Chapter 19

 

A little before six (Earth time) on the fourth morning after they had cleared the confines of the Saturnian System, Redgrave went as usual into the conning-tower to examine the instruments, and to see that everything was in order. To his intense surprise he found, on looking at the gravitational compass, which was to the Astronef what the ordinary compass is to a ship at sea, that the vessel was a long way out of her course.

Such a thing had never yet occurred. Up to now the Astronef had obeyed the laws of gravitation and repulsion with absolute exactness. He made another examination of the instruments; but no, all were in perfect order.

I wonder what the deuce is the matter,” he said, after he had looked for a few moments with frowning eyes at the multitude of orbs ahead. “By Jove, we’re swinging more. This is getting serious.”

He went back to the compass. The long, slender needle was slowly swinging farther and farther out of the middle line of the vessel.

There can only be two explanations of that,” he went on, thrusting his hands deep into his trousers pockets; “either the engines are not working properly, or some enormous and invisible body is pulling us towards it out of our course. Let’s have a look at the engines first.”

When he reached the engine-room he said to Murgatroyd, who was indulging in his usual pastime of cleaning and polishing his beloved charges:

Have you noticed anything wrong during the last hour or so, Murgatroyd?”

No, my Lord; at least not so far as concerns the engines. They’re all right. Hark, now, they’re not making more noise than a lady’s sewing machine,” replied the old Yorkshireman, with a note of resentment in his voice. The suspicion that anything could be wrong with his shining darlings was almost a personal offence to him. “But is anything the matter, my Lord, if I might ask?”

We’re a long way off our course, and for the life of me I can’t understand it,” replied Redgrave. “There’s nothing about here to pull us out of our line. Of course the stars—good Lord, I never thought of that! Look here, Murgatroyd, not a word about this to her ladyship, and stand by to raise the power by degrees, as I signal to you.”

Ay, my lord. I hope it’s nothing bad!”

Redgrave went back to the conning-tower without replying. The only possible solution of the mystery of the deviation had suddenly dawned upon him, and a very serious solution it was. He remembered there were such things as dead suns—the derelicts of the Ocean of Space—vast, invisible orbs, lightless and lifeless, too distant from any living sun to be illumined by its rays, and yet exercising the only force left to them—the force of attraction. Might not one of these have wandered near enough to the confines of the Solar System to exert this force, a force of absolutely unknown magnitude, upon the Astronef?

He went to the desk beside the instrument-table and plunged into a maze of mathematics, of masses and weights, angles and distances. Half an hour later he stood looking at the last symbol on the last sheet of paper with something like fear. It was the fatal x which remained to satisfy the last equation, the unknown quantity which represented the unseen force that was dragging them into the outer wilderness of insterstellar space, into far-off regions from which, with the remaining force at his disposal, no return would be possible.

He signalled to Murgatroyd to increase the development of the R. Force from a tenth to a fifth. Then he went to the lower saloon, where Zaidie was busy with her usual morning tidy-up. Now that the mystery was explained there was no reason to keep her in the dark. Indeed, he had given her his word that he would conceal from her no danger, however great, that might threaten them when he had once assured himself of its existence.

She listened to him in silence and without a sign of fear beyond a little lifting of the eyelids and a little fading of the colour in her cheeks.

And if we can’t resist this force,” she said, when he had finished, “it will drag us millions—perhaps millions of millions—of miles away from our own system into outer space, and we shall either fall on the surface of this dead sun and be reduced to a puff of lighted gas in an instant, or some other body will pull us away from it, and then another away from that, and so on, and we shall wander among the stars for ever and ever until the end of time!”

If the first happens, darling, we shall die—together—without knowing it. It’s the second that I’m most afraid of. The Astronef may go on wandering among the stars for ever—but we have only water enough for three weeks more. Now come into the conning-tower and we’ll see how things are going.”

As they bent their heads over the instrument-table Redgrave saw that the remorseless needle had moved two degrees more to the right. The keel of the Astronef, under the impulse of the R. Force, was continually turning. The pull of the invisible orb was dragging her slowly but irresistibly out of her line.

There’s nothing for it but this,” said Redgrave, putting out his hand to the signal-board, and signalling to Murgatroyd to put the engines to their highest capacity. “You see, dear, our greatest danger is this: we had to exert such a tremendous lot of power getting away from Jupiter and Saturn, that we haven’t any too much to spare, and if we have to spend it in counteracting the pull of this dead sun, or whatever it is, we may not have enough of what I call the R. fluid left to get home with.”

I see,” she said, staring with wide-open eyes at the needle. “You mean that we may not have enough to keep us from falling into one of the planets or perhaps into the Sun itself. Well, supposing the dangers are equal, this one is the nearest, and so I guess we’ve got to fight it first.”

Spoken like a good American!” he said, putting his arm across her shoulders and looking at once with infinite pride and infinite regret at the calm, proud face which the glory of resignation had adorned with a new beauty.

She bowed her head and then looked away again so that he should not see that there were tears in her eyes. He took his hand from her shoulder and stared in silence down at the needle. It was stationary again.

We’ve stopped!” he said, after a pause of several moments. “Now, if the body that’s taken us out of our course is moving away from us we win, if it’s coming towards us we lose. At any rate, we’ve done all we can. Come along, Zaidie, let’s go and have a walk on deck.”

They had scarcely reached the upper deck when something happened which dwarfed all the other experiences of their marvellous voyage into utter insignificance.

Above and around them the constellations blazed with a splendour inconceivable to an observer on Earth, but ahead of them gaped the vast, black void which sailors call “the Coal Hole,” and in which the most powerful telescopes have only discovered a few faintly luminous bodies. Suddenly, out of the midst of this infinity of darkness, there blazed a glare of almost intolerably brilliant radiance. Instantly the forward end of the Astronef was bathed in light and heat—the light and heat of a re-created sun, whose elements had been dark and cold for uncounted ages.

Hundreds of tiny points of light, unknown worlds which had been dark for myriads of years, twinkled out of the blackness. Then the fierce glare grew dimmer. A vast mantle of luminous mist spread out with inconceivable rapidity, and in the midst of this blazed the central nucleus—the sun which in far-off ages to come would be the giver of light and heat, of life and beauty to worlds unborn, to planets which were now only little eddies of atoms whirling in that ocean of nebulous flame.

For more than an hour the two wanderers from the far-off Earth stood motionless and silent, gazing on the indescribable splendours of the fearfully magnificent spectacle before them. Every mundane thought seemed burnt out of their souls by the glory and the wonder of it. It was almost as though they were standing in the very presence of God. Indeed, were they not witnessing the supreme act of Omnipotence, a new creation? Their peril, a peril such as had never threatened mortals before, was utterly forgotten. They had even forgotten each other’s presence. For the time being they existed only to look and to wonder.

They were called at length out of their trance by the matter-of-fact voice of Murgatroyd saying—

My Lord, she’s back to her course. Will I keep the power on full?”

Eh! What’s that?” exclaimed Redgrave, as they both turned quickly round. “Oh, it’s you, Murgatroyd. The power? Yes, keep it on full till I have taken the bearings.”

Ay, my Lord, very good,” replied the engineer.

As he left the deck Redgrave put his arm round Zaidie and drew her gently towards him and said, “Zaidie, truly you are favoured among women! You have seen the beginning of a new creation. You will certainly be saved somehow after that.”

Yes, and you too, dear,” she murmured, as though still half-dreaming. “It is very glorious and wonderful; but what is it all—I mean, what is the explanation of it?”

The merely scientific explanation, dear, is very simple. I see it all now. The force that was dragging us out of our course was the united pull of two dead stars approaching each other in the same orbit. They may have been doing that for millions of years. The shock of their meeting has transformed their motion into light and heat. They have united to form a single sun and a nebula, which will some day condense into a system of planets like ours. To-night the astronomers on Earth will discover a new star—a variable star as they’ll call it—for it will grow dimmer as it moves away from our system. It has often happened before.”

Then they turned back to the conning-tower.

The needle had swung to its old position. The new star, henceforth to be known in the annals of astronomy as Lilla-Zaidie, had already set for them to the right of the Astronef and risen on the left, and, at a distance of more than nine hundred million miles from the Earth, the corner was turned, and the homeward voyage began.