THE FIRST CRUISE OF THE ASTRONEF
About eight o'clock on the morning of the 5th of November, 1900, those of the passengers and crew of the American liner St. Louis who happened, whether from causes of duty or of their own pleasure, to be on deck, had a very strange—in fact a quite unprecedented experience.
The big ship was ploughing her way through the long, smooth rollers at her average twenty-one knots towards the rising sun, when the officer in charge of the navigating bridge happened to turn his glasses straight ahead. He took them down from his eyes, rubbed the two object-glasses with the cuff of his coat, and looked again. The sun was shining through a haze which so far dimmed the solar disc that it was possible to look straight at it without inconvenience to the eyes.
The officer took another long squint, put his glasses down, rubbed his eyes and took another, and murmured, "Well I'm damned!"
Just then the Fourth Officer came up on to the bridge to relieve his senior while he went down for a cup of coffee and a biscuit. The Second took him away to the other end of the bridge, out of hearing of the helmsman and the quartermaster standing by, and said almost in a whisper:
"Say, Norton, there's something ahead there that I can't make out. Just as the sun got clear above the horizon I saw a black spot go straight across it, right through the upper and lower limbs. I looked again, and it was plumb in the middle of the disc. Look," he went on, speaking louder in his growing excitement, "there it is again! I can see it without the glasses now. See?"
The Fourth did not reply at once. He had the glasses close to his eyes, and was moving them slowly about as though he were following some shifting object in the sky. Then he handed them back, and said:
"If I didn't believe the thing was impossible I should say that's an air-ship; but, for the present, I guess I'd rather wait till it gets a bit nearer, if it's coming. Still, there is something. Seems to be getting bigger pretty fast, too. Perhaps it would be as well to notify the old man. What do you think?"
"Guess we'd better," said the Second. "S'pose you go down. Don't say anything except to him. We don't want any more excitement among the people than we can help."
The Fourth nodded and went down the steps, and the Second began walking up and down the bridge, every now and then taking another squint ahead. Again and again the mysterious shape crossed the disc of the sun, always vertically as though, whatever it might be, it was steering a direct course from the sun to the ship, its apparent rising and falling being due really to the dipping of her bows into the swells.
"Well, Mr. Charteris, what's the trouble?" said the Skipper as he reached the bridge. "Nothing wrong, I hope? Have you sighted a derelict, or what? Ay, what in hell's that!"
His hands went up to his eyes and he stared for a few moments at the pale yellow oblate shape of the sun.
At this moment the St. Louis' head dipped again, and the Captain saw something like a black line swiftly drawn across the sun from bottom to top....