The disappearance of His Britannic Majesty's battleship Dreadnought Number 8 sent the world wild. Two great nations had suffered severe blows, and lay in quivering expectation of the future. The chief of my paper smiled at me more amicably than ever before, as I entered the office the third day after the British battleship disappeared utterly in the channel.
" You'd better run that prophecy of yours about the French battleship to-day," he said, " and then keep out of the office. I don't want you to be in evidence. We've got too good a thing to take any chances. Work as hard as you want to on the assignment, but don't appear publicly."
I nodded acquiescence.
" By the way," he went on, " just how many people outside our own staff know of the second letter ? "
" Seven," I answered. " The President, the Secretary of War, the two Haldanes and their cousin Mrs. Hartnell, Richard Regnier and John King. The former Secretary of the Navy did know, but he's dead. They are all pledged to secrecy, and all have kept the story wholly to themselves."
" That's all," said the chief, and I left.
That night I sent in a prediction that a French battleship would sink within a week, and then spent the next few days going over the naval registers of the nations, and in correlating the mass of data concerning the navies of the world, which had been collected at the office by my request. I wanted to get all the information concerning the subject in hand that I could possibly obtain.
Immersed in masses of data, struggling with theory after theory that arose only to be rejected, I passed the week. Weary from my labors, one afternoon I left my work to go to the Haldanes to report progress. Tom and Dorothy were both immersed in a research Tom was carrying on, but they always had time to discuss the great question.
" I had a letter from Dick Regnier yesterday," said Dorothy, the first words over. " He says he is doing some work he has long wanted to do. He speaks of seeing John King at Cowes. John had his new yacht down there."
I followed every word intently. " Nothing at all about the loss of the Alaska or the Dreadnought Number 8 .'' " I asked significantly.
" No," answered Dorothy.
" When was the letter mailed ? " I asked.
" Two days after the British ship went down," she answered. " But — " She stopped as Tom came in. I continued the conversation no farther.
As I left, Tom called after me. " I've been fooling with some phosphorescent paint," he said, " and I've run down a few interesting results. Don't you want to come up to the laboratory tomorrow morning about three o'clock.'' We're going to run some tests between twelve midnight, and five in the morning, so as to have the least current and vibration that the city can give."
" I'll be glad to come," I answered instantly. No chance to be near Dorothy was ever to be refused.
The last revellers were just passing from the great white way, as I rode up town in a late surface car, which held, beside myself, only a few dull and sleepy workers. I was ahead of time and, as I came up near Riverside Drive, I jumped off the car and walked down towards the Drive and up by the river. Below me, in the full moonlight, lay an American fleet. The white sides and lofty turrets of the ships stood sharply outlined against the other bank. They seemed to personify the might of the nation resting there in huge impassive stolidity, fearful of nothing, ready for all. Yet as I remembered Joslinn's words, " vanished like a breaking soap bubble," spoken of the Alaska.
I shuddered at the helplessness of those floating forts, massive as they were. I looked at my watch in the moonlight. Quarter of three. I turned and made my way to the gray stone building on the height, which held the research laboratory.
I found Tom and Dorothy bending over a series of instruments under a big incandescent light. I watched them for a moment silently, then, as they rose from their task, I greeted them. Never had Dorothy looked more charming than in this setting of bare walls and severe tables, hooded instruments and wires, glass cases and shelves. Most girls whom I had seen at three o'clock in the morning, as they left a ballroom, were sorry spectacles, worn and dishevelled. Dorothy, in her trim working clothes, was as fresh as a summer's morn. Her first greeting over, she turned to her work again, adjusting a micrometer levelling screw.
" What are you doing ? " I asked idly.
" Adjusting a reflectoscope to detect the presence of radio-active waves. Tom is just going to have his assistant test the radium he is to use to-night, and has half a dozen reflectoscopes here," and she waved her hand at the bench before her, where half a dozen similar instruments were placed.
" They are a good deal like the old electroscopes, only infinitely more sensitive. You see that gold leaf," she pointed to two tiny ribbons of gold that hung limply together, " when a wave from a radioactive source, such as radium, comes along, those ribbons fly apart. All our reflectoscopes are discharged now, but they'll be charged later."
As we spoke, Tom joined us. " I've sent Jones down-stairs for the radium in the safe, Dorothy," he said, and we three stood looking silently at the instruments before us. Through the open windows a fresh breeze fluttered in, and the soft night gave back but the slightest hum, a minimum of that sound that never ceases in the quietest hours of the great city. A church tower rang out — One, Two, Three, Four. Tom glanced at the chronometer. " Just right," he said, and looked back. A strange hush filled the air. Again a terrific force seemed to be pulling me towards Dorothy, but my eyes never turned from the reflectoscopes. Suddenly, as I gazed, the golden ribbons sprang to life, parted and stood stiffly separate.
" Good heavens ! " cried Tom. " What did that ? They were perfectly insulated. What did that, Dorothy ? It must be Jones bringing the radium."
Dorothy's eyes glowed with excited interest. " I don't think it was Jones," she said eagerly. " I believe I know what it was, but anyway, let's go first and see where Jones is. There's absolutely nothing else in the laboratory that could have charged them, insulated as they were."
Down the stairs, flight after flight, four in all, we trooped, and found Jones in an office on the first floor, seated in a chair before the safe, and looking disconsolately at its closed door. At Tom's voice, he rose.
" Professor, I've forgotten the combination again. I was sitting here trying to bring it to mind."
" Then you haven't taken the radium from the safe at all ! " shouted Tom, in wild excitement.
" No," answered Jones, staring in amazement.
" Then how in blazes did those reflectoscopes get charged ? "
Jones showed a sudden interest, " Have they got charged again ? "
" Yes, have they been charged before ? "
" Twice before, and I meant to speak to you about it, but it slipped my mind."
" When did it happen ? " Dorothy broke in.
" I've got full particulars noted down, up-stairs," said Jones. " But how about the combination ? "
" Never mind that," cried Tom. " Let me see your data."
Rapidly we ascended, the slower Jones following some way behind. In the laboratory the assistant turned to a littered desk and fumbled among a mass of papers. I could see that Dorothy was burning with impatience which I could not understand. Jones fumbled on, picking up paper after paper, peering at them blindly through his black-rimmed spectacles. Tom seized my arm and walked me down the room impatiently.
" That man will drive me mad some day," he exclaimed. " He's the most accurate investigator and observer we ever had, but he keeps his desk in an unspeakable mess. He's got that data somewhere, and when he finds it, it will be correct, but he'll take perhaps an hour to find it. There, thank the Lord! " he remarked, as we turned back, " Dorothy's taking a hand."
Then came order from chaos, regularity from irregularity. Paper by paper was read, rejected and placed in its appropriate place, while Jones looked on, by no means displeased. Scarcely five minutes had passed, and the desk had assumed an order foreign to its nature. Ten minutes passed, and Dorothy turned. " It isn't here, Mr. Jones. Now think, where did you put it? "
Jones seized the knotty problem, bent his mind to it, struggled with it, emerged victorious. " I know," he said. " It's in the middle of that black, leather note-book in the third right-hand drawer."
Before he had finished, the note-book was in Dorothy's hand, was open, and a paper fluttered out into her lap. She picked it up and read, " July 3d, 19—. Reflectoscopes charged without apparent cause at 3.45-30 p. m.; July11th, 19—. Reflectoscopes charged without apparent cause between 9.35 and 10.10 p. m."
" I thought so, I thought so," said Dorothy, jumping from her chair. " Tom, it's as straight as a die. Oh, Jim, it's a big step."
Tom looked as bewildered as poor Jones had seemed before the safe, or as he did now. I was thoroughly puzzled. The only thing that struck me forcibly was that Dorothy had called me by my first name. That was a big step surely, but evidently it was not the step she meant. Dorothy saw our bewilderment, and went on emphatically.
" You are stupid. I'd like to know how far you men would get in this world without women to find things out for you. What happened on July 3d in the afternoon, and what occurred sometime in the evening, our time, on July 11th ? "
Tom and I stood still, looking at each other in bewilderment. Suddenly I saw a great light.
" Why, those were the times the Alaska and the Dreadnought Number 8 disappeared ! " I shouted, in wildest excitement, " and just now."
" A French battleship went down," said Dorothy gravely. " And, — " she broke her sentence with a brief sob, " the poor wives and children."
We had turned instinctively to watch the golden ribbons that told of the sinking of the proud battleship, and of the death of hundreds, and I bowed my head as when the death angel comes close beside us in his flight. A moment's silence, and Tom turned to Jones.
" If you don't mind, Jones, I wish you would say nothing of this, no matter what you see or hear. We shall do no more to-night; you may go home."
With Jones' departure, we began another council. Tom drew out his pipe. " Dorothy, I know Jim and I need to smoke over this, do you mind ? " and at her word we filled our pipes and invoked the help of that great aid to philosophers, tobacco. Dorothy was at the desk, her brow knotted in deep thought. Tom and I sat on a side bench against the wall, facing her. The dawn was coming in through the wide windows, and the city stirred as we talked.
" Your theory about the disintegrating steel of the battleships was evidently wrong, Tom," said Dorothy. " The wave that charged the reflectoscopes was a wave definitely projected from some definite place."
" Yes," said Tom musingly. " I was wrong. The man who is trying to stop all war must have some radio-active generator, some means of wave disturbance greater than anything we have yet attained. As a man starts a dynamo, and uses the electricity it furnishes to do work, so this man starts this unknown engine of destruction, and its waves destroy the ship."
" But how could he possibly cause a ship to vanish without a sound ? " I asked.
" Of course, I'm not perfectly sure," answered Dorothy. " But the moment the reflectoscopes were charged, I thought of a possible theory. His force, so powerful that it affects our reflectoscopes thousands of miles away, may be able to resolve the metal which makes up a battleship into its electrons, which would disappear as intangible gas."
" What are electrons ? " I persisted. " I've heard of them, of course, but I'm not quite sure what they are."
" They're the very smallest division of matter, the infinitely small particles that make up the atom. If a man could find a way to break matter down to them, it's entirely possible that they would then go off as a gas. The waves the man sends out must be terrifically strong, anyway. One thing I don't see, though, is how he could break down organic matter. He could break down everything metallic, perhaps, but I don't see how he could break down wood — or human beings," she ended, with a shudder.
" Part of that's easy," said Tom, with a long whiff at his pipe. " Absolutely no wood for the last two years on any battleship. All nations have taken out what wood they had on their new ships and put in metal of some sort. I don't know about the action on man; it's not essential to settle that now."
The excitement of the moment had been so great, standing in the midst of history making had been so poignant, that for the nonce my newspaper instinct had been lost in the stronger thrill. Now it suddenly awoke.
" Great Scott! " I cried. " I must get this to the paper instantly. Where's the telephone ? "
Without a word, Tom pointed to the desk 'phone on his own desk, and I rushed over to it. Again and again I rang, with no response. " I can't get Central," I said.
Tom looked at the clock. " It's a branch exchange, but there's usually some one on our exchange board by now, I'll try."
Five more precious minutes were lost in his attempt to gain the board. At last he looked up. " No use, Jim."
I waited for no more, but grabbed my hat and ran down the long flights. Out across the square I sped and down the street. A blue bell showed on the corner in a small store. I ran to it — locked. Another block, and I had the same experience. At the third, a corner drug store, I met success. A yawning boy, sweeping out the store, gazed with open mouth as, hot and perspiring from my run, I hurried in and rushed to the booth. In a moment I had the office and the night editor's desk, had told him who I was, and began to dictate. " At one minute past four by our time (see what time Paris time is for that, and put it in) a French battleship was sunk by the man who is to stop all war. Probably no one on board escaped." That last was a guess based on the experience of the past. The night editor's voice came back.
" Feel sure of this, Orrington ? "
" Very sure," I said.
" I hate to run a thing like this on a chance."
" The chief said to run anything I sent, didn't he? "
" Yes," said the night editor.
" Well, rush it in then, before word comes."
" All right, if you insist," came back, and I hung up the 'phone, paid my fee, and departed.
I slept like a log until eleven, then rose to gather in the file of morning papers outside my door. My statement was in big headlines in my own paper. No other morning paper had a single word of it. I paused at the news-stand, as I went down to breakfast. Staring from every paper was the headline, " La Patrie Number 3 disappeared. French battleship follows the Alaska and the Dreadnought Number 8."
They had the news from France five hours after we had published it. Leisurely I ate my breakfast, the while I read the late news of my rivals, turning with especial interest to an editorial of my own paper, commenting on my work and reviewing the situation. " This should mean another big jump in circulation," I thought to myself, " and another jump in salary, too." My salary was really getting up to a point where marriage was the only sensible thing for a man to do. I was to meet the Haldanes at three. I wondered how long an acquaintance should last before one could propose.
As I sipped my last cup of coffee, I saw two men in the dining-room door speaking to a waiter, who nodded, and led them my way. They were not the type of men who usually breakfasted in the restaurant. Just before me they stopped.
" Mr. Orrington ? " said one inquiringly.
" I am James Orrington," I answered. The waiter had gone back to the kitchen. We were left alone in the rear of the dining-room. The man who had spoken opened his coat and showed a silver shield.
" We are secret service officials. You are under arrest."