Chapter 20

 

A week later they crossed the path of Jupiter, but the giant was invisible, far away on the other side of the Sun. Redgrave laid his course so as to avail himself to the utmost of the “pull” of the planets without going near enough to them to be compelled to exert too much of the priceless R. Force, which the indicators showed to be running perilously low.

Between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars they made a most valuable economy by landing on Ceres, one of the largest of the asteroids, and travelling about fifty million miles on her towards the orbit of the Earth without any expenditure of force whatever. They found that the tiny world possessed a breathable atmosphere and a fluid resembling water, but nearly as dense as mercury. A couple of flasks of it form the greatest treasures of the British Museum and the National Museum at Washington. The vegetable world was represented by coarse grass, lichens, and dwarf shrubs, and the animal by different species of worms, lizards, flies, and small burrowing animals of the rodent type.

As the orbit of Ceres, like that of the other asteroids, is considerably inclined to that of the Earth, the Astronef rose from its surface when the plane of the Earth’s revolution was reached, and the glittering swarm of miniature planets plunged away into space beneath them.

Where to now?” said Zaidie, as her husband came down on deck from the conning-tower.

I am going to try to steer a middle course between the orbits of Mercury and Venus,” he replied. “They just happen to be so placed now that we ought to be able to get the advantage of the pull of both of them as we pass, and that will save us a lot of power. The only thing I’m afraid of is the pull of the Sun, equal to goodness knows how many times the attraction of all the planets put together. You see, little woman, it’s like this,” he went on, taking out a pencil and going down on one knee on the deck: “Here’s the Astronef; there’s Venus; there’s Mercury; there’s the Sun; and there, away on the other side of him, is Mother Earth. If we can turn that corner safely and without expending too much power we ought to be all right.”

And if we can’t, what will happen?”

It will be a choice between morphine and cremation in the atmosphere of the Sun, dear, or rather gradually roasting as we fall towards it.”

Then, of course, it will be morphine,” she said quite quietly, as she turned away from his diagram and looked at the now fast-increasing disc of the Sun. A well-balanced mind speedily becomes accustomed even to the most terrible perils, and Zaidie had now looked this one so long and so steadily in the face that for her it had already become merely the choice between two forms of death with just a chance of escape hidden in the closed hand of Fate.

Thirty-six Earth-hours later the glorious golden disc of Venus lay broad and bright beneath them. Above was the blazing orb of the Sun, nearly half as big again as it appears from the Earth, with Mercury, a round black spot, travelling slowly across it.

My dear Bird-Folk!” said Zaidie, looking down at the lovely world below them. “If home wasn’t home——”

We can be back among them in a few hours with absolute safety,” interrupted her husband, catching at the suggestion. “I’ve told you the truth about the bare possibility of getting back to the Earth. It’s only a chance at best, and even if we pass the Sun we may not have force enough left to prevent the Astronef from being smashed to dust or burnt up in the atmosphere. After all we might do worse——”

What would you do if you were alone, Lenox?” she said, interrupting him in turn.

I should take my chance and go on. After all home’s home and worth a struggle. But you, dear——”

I’m you, and so I take the same chances as you do. Besides, we’re not perfect enough for a world where there isn’t any sin. We should probably get quite miserable there. No, home’s home, as you say.”

Then home it is, dear!” he replied.

The resplendent hemisphere of the Love-Star sank swiftly down into the vault of Space, growing smaller and dimmer as the Astronef sped towards the little black spot on the face of the Sun, which to them was like a buoy marking a place of utter and hopeless shipwreck in the Ocean of Immensity.

The chronometer, still set to Earth-time, had now begun to mark the last hours of the Astronef’s voyage. She was not only travelling at a speed of which figures could give no comprehensible idea, but the Sun, Mercury, and the Earth were rushing towards her with a compound velocity, composed of the movement of the Solar System through Space and of the movement of the two planets round the Sun.

Murgatroyd was at his post in the engine-room. Redgrave and Zaidie had gone into the conning-tower, perhaps for the last time. For good fortune or evil, for life or death, they would see the end of the voyage together.

How far yet, dear?” she said, as Venus began to slip away behind them, rising like a splendid moon in their wake.

Only sixty million miles or so, a matter of a few hours, more or less—it all depends,” he replied, without taking his eyes off the compass.

Sixty millions! Why I feel almost at home again.”

But we have to turn the corner of the street yet, dear, and after that there’s a fall of more than twenty-five million miles on to the more or less kindly breast of Mother Earth.”

A fall! It does sound rather awful when you put it that way; but I am not going to let you frighten me. I believe Mother Earth will receive her wandering children quite as kindly as they deserve.”

The moon-like disc of Venus grew swiftly smaller, and the black spot on the face of the Sun larger and larger as the Astronef rushed silently and imperceptibly, and yet with almost inconceivable velocity towards doom or fortune. Neither Zaidie nor Redgrave spoke again for nearly three hours—hours which to them seemed to pass like so many minutes. Their eyes were fixed on the black disc of Mercury, which, as they approached it, expanded with magical rapidity till it completely eclipsed the blazing orb behind it. Their thoughts were far away on the still invisible Earth and all the splendid possibilities that it held for two young lives like theirs.

As the sunlight vanished they looked at each other in the golden moonlight of Venus, and Zaidie let her head rest for a moment on her husband’s shoulder. Then a swiftly broadening gleam of light shot out from behind the black circle of Mercury. The first crisis had come. Redgrave put out his hand to the signal-board and rang for full power. The planet seemed to swing round as the Astronef rushed into the blaze. In a few minutes it passed through the phases from “new” to “full.” Venus became eclipsed in turn as they swung between Mercury and the Sun, and then Redgrave, after a rapid glance to either side, said:

If we can only keep the two pulls balanced we shall do it. That will keep us in a straight line, and our own momentum ought to carry us into the Earth’s attraction.”

Zaidie did not reply. She was shading her eyes with her hand from the almost intolerable brilliance of the Sun’s rays, and looking straight ahead to catch the first glimpse of the silver-grey orb. Her husband read her thoughts and respected them. But a few minutes later he startled her out of her dream of home by exclaiming:

Good God, we’re turning!”

What do you say, dear? Turning what?”

On our own centre. Look! I’m afraid only a miracle can save us now, darling.”

She glanced to the left-hand side where he was pointing. The Sun, no longer now a sun, but a vast ocean of flame filling nearly a third of the vault of Space, was sinking beneath them. On the right Mercury was rising. Zaidie knew only too well what this meant. It meant that the keel of the Astronef was being dragged out of the straight line which would cut the Earth’s orbit some forty million miles away. It meant that, in spite of the exertion of the full power that the engines could develop, they had begun to fall into the Sun.

Redgrave laid his hand on hers, and their eyes met. There was no need for words. Perhaps speech just then would have been impossible. In that mute glance each looked into the other’s soul and was content. Then he left the conning-tower, and Zaidie dropped on to her knees before the instrument-table and laid her forehead upon her clasped hands.

Her husband went to the saloon, unlocked a little cupboard in the wall and took out a blue bottle of corrugated glass labelled “Morphine, Poison.” He took another empty bottle of white glass and measured fifty drops into it. Then he went to the engine-room and said abruptly:

Murgatroyd, I’m afraid it’s all up with us. We’re falling into the Sun, and you know what that means. In a few hours the Astronef will be red-hot. So it’s roasting alive—or this. I recommend this.”

And what might that be, my Lord?” said the old engineer, looking at the bottle which his master held out towards him.

That’s morphine—poison. Fill that up with water, drink it, and in half an hour you’ll be dead without knowing it. Of course, you won’t take it until there’s absolutely no hope; but, granted that, you’ll find this a better death than roasting or baking alive.” Then his voice changed suddenly as he went on, “Of course, I need not say now, Murgatroyd, how deeply I regret now that I asked you to come in the Astronef.”

My Lord, my people have served yours for seven hundred years, and, whether on Earth or among the stars, where you go it is my duty to go also. But don’t ask me to take the poison. It is not for me to say that a journey like this is tempting Providence, but, by my lights, if I am to die I shall die the death that Providence in its wisdom sends.”

I daresay you’re right in one way, Murgatroyd, but it’s no time to argue about beliefs now. There’s the bottle. Do as you think right. And now, in case the miracle doesn’t happen, goodbye.”

Goodbye, my Lord, if it is to be,” replied the old Yorkshireman, taking the hand which Redgrave held out to him. “I’ll keep the power on to the last, I suppose?”

Yes, you may as well. If it doesn’t keep us away from the Sun it won’t be much use to us in two or three hours.”

He left the engine-room and went back to the conning-tower. Zaidie was still on her knees. Beneath and around them the awful gulf of flame was broadening and deepening. Mercury was rising higher and growing smaller. He put the bottle down on the table and waited. Then Zaidie looked up. Her eyes were clear, and her face was perfectly calm. She rose and put her arm through his, and said:

Well, is there any hope, dear? There can’t be now, can there? Is that the morphine?”

Yes,” he replied, slipping his arm beneath hers and round her waist. “I’m afraid there’s not much chance now, little woman. We’re using up the last of the power, and you see——”

As he said this he looked at the thermometer. The mercury had risen from 65 degrees Fahrenheit, the normal temperature of the interior of the Astronef, to 93 degrees, and during the half-minute that he watched it rose another degree. There was no mistaking such a warning as that. He had brought two little liqueur glasses in his pocket from the saloon. He divided the morphine between them, and filled them up with water.

Not until the last moment, dear,” said Zaidie, as he set one of them before her. “We have no right to do it until then.”

Very well. When the mercury reaches a hundred and fifty. After that it will go up ten and fifteen degrees at a jump, and we——”

Yes, at a hundred and fifty,” she replied, cutting short a speech she dared not hear the end of. “I understand. It will be impossible to hope any more.”

Now, side by side, they stood and watched the thermometer.

Ninety-five—ninety-eight—a hundred and three—a hundred and ten—eighteen—twenty-four—thirty-two—forty-one.

The silent minutes passed, and with each the silver thread—for them the thread of life—grew, with strange contradiction, longer and longer, and with every minute it grew more quickly.

A hundred and forty-six.

With his right arm Redgrave drew Zaidie still closer to him. He put out his left hand and took up the little glass. She did the same.

Goodbye, dear, till we have slept and wake again!”

Goodbye, darling, God grant that we may!” But the agony of that last farewell was more than Zaidie could bear. She looked away at the little glass in her hand, a hand which even now did not tremble. Then she raised her eyes again to take one last look at the glory of the stars, and at the Fate Incarnate in Flame which lay beneath them. Then, even as the end of the last minute came, a cry broke through her white, half-parted lips:

The Earth, the Earth—thank God, the Earth!”

With the hand that held the draught of Lethe—which in another moment she would have swallowed—she caught at her husband’s hand, pulled the glass out of it, and then with a little sigh she dropped senseless on the floor of the conning-tower. Redgrave looked for a moment in the direction that her eyes had taken. A pale, silver-grey crescent, with a little white spot near it, was rising out of the blackness beyond the edge of the solar ocean of flame. Home was in sight at last, but would they reach it—and how?

He picked her up and carried her to their room and laid her on the bed. Then he went to the medicine chest again, this time for a very different purpose.

An hour later, they were on the upper deck with their telescopes turned on to the rapidly growing crescent of the Home-World, which, in its eternal march through Space, had come into the line of direct attraction just in time to turn the scale in which the lives of the Space-voyagers were trembling. The higher it rose, the bigger and broader and brighter it grew, and, at last, Zaidie—forgetting in her transport of joy all the perils that were yet to come—sprang to her feet and clapped her hands, and cried:

There’s America!”

Then she dropped back into her long deck-chair and began a good, hearty, healthy cry.