Chapter 11

 

The Astronef dropped swiftly down through the crimson-tinged clouds, and a few minutes later they saw that the rest of the fleet had scattered in units in all directions, apparently with the intention of getting as far as possible out of reach of that terrible ram. Only one of them, the largest, which carried what looked like a flag of woven gold at the top of its centre mast, remained in sight after a few minutes. It was almost immediately below them when they had passed through the clouds, and they could see it sinking straight down towards the centre of what appeared to be the principal square of the bigger of the two cities which Zaidie had named New York and Brooklyn.

That fellow has gone to report, evidently,” said Redgrave. “We’ll follow him just to see what he’s up to, but I don’t think we’d better open the ports even then. There’s no telling when they might give us a whiff of that poison-mist, or whatever it is.”

But how are you going to talk to them, then, if they can talk?—I mean, if they know any language that we do?”

They’re something like men, and so I suppose they understand the language of signs, at any rate. Still, if you don’t fancy it, we’ll go somewhere else.”

No, thanks,” she said. “That’s not my father’s daughter. I haven’t come a hundred million miles from home to go away before the first act’s finished. We’ll go down to see if we can make them understand.”

By this time the Astronef was hanging suspended over an enormous square about half the size of Hyde Park. It was laid out just as a terrestrial park would be, in grass land, flower-beds, and avenues, and patches of trees, only the grass was a reddish yellow, the leaves of the trees were like those of a beech in autumn, and the flowers were nearly all a deep violet, or a bright emerald green.

As they descended they saw that the square, or Central Park, as Zaidie at once christened it, was flanked by enormous blocks of buildings, palaces built of a dazzlingly white stone, and topped by domed roofs and lofty cupolas of glass.

Isn’t that just lovely!” she said, swinging her binoculars in every direction. “Talk about your Park Lane and the houses round Central Park; why, it’s the Chicago Exposition, and the Paris one, and your Crystal Palace, multiplied by about ten thousand, and all spread out just round this one place. If we don’t find these people nice, I guess we’d better go back and build a fleet like this, and come and take it.”

There spoke the new American imperialism,” laughed Redgrave. “Well, we’ll go and see what they’re like first, shall we?”

The Astronef dropped a little more slowly than the air-ship had done, and remained suspended a hundred feet or so above her after she had reached the ground. Swarms of human figures but of more than human stature, clad in tunics and trousers or knickerbockers, came out of the glass-domed palaces from all sides into the park. They were nearly all of the same stature, and there appeared to be no difference whatever between the sexes. Their dress was absolutely plain; there was no attempt at ornament or decoration of any kind.

If there are any of the Martian women among those people,” said her ladyship, “they’ve taken to rationals, and they’ve grown about as big as the men.”

That’s exactly what’s happening on earth, you know, dear. I don’t mean about the rationals, but the women growing up, especially in America. I come of a pretty long family——but, look!”

Well, I only come to your ear,” she said.

And our descendants of ten thousand years hence——”

Oh, don’t bother about them!” she said. “Look; there’s some one who seems to want to communicate with us. Why, they’re all bald! They haven’t got a hair among them—and what a size their heads are!”

That’s brains—too much brains, in fact. These people have lived too long. I daresay they’ve ceased to be animals—civilised themselves out of everything in the way of passions and emotions, and are just purely intellectual beings, with as much human nature about them as Russian diplomacy or those things we saw at the bottom of the Newton Crater. I don’t like the look of them.”

The orderly swarms of figures, which were rapidly filling the park, divided as he was speaking, making a broad lane from one of its entrances to where the Astronef was hanging above the air-ship. A light four-wheeled vehicle, whose framework and wheels glittered like burnished gold, sped towards them, driven by some invisible agency.

Its only occupant was a huge man, dressed in the universal costume, saving only a scarlet sash in place of the cord-girdle which the others wore round their waists. The vehicle stopped near the air-ship, over which the Astronef was hanging, and, as the figure dismounted, a door opened in the side of the vessel and three other figures, similar both in stature and attire, came out and entered into conversation with him.

The Admiral of the Fleet is evidently making his report,” said Redgrave. “Meanwhile, the crowd seems to be taking a considerable amount of interest in us.”

And very naturally, too!” replied Zaidie. “Don’t you think we might go down now and see if we can make ourselves understood in any way? You can have the guns ready in case of accidents, but I don’t think they’ll try and hurt us now. Look, the gentleman with the red sash is making signs.”

I think we can go down now all right,” replied Redgrave, “because it’s quite certain they can’t use the poison-guns on us without killing themselves as well. Still, we may as well have our own ready. Andrew, get that port Maxim ready. I hope we shan’t want it, but we may. I don’t quite like the look of these people.”

They’re very ugly, aren’t they?” said Zaidie; “and really you can’t tell which are men and which are women. I suppose they’ve civilised themselves out of everything that’s nice, and are just scientific and utilitarian and everything that’s horrid.”

I shouldn’t wonder. They look to me as if they’ve just got common sense, as we call it, and hadn’t any other sense; but, at any rate, if they don’t behave themselves, we shall be able to teach them manners of a sort, though we may possibly have done that to some extent already.”

As he said this Redgrave went into the conning-tower, and the Astronef moved from above the air-ship, and dropped gently into the crimson grass about a hundred feet from her. Then the ports were opened, the guns, which Murgatroyd had loaded, were swung into position, and they armed themselves with a brace of revolvers each, in case of accident.

What delicious air this is!” said her ladyship, as the ports were opened and she took her first breath of the Martian atmosphere. “It’s ever so much nicer than ours. Oh, Lenox, it’s just like breathing champagne.”

Redgrave looked at her with an admiration which was tempered by a sudden apprehension. Even in his eyes she had never seemed so lovely before. Her cheeks were glowing and her eyes were gleaming with a brightness that was almost feverish, and he was himself sensible of a strange feeling of exultation, both mental and physical, as his lungs filled with the Martian air.

Oxygen,” he said, shortly, “and too much of it! Or I shouldn’t wonder if it was something like nitrous-oxide—you know, laughing gas.”

Don’t!” she laughed; “it may be very nice to breathe, but it reminds one of other things which aren’t a bit nice. Still, if it is anything of that sort it might account for these people having lived so fast. I know I feel just now as if I was living at the rate of thirty-six hours a day, and so, I suppose, the fewer hours we stop here the better.”

Exactly!” said Redgrave, with another glance of apprehension at her. “Now, there’s his Royal Highness, or whatever he is, coming. How are we going to talk to him? Are you all ready, Andrew?”

Yes, my Lord, all ready,” replied the old Yorkshireman, dropping his huge, hairy hand on the breech of the Maxim.

Very well, then, shoot the moment you see them doing anything suspicious, and don’t let any one except his Royal Highness come nearer than a hundred yards.”

As he said this Redgrave went to the door, from which the gangway steps had been lowered, and, in reply to a singularly expressive gesture from the huge Martian, who seemed to stand nearly nine feet high, he beckoned to him to come up on to the deck.

As he mounted the steps the crowd closed round the Astronef and the Martian air-ship; but, as though in obedience to orders which had already been given, they kept at a respectful distance of a little over a hundred yards away from the strange vessel which had wrought such havoc with their fleet. When the Martian reached the deck, Redgrave held out his hand and the giant recoiled, as a man on earth might have done if, instead of the open palm, he had seen a clenched hand gripping a knife.

Take care, Lenox,” exclaimed Zaidie, taking a couple of steps towards him, with her right hand on the butt of one of her revolvers. The movement brought her close to the open door, and in full view of the crowd outside.

If a seraph had come on earth and presented itself thus before a throng of human beings, there might have happened some such miracle as was wrought when the swarm of Martians beheld the strange beauty of this radiant daughter of the earth.

As it seemed to the space-voyagers, when they discussed it afterwards, ages of purely utilitarian civilisation had brought all conditions of Martian life up—or down—to the same level. There was no apparent difference between the males and females in stature; their faces were all the same, with features of mathematical regularity, pale skin, bloodless cheeks, and an expression, if such it could be called, utterly devoid of emotion.

But still these creatures were human, or at least their forefathers had been. Hearts beat in their breasts, blood of a sort still flowed through their veins, and so the magic of this marvellous vision instantly awoke the long-slumbering elementary instincts of a bygone age. A low murmur ran through the vast throng, a murmur half-human, half-brutish, which swiftly rose to a hoarse screaming roar.

Look out, my Lord! Quick! Shut the door, they’re coming! It’s her ladyship they want; she must look like an angel from Heaven to them. Shall I fire?”

Yes,” said Redgrave, gripping the lever, and bringing the door down. “Zaidie, if this fellow moves put a bullet through him. I’m going to talk to that air-ship before he gets his poison-guns to work.”

As the last word left his lips Murgatroyd put his thumb on the spring on the Maxim. A roar such as Martian ears had never heard before resounded through the vast square, and was flung back with a thousand echoes from the walls of the huge palaces on every side. A stream of smoke and flame poured out of the little port-hole, and then the onward-swarming throng seemed to stop, and the front ranks of it began to sink down silently in long rows.

Then through the roaring rattle of the Maxim sounded the deep, sharp bang of Redgrave’s gun, as he sent ten pounds weight of Rennickite, as he had christened it, into the Martian air-ship. There was the roar of an explosion which shook the air for miles around. A blaze of greenish flame and a huge cloud of steamy smoke showed that the projectile had done its work, and, when the smoke drifted away, the spot on which the air-ship had lain was only a deep, red, jagged gash in the ground. There was not even a fragment of the ship to be seen.

This done, Redgrave went and turned the starboard Maxim on to another swarm which was approaching the Astronef from that side. When he had got the range he swung the gun slowly from side to side. The moving throng stopped, as the other one had done, and sank down to the red grass, now dyed with a deeper red.

Meanwhile, Zaidie had been holding the Martian at something more than arm’s length with her revolver. He seemed to understand perfectly that, if she pulled the trigger, the revolver would do something like what the Maxims had done. He appeared to take no notice whatever either of the destruction of the air-ship or of the slaughter that was going on around the Astronef. His big, pale blue eyes were fixed upon her face. They seemed to be devouring a loveliness such as they had never seen before. A dim, pinky flush stole for the first time into his waxy cheeks, and something like a light of human passion came into his eyes.

Then, to the utter astonishment of both Redgrave and Zaidie, he said slowly and deliberately, and with only just enough tinge of emotion in his voice to make Redgrave want to shoot him:

Beautiful. Perfect. More perfect than ours. I want it. Give Palace and Garden of Eternal Summer for it. Two thousand work-slaves and fifty——”

And I’ll see you damned first, sir, whoever you are!” said Redgrave, clapping his hand on to the butt of his revolver, and forgetting for the moment that he was speaking in another world than his own. “What the devil do you mean, sir, by insulting my wife——?”

Insulting. Wife. What is that? We have no words like those.”

But you speak English,” exclaimed Zaidie, going a little nearer to him, but still keeping the muzzle of her revolver pointing up to his hairless head. “No, Lenox, don’t be afraid about me, and don’t get angry. Can’t you see that this person hasn’t got any temper? I suppose it was civilised out of his ancestors ages ago. He doesn’t know what a wife or an insult is. He just looks upon me as a desirable piece of property to be bought, and I daresay he offered you a very handsome price. Now, don’t look so savage, because you know bargains like that have been made even on our dear old virtuous Mother Earth. For instance, if you hadn’t met us in the middle of the Atlantic——”

That’ll do, Zaidie,” Redgrave interrupted almost roughly. “That’s not exactly the question, but I see what you mean, and it was a bit silly of me to get angry.”

Silly? Angry? What do those words mean?” said the Martian in his slow, passionless, mechanical voice. “Who are you? Whence come you?”

I’ll answer the last part first,” said Redgrave. “We come from the earth, the planet which you see after sunset and before sunrise.”

Yes, the Silver Star,” said the Martian without any note of wonder or surprise in his voice. “Are all the dwellers there like the gods and angels our children read about in the old legends?”

Gods and angels!” laughed Zaidie. “There, Lenox, there’s a compliment for you. I really think we ought to be as civil to his Royal Highness after that as possible.” Then she went on, addressing the Martian, “No, we are not all gods and angels on earth. There are no gods and very few angels. In fact there are none except those which exist in the fancy of certain prejudiced persons. But that doesn’t matter, at least not just now,” she continued with American directness. “What we want to know just now is, why you speak English, and what sort of a world this Mars is?”

The Martian evidently only understood the most direct essentials of her speech. He saw that she asked two questions, and he answered them.

Speak English?” he replied, with a little shake of his huge head. “We know not English, but there is no other speech. There is only ours. Cycles ago there were other speeches here, but those who spoke them were killed. It was inconvenient. One speech for a world is best.”

I see what he means,” said Redgrave, looking towards Zaidie. “The Martian people have developed along practically the same lines as we are doing, but they have done it faster and got a long way ahead of us. We are finding out that the speech we call English is the shortest and most convenient. The Martians found it out long ago and killed everybody who spoke anything else. After all, what we call speech is only the translation of thoughts into sounds. These people have been thinking for ages with the same sort of brains as ours, and they’ve translated their thoughts into the same sounds. What we call English they, I daresay, call Martian, and that’s all there is in it that I can see.”

Of course,” laughed Zaidie. “Wonderful until you know how, eh? Like most things. Still I must say that our friend here speaks English something like a phonograph, and if he’ll excuse me saying so, which of course he will, he doesn’t seem to have much more human nature about him.”

I’m not quite so sure on that point,” said Redgrave, “but——”

Oh, never mind about that now!” she interrupted, and then, turning towards the Martian, who had been listening intently as though he was trying to make sense out of what they had been saying, she went on speaking slowly and very plainly——

Tell me, sir, if you please, do you know what ‘angry’ means? Are you not angry with us for destroying your air-ships up there in the clouds, and the one that came down, and for shooting all those people of yours?”

The Martian looked at her with a little light in his big blue eyes, and two faint little spots of red just under them, and said:

Anger! Yes, I remember, that is what we called brain-heat. Our teachers found it to be madness and it was abolished. It was not convenient. The air-ships were not convenient to you, so you abolished them. The folk, too, that you abolished with those things,” pointing to the guns, “they were not convenient. If you hadn’t done that they would have abolished you. There is no more to say.”

What brutes,” said Zaidie, turning away from him, her head thrown back and her lips curling in unutterable disgust. “Well, if these people have civilised themselves along the same lines that we are doing, thinking the same things and speaking something like the same speech, thank God we shall be dead before our civilisation reaches a stage like this. That’s not a man. It’s only a machine of flesh and bone and nerves, and I suppose it has blood of some sort.”

A beautiful woman always looks most beautiful when she is just a little angry. Redgrave had never seen Zaidie look quite so lovely as she did just then. The Martian, whose ancestors had for generations forgotten what human emotion was like, only saw in her anger a miracle which made her a thousand times more beautiful than before, and as he looked upon her glowing cheeks and gleaming eyes some instinct insensibly transmitted through many generations awoke to sudden life in some unused corner of his brain.

His pale clear eyes lit up with something like a glow of human passion. The pink spots under his eyes spread downwards over his cheeks. Some half-articulate sounds came from between his thin lips. Then they were drawn back and showed his smooth, toothless gums. He took a couple of long, swift strides towards her, and then bent forward, towering over her with long, outstretched arms, huge, hideous, and half-human.

Zaidie sprang backwards as he came towards her, her right hand went up, and, just as Redgrave levelled his revolver, and Murgatroyd, true to the old Berserk instinct, took a rifle by the barrel and swung the stock above his head, Zaidie pulled her trigger. The bullet cut a clean hole through the smooth, hairless skull of the Martian. A dark, red spot came just between his eyes, his huge frame shrank together and collapsed in a heap on the deck.

Oh, I’ve killed him! God forgive me, killed a man!” she whispered, as her hand fell to her side, and the revolver dropped from her fingers. “But, Lenox, do you really think it was a man?”

That thing a man!” he replied between his clenched teeth. “He wanted you, and spoke English of a sort, so there was something human about him, but anyhow he’s better dead. Here, Andrew, open that door again and help me to heave this thing overboard. Then I think we’d better be off before we have the rest of the fleet with their poison guns round us. Zaidie, I think you’d better go to your room for the present. Take a nip of cognac and then lie down, and mind you keep the door tight shut. There’s no telling what these animals might do if they had a chance, and just now it’s my business and Andrew’s to see that they don’t.”

Though she would much rather have remained on deck to see anything more that might happen, she saw that he was really in earnest, and so like a wise wife who commands by obeying, she obeyed, and went below.

Then the dead body of the Martian was tumbled out of the side door. The windows through which the guns had been fired were hermetically closed, and a few minutes later the Astronef vanished from the surface of Mars, to remain a memory and a marvel to the dwindling generations of the worn-out world which is as this may be in the far-off days that are to come.