Professor Cuthbert’s Remarkable Vessel
“We’re here,” Lovell said. “Remember that the Professor might not be what you expect.”
“An eccentric professor?” I said. “What are the odds?”
“Just let me do the talking.” He pulled a handle by the door and a bell rang somewhere inside the cottage. It had taken me much guile, and not a little expense, to persuade Lovell to effect an introduction to the mysterious Professor Cuthbert. Many of the incredible inventions that we now take for granted as we approach the twentieth century originated in the mind of the reclusive Professor; the fountain pen and the gramophone to name but two miracles of the modern age.
When Lovell had told me at the club that he knew the Professor personally, I was determined to elicit an invitation to visit. Who would not want to encounter such a remarkable mind? To ask a hundred questions, and perhaps be made privy to what was coming next? It had taken me no little time, but finally Lovett had agreed to take me to see the Professor, and after a long railway journey and a bumpy ride in a brougham, we stood before the front door of a small country cottage in rural Suffolk.
In response to a second tug of the bell-pull, the door opened to reveal a woman with a cloud of grey hair held flat by a pair of goggles pushed back over her forehead. She wore a leather apron, a man’s shirt and trousers, and she held a hammer in her left hand. She seemed to me to be very old indeed, perhaps even into her fifties.
“Jamie!” she cried to Lovell, “How lovely to see you!” Her lined face crinkled even more as she smiled broadly.
“Good afternoon, Catherine,” Lovell said. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve brought along a friend who has been dying to meet you.”
“Not at all,” the woman said. “You’re just in time for afternoon tea. There are more than enough scones to feed a regiment. Do introduce me to your chum, dear boy.”
“Of course,” Lovell grinned at my shocked expression. “Catherine, I would like to introduce you to my friend, the right honourable Cecil Tilbury Moffat. Cecil, please meet Professor Catherine Cuthbert.”
“But you’re a woman!” I blurted out.
“He’s very observant, isn’t he?” Professor Cuthbert said to Jamie.
“Don’t let that vacant expression put you off, he really is a big admirer of your work. Cecil, where are your manners? Doff your hat.” I lifted my topper absent-mindedly, staring at the woman in front of me.
“Is that so, Mr. Moffat?” the Professor asked. “Which of my inventions caught your interest first?”
“You’re wearing trousers!” I babbled. The Professor and Lovell burst into laughter
“Come,” the Professor commanded. “You have arrived at an opportune moment. I am in sore need of a person of just your height to test my latest invention. And then we shall have scones.” She led us around the house and through a back-garden jungle to a large wooden shed. Projecting horizontally out of the left wall of the shed was what appeared to be a garden fence, clearly very securely attached for it stuck out some six feet above the flower beds. Professor Cuthbert struck a pose as if demonstrating a particular clever trick performed by a music hall prestidigitator.
“Ta da!” she said. I stared at her. “Well?” she asked. “What do you think, Mr. Moffat?”
“It’s … a very nice shed.” I was bewildered. Lovell had warned me of eccentricity, but even so. The Professor sighed and stood normally.
“Put him straight, Jamie,” she said. Lovell grinned. He was enjoying my discomfort far too much.
“This shed,” he said, indicating the shed, “is not a shed. This is Professor Cuthbert’s remarkable vessel to facilitate the exploration of the echoing cosmos above our heads.”
“What?” I said. I realised that perhaps that was not the considered response that might be called for, so I spoke again. “No, what?” I said.
“Young man,” Professor Cuthbert said. “This is an airborne vessel. It uses the invisible power of magnetism to free it of the bonds that bind us to this earth.”
“It’s made of wood.” I suggested, helpfully.
“Yes, well spotted, for a metal vessel would interfere with the magnetic forces needed to lift it beyond our atmosphere. This, my deliciously vacant chap, is a craft that will travel into space itself. A space-ship, if you will.”
“A space-shed?” I ejaculated.
“Ship,” said Lovell. “Space-ship.”
“Now, young man,” the Professor said. “Would you be so kind as to do me a favour? Would you please enter the craft and sit in the pilot’s seat? Jamie is way too tall, and it is imperative that I adjust the outer buoyancy cogs to allow for the weight of a passenger.”
“And then shall we have scones?” I asked.
“And then scones, yes,” she said.
“Very well,” I agreed. “What would you have me do?”
“Go inside, and sit in the seat before the window. Put on the air-helmet that you will find there, and then just sit back and enjoy the pleasant view that you will have of my cherry tree.”
“That’s all. I shall make my adjustments, then call you out for scones once I have finished. Whatever you do, however, do not touch the red lever.”
“I shall certainly venture nowhere near any levers, madam,” I promised. I entered the shed, and wound my way through a clutter of equipment to what was clearly a captain’s chair by the shed window. On the chair sat a large glass bubble, presumably the Professor’s air-helmet. I removed my hat and put the helmet over my head. It was surprisingly comfortable, although it took some time to get the thing the right way round so that I could see. I sat in the captain’s chair and looked out of the window.
The Professor’s cherry tree was nowhere to be seen. The Professor’s garden was nowhere to be seen. The shed now hovered high in the arched heavens. Miles below a vast sweep of sunlit cloud swept across the surface of the planet. Somehow, I was now many leagues above Suffolk. But … how? I lifted my top-hat from the hat-peg. The red hat-peg. Or, as I now realised it must be, the red lever. I had inadvertently launched the space-shed with my hat.
What next? I had no idea, but now that they were out of my reach I truly fancied a scone.
”But Wombie,” I hear you ask, “How on earth did that picture inspire this story? What has a jetty to do with a Victorian inventor?” When you get no inspiration, try a different angle – I just flipped the picture … and there my tale was: a wooden spaceship floating above a cloud-cloaked planet. Tricksy.