second time, more sharply.
"Professor? Professor Fergusson?"
"Eh? Oh, yes. Come in, come in."
A seaman in striped jersey and tight trousers knuckled his brow. "Beggin' your pardon, sir. There's two men from Scotland Yard on the main deck askin' for you."
"Scotland Yard? But—but why in the world should—oh, well, I'd better go along. I do hope there's nothing wrong. Especially now when—when I've raised my hopes so high.”
Shrugging into a worn frock coat, he followed the seaman from the cabin and up the companionway to the main deck. He had forgotten how bad the fog was; he could see scarcely four feet ahead of him; the two men waiting by the port rail were shadowy figures until he was within arms' reach of them. Only dimly was he aware of Jacques Verlaine at his elbow.
“Gentlemen? I'm Professor Fergusson. Are you really from Scotland Yard?"
"I'm afraid we are, sir," said the stockier, shorter man in a gruff voice. “We have orders, you'll understand. You're to come along with us. Right now."
“Oh, I simply can't," exclaimed the professor unthinkingly. "All our gear's aboard. Those sailors forward, singing that sea chanty. They're raising the anchor right at this moment, you know.”
"The ship's about to sail," interposed the young Frenchman. "The professor can't possibly leave now.”
The taller plainclothesman coughed politely behind an upheld palm. “We 'ave orders, gentlemen. We're to bring you with us, promptly."
The professor looked helplessly at Verlaine who arched his brows and shrugged his inability to offer further aid. Slowly he turned to the man from Scotland Yard, nodding slowly.
"All right," he said heavily. "If we must, we must."
“Very good, sir. Glad to hear you say that."
“We 'ave a carriage waiting."
At least he was to ride in style, Fergusson thought glumly.
The brougham rattled over the cobblestones of the Strand, heading toward Whitehall. The fog had lessened in this section of the city; through the damp window, Fergusson could see houses leaning together in the darkness; a trick of the gas streetlamps, he supposed. A candle was lit in an upper window of a brownstone building, making a bright loneliness in the night.
The hooves of the horses clop—clopped steadily.
There was anger in Professor Fergusson–a righteous anger, he told himself as he sat back against the carriage cushions in a sullen silence—born of this high-handed interference with his personal liberty. Things had come to a fine state of affairs in England when a man could move about only after the consent of the Metropolitan Police.
Kidnapped, by the old Harry! He was being kidnapped.
Innocent of any crime, he had no worry on that score. Besides, the deference with which he was being treated told him this was no ordinary manhunt that occupied the plainclothesmen. His teeth nibbled his lower lip as he fought back the temptation to lash out with words at these men who sat so imperturbably bundled in their greatcoats against the raw night.
Glumly, he scowled straight ahead.
A horseshoe struck sparks. Leather harness squeaked. The carriage lurched on its thorough braces as it slowed. The detective to his left stirred. Professor Fergusson peered through the window at the stone building before which the carriage was pulling to a stop, aware that his baffled rage was almost at the exploding point. Lips tightly compressed against his indignation at this cavalier treatment, he stepped from the cushioned carriage to the moist pavement, feeling the raw air bite through his MacFarlane coat.
"If you'll be so good, sir?"
A hand gestured an invitation up the few stone steps toward the door which, even as he put his foot on the first tread, began to open for him. The professor was aware of a uniformed footman, dim lights and a thick carpet underfoot, high walls rich with tapestry. He walked silently as in a dream.
Then he was in the doorway of a Victorian study, the footman bowing him in and saying, "Professor Fergusson." As he moved forward, a male secretary came to meet him.
The anger which he had been controlling so admirably burst into flame. “May I ask the meaning of this—this intrusion upon my private affairs?” he questioned, drawing himself up straight. "I've been working many weeks to gather my equipment and get it safely aboard ship. Now at the last minute I'm dragged off like a common criminal by two detectives."
He drew a deep breath, ignoring the shocked surprise in the face of the man before him. "By what right do you make free with my person, sir? Why have I been brought here to—just what is this place, anyhow?"
"I—I thought you knew, professor. This is number ten Downing Street."
Shock held Fergusson motionless. No. 10 Downing Street! The heart of English government, the seat of its Prime Minister, the building where foreign policy began and was put into execution. Because of decisions made here, soldiers might quell a rebellion in India or statesmen pay a visit to President Abraham Lincoln of the United States.
Confusion caught at him. In that moment of hesitation a shadow moved to one side of the room. The professor swung around seeing for the first time an ornate desk, heavily curtained windows and an old man rising to his feet from a gilt-work chair.
The man smiled faintly, apologetically. "Never fear, professor. Your ship will wait for you."
He wore full evening dress, black cloth coat and white waistcoat, linen shirt and cravat, with black satin knee breeches. Fergusson recognized him instantly.
"Mr. Prime Minister!” he gasped.
Sir Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, was in his late seventies. Of a family long distinguished for its service to the Crown—an ancestor had been secretary to Sir Philip Sidney, another had been speaker of the Irish House of Commons—he himself, at the age of eighteen and recently out of Harrow, had been elevated to the peerage. Over half a century ago he had entered Parliament and been made a junior lord of the Admiralty. In 1830 he had assumed control of the department of foreign affairs. Now, slightly more than thirty years later, he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The professor was overwhelmed. His usually precise speech was infected with hesitation and stammerings as he asked, “Your Honor, pray excuse—I was not given to understand—may I ask why this favor has b—been done me?"
Lord Palmerston advanced upon him, smiling in friendly fashion. “I wanted to wish you god-speed, for one thing. Your balloon ascension with its application of the Fergusson secret is a scientific first for England, you know. It shouldn't be passed over and forgotten, by any means."
“But at such an hour," murmured Fergusson, spreading his hands. “And under such—ought I say, mysterious circumstances?"
The Prime Minister nodded. "Your bewilderment is understandable, professor. All I can do is remind you that affairs of State go on day and night. The Queen herself wishes to convey, through my lips, her own warmest regards and congratulations on your past feats and extend at the same over Africa." time her very best hopes for success in your coming venture
“Why, I–I thank Her Majesty, most humbly."
“I'd intended to send along these felicitations to your ship this evening but fortunately, as it developed, I was placed in a position where I might say them in person."
Numbly, the professor murmured, "I was not aware that my balloon." the Queen was even aware of my existence or—or of that of my balloon.”
Palmerston chuckled. “You're far too modest, sir. The whole world knows of your African project. And we in Downing Street like to think that what the world knows, we also know. As you are aware, not since George Stephenson invented the locomotive has such publicity been given to any scientific achievement as it has to your balloon. It catches at the imagination, professor."
Fergusson inclined his head. The newspapers—even so staid a journal as The Times—had been most generous in their coverage of his sailing and his projected flight over the Dark Continent. He had spent hours reading them, finding in those rivers of printed words a vindication for his own beliefs, his trust in himself and his balloon. There were times too, when a little corner of his mind wondered if Sir Henry Vining—that stiff-necked martinet!—also might be reading about his triumph.
Palmerston said more heartily, "And this is fortunate—most fortunate, I might say—under the immediate circumstances."
Ferguson looked puzzled. "What immediate circumstances, Mr. Prime Minister?”
Palmerston gestured the professor to follow him, leading the way toward a wall covered by a great colored map of Africa. The Viscount paused a moment, staring upward to study it and the professor found himself marveling at the wisdom of this old man, his energy and knowledge, whose fingertips balanced an entire world for the betterment of England. Now he lifted a hand and pointed toward the east coast of the great continent.
His fingertip touched the island of Madagascar, the city of Zanzibar and the inland country of equatorial jungles and great rivers, largely unknown and only now—by Livingston, Spaeke and Burton—being explored.
"Rich country, this, professor, abounding in animal life and mineral wealth. Good farm land, too, probably. Following in the footsteps of our explorers—Captain Spaeke and Mr. Burton—this is the wilderness area you will map." He turned and now the professor could see the taut skin above his cheekbones, the brilliance of his eyes. "How long do you expect to be out of touch with civilization? Two months? Three?"
"Perhaps four. East Africa is a big territory."
The Prime Minister nodded his approval. “Excellent. In that case, nobody would expect you to turn up in west Africa."
"Naturally not. Entirely out of the question."
"Quite." The Prime Minister smiled, then added firmly, "It will be a shock to everyone, won't it?"
"Shock? What will be a shock?"
The Viscount moved his hand across the map—from Zanzibar on the Indian Ocean as far westward as Cape Verde on the Atlantic—spanning in one sweeping gesture more than four thousand miles of desert, jungle and mountain. A whole world lay under that hand, a world inhabited by Kikuyu and Masai, Watusi, Mangetu, pygmy and Ashanti—fierce tribal warriors wearing skins of animals and acknowledging no law but the whims of their own chieftains, a world of gold and ivory and human beings sold into slavery.
"When your balloon finally drifts down on the Atlantic coast, you'll have traveled over this section of central Africa, as far as the Niger."
"But I'm not crossing the Continent," Fergusson explained.
"Ah, but you are, professor," smiled Viscount Palmerston. "Unless Her Majesty and I have mistaken our man."
"I don't understand, sir. What insane talk is this? You've just waved a hand over four thousand miles of unexplored wilderness. Whether you know it or not, those jungles are infested with savages. If anything went wrong with my balloon, my companions and I would come down in a land given over to paganism—even cannibalism. You ask me to commit suicide!"
"If we ask that,” murmured Lord Palmerston, "we ask it in the name of humanity."
"Humanity?" echoed the professor.
"Let me come to the point. Only this evening—short hours ago—the British government received a secret communique from our agents in Lisbon. Those secret service men have uncovered the fact that an expedition of slave traders, being fitted out now in Bissau on the African west coast in great secrecy, will set out for the interior. Their first destination is the Senegal River. From this jumping off point the column will head south and east through the vast tropical jungles of unclaimed Bambarra to an unknown destination somewhere in Masima country, south of Timbuktu.”
The Prime Minister paused to draw breath before turning back to the map and indicating the spot of which he spoke. "So far, this area has been visited only by Arab traders." His fingertip sketched out the bend of the Volta River. "This column of slave dealers will plant a flag on the far bank of the Volta, thereby laying claim to an incalculably immense area of Africa."
Outside the study windows a dray cart trundled and in the sudden silence after its departure, the lonely moan of a foghorn from the river touched the study. Professor Fergusson ran quivering fingertips through his Grey hair. Even now, he told himself irritably, he did not fully understand the problem which so obviously troubled Viscount Palmerston and, by implication, her majesty, Queen Victoria.
The Prime Minister smiled slowly. "Believe me, sir—it is not a question of land. No, no. Not so much land as it is morality."
Professor Fergusson blinked in sudden understanding.
The Viscount nodded gently.
"In 1807, England abandoned slavery in her dominions. Not so, certain other European countries. You're well aware that even now in the United States a great civil war is being fought over this same question. Let's not bother ourselves about that, however. Our only concern is official sovereignty over such a large amount of land which will result in an ever increasing extension of the already notorious traffic in human beings.
"I speak of the wholesale deportation of tens of thousands of natives—men wrenched from their wives, mothers from their babies, children from their parents, of their deaths from torture and disease. Those slavers, Professor Fergusson, are readying the rape of an area greater in its dimensions than all Europe."
Sweat stood out on the old man's forehead, so tremendous was his emotion. His lips worked a moment silently, as his nostrils distended to the deep breaths he was taking. "There is only one way to prevent this rape, sir!
“I have already said the slave trade has been outlawed by us, and by Portugal too, but it has not yet been stamped out in Portuguese territory. So those slave dealers plan to plant the flag of Portugal on the bank of the Volta—because the Portuguese government will be helpless to prevent wholesale enslavement."
"Aye, 'tis a mess. I can see that."
“We have it within our power to do away with any such mess, professor—if we plant the Union Jack before those slave traders can plant the blue and white flag of Portugal. In such an event—this land will belong to us. There will be no slavery within its borders."
The Scotsman gloomed. "It canna be done. If you start preparing an expedition—"
Viscount Palmerston spread his hands. "Quite obviously it's too late for us to undertake an overland expedition, even supposing we could do it without discovery. Since these slavers and their agents dominate the white habitations which fringe the west African coast, such discovery is absolutely certain. The slavers will move immediately. Their land grab will become accomplished fact.
"No, professor. The only way to beat them is to go into Volta country by the back door—from the east coast. Ah, but it would take two, even three years properly to equip and despatch an exploratory expedition, you say. Exactly! This makes Professor Fergusson and his balloon so vital to his country.
"A balloon can travel swiftly, easily above the jungles which hold so many terrors from wild animals and natives. High in the air, your personal danger would be reduced to a minimum.
“This is why, immediately upon receipt of the communique from our secret service men, it became necessary for me to speak with you before you sailed tonight."
The Viscount went on talking. The professor found himself listening to that soft, persuasive voice which had a mesmeric effect upon his entire being. The mapping of East Africa by Professor Samuel Fergusson was known to the entire world, Palmerston pointed out. Newspapers had convinced everyone of that fact. No one, then, would be surprised when his balloon launched skyward from Zanzibar.
Ah, but the surprise would be complete. Once aloft, how could anyone determine which way the northeast trade winds, which blow across Madagascar and the island of Zanzibar westward toward the Congo, would carry him? As far as the Volta River and an opportunity to sink a flagpole containing a Union Jack into the soil of the Volta riverbank! He was being asked to undertake a mission infinitely more dangerous, yet infinitely more important, than the mapping project which he planned. Her Majesty understood that he risked his life, as did her prime minister.
"Short of war itself,” concluded Lord Palmerston, "we can see no other way to beat those slave traders to the Volta. In three or four months you should be there, unknown to the slave dealers, unknown to the world.
"Your balloon is our lone hope, sir. It is heaven—sent, the one in a million chance which can save the situation."
Fergusson was surprised to discover that his chest ached as he let the air out of his lungs. He had been standing here, unbreathing and frozen almost rigid by the voice of this man who held the destiny of England in his hands. His mind troped hazily for reasons, snatching desperately at cold logic with which to dispel this verbal hypnotism.
"Without a fantastic amount of luck on my part, you fully understand that you are condemning me to death?” he asked quietly.
"I do understand, professor. Believe me, were it not for the urgency of circumstance, the lack of time in which to meet this threat to all humanity—we would never be standing here this night. Permit yourself to look at it this way: you risk your life in the hope of saving the lives and freedom of untold thousands, perhaps millions, of other human beings. Is it so great a gamble?"
The Prime Minister shrugged as he continued. "The choice is up to you, naturally. You are no soldier to be ordered into battle. And yet, I think you are a humanitarian. As a humanitarian—as a simple human being—I ask you to make your decision."
There was no choice to be made, the Scotchman realized. From the beginning, his decision had been arrived at deep inside himself. His common sense had fought against it, his instinct for self-preservation had argued long and loud; but cold reason had no defense against the promptings of his heart.
"Just as naturally, Mr. Prime Minister—I'll go."
The old man's stern face became wreathed in smiles. "Excellent, my dear professor. Excellent! Her Majesty will be delighted to hear of this. I myself shall carry the news.”
"Hmmmm, speaking of news—what about my financial backer, the American newspaper magnate, Cornelius P. Randolph? He may raise objections to any change in plan."
"I don't see why," frowned Palmerston. "Surely the story of your planting the British flag in the heart of darkest Africa—with an American reporter along as a witness and after a race against time and those slave traders—will be far more exciting than the report of a routine cartographical expedition. In any event, since the change of plan is to be a secret, the Randolph newspapers won't know anything about it until it's all over."
“I daresay you're right," Fergusson chuckled, then sobered. "Still, one member of the expedition may put up a how— I'm speaking of the reporter himself who is to join us in Zanzibar—but I really don't anticipate any trouble from him.
"I've been told he's an inoffensive young man."
Their hands met and clasped in mutual respect.