Chapter 12

 

How very different Venus looks now to what it does from the earth,” said Zaidie, a couple of mornings later, by earth-time, as she took her eye away from the telescope through which she had been examining an enormous golden crescent which spanned the dark vault of Space ahead of and slightly below the Astronef.

Yes,” replied Redgrave, “she looks——”

How do you know that she is a she?” said Zaidie, getting up and laying a hand on his shoulder as he sat at his own telescope. “Of course I know what you mean, that according to our own ideas on earth, it is the planet or the world which has been supposed for ages to, as it were, shine upon the lovers of earth with the light reflected from the—the—well, I suppose you know what I mean.”

Seeing that you are the most perfect terrestrial incarnation of the said goddess that I have seen yet,” he replied, slipping his arm round her waist and pulling her down on to his knees, “I don’t think that that is quite the view you ought to take. Surely if Venus ever had a daughter——”

Oh, nonsense! After we’ve travelled all these millions of miles together do you really expect me to believe stuff like that?”

My dear girl-graduate,” he said, tightening his grip round her waist a little, “you know perfectly well that if we had travelled beyond the limits of the Solar System, if we had outsailed old Halley’s Comet itself, and dived into the uttermost depths of Space outside the Milky Way, you and I would still be a man and a woman, and, being, as may be presumed, more or less in love with each other——”

Less indeed!” said Zaidie; “you’re speaking for yourself, I hope.”

And then when she had partially disengaged herself and sat up straight, she said between her laughs——

Really, Lenox, you’re quite absurd for a person who has been married as long as you have, I don’t mean in time, but in Space. Was it a thousand years or a couple of hundred million miles ago that we were married? Really I am getting my ideas of time and space quite mixed up.

But never mind that! What I was going to say is that, according to all the authorities which your girl-graduate has been reading since we left Mars, Venus—oh, doesn’t she look just gorgeous, and our old friend the Sun behind there blazing out of darkness like one of the furnaces at Pittsburg—I beg your pardon, Lenox, I’m afraid I’m getting quite provincial. I suppose we’re considerably more than a hundred million miles away?”

Yes, dear; we’re about a hundred and fifty millions, and at that distance, if you’ll excuse me saying so, even the United States would seem almost like a province, wouldn’t they?”

Well, yes; that’s just where distance doesn’t lend enchantment to the view, I suppose.”

But what was it you were going to say before that——”

The interlude, eh? Well, before the interlude you were accusing me of being a graduate as well as a girl. Of course I can’t help that, but what I was going to say was——”

If you are going to talk science, dear, perhaps we’d better sit on different chairs. I may have been married for a hundred and fifty million miles, but the honeymoon isn’t half way through yet, you know.”

Then there was another interlude of a few seconds’ duration. When Zaidie was seated beside her own telescope again, she said, after another glance at the splendid crescent which, as the Astronef approached at a speed of over forty miles a second, increased in size and distinctness every moment:

What I mean is this. All the authorities are agreed that on Venus, her axis of revolution being so very much inclined to the plane of her orbit, the seasons are so severe that half the year its temperate zone and its tropics have a summer about twice as hot as ours and the other half they have a winter twice as cold as our coldest. I’m afraid, after all, we shall find the Love-Star a world of salamanders and seals; things that can live in a furnace and bask on an iceberg; and when we get back home it will be our painful duty, as the first explorers of the fields of Space, to dispel another dearly-cherished popular delusion.”

I’m not so very sure about that,” said Lenox, glancing from the rapidly growing crescent, to the sweet, smiling face beside him. “Don’t you see something very different there to what we saw either on the Moon or Mars? Now just go back to your telescope and let us take an observation.”

Well,” said Zaidie, rising, “as our trip is, partly at least, in the interests of science, I will;” and then when she had got her own telescope into focus again—for the distance between the Astronef and the new world they were about to visit was rapidly lessening—she took a long look through it, and said:

Yes, I think I see what you mean. The outer edge of the crescent is bright, but it gets greyer and dimmer towards the inside of the curve. Of course Venus has an atmosphere. So had Mars; but this must be very dense. There’s a sort of halo all round it. Just fancy that splendid thing being the little black spot we saw going across the face of the Sun a few days ago! It makes one feel rather small, doesn’t it?”

That is one of the things which a woman says when she doesn’t want to be answered; but, apart from that, you were saying——”

What a very unpleasant person you can be when you like! I was going to say that on the Moon we saw nothing but black and white, light and darkness. There was no atmosphere, except in those awful places I don’t want to think about. Then, as we got near Mars, we saw a pinky atmosphere, but not very dense; but this, you see, is a sort of pearl-grey white shading from silver to black. You notice how much paler it grows as we get nearer. But look—what are those tiny bright spots? There are hundreds of them.”

Do you remember as we were leaving the Earth, how bright the mountain ranges looked; how plainly we could see the Rockies and the Andes?”

Oh, yes, I see; they’re mountains; thirty-seven miles high, some of them, they say; and the rest of the silver-grey will be clouds, I suppose. Fancy living under clouds like those.”

Only another case of the adaptation of life to natural conditions, I expect. When we get there I daresay we shall find that these clouds are just what make it possible for the inhabitants of Venus to stand the extremes of heat and cold. Given elevations three or four times as high as the Himalayas, it would be quite possible for them to choose their temperature by shifting their altitude.

But I think it’s about time to drop theory and see to the practice,” he continued, getting up from his chair and going to the signal board in the conning-tower. “Whatever the planet Venus may be like, we don’t want to charge it at the rate of sixty miles a second. That’s about the speed now, considering how fast she’s travelling towards us.”

And considering that, whether it is a nice world or not it’s nearly as big as the Earth, I guess we should get rather the worst of the charge,” laughed Zaidie as she went back to her telescope.

Redgrave sent a signal down to Murgatroyd to reverse engines, as it were, or, in other words, to direct the “R. Force” against the planet, from which they were now only a couple of hundred thousand miles distant. The next moment the sun and stars seemed to halt in their courses. The great golden-grey crescent, which had been increasing in size every moment, appeared to remain stationary, and then, when he was satisfied that the engines were developing the Force properly, he sent another signal down, and the Astronef began to descend.

The half-disc of Venus seemed to fall below them, and in a few minutes they could see it from the upper deck spreading out like a huge semi-circular plain of light ahead and on both sides of them. The Astronef was falling at the rate of about a thousand miles a minute towards the centre of the half-crescent, and every moment the brilliant spots above the cloud-surface grew in size and brightness.

I believe the theory about the enormous height of the mountains of Venus must be correct after all,” said Redgrave, tearing himself with an evident wrench away from his telescope. “Those white patches can’t be anything else but the summits of snow-capped mountains. You know how brilliantly white a snow-peak looks on earth against the whitest of clouds.”

Oh, yes,” said Zaidie, “I’ve often seen that in the Rockies. But it’s lunch-time, and I must go down and see how my things in the kitchen are getting on. I suppose you’ll try and land somewhere where it’s morning, so that we can have a good day before us. Really, it’s very convenient to be able to make your own morning or night as you like, isn’t it? I hope it won’t make us too conceited when we get back, being able to choose our mornings and our evenings; in fact, our sunrises and sunsets on any world we like to visit in a casual way like this.”

Well,” laughed Redgrave, as she moved away towards the companion stairs, “after all, if you find the United States, or even the Planet Terra, too small for you, we’ve always got the fields of Space open to us. We might take a trip across the Zodiac or down the Milky Way.”

And meanwhile,” she replied, stopping at the top of the stairs and looking round, “I’ll go down and get lunch. You and I may be king and queen of the realms of Space, and all that sort of thing, but we’ve got to eat and drink, after all.”

And that reminds me,” said Redgrave, getting up and following her, “we must celebrate our arrival on a new world as usual. I’ll go down and get out the wine. I shouldn’t be surprised if we found the people of the Love-World living on nectar and ambrosia, and as fizz is our nearest approach to nectar——”

I suppose,” said Zaidie, as she gathered up her skirts and stepped daintily down the companion stairs, “if you find anything human, or at least human enough to eat and drink, you’ll have a party and give them champagne. I wonder what those wretches on Mars would have thought of it if we’d only made friends with them?”

Lunch on board the Astronef was about the pleasantest meal of the day. Of course, there was neither day nor night, in the ordinary sense of the word, except as the hours were measured off by the chronometers. Whichever side or end of the vessel received the direct rays of the sun, was bathed in blazing heat and dazzling light. Elsewhere there was black darkness and the more than icy cold of Space; but lunch was a convenient division of the waking hours, which began with a stroll on the upper deck and a view of the ever-varying splendours about them, and ended after dinner in the same place with coffee and cigarettes and speculations as to the next day’s happenings.

This lunch-hour passed even more pleasantly and rapidly than others had done, for the discussion as to the possibilities of Venus was continued in a quite delightful mixture of scientific disquisition and that converse which is common to most human beings on their honeymoon.

As there was nothing more to be done or seen for an hour or two, the afternoon was spent in a pleasant siesta in the luxurious deck-saloon; because evening to them would be morning on that portion of Venus to which they were directing their course, and, as Zaidie said, when she subsided into her hammock:

It would be breakfast-time before they could get dinner.

As the Astronef fell with ever-increasing velocity towards the cloud-covered surface of Venus, the remainder of her disc, lit up by the radiance of her sister-worlds, Mercury, Mars, and the Earth, and also by the pale radiance of an enormous comet, which had suddenly shot into view from behind its southern limb, became more or less visible.

Towards six o’clock it became necessary to exert nearly the whole strength of her engines to check the velocity of her fall. By eight she had entered the atmosphere of Venus, and was dropping slowly towards a vast sea of sunlit cloud, out of which, on all sides, towered thousands of snow-clad peaks, rounded summits, and widespread stretches of upland about which the clouds swept and surged like the silent billows of some vast ocean in Ghostland.

I thought so!” said Redgrave, when the propellers had begun to revolve and Murgatroyd had taken his place in the conning-tower. “A very dense atmosphere loaded with clouds. There’s the Sun just rising, so your ladyship’s wishes are duly obeyed.”

And doesn’t it seem nice and homelike to see him rising through an atmosphere above the clouds again? It doesn’t look a bit like the same sort of dear old Sun just blazing like a red-hot Moon among a lot of white-hot stars and planets. Look, aren’t those peaks lovely, and that cloud-sea?—why, for all the world we might be in a balloon above the Rockies or the Alps. And see,” she continued, pointing to one of the thermometers fixed outside the glass dome which covered the upper deck, “it’s only sixty-five even here. I wonder if we can breathe this air, and—oh—I do wonder what we shall see on the other side of those clouds.”

You shall have both questions answered in a few minutes,” replied Redgrave, going towards the conning-tower. “To begin with, I think we’ll land on that big snow-dome yonder, and do a little exploring. Where there are snow and clouds there is moisture, and where there is moisture a man ought to be able to breathe.”

The Astronef, still falling, but now easily under the command of the helmsman, shot forwards and downwards towards a vast dome of snow which, rising some two thousand feet above the cloud-sea, shone with dazzling brilliance in the light of the rising Sun. She landed just above the edge of the clouds. Meanwhile they had put on their breathing-suits, and Redgrave had seen that the air chamber through which they had to pass from their own little world into the new ones that they visited was in working order. When the outer door was opened and the ladder lowered he stood aside, as he had done on the Moon, and Zaidie’s was the first human foot which made an imprint on the virgin snows of Venus.

The first thing Redgrave did was to raise the visor of his helmet and taste the air of the new world. It was cool, and fresh, and sweet, and the first draught of it sent the blood tingling and dancing through his veins. Perfect as the arrangements of the Astronef were in this respect, the air of Venus tasted like clear running spring water would have done to a man who had been drinking filtered water for several days. He threw the visor right up and motioned to Zaidie to do the same. She obeyed, and, after drawing a long breath, she said:

That’s glorious! It’s like wine after water, and rather stagnant water too. But what a world, snow-peaks and cloud-seas, islands of ice and snow in an ocean of mist! Just look at them! Did you ever see anything so lovely and unearthly in your life? I wonder how high this mountain is, and what there is on the other side of the clouds. Isn’t the air delicious! Not a bit too cold after all—but, still, I think we may as well go back and put on something more becoming. I shouldn’t quite like the ladies of Venus to see me dressed like a diver.”

Come along, then,” laughed Lenox, as he turned back towards the vessel. “That’s just like a woman. You’re about a hundred and fifty million miles away from Broadway or Regent Street. You are standing on the top of a snow mountain above the clouds of Venus, and the moment that you find the air is fit to breathe you begin thinking about dress. How do you know that the inhabitants of Venus, if there are any, dress at all?”

What nonsense! Of course they do—at least, if they are anything like us.”

As soon as they got back on board the Astronef and had taken their breathing-dresses off, Redgrave and the old engineer, who appeared to take no visible interest in their new surroundings, threw open all the sliding doors on the upper and lower decks so that the vessel might be thoroughly ventilated by the fresh sweet air. Then a gentle repulsion was applied to the huge snow mass on which the Astronef rested. She rose a couple of hundred feet, her propellers began to whirl round, and Redgrave steered her out towards the centre of the vast cloud-sea which was almost surrounded by a thousand glittering peaks of ice and domes of snow.

I think we may as well put off dinner, or breakfast as it will be now, until we see what the world below is like,” he said to Zaidie, who was standing beside him on the conning-tower.

Oh, never mind about eating just now, this is altogether too wonderful to be missed for the sake of ordinary meat and drink. Let’s go down and see what there is on the other side.”

He sent a message down the speaking tube to Murgatroyd, who was below among his beloved engines, and the next moment sun and clouds and ice-peaks had disappeared and nothing was visible save the all-enveloping silver-grey mist.

For several minutes they remained silent, watching and wondering what they would find beneath the veil which hid the surface of Venus from their view. Then the mist thinned out and broke up into patches which drifted past them as they descended on their downward slanting course.

Below them they saw vast, ghostly shapes of mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, continents, islands, and seas. Every moment these became more and more distinct, and soon they were in full view of the most marvellous landscape that human eyes had ever beheld. The distances were tremendous. Mountains, compared with which the Alps or even the Andes would have seemed mere hillocks, towered up out of the vast depths beneath them.

Up to the lower edge of the all-covering cloud-sea they were clad with a golden-yellow vegetation, fields and forests, open, smiling valleys, and deep, dark ravines through which a thousand torrents thundered down from the eternal snows beyond, to spread themselves out in rivers and lakes in the valleys and plains which lay many thousands of feet below.

What a lovely world!” said Zaidie, as she at last found her voice after what was almost a stupor of speechless wonder and admiration. “And the light! Did you ever see anything like it? It’s neither moonlight nor sunlight. See, there are no shadows down there, it’s just all lovely silvery twilight. Lenox, if Venus is as nice as she looks from here I don’t think I shall want to go back. It reminds me of Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters, ‘the Land where it is always afternoon.’

I think you are right after all. We are thirty million miles nearer to the Sun than we were on the Earth, and the light and heat have to filter through those clouds. They are not at all like Earth clouds from this side. It’s the other way about. The silver lining is on this side. Look, there isn’t a black or a brown one, or even a grey one, within sight. They are just like a thin mist, lighted by a million of electric lamps. It’s a delicious world, and if it isn’t inhabited by angels it ought to be.”