Chapter 6

 

After the Astronef’s forward searchlight had flashed its farewells to the thronging, cheering crowds of Washington, her propellers began to whirl, and she swung round northward on her way to say goodbye to the Empire City.

A little before midnight her two lights flashed down over New York and Brooklyn, and were almost instantly answered by hundreds of electric beams streaming up from different parts of the Twin Cities, and from several men-of-war lying in the bay and the river.

Goodbye for the present! Have you any messages for Mars?” flickered out from above the Astronef’s conning-tower.

What Uncle Sam’s message was, if he had one, was never deciphered, for fifty beams began dotting and dashing at once, and the result was that nothing but a blur of many mingled rays reached the conning-tower from which Lord Redgrave and his bride were taking their last look at human habitations.

You might have known that they would all answer at once,” said Zaidie. “I suppose the newspapers, of course, want interviews with the leading Martians, and the others want to know what there is to be done in the way of trade. Anyhow, it would be a feather in Uncle Sam’s cap if he made the first Reciprocity Treaty with another world.”

And then proceeded to corner the commerce of the Solar System,” laughed Redgrave. “Well, we’ll see what can be done. Although I think, as an Englishman, I ought to look after the Open Door.”

So that the Germans could get in before you, eh? That’s just like you dear, good-natured English. But look,” she went on, pointing downwards, “they’re signalling again, all at once this time.”

Half a dozen beams shone out together from the principal newspaper offices of New York. Then simultaneously they began the dotting and dashing again. Redgrave took them down in pencil, and when the signalling had stopped he read off:

No war. Dual Alliance climbs down. Don’t like idea of Astronef. Cables just received. Goodbye, and good luck! Come back soon, and safe!”

What? We have stopped the war!” exclaimed Zaidie, clasping his arm. “Well, thank God for that. How could we begin our voyage better? You remember what we were saying the other day, Lenox. If that’s only true, my father somewhere knows now what a blessing he has given his brother men! We’ve stopped a war which might have deluged the world in blood. We’ve saved perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives, and kept sorrow from thousands of homes. Lenox, when we get back, you and the States and the British Government will have to build a fleet of these ships, and then the Anglo-Saxon race must say to the rest of the world——”

The millennium has come and its presiding goddess is Zaidie Redgrave. If you don’t stop fighting, disband your armies and turn your fleets into liners and cargo boats, she’ll proceed to sink your ships and decimate your armies until you learn sense. Is that what you mean, dear?” laughed Redgrave, as he slipped his left hand round her waist and laid his right on the searchlight-switch to reply to the message.

Don’t be ridiculous, Lenox. Still, I suppose that is something like it. They wouldn’t deserve anything else if they were fools enough to go on fighting after they knew we could wipe them out.”

Exactly. I perfectly agree with your Ladyship, but still sufficient unto the day is the Armageddon thereof. Now I suppose we’d better say goodbye and be off.”

And what a goodbye,” whispered Zaidie, with an upward glance into the starlit ocean of Space which lay above and around them. “Goodbye to the world itself! Well, say it, Lenox, and let us go; I want to see what the others are like.”

Very well then; goodbye it is,” he said, beginning to jerk the switch backwards and forwards with irregular motions, sending short flashes and longer beams down towards the earth.

The Empire City read the farewell message.

Thank God for the peace. Goodbye for the present. We shall convey the joint compliments of John Bull and Uncle Sam to the peoples of the planets when we find them. Au revoir!”

The message was answered by the blaze of the concentrated searchlights from land and sea all directed on the Astronef. For a moment her shining shape glittered like a speck of diamond in the midst of the luminous haze far up in the sky, and then it vanished for many an anxious day from mortal sight.

A few moments later Zaidie pointed over the stern and said:

Look, there’s the moon! Just fancy—our first stopping place! Well, it doesn’t look so very far off at present.”

Redgrave turned and saw the pale yellow crescent of the new moon swimming high above the eastern edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

It almost looks as if we could steer straight to it right over the water—only, of course, it wouldn’t wait there for us,” she went on.

Oh, it’ll be there when we want it, never fear,” he laughed, “and, after all, it’s only a mere matter of about two hundred and forty thousand miles away, and what’s that in a trip that will cover hundreds of millions? It will just be a sort of jumping-off place into Space for us.”

Still, I shouldn’t like to miss seeing it,” she said. “I want to see what there is on that other side which nobody has ever seen yet, and settle that question about air and water. Won’t it just be heavenly to be able to come back and tell them all about it at home? But just fancy me talking stuff like this when we are going, perhaps, to solve some of the hidden mysteries of Creation, and, may be, look upon things that human eyes were never meant to see,” she went on, with a sudden change in her voice.

He felt a little shiver in the arm that was resting upon his, and his hand went down and caught hers.

Well, we shall see a good many marvels, and, perhaps, miracles, before we come back, but why should there be anything in Creation that the eyes of created beings should not look upon? Anyhow, there’s one thing we shall do I hope, we shall solve once and for all the great problem of the worlds.

Look, for instance,” he went on, turning round and pointing to the west, “there is Venus following the sun. In a few days I hope you and I will be standing on her surface, perhaps trying to talk by signs with her inhabitants, and taking photographs of her scenery. There’s Mars too, that little red one up yonder. Before we come back we shall have settled a good many problems about him, too. We shall have navigated the rings of Saturn, and perhaps graphed them from his surface. We shall have crossed the bands of Jupiter, and found out whether they are clouds or not; perhaps we shall have landed on one of his moons and taken a voyage round him.

Still, that’s not the question just now, and if you are in a hurry to circumnavigate the moon we’d better begin to get a wriggle on us as they say down yonder; so come below and we’ll shut up. A bit later I’ll show you something that no human eyes have ever seen.”

What’s that?” she asked as they turned away towards the companion ladder.

I won’t spoil it by telling you,” he said, stopping at the top of the stairs and taking her by the shoulders. “By the way,” he went on, “I may remind your Ladyship that you are just now drawing the last breaths of earthly air which you will taste for some time, in fact until we get back. And you may as well take your last look at earth as earth, for the next time you see it it will be a planet.”

She turned to the open window and looked over into the enormous void beneath, for all this time the Astronef had been mounting swiftly towards the zenith.

She could see, by the growing moonlight, vast, vague shapes of land and sea. The myriad lights of New York and Brooklyn were mingled in a tiny patch of dimly luminous haze. The air about her had suddenly grown bitterly cold, and she saw that the stars and planets were shining with a brilliancy she had never seen before. Redgrave came back to her, and laying his arm across her shoulder, said:

Well, have you said goodbye to your native world? It is a bit solemn, isn’t it, saying goodbye to a world that you have been born on; which contains everything that has made up your life, everything that is dear to you?”

Not quite everything,” she said, looking up at him—”at least I don’t think so.”

He lost no time in making the only reply which was appropriate under the circumstances; and then he said, drawing her close to him:

Nor I, as you know, darling. This is our world, a world travelling among worlds, and since I have been able to bring the most delightful of the daughters of Terra with me, I, at any rate, am perfectly happy. Now, I think it’s getting on to supper time, so if your Ladyship will go to your household duties, I’ll have a look at my engines and make everything snug for the voyage.”

The first thing he did when he left the conning-tower was to hermetically close every external opening in the ship. Then he went and carefully inspected the apparatus for purifying the air and supplying it with fresh oxygen from the tanks in which it was stored in liquid form. Lastly he descended into the lower hold and turned on the energy of repulsion to its fullest extent, at the same time stopping the engines which had been working the propellers.

It was now no longer necessary or even possible to steer the Astronef. She was directed solely by the repulsive force which would carry her with ever-increasing swiftness, as the attraction of the earth diminished, towards that neutral point at which the attraction of the earth is exactly balanced by the moon. Her momentum would carry her past this point, and then the “R. Force” would be gradually brought into play in order to avert the unpleasant consequences of a fall of some forty odd thousand miles.

Andrew Murgatroyd, relieved from his duties in the wheel-house, made a careful inspection of the auxiliary machinery, which was under his special charge, and then retired to his quarters in the after end of the vessel to prepare his own evening meal.

Meanwhile, her Ladyship, with the help of the ingenious contrivances with which the kitchen of the Astronef was stocked, had prepared a dainty little souper à deux. Her husband opened a bottle of the finest champagne that the cellars of Smeaton could supply, to drink to the prosperity of the voyage, and the health of his beautiful fellow-voyager. When he had filled the two tall glasses the wine began to run over the side which was toward the stern of the vessel. They took no notice of this at first, but when Zaidie put her glass down she stared at it for a moment, and said, in a half-frightened voice:

Why, what’s the matter, Lenox? look at the wine! It won’t keep straight, and yet the table’s perfectly level—and see! the water in the jug looks as though it were going to run up the side.”

Redgrave took up the glass and held it balanced in his hand. When he had got the surface of the wine level the glass was no longer perpendicular to the table.

Ah, I see what it is,” he said, taking another sip and putting the glass down. “You notice that, although the wine isn’t lying straight in the glass, it isn’t moving about. It’s just as still as it would be on earth. That means that our centre of gravity is not exactly in line with the centre of the earth. We haven’t quite swung into our proper position, and that reminds me, dear. You will have to be prepared for some rather curious experiences in that way. For instance, just see if that jug of water is as heavy as it ought to be.”

She took hold of the handle, and exerting, as she thought, just enough force to lift the jug a few inches, was astonished to find herself holding it out at arm’s length with scarcely any effort. She put it down again very carefully as though she were afraid it would go floating off the table, and said, looking rather scared:

That’s very strange, but I suppose it’s all perfectly natural?”

Perfectly; it merely means that we have left Mother Earth a good long way behind us.”

How far?” she asked.

I can’t tell you exactly,” he replied, “until I go to the instrument-room and take the angles, but I should say roughly about seventy thousand miles. When we’ve finished we’ll go and have coffee on the upper deck, and then we shall see something of the glories of Space as no human eyes have ever seen them before.”

Seventy thousand miles away from home already, and we only started a couple of hours ago!” Zaidie found the idea a trifle terrifying, and finished her meal almost in silence. When she got up she was not a little disconcerted when the effort she made not only took her off her chair but off her feet as well. She rose into the air nearly to the surface of the table.

Sakes!” she said, “this is getting quite a little embarrassing; I shall be hitting my head against the roof next.”

Oh, you’ll soon get used to it,” he laughed, pulling her down on to her feet by the skirt of her dress; “always remember to exert very little strength in everything you do, and don’t forget to do everything very slowly.”

When the coffee was made he carried the apparatus up into the deck-chamber. Then he came back and said:

You’d better wrap yourself up warmly. It’s a good deal colder up there than it is here.”

When she reached the deck and took a first glance about her, Zaidie seemed suddenly to lapse into a state of somnambulism.

The whole heavens above and around were strewn with thick clusters of stars which she had never seen before. The stars she remembered seeing from the earth were only pin-points in the darkness compared with the myriads of blazing orbs which were now shooting their rays across the black void of Space.

So many millions of new ones had come into view, that she looked in vain for the familiar constellations. She saw only vast clusters of living gems of every colour crowding the heavens on every side of her.

She walked slowly round the deck, gazing to right and left and above, incapable for the moment either of thought or speech, but only of dumb wonder, mingled with a dim sense of overwhelming awe. Presently she craned her neck backwards and looked straight up to the zenith. A huge silver crescent, supporting, as it were, a dim greenish-coloured body in its arms, stretched overhead across nearly a sixth of the heavens.

Then Redgrave came to her side, took her in his arms, lifted her as if she had been a little child, and laid her in a long, low deck-chair, so that she could look at it without inconvenience.

The splendid crescent seemed to be growing visibly bigger, and as she lay there in a trance of wonder and admiration she saw point after point of dazzling white light flash out in the dark portions, and then begin to send out rays as though they were gigantic volcanoes in full eruption, and were pouring torrents of living fire from their blazing craters.

Sunrise on the Moon!” said Redgrave, who had stretched himself on another chair beside her. “A glorious sight, isn’t it? But nothing to what we shall see to-morrow morning—only there doesn’t happen to be any morning just about here.”

Yes,” she said dreamily, “glorious, isn’t it? That and all the stars—but I can’t think anything yet, Lenox, it’s all too mighty and too marvellous. It doesn’t seem as though human eyes were meant to look upon things like this. But where’s the earth? We must be able to see that still.”

Not from here,” he said, “because it’s underneath us. Come below now, and you shall see what I promised you.”

They went down into the lower part of the vessel and to the after end behind the engine-room. Redgrave switched on a couple of electric lights, and then pulled a lever attached to one of the side-walls. A part of the flooring about six feet square slid noiselessly away; then he pulled another lever on the opposite side and a similar piece disappeared, leaving a large space covered only by a thick plate of absolutely transparent glass. He switched off the lights again and led her to the edge of it, and said:

There is your native world, dear. That is your Mother Earth.”

Wonderful as the moon had seemed, the gorgeous spectacle which lay seemingly at her feet was infinitely more magnificent. A vast disc of silver grey, streaked and dotted with lines and points of dazzling lights, and more than half covered with vast, glimmering, greyish-green expanses, seemed to form the floor of the tremendous gulf beneath them. They were not yet too far away to make out the general features of the continents and oceans, and fortunately the hemisphere presented to them happened to be singularly free from clouds.

To the right spread out the majestic outlines of the continents of North and South America, and to the left Asia, the Malay Archipelago, and Australia. At the top was a vast, roughly circular area of dazzling whiteness, and Redgrave, pointing to this, said:

There, look up a little further north than the middle of that white patch, and you’ll see what no eyes but yours and mine have ever seen—the North Pole! When we come back we shall see the South Pole, because we shall approach the earth from the other end, as it were.

I suppose you recognise a good deal of the picture. All that bright part up to the north, with the black spots on it, is Canada. The black spots are forests. That long white line to the left is the Rockies. You see they’re all bright at the north, and as you go south you only see a few bright dots. Those are the snow-peaks.

Those long thin white lines in South America are the tops of the Andes, and the big, dark patches to the right of them are the forests and plains of Brazil and the Argentine. Not a bad way of studying geography, is it? If we stopped here long enough we should see the whole earth spin right round under us, but we haven’t time for that. We shall be in the moon before it’s morning in New York, but we shall probably get a glimpse of Europe to-morrow.”

Zaidie stood gazing for nearly an hour at this marvellous vision of the home-world which she had left so far behind her before she could tear herself away and allow her husband to shut the slides again. The greatly diminished weight of her body destroyed the fatigue of standing almost entirely. In fact, on board the Astronef just then it was almost as easy to stand as it was to lie down.

There was of course very little sleep for the travellers on this first night of their wonderful voyage, but towards the sixth hour after leaving the earth, Zaidie, overcome as much by the emotions which had been awakened within her as by physical fatigue, went to bed, after making her husband promise that he would wake her in good time to see the descent upon the moon. Two hours later she was awake and drinking the coffee which he had prepared for her. Then she went on to the upper deck.

To her astonishment she found, on one hand, day more brilliant than she had ever seen it before, and on the other hand darkness blacker than the blackest earthly night. On the right was an intensely brilliant orb, about half as large again as the full moon seen from the earth, shining with inconceivable brightness out of a sky black as midnight and thronged with stars. It was the Sun; the Sun shining in the midst of airless Space.

The tiny atmosphere enclosed in the glass-domed deck-space was lighted brilliantly, but it was not perceptibly warmer, though Redgrave warned her not to touch anything upon which the sun’s rays fell directly, as she might find it uncomfortably hot. On the other side was the same black immensity which she had seen the night before, an ocean of darkness clustered with islands of light. High above in the zenith floated the great silver-grey disc of earth, a good deal smaller now. But there was another object beneath them which was at present of far more interest to her.

Looking down to the left, she saw a vast semi-luminous area in which not a star was to be seen. It was the earth-lit portion of the long familiar and yet mysterious orb which was to be their resting place for the next few hours.

The sun hasn’t risen over there yet,” said Redgrave, as she was peering down into the void. “It’s earth-light still. Now look at the other side.”

She crossed the deck, and saw the strangest scene she had yet beheld. Apparently only a few miles below her was a huge crescent-shaped plain arching away for hundreds of miles on either side. The outer edge had a ragged look, and little excrescences, which soon took the shape of flat-topped mountains, projected from it and stood out bright and sharp against the black void beneath, out of which the stars shone up, as it seemed, a few feet beyond the edge of the disc.

The plain itself was a scene of awful and utter desolation. Huge mountain-walls, towering to immense heights and enclosing great circular and oval plains, one side of them blazing with intolerable light, and the other side black with impenetrable obscurity; enormous valleys reaching down from brilliant day into rayless night—perhaps down into the very bowels of the dead world itself; vast grey-white plains lying round the mountains, crossed by little ridges and by long black lines, which could only be immense fissures with perpendicular sides—but all hard, grey-white and black, all intolerable brightness or inky gloom; not a sign of life anywhere; no shady forests, no green fields, no broad, glittering oceans; only a ghastly wilderness of dead mountains and dead plains.

What an awful place,” Zaidie whispered. “Surely we can’t land there. How far are we from it?”

About fifteen hundred miles,” replied Redgrave, who was sweeping the scene below him with one of the two powerful telescopes which stood on the deck. “No, it doesn’t look very cheerful, does it? But it’s a marvellous sight for all that, and one that a good many people on earth would give one of their eyes to see from here. I’m letting her drop pretty fast, and we shall probably land in a couple of hours or so. Meanwhile you may as well get out your moon atlas, and study your lunography. I’m going to turn the power a bit astern so that we shall go down obliquely, and see more of the lighted disc. We started at new moon so that you should have a look at the full earth, and also so that we could get round to the invisible side while it is lighted up.”

They both went below, he to deflect the repulsive force so that one set of engines should give them a somewhat oblique direction, while the other, acting directly on the surface of the moon, simply retarded their fall; and she to get out her maps.

When they got back the Astronef had changed her apparent position, and, instead of falling directly on to the moon, was descending towards it in a slanting direction. The result of this was that the sunlit crescent rapidly grew in breadth. Peak after peak and range after range rose up swiftly out of the black gulf beyond. The sun climbed quickly up through the star-strewn, mid-day heavens, and the full earth sank more swiftly still behind them.

Another hour of silent, entranced wonder and admiration followed, and then Redgrave said:

Don’t you think it’s about time we were beginning to think of breakfast, dear—or do you think you can wait till we land?”

Breakfast on the moon!” she exclaimed. “That would be just too lovely for words—of course we’ll wait!”

Very well,” he said; “you see that big black ring nearly below us?—that, as I suppose you know, is the celebrated Mount Tycho. I’ll try and find a convenient spot on the top of the ring to drop on, and then you will be able to survey the scenery from seventeen or eighteen thousand feet above the plains.”

About two hours later a slight, jarring tremor ran through the frame of the vessel, and the first stage of the voyage was ended. After a passage of less than twelve hours the Astronef had crossed a gulf of nearly two hundred and fifty thousand miles, and rested on the untrodden surface of the lunar world.