In the Turner yard at Philadelphia there reposed an enormous aerostat, whose strength had been tried by highly compressed air. It well merited the name of the monster balloon.
How large was Nadar's Géant? Six thousand cubic meters. How large was John Wise's balloon? Twenty thousand cubic meters. How large was the Giffard balloon at the 1878 Exhibition? Twenty-five thousand cubic meters. Compare these three aerostats with the aerial machine of the Weldon Institute, whose volume amounted to forty thousand cubic meters, and you will understand why Uncle Prudent and his colleagues were so justifiably proud of it.
This balloon not being destined for the exploration of the higher strata of the atmosphere, was not called the Excelsior, a name which is rather too much held in honor among the citizens of America. No! It was called, simply, the "Go-Ahead," and all it had to do was to justify its name by going ahead obediently to the wishes of its commander.
The dynamo-electric machine, according to the patent purchased by the Weldon Institute, was nearly ready. In less than six weeks the "Go-Ahead" would start for its first cruise through space.
But, as we have seen, all the mechanical difficulties had not been overcome. Many evenings had been devoted to discussing, not the form of its screw nor its, dimensions, but whether it ought to be put behind, as the Tissandier brothers had done, or before as Captains Krebs and Renard had done. It is unnecessary to add that the partisans of the two systems had almost come to blows. The group of "Beforists" were equaled in number by the group of "Behindists." Uncle Prudent, who ought to have given the casting vote--Uncle Prudent, brought up doubtless in the school of Professor Buridan-- could not bring himself to decide.
Hence the impossibility of getting the screw into place. The dispute might last for some time, unless the government interfered. But in the United States the government meddles with private affairs as little as it possibly can. And it is right.
Things were in this state at this meeting on the 13th of June, which threatened to end in a riot--insults exchanged, fisticuffs succeeding the insults, cane thrashings succeeding the fisticuffs, revolver shots succeeding the cane thrashings--when at thirty-seven minutes past eight there occurred a diversion.
The porter of the Weldon Institute coolly and calmly, like a policeman amid the storm of the meeting, approached the presidential desk. On it he placed a card. He awaited the orders that Uncle Prudent found it convenient to give.
Uncle Prudent turned on the steam whistle, which did duty for the presidential bell, for even the Kremlin clock would have struck in vain! But the tumult slackened not.
Then the president removed his hat. Thanks to this extreme measure a semi-silence was obtained.
"A communication!" said Uncle Prudent, after taking a huge pinch from the snuff-box which never left him.
"Speak up!" answered eighty-nine voices, accidentally in agreement on this one point.
"A stranger, my dear colleagues, asks to be admitted to the meeting."
"Never!" replied every voice.
"He desires to prove to us, it would appear," continued Uncle Prudent, 'that to believe in guiding balloons is to believe in the absurdest of Utopias!"
"Let him in! Let him in!"
"What is the name of this singular personage?" asked secretary Phil Evans.
"Robur," replied Uncle Prudent.
"Robur! Robur! Robur!" yelled the assembly. And the welcome accorded so quickly to the curious name was chiefly due to the Weldon Institute hoping to vent its exasperation on the head of him who bore it!
IN WHICH A NEW CHARACTER APPEARS
"Citizens of the United States! My name is Robur. I am worthy of the name! I am forty years old, although I look but thirty, and I have a constitution of iron, a healthy vigor that nothing can shake, a muscular strength that few can equal, and a digestion that would be thought first class even in an ostrich!"
They were listening! Yes! The riot was quelled at once by the totally unexpected fashion of the speech.