Chapter 8

 

When they got back they found Murgatroyd pacing up and down the floor of the deck-chamber, looking about him with serious eyes, but betraying no other visible sign of anxiety. The Astronef was at once his home and his idol, and, as Redgrave had said, even his own direct orders would hardly have induced him to leave her even in a world in which there was not a living human being to dispute possession of her.

When they had resumed their ordinary clothing the Astronef rose from the surface of the plain, crossed the encircling wall at the height of a few hundred feet, and made her way at a speed of about fifty miles an hour towards the regions of the South Pole.

Behind them to the north-west they could see from their elevation of nearly thirty thousand feet the vast expanse of the Sea of Clouds. Dotted here and there were the shining points and ridges of light marking the peaks and crater-walls which the rays of the rising sun had already touched. Before them and to the right and left rose a vast maze of ragged, splintery peaks and huge ramparts of mountain-walls enclosing plains so far below their summits that the light of neither sun nor earth ever reached them.

By directing the force exerted by what might now be called the propelling part of the engines against the mountain masses which they crossed to right and left and behind, Redgrave was able to take a zigzag course that carried them over many of the walled plains which were wholly or partially lit up by the sun, and in nearly all of the deepest their telescopes revealed something like what they had found within the crater of Tycho. At length, pointing to a gigantic circle of white light fringing an abyss of utter darkness, he said:

There is Newton, the greatest mystery of the moon. Those inner walls are twenty-four thousand feet high; that means that the bottom, which has never been seen by human eyes, is about five thousand feet below the surface of the moon. What do you say, dear—shall we go down and see if the searchlight will show us anything? You know there may be something like breathable air down there, and perhaps living creatures who can breathe it.”

Certainly!” replied Zaidie decisively; “haven’t we come to see things that nobody else has ever seen?”

Redgrave went down to the engine-room, and presently the Astronef changed her course, and in a few minutes was hanging with her polished hull bathed in sunlight, like a star suspended over the unfathomable gulf of darkness below.

As they sank below the level of the sun-rays, Murgatroyd turned on both the searchlights. They dropped down ever slowly and more slowly until gradually the two long, thin streams of light began to spread themselves out; the lower they went the more the beams spread out, and by the time the Astronef came gently to a rest they were swinging round her in broad fans of diffused light over a dark, marshy surface, with scattered patches of grey moss and reeds, with dull gleams of stagnant water showing between them.

Air and water at last! I thought so,” said Redgrave, as he rejoined her on the upper deck; “air and water and eternal darkness! Well, we shall find life on the moon here if anywhere.”

I suppose we had better put on our breathing-dresses, hadn’t we?” asked Zaidie.

Certainly,” he replied, “because, although there is some sort of air, we don’t know yet whether we shall be able to breathe it. It may be half carbon-dioxide for all we know; but a few matches will soon tell us that.”

Within a quarter of an hour they were again standing on the surface. Murgatroyd had orders to follow them as far as possible with the head searchlight, which, in the comparatively rarefied atmosphere, appeared to have a range of several miles. Redgrave struck a match, and held it up level with his head; it burnt with a clear, steady, yellow flame.

Where a match will burn a man should be able to breathe,” he said. “I’m going to see what lunar air is like.”

For Heaven’s sake be careful, dear,” came the reply in pleading tones across the wire.

All right; but don’t open your helmet till I tell you.”

He then raised the hermetically closed slide of glass, which formed the front of the helmets, half an inch or so. Instantly he felt a sensation like the drawing of a red-hot iron across his skin. He snapped the visor down and clasped it in its place. For a moment or two he gasped for breath, and then he said rather faintly:

It’s no good, it’s too cold. It would freeze the blood of a salamander. I think we’d better go back and explore this place under cover. We can’t do anything in the dark, and we can see just as well from the upper deck with the searchlights. Besides, as there’s air and water here, there’s no telling but there may be inhabitants of sorts such as we shouldn’t care to meet.”

He took her hand, and to Murgatroyd’s great relief they went back to the vessel.

Redgrave then raised the Astronef a couple of hundred feet and, by directing the repulsive force against the mountain walls, developed just sufficient energy to keep them moving at about twelve miles an hour.

They began to cross the plain with their searchlights flashing out in all directions. They had scarcely gone a mile before the head-light fell upon a moving form half walking, half crawling among some stunted brown-leaved bushes by the side of a broad, stagnant stream.

Look!” said Zaidie, clasping his arm, “is that a gorilla, or—no, it can’t be a man.”

The light was turned full upon the object. If it had been covered with hair it might have passed for some strange type of the ape tribe, but its skin was smooth and of a livid grey. Its lower limbs were evidently more powerful than its upper; its chest was enormously developed, but the stomach was small. The head was big and round and smooth. As they came nearer they saw that in place of fingernails it had long white feelers which it kept extended and constantly waving about as it groped its way towards the water. As the intense light flashed full on it, it turned its head towards them. It had a nose and a mouth—the nose, long and thick, with huge mobile nostrils; the mouth forming an angle something like a fish’s lips. Teeth there seemed none. At either side of the upper part of the nose there were two little sunken holes—in which this thing’s ancestors of countless thousands of years ago had once had eyes.

As she looked upon this awful parody of what had once perhaps been a human face, Zaidie covered hers with her hands and uttered a little moan of horror.

Horrible, isn’t it?” said Redgrave. “I suppose that’s what the last remnants of the Lunarians have come to. Evidently once men and women, something like ourselves. I daresay the ancestors of that thing have lived here in coldness and darkness for hundreds of generations. It shows how tremendously tenacious Nature is of life.

Ages ago, no doubt, that brute’s ancestors lived up yonder when there were seas and rivers, fields and forests, just as we have them on earth, among men and women who could see and breathe and enjoy everything in life and had built up civilisations like ours!

Look, it’s going to fish or something. Now we shall see what it feeds on. I wonder why the water isn’t frozen. I suppose there must be some internal heat left still. A few patches with lakes of lava under them. Perhaps this valley is just over one, and that’s why these creatures have managed to survive.

Ah! there’s another of them, smaller, not so strongly formed. That thing’s mate, I suppose—female of the species. Ugh! I wonder how many hundred of thousands of years it will take for our descendants to come to that.”

I hope our dear old earth will hit something else and be smashed to atoms before that happens!” exclaimed Zaidie, whose curiosity had now partly overcome her horror. “Look, it’s trying to catch something!”

The larger of the two creatures had groped its way to the edge of the sluggish, oily water and dropped, or rather rolled, quietly into it. It was evidently cold-blooded, or nearly so, for no warm-blooded animal would have taken to such water so naturally. Presently the other dropped in too, and both disappeared for some moments. Then, in the midst of a violent commotion in the water a few yards away, they rose to the surface of the water, the larger with a wriggling, eel-like fish between its jaws.

They both groped their way towards the edge, and had just reached it and were pulling themselves out when a hideous shape rose out of the water behind them. It was like the head of an octopus joined to the body of a boa-constrictor, but head and neck were both of the same ghastly, livid grey as the other two creatures. It was evidently blind, too, for it took no notice of the brilliant glare of the searchlight, but it moved rapidly towards the two scrambling forms, its long white feelers trembling out in all directions. Then one of them touched the smaller of the two shapes. Instantly the rest shot out and closed round it, and with scarcely a struggle it was dragged beneath the water and vanished.

Zaidie uttered a little low scream and covered her face again, and Redgrave said:

The same old brutal law you see, life preying upon life even on a dying world, a world that is more than half dead itself. Well, I think we’ve seen enough of this place. I suppose those are about the only types of life we should meet anywhere, and I don’t want to know much more about them. I vote we go and see what the invisible hemisphere is like.”

I have had all I want of this side,” said Zaidie, looking away from the scene of the hideous tragedy, “so the sooner we go, the better I shall like it.”

A few minutes later the Astronef was again rising towards the stars with her searchlights still flashing down into the Valley of Expiring Life, which had seemed to them even worse than the Valley of Death. As he followed the rays with a pair of powerful field glasses, Redgrave fancied that he saw huge, dim shapes moving about the stunted shrubbery and through the slimy pools of the stagnant rivers, and once or twice he got a glimpse of what might well have been the ruins of towns and cities, but the gloom soon became too deep and dense for the searchlights to pierce and he was glad when the Astronef soared up into the brilliant sunlight once more. Even the ghastly wilderness of the lunar landscape was welcome after the nameless horrors of that hideous abyss.

After a couple of hours’ rapid travelling, Redgrave pointed down to a comparatively small, deep crater, and said:

There, that is Malapert. It is almost exactly at the south pole of the moon, and there,” he went on, pointing ahead, “is the horizon of the hemisphere which no earthborn eyes have ever seen.”

Except ours,” said Zaidie somewhat inconsequently, “and I wonder what we shall see.”

Probably something very like what we have seen on this side,” replied Redgrave, and as the event proved, he was right.

Contrary to many ingenious speculations which have been indulged in by both scientist and romancer, they found that the hemisphere, which for countless ages had never been turned towards the earth, was almost an exact replica of the visible one. Fully three-fourths of it was brilliantly illuminated by the sun, and what they saw through their glasses was practically the same as what they had beheld on the earthward side; huge groups of enormous craters and ringed mountains, long, irregular chains crowned with sharp, splintery peaks, and between these vast, deeply depressed areas, ranging in colour from dazzling white to grey-brown, marking the beds of the vanished lunar seas.

As they crossed one of these, Redgrave allowed the Astronef to sink to within a few thousand feet of the surface, and then he and Zaidie swept it with their telescopes. Their chance search was rewarded by something they had not seen in the sea-beds of the other hemisphere.

These depressions were far deeper than the others, evidently many thousands of feet below the average surface, but the sun’s rays were blazing full into this one, and, dotted round its slopes at varying elevations, they made out little patches which seemed to differ from the general surface.

I wonder if those are the remains of cities,” said Zaidie. “Isn’t it possible that the old peoples of the moon might have built their cities along the seas just as we do, and that their descendants may have followed the waters as they retreated, I mean as they either dried up or disappeared into the centre?”

Very probable indeed, dearest of philosophers,” he said, picking her up with one arm and kissing the smiling lips which had just uttered this most reasonable deduction. “Now we’ll go down and see.”

He diminished the vertically repulsive force a little, and the Astronef dropped slantingly towards the bed of what might once have been the Pacific of the Moon.

When they were within about a couple of thousand feet of the surface it became perfectly plain that Zaidie was correct in her hypothesis. The vast sea floor was thickly strewn with the ruins of countless cities and towns, which had been inhabited by an equally countless series of generations of men and women, who had perhaps lived and loved in the days when our own world was a glowing mass of molten rock, surrounded by the envelope of vapours which has since condensed to form our oceans.

They dropped still lower and ran diagonally across the ocean-bed, and as they did so Zaidie’s proposition was more and more completely confirmed, for they saw that the towns and cities which stood highest were the most dilapidated, and that the buildings had evidently been torn and crumbled away by the action of wind and water, snow and ice.

The nearer they approached to the central and deepest depression, the better preserved and the simpler the buildings became, until down in the lowest depths they found a collection of low-built square edifices, scarcely better than huts, which had clustered round the little lake into which, ages before, the ocean had dwindled. But where the lake had been there was now only a shallow depression covered with grey sand and brown rock.

Into this they descended and touched the lunar surface for the last time. A couple of hours’ excursion among the houses proved that they had been the last refuge of the last descendants of a dying race, a race which had socially degenerated just as the succession of cities had done architecturally, age by age, as the long-drawn struggle for mere existence had become keener and keener until the two last essentials, air and water, had failed—and then the end had come.

The streets, like the square of the great Temple of Tycho, were strewn with myriads and myriads of bones, and there were myriads more scattered round what had once been the shores of the dwindling lake. Here, as elsewhere, there was not a sign or a record of any kind—carving or sculpture. If there were any such on the surface of the moon they had not discovered them. The buildings which they had seen evidently belonged to the decadent period during which the dwindling remnants of the Selenites asked only to eat and drink and breathe.

Inside the great Pyramid of the City of Tycho they might, perhaps, have found something—some stone or tablet which bore the mark of the artist’s hand; elsewhere, perhaps, they might have found cities reared by older races, which might have rivalled the creations of Egypt and Babylon, but they had neither time nor inclination to look for these.

All that they had seen of the Dead World had only sickened and saddened them. The untravelled regions of Space peopled by living worlds more akin to their own were before them. The red disc of Mars was glowing in the zenith among the diamond-white clusters which gemmed the black sky behind him.

More than a hundred millions of miles had to be traversed before they would be able to set foot on his surface, and so, after one last look round the Valley of Death about them, Redgrave turned on the full energy of the repulsive force in a vertical direction, and the Astronef leapt upwards in a straight line for her new destination. The Unknown Hemisphere spread out in a vast plain beneath them, the blazing sun rose on their left, and the brilliant silver orb of the earth on their right, and so, full of wonder and yet without regret, they bade farewell to the World that Had Been.