He was already writing furiously with a quill pen screeching over the paper, and he looked up angrily at my interruption.
'Well, sir, what now? I had hoped you were gone.
'I only wished to ask you, sir, what the object of so extraordinary an experiment can be?'
'Away, sir, away!' he cried, angrily. 'Raise your mind above the base mercantile and utilitarian needs of commerce. Shake off your paltry standards of business. Science seeks knowledge. Let the knowledge lead us where it will, we still must seek it. To know once for all what we are, why we are, where we are, is that not in itself the greatest of all human aspirations? Away, sir, away!'
His great black head was bowed over his papers once more and blended with his beard. The quill pen screeched more shrilly than ever. So I left him, this extraordinary man, with my head in a whirl at the thought of the strange business in which I now found myself to be his partner.
When I got back to my office I found Ted Malone waiting with a broad grin upon his face to know the result of my interview.
'Well!' he cried. 'None the worse? No case of assault and battery? You must have handled him very tactfully. What do you think of the old boy?'
'The most aggravating, insolent, intolerant, self-opinionated man I have ever met, but--'
'Exactly!' cried Malone. 'We all come to that "but." Of course, he is all you say and a lot more, but one feels that so big a man is not to be measured in our scale, and that we can endure from him what we would not stand from any other living mortal. Is that not so?'
'Well, I don't know him well enough yet to say, but I will admit that if he is not a mere bullying megalomaniac, and if what he says is true, then he certainly is in a class by himself. But is it true?'
'Of course it is true. Challenger always delivers the goods. Now, where are you exactly in the matter? Has he told you about Hengist Down?'
'Yes, in a sketchy sort of way.'
'Well, you may take it from me that the whole thing is colossal colossal in conception and colossal in execution. He hates pressmen, but I am in his confidence, for he knows that I will publish no more than he authorizes. Therefore I have his plans, or some of his plans. He is such a deep old bird that one never is sure if one has really touched bottom. Anyhow, I know enough to assure you that Hengist Down is a practical proposition and nearly completed. My advice to you now is simply to await events, and meanwhile to get your gear all ready. You'll hear soon enough either from him or from me.'
As it happened, it was from Malone himself that I heard. He came round quite early to my office some weeks later, as the bearer of a message.
'I've come from Challenger' said he.
'You are like the pilot fish to the shark.'
'I'm proud to be anything to him. He really is a wonder. He has done it all right. It's your turn now, and then he is ready to ring up the curtain.'
'Well, I can't believe it until I see it, but I have everything ready and loaded on a lorry. I could start it off at any moment.'
'Then do so at once. I've given you a tremendous character for energy and punctuality, so mind you don't let me down. In the meantime, come down with me by rail and I will give you an idea of what has to be done.'
It was a lovely spring morning--May 22nd, to be exact--when we made that fateful journey which brought me on to a stage which is destined to be historical. On the way Malone handed me a note from Challenger which I was to accept as my instructions.
'Sir,' (it ran)--
'Upon arriving at Hengist Down you will put yourself at the disposal of Mr. Barforth, the Chief Engineer, who is in possession of my plans. My young friend, Malone, the bearer of this, is also in touch with me and may protect me from any personal contact. We have now experienced certain phenomena in the shaft at and below the fourteen thousand-foot level which fully bear out my views as to the nature of a planetary body, but some more sensational proof is needed before I can hope to make an impression upon the torpid intelligence of the modern scientific world.