The road itself instead of being the packed together pebbles and dirt smeared with tar with a surface of grit, dust, and animal excrement, of a normal English high road, was apparently made of glass, clear in places as still water and in places milky or opalescent, shot with streaks of soft colour or glittering richly with clouds of embedded golden flakes. It was perhaps twelve or fifteen yards wide. On either side was a band of greensward, of a finer grass than Mr. Barnstaple had ever seen before—and he was an expert and observant mower of lawns—and beyond this a wide border of flowers. Where Mr. Barnstaple sat agape in his car and perhaps for thirty yards in either direction this border was a mass of some unfamiliar blossom of forget-me-not blue. Then the colour was broken by an increasing number of tall, pure white spikes that finally ousted the blue altogether from the bed. On the opposite side of the way these same spikes were mingled with masses of plants bearing seed-pods equally strange to Mr. Barnstaple, which varied through a series of blues and mauves and purples to an intense crimson. Beyond this gloriously coloured foam of flowers spread flat meadows on which creamy cattle were grazing. Three close at hand, a little startled perhaps by Mr. Barnstaple’s sudden apparition, chewed the cud and regarded him with benevolently speculative eyes. They had long horns and dewlaps like the cattle of South Europe and India. From these benign creatures Mr. Barnstaple’s eyes went to a long line of flame-shaped trees, to a colonnade of white and gold, and to a background of snow-clad mountains. A few tall, white clouds were sailing across a sky of dazzling blue. The air impressed Mr. Barnstaple as being astonishingly clear and sweet.
Except for the cows and the little group of people standing by the Limousine Mr. Barnstaple could see no other living creature. The motorists were standing still and staring about them. A sound of querulous voices came to him.
A sharp crepitation at his back turned Mr. Barnstaple’s attention round. By the side of the road in the direction from which conceivably he had come were the ruins of what appeared to be a very recently demolished stone house. Beside it were two large apple trees freshly twisted and riven, as if by some explosion, and out of the centre of it came a column of smoke and this sound of things catching fire. And the contorted lines of these shattered apple trees helped Mr. Barnstaple to realize that some of the flowers by the wayside near at hand were also bent down to one side as if by the passage of a recent violent gust of wind. Yet he had heard no explosion nor felt any wind.
He stared for a time and then turned as if for an explanation to the Limousine. Three of these people were now coming along the road towards him, led by a tall, slender, grey-headed gentleman in a felt hat and a long motoring dust-coat. He had a small upturned face with a little nose that scarce sufficed for the springs of his gilt glasses. Mr. Barnstaple restarted his engine and drove slowly to meet them.
As soon as he judged himself within hearing distance he stopped and put his head over the side of the Yellow Peril with a question. At the same moment the tall, grey-headed gentleman asked practically the same question: “Can you tell me at all, sir, where we are?”
“Five minutes ago,” said Mr. Barnstaple, “I should have said we were on the Maidenhead Road. Near Slough.”
“Exactly!” said the tall gentleman in earnest, argumentative tones. “Exactly! And I maintain that there is not the slightest reason for supposing that we are not still on the Maidenhead Road.”
The challenge of the dialectician rang in his voice.
“It doesn’t look like the Maidenhead Road,” said Mr. Barnstaple.
“Agreed! But are we to judge by appearances or are we to judge by the direct continuity of our experience? The Maidenhead Road led to this, was in continuity with this, and therefore I hold that this is the Maidenhead Road.”
“Those mountains?” considered Mr. Barnstaple.
“Windsor Castle ought to be there,” said the tall gentleman brightly as if he gave a point in a gambit.
“Was there five minutes ago,” said Mr. Barnstaple.
“Then obviously those mountains are some sort of a camouflage,” said the tall gentleman triumphantly, “and the whole of this business is, as they say nowadays, a put-up thing.”
“It seems to be remarkably well put up,” said Mr. Barnstaple.
Came a pause during which Mr. Barnstaple surveyed the tall gentleman’s companions. The tall gentleman he knew perfectly well. He had seen him a score of times at public meetings and public dinners. He was Mr. Cecil Burleigh, the great Conservative leader. He was not only distinguished as a politician; he was eminent as a private gentleman, a philosopher and a man of universal intelligence. Behind him stood a short, thick-set, middle-aged young man, unknown to Mr. Barnstaple, the natural hostility of whose appearance was greatly enhanced by an eye-glass. The third member of the little group was also a familiar form, but for a time Mr. Barnstaple could not place him. He had a clean-shaven, round, plump face and a well-nourished person and his costume suggested either a High Church clergyman or a prosperous Roman Catholic priest.
The young man with the eye-glass now spoke in a kind of impotent falsetto. “I came down to Taplow Court by road not a month ago and there was certainly nothing of this sort on the way then.”
“I admit there are difficulties,” said Mr. Burleigh with gusto. “I admit there are considerable difficulties. Still, I venture to think my main proposition holds.”
“You don’t think this is the Maidenhead Road?” said the gentleman with the eye-glass flatly to Mr. Barnstaple.
“It seems too perfect for a put-up thing,” said Mr. Barnstaple with a mild obstinacy.
“But, my dear Sir!” protested Mr. Burleigh, “this road is notorious for nursery seedsmen and sometimes they arrange the most astonishing displays. As an advertisement.”
“Then why don’t we go straight on to Taplow Court now?” asked the gentleman with the eye-glass.
“Because,” said Mr. Burleigh, with the touch of asperity natural when one has to insist on a fact already clearly known, and obstinately overlooked, “Rupert insists that we are in some other world. And won’t go on. That is why. He has always had too much imagination. He thinks that things that don’t exist can exist. And now he imagines himself in some sort of scientific romance and out of our world altogether. In another dimension. I sometimes think it would have been better for all of us if Rupert had taken to writing romances—instead of living them. If you, as his secretary, think that you will be able to get him on to Taplow in time for lunch with the Windsor people—”
Mr. Burleigh indicated by a gesture ideas for which he found words inadequate.
Mr. Barnstaple had already noted a slow-moving, intent, sandy-complexioned figure in a grey top hat with a black band that the caricaturists had made familiar, exploring the flowery tangle beside the Limousine. This then must be no less well-known person than Rupert Catskill, the Secretary of State for War.
For once Mr. Barnstaple found himself in entire agreement with this all too adventurous politician. This was another world. Mr. Barnstaple got out of his car and addressed himself to Mr. Burleigh. “I think we may get a lot of light upon just where we are, Sir, if we explore this building which is burning here close at hand. I thought just now that I saw a figure lying on the slope close behind it. If we could catch one of the hoaxers—”
He left his sentence unfinished because he did not believe for a moment that they were being hoaxed. Mr. Burleigh had fallen very much in his opinion in the last five minutes.
All four men turned their faces to the smoking ruin.
“It’s a very extraordinary thing that there isn’t a soul in sight,” remarked the eye-glass gentleman searching the horizon.
“Well, I see no harm whatever in finding out what is burning,” said Mr. Burleigh and led the way, upholding an intelligent, anticipatory face, towards the wrecked house between the broken trees.
But before he had gone a dozen paces the attention of the little group was recalled to the Limousine by a loud scream of terror from the lady who had remained seated therein.
“Really this is too much!” cried Mr. Burleigh with a note of genuine exasperation. “There must surely be police regulations to prevent this kind of thing.”
“It’s out of some travelling menagerie,” said the gentleman with the eye-glass. “What ought we to do?”
“It looks tame,” said Mr. Barnstaple, but without any impulse to put his theory to the test.
“It might easily frighten people very seriously,” said Mr. Burleigh. And lifting up a bland voice he shouted: “Don’t be alarmed, Stella! It’s probably quite tame and harmless. Don’t irritate it with that sunshade. It might fly at you. Stel-la!”
“It” was a big and beautifully marked leopard which had come very softly out of the flowers and sat down like a great cat in the middle of the glass road at the side of the big car. It was blinking and moving its head from side to side rhythmically, with an expression of puzzled interest, as the lady, in accordance with the best traditions of such cases, opened and shut her parasol at it as rapidly as she could. The chauffeur had taken cover behind the car. Mr. Rupert Catskill stood staring, knee-deep in flowers, apparently only made aware of the creature’s existence by the same scream that had attracted the attention of Mr. Burleigh and his companions.
Mr. Catskill was the first to act, and his act showed his mettle. It was at once discreet and bold. “Stop flopping that sunshade, Lady Stella,” he said. “Let me—I will—catch its eye.”
He made a detour round the car so as to come face to face with the animal. Then for a moment he stood, as it were displaying himself, a resolute little figure in a grey frock coat and a black-banded top hat. He held out a cautious hand, not too suddenly for fear of startling the creature. “Poossy!” he said.
The leopard, relieved by the cessation of Lady Stella’s sunshade, regarded him with interest and curiosity. He drew closer. The leopard extended its muzzle and sniffed.
“If it will only let me stroke it,” said Mr. Catskill, and came within arm’s length.
The beast sniffed the extended hand with an expression of incredulity. Then with a suddenness that sent Mr. Catskill back several paces, it sneezed. It sneezed again much more violently, regarded Mr. Catskill reproachfully for a moment and then leapt lightly over the flower-bed and made off in the direction of the white and golden colonnade. The grazing cattle in the field, Mr. Barnstaple noted, watched its passage without the slightest sign of dismay.
Mr. Catskill remained in a slightly expanded state in the middle of the road. “No animal,” he remarked, “can stand up to the steadfast gaze of the human eye. Not one. It is a riddle for your materialist. . . . Shall we join Mr. Cecil, Lady Stella? He seems to have found something to look at down there. The man in the little yellow car may know where he is. Hm?”
He assisted the lady to get out of the car and the two came on after Mr. Barnstaple’s party, which was now again approaching the burning house. The chauffeur, evidently not wishing to be left alone with the Limousine in this world of incredible possibilities, followed as closely as respect permitted.