The afternoon was wearing on as we strolled across the immaculately manicured lawns of Cedarville. My uncles property was extensive, and included not only the well tended gardens, but the meadows beyond and two acres of woodland to the east.
Uncle Frederick tilted his head back, closing his eyes as he let the golden sunlight play over his features. "I love the gardens at this time of day," he said. "I like to watch the glimmering sun as it sinks between the trees. Smell that air, Vincent. It will do your lungs good to be away from filthy old London for a while."
"I feel better already," I told him.
Uncle Frederick smiled. "Listen to the birdsong," he said. "The gentle fluting tones of the song thrush; the raucous calls of the crow; the staccato, warbling cry of the house-martin. You know, I often bring my work out here and sit beneath the shade of the big oak."
He pointed to the big tree that spread its twisted, deformed boughs over the corner of the lawn. "Yes," I said, nodding. "It must be very peaceful."
"Peaceful?" said my uncle. "Heavens no! You can't hear yourself think for all that blasted racket."
"Oh, right," I said, somewhat awkwardly. I cleared my throat and changed the subject. "You, erm - you said you would explain how you're going to reach Venus?"
Uncle Frederick perked up a little. "Ah yes, indeed I did." He stopped and pulled something out of his pocket. "Here, see this?"
He had produced an ordinary catapult. I looked at him in puzzlement. "Its just a catapult. I used to have one myself. Mother confiscated it when she caught me harassing the postman." I smiled and laughed uneasily. "Surely you're not suggesting that you're going to catapult yourself to Venus?" I joked.
"That is exactly what I'm suggesting!" Uncle Frederick replied.
I became aware that my mouth was hanging open and I closed it quickly. "Is it actually possible to catapult yourself off the planet?" I asked, failing to disguise my scepticism.
"I believe so," my uncle replied with surprising confidence. "Allow me to demonstrate. Pass me that stone there."
I knelt down and picked up the stone that my uncle had indicated. He carefully loaded his catapult, then craned backwards so that it was pointing skywards.
"Now see what happens when I aim the catapult straight up into the air."
He pulled the elastic back to its full extent, paused for just one moment, then released it. I shielded my eyes as I looked up. The stone sailed up into the air, reached the top of its arc and fell back to earth with gathering speed. It thudded into the ground at my feet.
My uncle seemed to be inordinately pleased with this demonstration. "You can see that the stone travels only a short distance before it is pulled back to earth," he pointed out.
"Of course," I replied. "But -"
"Can you please pick it up for me again, Vincent?" Uncle Frederick interrupted. "I have trouble with my back."
I did as I was asked. Uncle Frederick thanked me and reloaded his catapult. "You see," he explained, "the energy required to launch an object vertically into space is phenomenal. Its quite an impossible situation. In order to overcome the problem we have to think laterally." He took aim once more, this time pointing his weapon at a gardener tending to a laurel bush some way off. "Now, this time we're going to aim the catapult horizontally. Watch carefully."
He fired again. The missile flew through the air and struck the gardener on the back of the head. The poor man gave a short yelp of pain and collapsed, head first, into the bush.
"There you are!" Uncle Frederick proclaimed delightedly. "This time the stone travels much further before falling to earth - or, at least, it would have done had it not hit the gardener." He handed the catapult to me. "Here, have a go."
I took the weapon from him and tested the grip. Then I reached down for another stone and loaded. "All right, so I just keep it parallel to the ground?" I said. My uncle gave a nod of encouragement as I aimed at the gardener, who was still rubbing the back of his bruised head and pulling bits of shrubbery from his jumper. I stretched the elastic back as far as it would go, released the stone and once more the unfortunate man screamed as he was knocked to the floor.
"Oh yes, I see what you mean," I said. "But Im still not certain what good it will do you?"
"Oh Vincent, surely its obvious?" my uncle replied. "Think about it. The surface of the earth is curved, but the stone travels in a straight line. Now, if you could project a stone with enough force laterally, it would leave the surface of the earth and shoot out into space."
"Oh, I see," I responded. Coming from anyone else, I feel sure that I would have dismissed this theory out of hand. But my uncle had always been terribly persuasive. "But surely youre going to need an awfully big catapult?"
"Yes," Uncle Frederick replied, a mischievous gleam in his eye. "And we shall build one."
It was at this time that we heard Cripes calling out to us. He was steadily making his way across the lawn, informing us as he walked that my uncles dinner guests had arrived. Uncle Frederick pulled out his pocket watch. "Good gad, is it that time already?" he observed.
"Guests, uncle?" I asked.
"Yes, yes, Vincent," Uncle Frederick said. "I have invited Reverend Black and Doctor Wentworth to dinner. Both are very well respected in their own particular fields, and learned men to boot. I thought it wise to seek out a few opinions before I progress with my scheme. Come, I shall introduce you to them."
And then, pausing only to let loose one more shot at the harassed gardener, we made our way back to the house for dinner.
And what a dinner it was! Throughout the years, my uncle had built up a modest fortune from the sale of his many inventions - most notably the ratchet condom and the left handed bath plug - and though he was by no means a reckless spender, he was never short on hospitality. That evening was no exception. We were treated to giant shrimps fried in garlic, followed by shark steaks, roast horse and a soup made out of small furry marsupials of indeterminate origin.
People of my uncle's station in life were trained to tackle those extraordinary quantities of food, but such a meal could easily cripple a man like me. As the servants cleared away the dinner things, I sat like a beached whale at the table, staring at my bloated stomach as my uncle regaled Reverend Black and Doctor Wentworth with some of his marvellous anecdotes.
"... And then of course I developed my mechanical jam spreader."
"And what a marvellous innovation it was too!" Doctor Wentworth declared. His cheeks were glowing, partly as a result of his natural exuberance, but mostly due to the quite staggering quantity of wine he had consumed throughout the meal. "Every home should have one. Im sure that I would be lost without mine."
"Thats very kind of you, Wentworth," said Uncle Frederick. "I must admit that I was always rather proud of it. It only really failed to catch on because Nathaniel Slater brought out his Pneumatic Jam Redistribution System, mores the pity."
Reverend Black interceded before the conversation could lapse into a thoughtful silence. "Well, Mr Maitland, I really must thank you for an excellent meal."
"Yes, yes - splendid old chap," the doctor concurred.
"You are both very welcome," Uncle Frederick responded graciously. "I really am most privileged to have enjoyed your company this evening."
The vicar gently dabbed the corners of his mouth with his napkin. "I must be honest, it really is quite a relief to have met you at last. After all the rumours that are circulating around the village, it is most edifying to learn that you are, well, normal. Not that I give any credence to that sort of malicious gossip, of course."
"Of course," my uncle said politely.
"To hear some folk speak, one would think you were some sort of eccentric lunatic," said Reverend Black with a gauche little laugh. "I don't know if you're aware of the latest slanderous notion thats doing the rounds - they say that you're planning a trip to the moon!"
"Is that so?"
"Would you credit it?" the reverend declared, warming to his theme. "It never fails to astound me when apparently sane and level headed people are prepared to believe such preposterous stories."
"Well it's plainly absurd," Uncle Frederick replied.
"Of course it is!" said the vicar.
"Going to the moon!" said my uncle. "My word! It's unthinkable. I thought that everyone already knew that I'm going to Venus."
A rather uneasy silence suddenly descended over the table. Reverend Blacks face fell. He looked to the doctor, then at me, then finally back to my uncle.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm going to Venus," my uncle replied simply. "Im surprised you didnt know, reverend. After all, Ive never made any secret of the fact."
Doctor Wentworth nudged the vicars arm. "Hey," he said, his speech sounding a little slurred. "Why would Freddie want to go to the moon - there's no atmosphere?"
The reverend shook his head and henceforth ignored the doctor, addressing his remarks across the table to my uncle. "Surely you are not serious about this?" he said. "I suspect that you are playing some game with me, yes?"
"Did you hear what I said just then?" the doctor piped up, refusing to let a bad joke die with dignity. "I said that there's no atmosphere."
"Reverend Black," Uncle Frederick said, "let me make it quite plain that I am deadly serious about my intention to become the first human man to set foot on Venus."
The reverend was appalled by the whole idea. "What you are proposing is frankly impossible," he claimed. "You can't just hop on the next train to Venus, you know?"
"I know," said Uncle Frederick. "Ive tried. But I have devised a method by which I can achieve my goal. I'm building a giant catapult. By September at the very latest I will be on the planet Venus, with the Pixies."
Reverend Black looked at him suspiciously from the corner of his eye. "Pixies?" he asked. Suddenly a new element had been added to the conversation, and he wasnt at all sure how to take it.
"Thats right vicar. The Pixies come from Venus. My dear Reverend Black, I would have expected that you, of all people, would know that."
"You've lost your mind man!" the vicar suddenly blurted out.
"There's no atmosphere - get it?" mumbled the doctor. "It's a joke, you see?"
"Venus! Pixies!" said the reverend, raising his voice. "Sir, this is arrant nonsense!"
"Arrant nonsense?" my uncle replied, and I could see that he was struggling to keep his temper. He turned to the doctor. "Wentworth," he said. "You're a man of science."
Doctor Wentworth looked faintly startled as his sudden inclusion in the conversation. "Whats that?" he said. "A man of science? Well yes, but only in the loosest possible sense of course."
"Then, scientifically speaking, tell me whether you think my plan is arrant nonsense," Uncle Frederick requested of him. "Surely you can accept that it is not beyond the realms of possibility for a man to travel to the planets?"
"Well, yes, maybe," the doctor replied, flustered at being put on the spot in this fashion. "I suppose that it is theoretically possible."
"Well there you are then!" Uncle Frederick declared.
"I'm not sure about all this Pixie business though," Doctor Wentworth said.
"But the important thing is that you consider a trip to Venus to be feasible?" my uncle pressed him.
Wentworth looked uncharacteristically thoughtful. "Well, you know, I wouldn't like to comment on something outside of my own field of expertise, old boy. Technically, yes, I don't see why not. But physically, well, that's quite another matter."
"Well, I suppose I mean biologically," said the good doctor. "I feel that it is my professional duty to make you fully aware of the limitations of the human body. There are several very serious problems you will need to address before you can go ahead with this expedition."
"Problems, Doctor Wentworth?" Uncle Frederick queried, keen to dismiss these doubts. "I foresee no problems in that department. Look at me doctor - am I not at the very peak of physical fitness?"
Uncle Frederick was stung by this remark, but he let it pass. "I assure you, I have an iron constitution. I am perfectly capable of withstanding the rigours of spaceflight."