I arrived at Carruthers’ domicile in the fashionably decrepit part of South London with a severe case of butterflies in the stomach. It was my own fault for taking a shortcut through the 1889 Lepidopterist Gala in The Regent’s Park; oh, but how those Red Admirals entice the tastebuds! I over-indulged and was chased away by some angry and moustachioed gentlemen armed with nets. Exercise notwithstanding it was not the ideal start to what would be a momentous day.
After losing my pursuers through a slight deception – I convinced a constable at one end of a long alley that the pack of irate fellows some seconds behind were Hungarian assassins trying to silence me for discovering their plan to kidnap Her Majesty and blackmail our country into commencing war with Austria – I rested to recover from my exertions and rapped the door to Carruthers’ home.
"Doctor! Come in!" exclaimed Carruthers and he ushered me inside hastily. I barely had time to draw breath before my friend was urging me down the unlit hallway towards the drawing room.
"Steady now, Carruthers, there’s plenty of time!" I blurted. It was a little after nine in the morning and Carruthers had been most insistent that I was to arrive as early as possible and no later than ten. His palm in the small of my back – at least, I hoped it was his palm – nudging me forward, therefore, was most unseemly.
We reached the drawing room and I found myself staring at the thing which nearly filled the entire area.
"As you can see Doctor, the tube is complete!" said Carruthers proudly as he rounded the great cylindrical object. I was momentarily distracted by my reflection in the brass outer casing, distorted somewhat by the many protruding coils, pipes, and bolts and didn’t immediately answer. I imagined briefly that I was a half-man, half-machine construct; a brass being; perhaps the future of humanity.
"Tsk, tsk, you’re drifting off into one of your flights of fantasy again, aren’t you Doctor?" said Carruthers as he appeared from the opposite side of his tube.
"I’m afraid you’re right, Carruthers," I replied. "Unlike you, I keep my fantasies locked inside my head. Yours become terrifying reality."
Carruthers beamed first at me and then the tube. "It is a work of beauty, is it not?" he sighed. And then, suddenly, he shouted "Well, come come, dear man! We’re all here! Let’s not delay! Inside! Inside!"
Once again I was ushered by Carruthers, this time around the tube to the side facing away from the entrance to the drawing room. Here there was a small entrance that required a grown man to stoop ever so slightly in order that he might pass. As I was a grown man and had been one now for a good few years I duly stooped ever so slightly and so found myself within the confines of Carruthers’ great creation.
As a member of the Victorian Inventors Guild Carruthers had been obliged to follow the dictates of his fellow geniuses and the innards of the tube was decorated in as much plush red upholstery as he could obtain. Numerous dials and levers lined the walls and a small pedestal in the centre of the cylindrical chamber contained a single switch clearly in an Off position.
Besides Carruthers and myself there was one other occupant. Elizabeth, Carruthers’ niece, sat to my immediate left as I was pushed gently into a seating position by her uncle. Elizabeth nodded and smiled politely at me and I returned the gestures. There was a tension in that room that may not entirely have been due to the dangerous trip upon which we were about to embark but perhaps that was my libido thinking; Elizabeth was a most handsome young woman and this was the closest I had been to her while she was awake.
The room was sealed following a flurry of activity by Carruthers and then he too, eventually, became settled and calm. His wide smile never faded.
"Elizabeth and Doctor, I think we are ready for the adventure of a lifetime. I assume you are ready for … your trip to Mercury!"
I patted my gentleman’s briefcase. "As instructed, Carruthers, I have come with a stout pair of hiking boots fixed with studs so that I will not fly off the surface of the planet owing to its low gravity. I have purchased a new hat with a wide brim to protect my head from the closeness of the Sun and I have obtained from my Aunt a fan from the orient so that we may all keep cool. Finally, a hip flask with liquid opium, in case the planet fails to deliver any excitement of its own."
"As dependable as ever Doctor! Splendid! Then I think it is time we left."
I was nervous, or the butterflies were not digesting properly. Either way, there was a cramp in my stomach like I had not felt before as Carruthers reached across and flicked the switch on the pedestal. I think I wanted to take a deep breath but there wasn’t time. Immediately the sound of many pistons firing sounded and reverberated and there was a sudden lurching that threw me sideways. I found myself head first in the bosom of Elizabeth suddenly pressed down by a great force. My face burnt red with embarrassment and I struggled to right myself pawing away wildly at whatever was within reach. Mostly, it appeared I was groping the poor girl.
And then, as suddenly and as violently as it had started, the sensation and sounds abated.
"We’ve arrived!" shouted Carruthers from behind me. "And you can stop molesting my niece," he added as I pushed myself away and back into my seat. I started to stammer an apology but Elizabeth, I saw, shared her uncle’s single-minded fascination with the events unfolding and had no time to reflect upon my ungentlemanly behaviour. The pair of them were looking through the shiny periscope with wonder on their faces.
"What exactly has happened?" I asked, keen to put my impropriety behind me and act part of the expedition. It was Elizabeth who turned from the viewing apparatus and explained: "While the Earth and Mercury were at their shortest distance from one another, Uncle extended a tube of rings – much like an extendable telescope – from his drawing room in South London to the surface of this extraterrestrial world using the power of steam. We are now locked onto the surface of Mercury at this end and can explore at our leisure."
I tried to picture a long tube stretching between the Earth and Mercury and my mind swam with the immensity of what Carruthers had achieved. I was concerned also that the tube, despite being made of the best brass available, might deform under the pressure of space exerted on it making our return even bumpier but kept that to myself as the thought that I might also be able to get away with slipping a couple of fingers where they shouldn’t go suddenly popped into my head.
Carruthers’ hands were a blur over a set of knobs to one side. "Let’s not dilly-dally!" he said, straightening up suddenly. "The planet Mercury awaits. On with your boots and hat, Doctor. Elizabeth, your parasol if you please, and make sure the lead weights in your bustle are secure."
And with that the door was opened and Carruthers set about ushering us outwards onto the strange planet on which we were securely fastened.
We landed on our heads as the tube was effectively upside-down. Fortunately, the low gravity of the strange world softened the landing on Mercury’s soil.
It was hot. Carruthers had estimated that the temperature of Mercury would be comparable to Brighton in the height of Summer but I suspected it was even warmer than that. The sky was a vivid orange and the Sun appeared massive and low over the horizon. The landscape in which we had touched down was a drab affair; brown rocks similar in appearance to slate and dirt, and small bushes, also brown, with small brown fruits on them. The air felt thick and there was a distinct taste to it with every intake of breath.
"I do believe the air contains fine particulates of oxygen-carrying sand," I told my colleagues. "I recognise the taste."
"Just as I expected," remarked Carruthers as he approached one example of the small, brown flora nearby. He tugged at the fruit but it refused to budge. "Blast!" he suddenly cried.
Elizabeth and I gathered around in horror as we suddenly saw that Carruthers’ hand had come off at the wrist. Blood from his arm was spraying in a strange, low-gravitational arc over the soil.
"I see this Mercurian plantlife has a rather effective defence mechanism against poachers. I should have been more careful and realised that leaf was serated. Doctor, some assistance please."
I marvelled at his calmness and instructed him to put his stump in his pocket to stem the bleeding. "You should really get to a hospital Carruthers. There’s no telling how long it will take for an artery to clot on this planet and there’s a danger of fainting." I offered him the contents from my hip flask which he gratefully accepted and gulped down.
"Uncle, if this plant is this dangerous then what other danger might befall us on this world?" asked Elizabeth as she nervously scanned the horizon. I too looked around worriedly but there appeared to be nothing to see. Only the tube, which towered into the sky and disappeared into space towards where the Earth must surely be, seemed to move; an illusion caused by the slow progression of the wispy clouds high above.
"Perhaps you’re right and we were too hasty," agreed Carruthers. "A slight recess back in London for some bandages and to hunt down some hardy gloves is what is needed. Only …"
"What is it, Carruthers?" I asked.
"I know," said Elizabeth. "It will be several months before Mercury revolves into position once more and Uncle is worried that events may transpire to prevent our return. We are here now after all."
Carruthers was down spiritually and it took some effort on behalf of Elizabeth and myself to get him inside the tube ready for the return trip to Earth. As the door closed he lifted his still-profusely-bleeding arm from his now-stained linen trousers and sighed. "We never even got to meet the Leopard Ladies of Mercury," he said quietly.
"Liquid Opium," I mouthed towards Elizabeth. She nodded knowingly, leaned over, and flicked the switch on the pedestal.
The lurching, the noise, and the extreme pressure all returned but I missed landing in the softness of my young companion’s breasts this time around and ended up with the groin of Carruthers for olfactory company instead. I much preferred the outward journey.
Elizabeth insisted on taking Carruthers to hospital by herself and I took advantage to simply go home, suddenly finding myself tired and in need of a warm, wet flannel on the face.
London was much as it had been prior to our exciting-but-brief adventure except for the tsunami that had destroyed two-thirds of the buildings and killed tens of thousands, leaving hundreds of thousands more battered and destitute in our absence. Earthquakes and volcanic activity had done for most of Asia we later learned and the continental United States had slipped entirely off its tectonic plates and fallen into the ocean. Stopping the Earth’s rotation by fixing a long brass tube between it and the planet Mercury, it turned out, had a few global side-effects.
Nevertheless, I put that all to one side and returned to what was left of my practice in Woolwich, eager to hear from Carruthers once more, dreaming of some new adventure – perhaps with half-men, half-machine people -, and with half an eye out for wrongly-arrested lepidopterists out for revenge. Little did I know what thrilling event was waiting to entangle me later that week, but that story must wait for another day.