Through the Earth/Chapter XIII
QUESTION OF A PASSENGER
"Without you, Flora," said he, warmly, "I should have given up the whole affair in disgust. It's what you said about finding some way of preventing the car from striking the tube that put me on the track, because really nothing is simpler."
"How will you manage it?" asked Flora, overjoyed at having been of some assistance to her kind friend.
"Why, in this way. Before I drop the car down on its journey to New York I shall charge it highly with negative electricity."
"Won't that be bad for the passengers?" inquired Flora.
"They will not even perceive its presence," replied the doctor. "The eastern side of the tube I shall also strongly charge negatively. Fortunately, the conductors we have along the inside of the tube will enable me to distribute this charge to whichever parts of the surface I desire."
"What good will this electricity do?" asked Flora.
"Why, this. As two electricities of the same kind repel each other, the car will be thus prevented from striking against the side of the tube. In fact, by increasing or diminishing the charge according to circumstances, I shall be able to keep the car always well in the center of the tube."
"Oh, I'm so glad!" exclaimed Flora.
"Not half so glad as I am," responded the doctor, heartily. "But I have n't a moment to lose. The start of the first car has been announced all over the world as taking place tomorrow at eleven o'clock in the morning, and I have all these electrical arrangements to prepare. It's fortunate your father discovered my oversight so opportunely, and that you showed me the way to remedy it. I hardly know to which of you I owe the greatest gratitude. Although we instinctively dislike the faultfinder, he often proves as serviceable to us as the man who aids us with his sympathy and encouragement. As the good old Chinese proverb says, 'The things which we least like to hear are those which it is most to our advantage to know.'"
Flora and the doctor did not meet again until eight o'clock the following morning, Dr. Giles having been so busy putting the finishing touches to his work that he could not spare a moment for any other purpose. But eight o'clock found the doctor back in his office again, with the last detail attended to, and everything in readiness for the departure of the first car, scheduled to start at eleven o'clock.
Yet, though the enterprise was thus brought to a point where success seemed assured, Dr. Giles was not wholly satisfied; and the reason was that he had been unable to find a passenger to embark on this first trip. He had, with some misgivings, offered a reward of one hundred pounds to any one who would consent to make this journey through the earth. His fear was that this inducement, small as it was, would nevertheless bring him an endless number of applicants desirious of making the trip; but, to his great surprise as well as disappointment, not a single person presented himself in answer to the advertisement. There was something appalling in the thought of dropping eight thousand miles, and not a man could be found willing to undertake the strange voyage.
"What a pack of cowards they are!" the doctor exclaimed angrily. "If I could only trust these machines with some one else, I should n't hesitate an instant to go myself! But so much depends upon the proper working of the electrical currents that I could not possibly delegate so difficult a task to even my most competent assistant. The mere work of regulating the charge of repellent electricity in the tube to counteract the centrifugal force of the earth will, in itself, demand the closest attention. The least inadvertence or error on the part of the operator would jeopardize the success of the whole undertaking."
"Have you been able to get this part of the apparatus in good working order at such short notice?" asked Mr. Curtis, to whom these remarks were addressed.
"Oh, yes; there was no trouble about that," replied the doctor. "I have, as you know, a large corps of workmen, and the task was really a simple one. But although everything is in perfect condition, the proper control of the currents will be a most delicate operation. I have arranged these so as to be automatically controlled, as much as possible, by the very position of the car in the tube; but my presence is absolutely necessary here, in case the slightest thing should go wrong."
"Well," said Mr. Curtis, "I must confess that, for my part, I am not at all surprised that no one should be willing to run the risk of taking this plunge through the earth. Not only is there, as you say, the danger of being killed by striking against the side of the tube, but the very rapidity of the passenger's fall would, as I have already said, prevent him from breathing; so that, even if he were not smashed into fragments or burned to a cinder, he would still be suffocated before he reached even the center of the earth!"
"Nonsense!" replied the doctor. "As I have already told you, we are all of us traveling at a much greater speed than this car will acquire, and there will consequently not be the slightest danger. A child could undertake the trip. And now that we are discussing the subject, I am surprised, James, that you do not yourself go."
"Oh, thank you, doctor; but although, as you say, I might go without danger, I am enough of a child to prefer my life to the pleasure of falling down a bottomless pit."
"I'd be willing to go, if father would let me," said Flora Curtis, who had been closely following the conversation, and who now broke in with the above startling words.
Both gentlemen turned and looked at her with astonishment. Was it possible that this young girl was willing to risk a danger that so many older persons were afraid to face? But there was no mistake about the seriousness of her proposition, for her manner was most earnest; and her father hastened to nip her project in the bud.
"Never in the world would I consent to have you go, Flora," he declared emphatically. "You may well suppose that under no circumstances could I allow you to face any danger which I myself was unwilling to meet."
Dr. Giles heartily seconded his friend. "You are a brave girl, Flora," he said, "but I could not think of letting you take this trip, as emergencies may arise which a man will be more fit to cope with than a woman, especially a young lady like yourself. I am, of course, sorry to be obliged to submit to the humiliating necessity of sending the car through without any passengers, but there seems no alternative. I regret this all the more as there will be many interesting physical experiences for my passengers to undergo during the trip, and I should very much like to have an account of them.
"There is one more chance left. I told my agents to wait in Australia until the last moment, and not to leave the continent without doing everything possible to secure a passenger. That is my last hope. So far they have telephoned me that they have been unsuccessful; but they have still five minutes left, and—who knows?—perhaps even now something may turn up."
The minutes passed slowly by until the last one had sped. Dr. Giles put up his watch, and turned disconsolately to his friends.
"It's no use," said he; "the car will have to go through without any passengers, after all."
At this moment the telephone in the doctor's office began to ring. With a bound the worthy man was at the instrument, listening to the message. It was most laconic:
"Boy of sixteen wants to go as passenger. Shall we bring him?"
Dr. Giles hesitated a few seconds, and then his reply was borne back over the wires:
"Bring him anyway."
Only three words, but they meant volumes!