Chapter 7

 

Well, Madame, we’ve arrived. This is the moon and there is the earth. To put it into plain figures, you are now two hundred and forty thousand odd miles away from home. I think you said you would like breakfast on the surface of the World that Has Been, and so, as it’s about eleven o’clock earth-time, we’ll call it a déjeuner, and then we’ll go and see what this poor old skeleton of a world is like.”

Oh, then we shan’t actually have breakfast on the moon?”

My dear child, of course you will. Isn’t the Astronef resting now—right now as they say in some parts of the States—on the top of the crater wall of Tycho? Aren’t we really and actually on the surface of the moon? Just look at this frightful black and white, god-forsaken landscape! Isn’t it like everything that you’ve ever learnt about the moon? Nothing but light and shade, black and white, peaks of mountains blazing in sunlight, and valleys underneath them as black as the hinges of——”

Tophet,” said Zaidie, interrupting him quickly. “Yes, I see what you mean. So we’ll have our déjeuner here, breathing our own nice atmosphere, and eating and drinking what was grown on the soil of dear old Mother Earth. It’s a wee bit paralysing to think of, isn’t it, dear? Two hundred and forty thousand miles across the gulf of Space—and we sitting here at our breakfast table just as comfortable as though we were in the Cecil in London, or the Waldorf-Astoria in New York!”

There’s nothing much in that, I mean as regards distance. You see, before we’ve finished we shall probably, at least I hope we shall, be eating a breakfast or a dinner together a thousand million miles or more from New York or London. Your Ladyship must remember that this is only the first stage on the journey, the jumping-off place as you called it. You see the distance from Washington to New York is—well, it isn’t even a hop, skip and a jump in comparison with——”

Oh yes, I see what you mean of course, and so I suppose I had better cut off or short-circuit such sympathies with Mother Earth as are not connected with your noble self, and get breakfast ready. How’s that?”

Well,” said Lord Redgrave, looking at her as she rose from the table, “I think our honeymoon in Space is young enough yet to make it possible for me to say that your Ladyship’s opinion is exactly right.”

That’s a hopeless commonplace! Really, Lenox, I thought you were capable of something better than that.”

My dear Zaidie, it has been my fate to have many friends who have had honeymoons on earth, and some of their experience seems to be that the man who contradicts his wife during the first six weeks of matrimony simply makes an ass of himself. He offends her and makes himself unhappy, and it sometimes takes six months or more to get back to bearings.”

What a lot of silly men and women you must have known, Lenox. Is that the way Englishmen start marriage in England? If it is, I don’t wonder at Englishmen coming across the Atlantic in liners and air-ships and so on to get American wives. I guess you can’t understand your own womenfolk.”

Or perhaps they don’t understand us; but anyhow, I don’t think I’ve made any great mistake.”

No, I don’t think you have. Of course if I thought so I wouldn’t be here now. But this is very well for a breakfast talk; all the same, I should like to know how we are going to take the promenade you promised me on the surface of the moon?”

Your Ladyship has only to finish her breakfast, and then everything shall be made plain to her, even the deepest craters of the mountains of the moon.”

Very well, then, I will eat swiftly and in obedience; and meanwhile, as your Lordship seems to have finished, perhaps——”

Yes, I will go and see to the mechanical necessities,” said Redgrave, swallowing his last cup of coffee, and getting up. “If you’ll come down to the lower deck when you’ve finished, I’ll have your breathing-suit ready for you, and then we’ll go into the air-chamber.”

Thanks, dear, yes,” she said, putting out her hand to him as he left the table, “the ante-chamber to other worlds. Isn’t it just lovely? Fancy me being able to leave one world and land on another, and have you to say just those few words which make it all possible. I wonder what all the girls of all the civilised countries of earth would give just to be me right now.”

They could none of them give what you gave me, Zaidie, because you see from my point of view there’s only one Zaidie in the world—or as perhaps I ought to say just now, in the Solar System.”

Very prettily said, sir!” she laughed, when she had given him his due reward for his courtly speech. “I am too dazed with all these wonders about me to——”

To reply to it? You’ve given me the most convincing reply possible. Now finish your breakfast, and I’ll tell you when the breathing-dresses and the air-chamber are ready. By the way, don’t forget your cameras. It’s quite possible we may find something worth taking pictures of, and you needn’t trouble much about the weight. You know, you and I and all that we carry will only weigh about a sixth of what we did on the earth.”

Very well, then, I’ll take the whole-plate apparatus as well as the kodak and the panorama camera. When I’m ready, Murgatroyd will tell you to come down.”

But isn’t he coming with us too?”

My dear girl, if I were to ask Murgatroyd to leave the Astronef there’d be a mutiny on board—a mutiny of one against one. No, he’s left his native world; but he says he’s done it in a ship that’s made with British steel out of English iron mines, smelted, forged and fashioned in English works, and so to him it’s a bit of England, however far away from Mother Earth it may be; and if you ever see Andrew Murgatroyd’s big head and good, ungainly body outside the Astronef in any of the worlds, dead or alive, that we’re going to visit—well, when we get back to Mother Earth you may ask me——”

I don’t think I’ll have to ask you for anything, Lenox. I believe if I wanted anything you’d know before I did, so go away and get those breathing-dresses ready. I didn’t come to the moon to talk commonplaces with a husband I’ve been married to for nearly three days.”

Is it really as long as that?”

Oh, don’t be ridiculous, even if you are beyond the limits of earthly conventionalities. Anyhow, I’ve been married long enough to want my own way, and just now I want a promenade on the moon.”

The will of her Ladyship is a law unto her servant, and that which she hath said shall be done! If you come down on to the lower deck in ten minutes everything shall be ready.”

With this he disappeared down the companion-way.

About five minutes afterwards Andrew Murgatroyd showed his grizzled, long-bearded face with its high forehead, heavy brows, and broad-set eyes, long nose and shaven upper lip, just above the stairway and said, for all the world as though he might have been giving out the number of the hymn in his beloved Ebenezer at Smeaton:

If it pleases yer Ladyship, his Lordship is ready, and if you’ll please come down I’ll show you the way.”

Oh, thank you, Mr. Murgatroyd!” said Zaidie, getting up and going towards the companion-way; “but I’m afraid you don’t think that—I mean you don’t seem to take very much interest——”

If your Ladyship will pardon me,” said the old man, standing aside to let her go down, “it is not my business to think on board his Lordship’s vessel. I am his servant, and my fathers have been his fathers’ servants for more years than I’d like to count. If it wasn’t that way I wouldn’t be here. Will your Ladyship please to come down?”

Zaidie bowed her beautiful head in recognition of this ages-old devotion, and said as she passed him, more sweetly than he had ever heard human lips speak:

Thank you, Mr. Murgatroyd. You’ve taught me something in those few words that we have no knowledge of in the States. Good service is as honourable as good mastership. Thank you.”

Murgatroyd put up his lower lip and half smiled with his upper, for he was not yet quite sure of this radiant beauty, who, according to his ideas, should have been English and wasn’t. Then, with a rather clumsy and yet eloquent gesture, he showed her the way down to the air-chamber.

She nodded to him with a smile as she passed in through the air-tight door, and when she heard the levers swing to and the bolts shoot into their places she felt as though, for the time being, she had said goodbye to a friend.

Her husband was waiting for her almost fully clad in his breathing-dress. He had hers all ready to put on, and when the necessary changes and investments had been made, Zaidie found herself clad in a costume which was not by any means unlike the diving-dresses of common use, save that they were very much lighter in construction.

The helmets were smaller, and not having to withstand outside pressure they were made of welded aluminum, lined thickly with asbestos, not to keep the cold out, but the heat in. On the back of the dress there was a square case, looking like a knapsack, containing the expanding apparatus, which would furnish breathable air for an almost unlimited time as long as the liquefied air from a cylinder hung below it passed through the cells in which the breathed air had been deprived of its carbonic acid gas and other noxious ingredients.

The pressure of air inside the helmet automatically regulated the supply, which was not permitted to circulate through the other portions of the dress. The reasons for this precaution were very simple. Granted the absence of atmosphere on the moon, any air in the dress, which was woven of a cunning compound of silk and asbestos, would instantly expand with irresistible force, burst the covering, and expose the limbs of the explorers to a cold which would be infinitely more destructive than the hottest of earthly fires. It would wither them to nothing in a moment.

A human hand or foot—we won’t say anything about faces—exposed to the summer or winter temperature of the moon—that is to say, to its sunlight and its darkness—would be shrivelled into dry bone in a moment, and therefore Lord Redgrave, foreseeing this, had provided the breathing-dresses. Lastly, the two helmets were connected, for purposes of conversation, by a light wire, the two ends of which were connected with a little telephonic receiver and transmitter inside each of the head-dresses.

Well, now I think we’re ready,” said Redgrave, putting his hand on the lever which opened the outer door.

His voice sounded a little queer and squeaky over the wire, and for the matter of that so did Zaidie’s as she replied:

Yes, I’m ready, I think. I hope these things will work all right.”

You may be quite sure that I shouldn’t have put you into one of them if I hadn’t tested them pretty thoroughly,” he replied, swinging the door open and throwing out a light folding iron ladder which was hinged to the floor.

They were in the shade cast by the hull of the Astronef. For about ten yards in front of her Zaidie saw a dense black shadow, and beyond it a stretch of grey-white sand lit up by a glare of sunlight which would have been intolerable if it had not been for the smoke-coloured slips of glass which had been fitted behind the glass visors of the helmets.

Over it were thickly scattered boulders and pieces of rock bleached and desiccated, and each throwing a black shadow, fantastically shaped and yet clearly defined on the grey-white sand behind it. There was no soil, and all the softer kind of rock and stone had crumbled away ages ago. Every particle of moisture had long since evaporated; even chemical combinations had been dissolved by the alternations of heat and cold known only on earth to the chemist in his laboratory.

Only the hardest rocks, such as granites and basalts, remained. Everything else had been reduced to the universal grey-white impalpable powder into which Zaidie’s shoes sank when she, holding her husband’s hand, went down the ladder and stood at the foot of it—first of the earth-dwellers to set foot on another world.

Redgrave followed her with a little spring from the centre of the ladder which landed him with strange gentleness beside her. He took both her gloved hands and pressed them hard in his. He would have kissed his welcome to the World that Had Been if he could, but that of course was out of the question, and so he had to be content with telling her that he wanted to.

Then, hand in hand, they crossed the little plateau towards the edge of the tremendous gulf, fifty-four miles across and nearly twenty thousand feet deep, which forms the crater of Tycho. In the middle of it rose a conical mountain about five thousand feet high, the summit of which was just beginning to catch the solar rays. Half of the vast plain was already brilliantly illuminated, but round the central cone was a semicircle of shadow of impenetrable blackness.

Day and night in this same valley, actually side by side!” said Zaidie. Then she stopped and pointed down into the brightly lit distance, and went on hurriedly, “Look, Lenox; look at the foot of the mountain there! Doesn’t that seem like the ruins of a city?”

It does,” he said, “and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. I’ve always thought that, as the air and water disappeared from the upper parts of the moon, the inhabitants, whoever they were, must have been driven down into the deeper parts. Shall we go down and see?”

But how?” she said.

He pointed towards the Astronef. She nodded her helmeted head, and they went back towards the vessel.

A few minutes later the Space-Navigator had risen from her resting-place with an impetus which rapidly carried her over half of the vast crater, and then she began to drop slowly into the depths. She grounded gently, and presently they were standing on the ground about a mile from the central cone. This time, however, Redgrave had taken the precaution to bring a magazine rifle and a couple of revolvers with him in case any strange monsters, relics of the vanished fauna of the moon, might still be taking refuge in these mysterious depths. Zaidie, although like a good many American girls she could shoot excellently well, carried no weapon more offensive than the photographic apparatus aforesaid.

The first thing that Redgrave did when they stepped out on to the sandy surface of the plain was to stoop down and strike a wax match. There was a tiny glimmer of light, which was immediately extinguished.

No air here,” he said, “so we shall find no living beings—at any rate, none like ourselves.”

They found the walking exceedingly easy, although their boots were purposely weighted in order to counteract, to some extent, the great difference in gravity. A few minutes brought them to the outskirts of the city. It had no walls and exhibited no signs of any devices for defence. Its streets were broad and well-paved, and the houses, built of great blocks of grey stone joined together with white cement, looked as fresh and unworn as though they had only been built a few months, whereas they had probably stood for hundreds of thousands of years. They were flat-roofed, all of one storey and practically of one type.

There were very few public buildings, and absolutely no attempt at ornamentation was visible. Round some of the houses were spaces which might once have been gardens. In the midst of the city, which appeared to cover an area of about four square miles, was an enormous square paved with flag-stones, which were covered to the depth of a couple of inches with a light grey dust, which, as they walked across it, remained perfectly still save for the disturbance caused by their footsteps. There was no air to support it, otherwise it might have risen in clouds about them.

From the centre of this square rose a huge pyramid nearly a thousand feet in height, the sole building of the great silent city which appeared to have been raised most probably as a temple by the hands of its long-dead inhabitants.

When they got nearer they saw a white fringe round the steps by which it was approached, and they soon found that this fringe was composed of millions of white-bleached bones and skulls, shaped very much like those of terrestrial men, save that they were very much larger, and that the ribs were out of all proportion to the rest of the skeleton.

They stopped awe-stricken before this strange spectacle. Redgrave stooped down and took hold of one of the bones, a huge femur. It broke in two as he tried to lift it, and the piece which remained in his hand crumbled instantly to white powder.

Whoever they were,” he said, “they were giants. When air and water failed above, they came down here by some means and built this city. You see what enormous chests they must have had. That would be Nature’s last struggle to enable them to breathe the diminishing atmosphere. These, of course, were the last descendants of the fittest to breathe it; this was their temple, I suppose, and here they came to die—I wonder how many thousand years ago—perishing of heat, and cold, and hunger, and thirst; the last tragedy of a race, which, after all, must have been something like ourselves.”

It’s just too awful for words,” said Zaidie. “Shall we go into the temple? That seems one of the entrances up there, only I don’t like walking over all those bones.”

I don’t suppose they’ll mind if we do,” replied Redgrave, “only we mustn’t go far in. It may be full of cross passages and mazes, and we might never get out. Our lamps won’t be much use in there, you know, for there’s no air. They’ll just be points of light, and we shan’t see anything but them. It’s very aggravating, but I’m afraid there’s no help for it. Come along.”

They ascended the steps, crushing the bones and skulls to powder beneath their feet, and entered the huge, square doorway, which looked like a rectangle of blackness against the grey-white of the wall. Even through their asbestos-woven clothing they felt a sudden shock of icy cold. In those few steps they had passed from a temperature of tenfold summer heat into one below that of the coldest spots on earth. They turned on the electric lamps which were fitted to the breastplates of their dresses, but they could see nothing save the thin thread of light straight in front of them. It did not even spread. It was like a polished needle on a background of black velvet.

All about them was darkness impenetrable, and so they reluctantly turned back to the doorway, leaving all the mysteries which that vast temple of a long-vanished people might contain to remain mysteries to the end of time.

They passed down the steps again and crossed the square, and for the next half-hour Zaidie was busy taking photographs of the pyramid with its ghastly surroundings, and a few general views of this strange City of the Dead.