Chapter 17

 

The relative position of the two giants of the Solar System at the moment when the Astronef left the surface of Ganymede, was such that she had to make a journey of rather more than 340,000,000 miles before she passed within the confines of the Saturnine System.

At first her speed, as shown by the observations which Redgrave took with the instruments which Professor Rennick had designed for the purpose, was comparatively slow. This was due to the tremendous pull of Jupiter and its four moons on the fabric of the vessel. The backward drag rapidly decreased as the pull of Saturn and his system began to overmaster that of Jupiter.

It so happened, too, that Uranus, the next outer planet of the Solar System, 1,700,000,000 miles away from the Sun, was approaching its conjunction with Saturn, and so assisted in producing a constant acceleration of speed.

Jupiter and his satellites dropped behind, sinking, as it seemed to the wanderers, down into the bottomless gulf of Space, but still forming by far the most brilliant and splendid object in the skies. The far-distant Sun, which, seen from the Saturnian System, has only about a nineteenth of the superficial extent which it presents to the Earth, dwindled away rapidly until it began to look like a huge planet, with the Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury as satellites. Beyond the orbit of Saturn, Uranus, with his eight moons, was shining with the lustre of a star of the first magnitude, and far above and beyond him again hung the pale disc of Neptune, the Outer Guard of the Solar System, separated from the Sun by a gulf of more than 2,750,000,000 miles.

When two-thirds of the distance between Jupiter and Saturn had been traversed, Ringed Orb lay beneath them like a vast globe surrounded by an enormous circular ocean of many-coloured fire, divided, as it were, by circular shores of shade and darkness. On the side opposite to them a gigantic conical shadow extended beyond the confines of the ocean of light. It was the shadow of half the globe of Saturn cast by the Sun across his rings. Three little dark spots were also travelling across the surface of the rings. They were the shadows of Mimas, Enceladus, and Tethys, the three inner satellites. Japetus, the most distant, which revolves at a distance ten times greater than that of the Moon from the Earth, was rising to their left above the edge of the rings, a pale, yellow, little disc shining feebly against the black background of Space. The rest of the eight satellites were hidden behind the enormous bulk of the planet and the infinitely vaster area of the rings.

Day after day Zaidie and her husband had been exhausting the possibilities of the English language in attempting to describe to each other the multiplying marvels of the wondrous scene which they were approaching at a speed of more than a hundred miles a second, and at length Zaidie, after nearly an hour’s absolute silence, during which they sat with eyes fastened to their telescopes, looked up and said:

It’s no use, Lenox, all the fine words that we’ve been trying to think of have just been wasted. The angels may have a language that you could describe that in, but we haven’t. If it wouldn’t be something like blasphemy I should drop down to the commonplace, and call Saturn a celestial spinning-top, with bands of light and shadow instead of colours all round it.”

Not at all a bad simile either,” laughed Redgrave, as he got up from his chair with a yawn and a stretch of his long limbs, “still, it’s as well that you said celestial, for, after all, that’s about the best word we’ve found yet. Certainly the Ringed World is the most nearly heavenly thing we’ve seen so far.

But,” he went on, “I think it’s about time we were stopping this headlong fall of ours. Do you see how the landscape is spreading out round us? That means that we are dropping pretty fast. Whereabouts would you like to land? At present we’re heading straight for Saturn’s north pole.”

I think I’d rather see what the rings are like first,” said Zaidie; “couldn’t we go across them?”

Certainly we can,” he replied, “only we’ll have to be a bit careful.”

Careful, what of—collisions? Are you thinking of Proctor’s hypothesis that the rings are formed of multitudes of tiny satellites?”

Yes, but I should go a little farther than that, I should say that his rings and his eight satellites are to Saturn what the planets generally and the ring of the Asteroides are to the Sun, and if that is the case—I mean if we find the rings made up of myriads of tiny bodies flying round with Saturn—it might get a bit risky.

You see the outside ring is a bit over 160,000 miles across, and it revolves in less than eleven hours. In other words we might find the ring a sort of celestial maelstrom, and if we once got into the whirl, and Saturn exerted his full pull on us, we might become a satellite, too, and go on swinging round with the rest for a good bit of eternity.”

Very well then,” she said, “of course we don’t want to do anything of that sort, but there’s something else I think we could do,” she went on, taking up a copy of Proctor’s “Saturn and its System,” which she had been reading just after breakfast. “You see those rings are, all together, about 10,000 miles broad; there’s a gap of about 1,700 miles between the big dark one and the middle bright one, and it’s nearly 10,000 miles from the edge of the bright ring to the surface of Saturn. Now why shouldn’t we get in between the inner ring and the planet? If Proctor was right and the rings are made of tiny satellites and there are myriads of them, of course they’ll pull up while Saturn pulls down. In fact Flammarion says somewhere that along Saturn’s equator there is no weight at all.”

Quite possible,” replied Redgrave, “and, if you like, we’ll go and prove it. Of course, if the Astronef weighs absolutely nothing between Saturn and the rings, we can easily get away. The only thing that I object to is getting into this 170,000-mile vortex, being whizzed round with Saturn every ten and a half hours, and sauntering round the Sun at 21,000 miles an hour.”

Don’t!” she said. “Really it isn’t good to think about these things, situated as we are. Fancy, in a single year of Saturn there are nearly 25,000 Earth-days. Why, we should each of us be about thirty years older when we got round, even if we lived, which, of course, we shouldn’t. By the way, how long could we live for, if the worst came to the worst?”

Given water, about one Earth-year at the outside;” “but, of course, we shall be home long before that.”

If we don’t become one of the satellites of Saturn,” she replied, “or get dragged away by something into the outer depths of Space.”

Meanwhile the downward speed of the Astronef had been considerably checked. The vast circle of the rings seemed to suddenly expand, and soon it covered the whole floor of the Vault of Space.

As she dropped towards what might be called the limit of the northern tropic of Saturn, the spectacle presented by the rings became every minute more and more marvellous—purple and silver, black and gold, dotted with myriads of brilliant points of many-coloured light, they stretched upwards like vast rainbows into the Saturnian sky as the Astronef’s position changed with regard to the horizon of the planet. The nearer they approached the surface, the nearer the gigantic arch of the many-coloured rings approached the zenith. Sun and stars sank down behind it, for now they were dropping through the fifteen-year-long twilight that reigns over that portion of the globe of Saturn which, during half of his year of thirty terrestrial years, is turned away from the Sun.

The further they fell towards the rings the more certain it became that the theory of the great English astronomer was the correct one. Seen through the telescopes at a distance of only thirty or forty thousand miles, it became perfectly plain that the outer or darker ring as seen from the Earth was composed of myriads of tiny bodies so far separated from each other that the rayless blackness of Space could be seen through them.

It’s quite evident,” said Redgrave, after a long look through his telescope, “that those are rings of what we should call meteorites on Earth, atoms of matter which Saturn threw off into Space after the satellites were formed.”

And I shouldn’t wonder, if you will excuse my interrupting you,” said Zaidie, “if the moons themselves have been made up of a lot of these things going together when they were only gas, or nebula, or something of that sort. In fact, when Saturn was a good deal younger than he is now, he may have had a lot more rings and no moons, and now these aerolites, or whatever they are, can’t come together and make moons, because they’ve got too solid.”

Meanwhile the Astronef was rapidly approaching that portion of Saturn’s surface which was illuminated by the rays of the Sun, streaming under the lower arch of the inner ring.

As they passed under it the whole scene suddenly changed. The rings vanished. Overhead was an arch of brilliant light a hundred miles thick, spanning the whole of the visible heavens. Below lay the sunlit surface of Saturn divided into light and dark bands of enormous breadth.

The band immediately below them was of a brilliant silver-grey, very much like the central zone of Jupiter. North of this on the one side stretched the long shadow of the rings, and southward other bands of alternating white and gold and deep purple succeeded each other till they were lost in the curvature of the vast planet. The poles were of course invisible since the Astronef was now too near the surface; but on their approach they had seen unmistakable evidence of snow and ice.

As soon as they were exactly under the Ring-arch, Redgrave shut off the R. Force, and, somewhat to their astonishment, the Astronef began to revolve slowly on its axis, giving them the idea that the Saturnian System was revolving round them. The arch seemed to sink beneath their feet while the belts of the planet rose above them.

What on earth is the matter?” said Zaidie. “Everything has gone upside down.”

Which shows,” replied Redgrave, “that as soon as the Astronef became neutral the rings pulled harder than the planet, I suppose because we’re so near to them, and, instead of falling on to Saturn, we shall have to push up at him.”

Oh yes, I see that,” said Zaidie, “but after all it does look a little bit bewildering, doesn’t it, to be on your feet one minute and on your head the next?”

It is, rather; but you ought to be getting accustomed to that sort of thing now. In a few minutes neither you, nor I, nor anything else will have any weight. We shall be just between the attraction of the rings and Saturn, so you’d better go and sit down, for if you were to give a bit of an extra spring in walking you might be knocking that pretty head of yours against the roof,” said Redgrave, as he went to turn the R. Force on to the edge of the rings.

A vast sea of silver cloud seemed now to descend upon them. Then they entered it, and for nearly half an hour the Astronef was totally enveloped in a sea of pearl-grey luminous mist.

Atmosphere!” said Redgrave, as he went to the conning-tower and signalled to Murgatroyd to start the propellers. They continued to rise and the mist began to drift past them in patches, showing that the propellers were driving them ahead.

They now rose swiftly towards the surface of the planet. The cloud-wrack got thinner and thinner, and presently they found themselves floating in a clear atmosphere between two seas of cloud, the one above them being much less dense than the one below.

I believe we shall see Saturn on the other side of that,” said Zaidie, looking up at it. “Oh dear, there we are going round again.”

Reaching the point of neutral attraction,” said Redgrave; “once more you’d better sit down in case of accidents.”

Instead of dropping into her deck-chair as she would have done on Earth, she took hold of the arms and pulled herself into it, saying:

Really, it seems rather absurd to have to do this sort of thing. Fancy having to hold yourself into a chair. I suppose I hardly weigh anything at all now.”

Not much,” said Redgrave, stooping down and taking hold of the end of the chair with both hands. Without any apparent effort he raised her about five feet from the floor, and held her there while the Astronef made another revolution. For a moment he let go, and she and the chair floated between the roof and the floor of the deck-chamber. Then he pulled the chair away from under her, and as the floor of the vessel once more turned towards Saturn, he took hold of her hands and brought her to her feet on deck again.

I ought to have had a photograph of you like that!” he laughed. “I wonder what they’d think of it at home?”

If you had taken one I should certainly have broken the negative. The very idea—a photograph of me standing on nothing! Besides, they’d never believe it on Earth.”

We might have got old Andrew to make an affidavit as to the true circumstances,” he began.

Don’t talk nonsense, Lenox! Look! there’s something much more interesting. There’s Saturn at last. Now I wonder if we shall find any sort of life there—and shall we be able to breathe the air?”

I hardly think so,” he said, as the Astronef dropped slowly through the thin cloud-veil. “You know spectrum analysis has proved that there is a gas in Saturn’s atmosphere which we know nothing about, and, however good it may be for the Saturnians, it’s not very likely that it would agree with us, so I think we’d better be content with our own. Besides, the atmosphere is so enormously dense that even if we could breathe it it might squash us up. You see we’re only accustomed to fifteen pounds on the square inch, and it may be hundreds of pounds here.”

Well,” said Zaidie, “I haven’t got any particular desire to be flattened out, or squeezed dry like an orange. It’s not at all a nice idea, is it? But look, Lenox,” she went on, pointing downwards, “surely this isn’t air at all, or at least it’s something between air and water. Aren’t those things swimming about in it—something like fish in the sea? They can’t be clouds, and they aren’t either fish or birds. They don’t fly or float. Well, this is certainly more wonderful than anything else we’ve seen, though it doesn’t look very pleasant. They’re not nice-looking, are they? I wonder if they are at all dangerous!”

While she was saying this Zaidie had gone to her telescope, and was sweeping the surface of Saturn, which was now about a hundred miles distant. Her husband was doing the same. In fact, for the time being they were all eyes, for they were looking on a stranger sight than man or woman had ever seen before.

Underneath the inner cloud-veil the atmosphere of Saturn appeared to them somewhat as the lower depths of the ocean would appear to a diver, granted that he was able to see for hundreds of miles about him. Its colour was a pale greenish yellow. The outside thermometers showed that the temperature was a hundred and seventy-five Fahrenheit. In fact, the interior of the Astronef was getting uncomfortably like a Turkish bath, and Redgrave took the opportunity of at once freshening and cooling the air by releasing a little oxygen from the cylinders.

From what they could see of the surface of Saturn it seemed to be a dead level, greyish brown in colour, and not divided into oceans and continents. In fact there were no signs whatever of water within range of their telescopes. There was nothing that looked like cities, or any human habitations, but the ground, as they got nearer to it, seemed to be covered with a very dense vegetable growth, not unlike gigantic forms of seaweed, and of somewhat the same colour. In fact, as Zaidie remarked, the surface of Saturn was not at all unlike what the floors of the ocean of the Earth might be if they were laid bare.

It was evident that the life of this portion of Saturn was not what, for want of a more exact word, might be called terrestrial. Its inhabitants, however they were constituted, floated about in the depths of this semi-gaseous ocean as the denizens of earthly seas did in the terrestrial oceans. Already their telescopes enabled them to make out enormous moving shapes, black and grey-brown and pale red, swimming about, evidently by their own volition, rising and falling and often sinking down on to the gigantic vegetation which covered the surface, possibly for the purpose of feeding. But it was also evident that they resembled the inhabitants of earthly oceans in another respect, since it was easy to see that they preyed upon each other.

I don’t like the look of those creatures at all,” said Zaidie, when the Astronef had come to a stop and was floating about ten miles above the surface. “They’re altogether too uncanny. They look to me something like jelly-fish about the size of whales, only they have eyes and mouths. Did you ever see such awful-looking eyes, bigger than soup-plates and as bright as a cat’s. I suppose that’s because of the dim light. And the nasty wormy sort of way they swim, or fly, or whatever it is. Lenox, I don’t know what the rest of Saturn may be like, but I certainly don’t like this part. It’s quite too creepy and unearthly for my taste. Look at the horrors fighting and eating each other. That’s the only bit of earthly character they’ve got about them; the big ones eating the little ones. I hope they won’t take the Astronef for something nice to eat.”

They’d find her a pretty tough morsel if they did,” laughed Redgrave, “but still we may as well get some steering way on her in case of accident.”