Chapter 13

 

While Zaidie was talking the Astronef was sweeping swiftly down towards the surface of Venus, through scenery of whose almost inconceivable magnificence no human words could convey any adequate idea. Underneath the cloud-veil the air was absolutely clear and transparent, clearer, indeed, than terrestrial air at the highest elevations reached by mountain-climbers, and, moreover, it seemed to be endowed with a strange, luminous quality, which made objects, no matter how distant, stand out with almost startling distinctness.

The rivers and lakes and seas which spread out beneath them, seemed never to have been ruffled by blast of storm or breath of wind, and their surfaces shone with a soft, silvery light, which seemed to come from below rather than from above.

If this isn’t heaven it must be the half-way house,” said Redgrave, with what was, perhaps, under the circumstances, a pardonable irreverence. “Still, after all, we don’t know what the inhabitants may be like, so I think we’d better close the doors, and drop on the top of that mountain-spur running out between the two rivers into the bay. Do you notice how curious the water looks after the Earth seas; bright silver, instead of blue and green?”

Oh, it’s just lovely,” said Zaidie. “Let’s go down and have a walk. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’ll never make me believe that a world like this can be inhabited by anything dangerous.”

Perhaps, but we mustn’t forget what happened on Mars, Madonna mia. Still, there’s one thing, we haven’t been tackled by any aerial fleets yet.”

I don’t think the people here want air-ships. They can fly themselves. Look! there are a lot of them coming to meet us. That was a rather wicked remark of yours, Lenox, about the half-way house to heaven; but those certainly do look something like angels.”

As Zaidie said this, after a somewhat lengthy pause, during which the Astronef had descended to within a few hundred feet of the mountain-spur, she handed her field-glasses to her husband, and pointed downwards towards an island which lay a couple or miles or so off the end of the spur.

He put the glasses to his eyes, and took a long look through them. Moving them slowly up and down, and from side to side, he saw hundreds of winged figures rising from the island and floating towards them.

You were right, dear,” he said, without taking the glass from his eyes, “and so was I. If those aren’t angels, they’re certainly something like men, and, I suppose, women too who can fly. We may as well stop here and wait for them. I wonder what sort of an animal they take the Astronef for.”

He sent a message down the tube to Murgatroyd and gave a turn and a half to the steering-wheel. The propellers slowed down and the Astronef dropped with a hardly-perceptible shock in the midst of a little plateau covered with a thick, soft moss of a pale yellowish green, and fringed by a belt of trees which seemed to be over three hundred feet high, and whose foliage was a deep golden bronze.

They had scarcely landed before the flying figures reappeared over the tree tops and swept downwards in long spiral curves towards the Astronef.

If they’re not angels, they’re very like them,” said Zaidie, putting down her glasses.

There’s one thing, they fly a lot better than the old masters’ angels or Doré’s could have done, because they have tails—or at least something that seems to serve the same purpose, and yet they haven’t got feathers.”

Yes, they have, at least round the edges of their wings or whatever they are, and they’ve got clothes, too, silk tunics or something of that sort—and there are men and women.”

You’re quite right, those fringes down their legs are feathers, and that’s how they can fly. They seem to have four arms.”

The flying figures which came hovering near to the Astronef, without evincing any apparent sign of fear, were the strangest that human eyes had looked upon. In some respects they had a sufficient resemblance for them to be taken for winged men and women, while in another they bore a decided resemblance to birds. Their bodies and limbs were human in shape, but of slenderer and lighter build; and from the shoulder-blades and muscles of the back there sprang a second pair of arms arching up above their heads. Between these and the lower arms, and continued from them down the side to the ankles, there appeared to be a flexible membrane covered with a light feathery down, pure white on the inside, but on the back a brilliant golden yellow, deepening to bronze towards the edges, round which ran a deep feathery fringe.

The body was covered in front and down the back between the wings with a sort of divided tunic of a light, silken-looking material, which must have been clothing, since there were many different colours all more or less of different hue among them. Below this and attached to the inner sides of the leg from the knee downward, was another membrane which reached down to the heels, and it was this which Redgrave somewhat flippantly alluded to as a tail. Its obvious purpose was to maintain the longitudinal balance when flying.

In stature the inhabitants of the Love-Star varied from about five feet six to five feet, but both the taller and the shorter of them were all of nearly the same size, from which it was easy to conclude that this difference in stature was on Venus as well as on the Earth, one of the broad distinctions between the sexes.

They flew round the Astronef with an exquisite ease and grace which made Zaidie exclaim:

Now, why weren’t we made like that on Earth?”

To which Redgrave, after a look at the barometer, replied:

Partly, I suppose, because we weren’t built that way, and partly because we don’t live in an atmosphere about two and a half times as dense as ours.”

Then several of the winged figures alighted on the mossy covering of the plain and walked towards the vessel.

Why, they walk just like us, only much more prettily!” said Zaidie. “And look what funny little faces they’ve got! Half bird, half human, and soft, downy feathers instead of hair. I wonder whether they talk or sing. I wish you’d open the doors again, Lenox. I’m sure they can’t possibly mean us any harm; they are far too pretty for that. What lovely soft eyes they have, and what a thousand pities it is we shan’t be able to understand them.”

They had left the conning-tower, and both his lordship and Murgatroyd were throwing open the sliding-doors and, to Zaidie’s considerable displeasure, getting the deck Maxims ready for action in case they should be required. As soon as the doors were open Zaidie’s judgment of the inhabitants of Venus was entirely justified.

Without the slightest sign of fear, but with very evident astonishment in their round golden-yellow eyes, they came walking close up to the sides of the Astronef. Some of them stroked her smooth, shining sides with their little hands, which Zaidie now found had only three fingers and a thumb. Many ages before they might have been birds’ claws, but now they were soft and pink and plump, utterly strange to manual work as it is understood upon Earth.

Just fancy getting Maxim guns ready to shoot those delightful things,” said Zaidie, almost indignantly, as she went towards the doorway from which the gangway ladder ran down to the soft, mossy turf. “Why, not one of them has got a weapon of any sort; and just listen,” she went on, stopping in the opening of the doorway, “have you ever heard music like that on Earth? I haven’t. I suppose it’s the way they talk. I’d give a good deal to be able to understand them. But still, it’s very lovely, isn’t it?”

Ay, like the voices of syrens,” said Murgatroyd, speaking for the first time since the Astronef had landed; for this big, grizzled, taciturn Yorkshireman, who looked upon the whole cruise through Space as a mad and almost impious adventure, which nothing but his hereditary loyalty to his master’s name and family could have persuaded him to share in, had grown more and more silent as the millions of miles between the Astronef and his native Yorkshire village had multiplied day by day.

Syrens—and why not, Andrew?” laughed Redgrave. “At any rate, I don’t think they look likely to lure us and the Astronef to destruction.” Then he went on: “Yes, Zaidie, I never heard anything like that before. Unearthly, of course it is, but then we’re not on Earth. Now, Zaidie, they seem to talk in song-language. You did pretty well on Mars with your American, suppose we go out and show them that you can speak the song-language, too.”

What do you mean?” she said; “sing them something?”

Yes,” he replied; “they’ll try to talk to you in song, and you won’t be able to understand them; at least, not as far as words and sentences go. But music is the universal language on Earth, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the same through the Solar System. Come along, tune up, little woman!”

They went together down the gangway stairs, he dressed in an ordinary suit of grey, English tweed, with a golf cap on the back of his head, and she in the last and daintiest of the costumes which the art of Paris and London and New York had produced before the Astronef soared up from far-off Washington.

The moment that she set foot on the golden-yellow sward she was surrounded by a swarm of the winged, and yet strangely human creatures. Those nearest to her came and touched her hands and face, and stroked the folds of her dress. Others looked into her violet-blue eyes, and others put out their queer little hands and stroked her hair.

This and her clothing seemed to be the most wonderful experience for them, saving always the fact that she had only two arms and no wings. Redgrave kept close beside her until he was satisfied that these exquisite inhabitants of the new-found fairyland were innocent of any intention of harm, and when he saw two of the winged daughters of the Love-Star put up their hands and touch the thick coils of her hair, he said:

Take those pins and things out and let it down. They seem to think that your hair’s part of your head. It’s the first chance you’ve had to work a miracle, so you may as well do it. Show them the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen.”

What babies you men can be when you get sentimental!” laughed Zaidie, as she put her hands up to her head. “How do you know that this may not be ugly in their eyes?”

Quite impossible!” he replied. “They’re a great deal too pretty themselves to think you ugly. Let it down!”

While he was speaking Zaidie had taken off a Spanish mantilla which she had thrown over her head as she came out, and which the ladies of Venus seemed to think was part of her hair. Then she took out the comb and one or two hairpins which kept the coils in position, deftly caught the ends, and then, after a few rapid movements of her fingers, she shook her head, and the wondering crowd about her saw, what seemed to them a shimmering veil, half gold, half silver, in the soft reflected light from the cloud-veil, fall down from her head over her shoulders.

They crowded still more closely round her, but so quietly and so gently that she felt nothing more than the touch of wondering hands on her arms, and dress, and hair. As Redgrave said afterwards, he was “absolutely out of it.” They seemed to imagine him to be a kind of uncouth monster, possibly the slave of this radiant being which had come so strangely from somewhere beyond the cloud-veil. They looked at him with their golden-yellow eyes wide open, and some of them came up rather timidly and touched his clothes, which they seemed to think were his skin.

Then one or two, more daring, put their little hands up to his face and touched his moustache, and all of them, while both examinations were going on, kept up a running conversation of cooing and singing which evidently conveyed their ideas from one to the other on the subject of this most marvellous visit of these two strange beings with neither wings nor feathers, but who, most undoubtedly, had other means of flying, since it was quite certain that they had come from another world.

Their ordinary speech was a low crooning note, like the language in which doves converse, mingled with a twittering current of undertone. But every moment it rose into higher notes, evidently expressing wonder or admiration, or both.

You were right about the universal language,” said Redgrave, when he had submitted to the stroking process for a few moments. “These people talk in music, and, as far as I can see or hear, their opinion of us, or, at least, of you, is distinctly flattering. I don’t know what they take me for, and I don’t care, but as we’d better make friends with them suppose you sing them ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ or the ‘Swanee River.’ I shouldn’t wonder if they consider our talking voices most horrible discords, so you might as well give them something different.”

While he was speaking the sounds about them suddenly hushed, and, as Redgrave said afterwards, it was something like the silence that follows a cannon shot. Then, in the midst of the hush, Zaidie put her hands behind her, looked up towards the luminous silver surface which formed the only visible sky of Venus, and began to sing “The Swanee River.”

The clear, sweet notes rang up through the midst of a sudden silence. The sons and daughters of the Love-Star instantly ceased their own soft musical conversation, and Zaidie sang the old plantation song through for the first time that a human voice had sung it to ears other than human.

As the last note thrilled sweetly from her lips she looked round at the crowd of queer half-human shapes about her, and something in their unlikeness to her own kind brought back to her mind the familiar scenes which lay so far away, so many millions of miles across the dark and silent Ocean of Space.

Other winged figures, attracted by the sound of her singing, had crossed the trees, and these, during the silence which came after the singing of the song, were swiftly followed by others, until there were nearly a thousand of them gathered about the side of the Astronef.

There was no crowding or jostling among them. Each one treated every other with the most perfect gentleness and courtesy. No such thing as enmity or ill-feeling seemed to exist among them, and, in perfect silence, they waited for Zaidie to continue what they thought was her long speech of greeting. The temper of the throng somehow coincided exactly with the mood which her own memories had brought to her, and the next moment she sent the first line of “Home, Sweet Home” soaring up to the cloud-veiled sky.

As the notes rang up into the still, soft air a deeper hush fell on the listening throng. Heads were bowed with a gesture almost of adoration, and many of those standing nearest to her bent their bodies forward, and expanded their wings, bringing them together over their breasts with a motion which, as they afterwards learnt, was intended to convey the idea of wonder and admiration, mingled with something like a sentiment of worship.

Zaidie sang the sweet old song through from end to end, forgetting for the time being everything but the home she had left behind her on the banks of the Hudson. As the last notes left her lips, she turned round to Redgrave and looked at him with eyes dim with the first tears that had filled them since her father’s death, and said, as he caught hold of her outstretched hand:

I believe they’ve understood every word of it.”

Or, at any rate, every note. You may be quite certain of that,” he replied. “If you had done that on Mars it might have been even more effective than the Maxims.”

For goodness sake don’t talk about things like that in a heaven like this! Oh, listen! They’ve got the tune already!”

It was true! The dwellers of the Love-Star, whose speech was song, had instantly recognised the sweetness of the sweetest of all earthly songs. They had, of course, no idea of the meaning of the words; but the music spoke to them and told them that this fair visitant from another world could speak the same speech as theirs. Every note and cadence was repeated with absolute fidelity, and so the speech, common to the two far-distant worlds, became a link connecting this wandering son and daughter of the Earth with the sons and daughters of the Love-Star.

The throng fell back a little and two figures, apparently male and female, came to Zaidie and held out their right hands and began addressing her in perfectly harmonised song, which, though utterly unintelligible to her in the sense of speech, expressed sentiments which could not possibly be mistaken, as there was a faint suggestion of the old English song running through the little song-speech that they made, and both Zaidie and her husband rightly concluded that it was intended to convey a welcome to the strangers from beyond the cloud-veil.

And then the strangest of all possible conversations began. Redgrave, who had no more notion of music than a walrus, perforce kept silence. In fact, he noticed with a certain displeasure which vanished speedily with a musical, and half-malicious little laugh from Zaidie, that when he spoke the Bird-Folk drew back a little and looked in something like astonishment at him; but Zaidie was already in touch with them, and half by song and half by signs she very soon gave them an idea of what they were and where they had come from. Her husband afterwards told her that it was the best piece of operatic acting he had ever seen, and, considering all the circumstances, this was very possibly true.

In the end the two who had come to give her what seemed to be the formal greeting, were invited into the Astronef. They went on board without the slightest sign of mistrust and with only an expression of mild wonder on their beautiful and strangely childlike faces.

Then, while the other doors were being closed, Zaidie stood at the open one above the gangway and made signs showing that they were going up beyond the clouds and then down into the valley, and as she made the signs she sang through the scale, her voice rising and falling in harmony with her gestures. The Bird-Folk understood her instantly, and as the door closed and the Astronef rose from the ground, a thousand wings were outspread and presently hundreds of beautiful soaring forms were circling about the Navigator of the Stars.

Don’t they look lovely!” said Zaidie. “I wonder what they would think if they could see us flying above New York or London or Paris with an escort like this. I suppose they’re going to show us the way. Perhaps they have a city down there. Suppose you were to go and get a bottle of champagne and see if Master Cupid and Miss Venus would like a drink. We’ll see then if our nectar is anything like theirs.”

Redgrave went below. Meanwhile, for lack of other possible conversation, Zaidie began to sing the last verse of “Never Again.” The melody almost exactly described the upward motion of the Astronef, and she could see that it was instantly understood, for when she had finished their two voices joined in an almost exact imitation of it.

When Redgrave brought up the wine and the glasses they looked at them without any sign of surprise. The pop of the cork did not even make them look round.

Evidently a semi-angelic people, living on nectar and ambrosia, with nectar very like our own,” he said, as he filled the glasses. “Perhaps you’d better give it to them. They seem to understand you better than they do me—you being, of course, a good bit nearer to the angels than I am.”

Thanks!” she said, as she took a couple of glasses up, wondering a little what their visitors would do with them. Somewhat to her surprise, they took them with a little bow and a smile and sipped at the wine, first with a swift glint of wonder in their eyes, and then with smiles which are unmistakable evidence of perfect appreciation.

I thought so,” said Redgrave, as he raised his own glass, and bowed gravely towards them. “This is our nearest approach to nectar, and they seem to recognise it.”

And don’t they just look like the sort of people who live on it, and, of course, other things?” added Zaidie, as she too lifted her glass, and looked with laughing eyes across the brim at her two guests.

But meanwhile Murgatroyd had been applying the repulsive force a little too strongly. The Astronef shot up with a rapidity which soon left her winged escort far below. She entered the cloud-veil and passed beyond it. The instant that the unclouded sun-rays struck the glass-roofing of the deck-chamber their two guests, who had been moving about examining everything with a childlike curiosity, closed their eyes and clasped their hands over them, uttering little cries, tuneful and musical, but still with a note of strange discord in them.

Lenox, we must go down again,” exclaimed Zaidie. “Don’t you see they can’t stand the light; it hurts them. Perhaps, poor dears, it’s the first time they’ve ever been hurt in their lives. I don’t believe they have any of our ideas of pain or sorrow or anything of that sort. Take us back under the clouds—quick, or we may blind them.”

Before she had ceased speaking, Redgrave had sent a signal down to Murgatroyd, and the Astronef began to drop back again towards the surface of the cloud-sea. Zaidie had, meanwhile, gone to her lady guest and dropped the black lace mantilla over her head, and, as she did so, she caught herself saying:

There, dear, we shall soon be back in your own light. I hope it hasn’t hurt you. It was very stupid of us to do a thing like that.”

The answer came in a little cooing murmur, which said, “Thank you!” quite as effectively as any earthly words could have done, and then the Astronef passed through the cloud-sea. The soaring forms of her lost escort came into view again and clustered about her; and, surrounded by them, she dropped, in obedience to their signs, down between the tremendous mountains and towards the island, thick with golden foliage, which lay two or three Earth-miles out in a bay, where four converging rivers spread out through a vast estuary into the sea.

As Lady Redgrave said afterwards to Mrs. Van Stuyler, she could have filled a whole volume with a description of the exquisitely arcadian delights with which the hours of the next ten days and nights were filled. Possibly if she had been able to do justice to them, even her account might have been received with qualified credence; but still some idea of them may be gathered from this extract of a conversation which took place in the saloon of the Astronef on the eleventh evening.

But look here, Zaidie,” said Redgrave, “as we’ve found a world which is certainly much more delightful than our own, why shouldn’t we stop here a bit? The air suits us and the people are simply enchanting. I think they like us, and I’m sure you’re in love with every one of them, male and female. Of course, it’s rather a pity that we can’t fly unless we do it in the Astronef. But that’s only a detail. You’re enjoying yourself thoroughly, and I never saw you looking better or, if possible, more beautiful; and why on Earth—or Venus—do you want to go?”

She looked at him steadily for a few moments, and with an expression which he had never seen on her face or in her eyes before, and then she said slowly and very sweetly, although there was something like a note of solemnity running through her tone:

I altogether agree with you, dear; but there is something which you don’t seem to have noticed. As you say, we have had a perfectly delightful time. It’s a delicious world, and just everything that one would think it to be; but if we were to stop here we should be committing one of the greatest of crimes, perhaps the greatest, that ever was committed within the limits of the Solar System.”

My dear Zaidie, what, in the name of what we used to call morals on the Earth, do you mean?”

Just this,” she replied, leaning a little towards him in her deck-chair. “These people, half angels, and half men and women, welcomed us after we dropped through their cloud-veil, as friends; we were a little strange to them, certainly, but still they welcomed us as friends. They had no suspicions of us; they didn’t try to poison us or blow us up as those wretches on Mars did. They’re just like a lot of grown-up children with wings on. In fact they’re about as nearly angels as anything we can think of. They’ve taken us into their palaces, they’ve given us, as one might say, the whole planet. Everything was ours that we liked to take. You know we have two or three hundredweight of precious stones on board now, which they would make me take just because they saw my rings.

We’ve been living with them ten days now, and neither you nor I, nor even Murgatroyd, who, like the old Puritan that he is, seems to see sin or wrong in everything that looks nice, has seen a single sign among them that they know anything about what we call sin or wrong on Earth. There’s no jealousy, no selfishness. In short, no envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness; no vice, or meanness, or cheating, or any of the abominations of the planet Terra, and we come from that planet. Do you see what I mean now?”

I think I understand what you’re driving at,” said Redgrave; “you mean, I suppose, that this world is something like Eden before the fall, and that you and I—oh—but that’s all rubbish you know. I’ve got my own share of original sin, of course, but here it doesn’t seem to come in; and as for you, the very idea of you imagining yourself a feminine edition of the Serpent in Eden. Nonsense!”

She got up out of her chair and, leaning over his, put her arm round his shoulder. Then she said very softly:

I see you understand what I mean, Lenox. That’s just it—original sin. It doesn’t matter how good you think me or I think you, but we have it. You’re an Earth-born man and I’m an Earth-born woman, and, as I’m your wife, I can say it plainly. We may think a good bit of each other, but that’s no reason why we might not be a couple of plague-spots in a sinless world like this. Surely you see what I mean, I needn’t put it plainer, need I?”

Their eyes met, and he read her meaning in hers. He put his arm up over her shoulder and drew her down towards him. Their lips met, and then he got up and went down to the engine-room.

A couple of minutes later the Astronef sprang upwards from the midst of the delightful valley in which she was resting. No lights were shown. In five minutes she had passed through the cloud-veil, and the next morning when their new friends came to visit them and found that they had vanished back into Space, there was sorrow for the first time among the sons and daughters of the Love-Star.