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A Trip to Venus: A Novel By John Munro Characters: 29464

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"Try to speak-there's a good fellow-open your eyes."

I heard the words as in a dream. I recognised the voice of Gazen, but it seemed to come from the far distance. Opening my eyes I found myself prostrate on the floor of the smoking room, with the professor and Miss Carmichael kneeling beside me. There was a look of great anxiety on their faces.

"I'm all right," said I feebly. "I'm so glad you are safe."

It appears that a short time before, Gazen had closed the scuttles of the observatory and returned with Miss Carmichael to the saloon, then, after calling to me without receiving any answer, had opened the door of the smoking-room and seen me lying in a dead faint. Luckily Miss Carmichael had acquired some knowledge of medicine, partly from her father, and without loss of time they applied themselves to bring me round by the method of artificial respiration employed in cases of drowning or lightning stroke.

It would be tedious to narrate all the particulars of our journey through the dark abyss, particularly as nothing very important befell us, and one day passed like another. Now and then a small meteoric stone struck the car and glanced off its rounded sides.

"Old Charon," as Gazen and I had nicknamed Carmichael, after the grim ferryman of the Styx, seldom forsook his engines, and Miss Carmichael spent a good deal of her time along with him. Occasionally she chatted with Gazen and myself in the saloon, or helped us to make scientific observations; but although neither of us openly confessed it, I think we both felt that she did not give us quite enough of her company. Her manner seemed to betray no preference for one or the other.

Did she, by her feminine instinct, perceive that we were both solicitous of her company, and was she afraid of exciting jealousy between us? In any case we were all the more glad to see her when she did join us. No doubt men in general, and professors in particular, are fond of communicating knowledge, but a great deal depends on the pupil; and certainly I was surprised to see how the hard and dry astronomer beamed with delight as he initiated this young lady into the mysteries of the apparatus, and what a deal of trouble he took to cram her lovely head with mathematics.

We noted the temperature of space as we darted onwards, and discovered that it contains a trace of gases lost from the atmospheres of the heavenly bodies. We also found there a sprinkling of minute organisms, which had probably strayed from some living world. Gazen suggested that these might sow the seeds of organic life in brand-new planets, ready for them, but perhaps that was only his scientific joke. The jokes of science are frequently so well disguised, that many people take them for earnest.

Gazen made numerous observations of the celestial bodies, more especially the sun, which now appeared as a globe of lilac fire in the centre of a silvery lustre, but I will leave him to publish his results in his own fashion. We may claim to have seen the South Pole, but, of course, at a distance too great for scientific purposes. Judging by its appearance, I should say it was surrounded by a frozen land. The earth, with its ruddy and green continents, delineated as on a map, or veiled in belted clouds, was a magnificent object for the telescope as it wheeled in the blue rays of the sun.

Hour after hour, with a kind of loving fascination, we watched it growing "fine by degrees and beautifully less," until at last it waned into a bright star.

Venus, on the other hand, waxed more and more brilliant until it rivalled the moon, and Mercury appeared as a rosy star not far from it.

We soon got accustomed to the funereal aspect of the sky, and the utter silence of space. Indeed, I was not so much impressed by the reality as I had been by the simulacrum in my dream of sunrise in the moon. When I looked at the weird radiance of the sun, however, I realised as I had never done before that he was only a star seen comparatively near, and that the earth was but his insignificant satellite. Moreover, when I gazed down into the yawning gulf, with its strange constellations so far beneath us, I felt to the full the awful loneliness of the universe; and how that all life and soul were confined to mere sunlit specks thinly scattered here and there in the blackness of eternal night.

Steering a calculated course by the stars, we reached the orbit of Venus, and travelled along it in advance of the planet with a velocity rather less than her own, so as to allow her to overtake us. Some notion of the eagerness with which we scanned her approach may be gathered by imagining the moon to fall towards the earth. Slowly and steadily the illuminated crescent of the planet grew in bulk and definition, until we could plainly distinguish all the features of her disc without the aid of glasses. For the most part she was wrapped in clouds, of a dazzling lustre at the equator, and duskier towards the poles. Here and there a gap in the vapour revealed the summit of a mountain range, or the dark surface of a plain or sea.

I need hardly say that none of us viewed the majestic approach of this new world, suspended in the ether, and visibly turning round its axis, without emotion. The boundary of day and night was fairly well marked, and I pictured to myself the wave of living creatures rising from their sleep to life and activity on one side, and going to sleep again on the other, as it crept slowly over the surface. To compare small things with great, the denizens of a planet reminded me of performers under the limelight of a darkened theatre:

"All the world's a stage!"

We amused ourselves with conjectures as to our probable fate on Venus, supposing we should arrive there safe and sound.

"I suppose the authorities will demand our passports," said I. "Perhaps we shall be tried and condemned to death for invading a friendly planet."

"It wouldn't surprise me in the least," said Gazen, "if they were to put us into their zoological gardens as a rare species of monkey."

"What a ridiculous idea!" exclaimed Miss Carmichael. "Now I feel sure they will pay us divine honours. Won't it be nice?"

"You will make a perfect divinity," rejoined the professor with consummate gallantry. "For my part I shall feel more at home in a menagerie."

Thus far we had not observed any signs of intelligent beings on the cloudy globe, and it was still doubtful whether we should not discover it to be a lifeless world.

Our track did not lie exactly on the orbit of the planet, but sufficiently beneath it to let her attraction pull the car up towards her Southern Pole as it passed above us; and by this course of action we trusted to enjoy a wider field of atmosphere to manoeuvre in, and probably a safer descent into a cooler climate than we should have experienced in attempting to land on the equator.

By an illusion familiar in the case of railway trains, it seemed to us that the car was stationary, and the planet rushing towards us. On it came like a great shield of silver and ebony, eclipsing the stars and growing vaster every moment. Under the driving force of the engines and the gravity of the planet, our car was falling obliquely towards the orbit, like a small boat trying to cross the bows of an ironclad, and a collision seemed inevitable. Being on the sunward side we could see more and more of the illuminated crescent as it drew near, and were filled with amazement at the sublime spectacle afforded by the strange contrast between the purple splendour of the solar disc in the black abyss of ether and the pure white celestial radiance which was reflected from the atmosphere of the planet.

The climax of magnificence was reached when the approaching surface came so close as to appear concave, and our little ark floated above a hemisphere of dazzling brightness under a hemisphere of appalling darkness faintly relieved by the glimmer of stars and the purple glory of the sun.

Ere we could express our admiration, however, we were startled by a magical transformation of the scene. The sky suddenly became blue, the stars vanished from sight, the sun changed to a golden lustre, and the broad day was all around us.

"Whatever has happened?" exclaimed Miss Carmichael between alarm and wonder.

"We have entered the atmosphere of Venus," responded Gazen with alacrity. "I wonder if it is breathable?"

So saying he opened one of the scuttles, and a whiff of fresh air blew into the car. Thrusting his nose out, he sniffed cautiously for a while and then drew several long breaths.

"It seems all right as regards quality," he remarked, "but there's too little body in it. We must wait until we get nearer the ground before we can go outside the car."

The pressure of the atmosphere as taken by an aneroid barometer confirmed his observation, but as we were ignorant of its average density it could not give us any certain indication of our height. Far beneath us an ideal world of clouds hid the surface from our view. We seemed to be floating above a range of snowy Alps, their dusky valleys filled with glaciers, and their sovereign peaks glittering in the sun like diamonds. As we descended in a long slant, their dazzling summits rose to meet us, and the infinite play of light and shade became more and more beautiful. The gliding car threw a distinct shadow which travelled along the white screen, and equally to our surprise and delight became fringed with coloured circles resembling rainbows.

"It is a good omen!" cried Miss Carmichael.

"Humph!" responded the professor, shaking his head but smiling good-humouredly; "that is a mere superstition I'm afraid. It is simply an optical effect, a variety of the phenomenon called 'anthelia,' like Ulloa's Circle and the famous 'Spectre of the Brocken.'"

"Explain it how you will," rejoined Miss Carmichael, "to me it is an emblem of hope. It cheers my heart."

"I am very glad to hear it, and I should be very sorry to crush your hopes," said Gazen pleasantly. "We can sometimes derive moral encouragement and profit from external phenomena. A rainbow in the midst of a storm is a cheering sight. I daresay there is a reasonable basis, too, for certain superstitions. St. Elmo's Fire may, for instance, from natural causes, be a sign of good weather, only there is nothing supernatural about it."

"I am not in the secrets of the supernatural," replied Miss Carmichael, "but I believe that if we do not look for the supernatural, if we shut our eyes to it, we are not likely to see it."

"Science has proved that so many things formerly thought to be supernatural are quite natural," observed the astronomer a little more humbly.

"Perhaps the natural and the supernatural are one," said Miss Carmichael. "Does a thing cease to be supernatural because we know something about it?"

"Well, it may have another meaning for us. Before the days of science, great mistakes were made in our interpretations of phenomena. Superstition is born of ignorance, and we can see the germ of it in the child who is frightened by a bogie, or the horse that shies at the moonlight."

"Its higher parent is a belief in the unseen."

"In any case it has done an immense amount of harm," said the professor.

"And probably quite as much good," responded Miss Carmichael. "However, don't think me a friend of superstition. But in getting rid of it let us take care that we do not fall into the opposite error. It seems to me that if science had all its own way it would reduce man and nature to a little machine working in the corner of a big one; but I think it will cost us too dear if it make us lose our sense of the divine origin and spiritual significance of the universe."

Further argument was cut short by the car suddenly dashing into the clouds with a noiseless ease that astonished us, for they had appeared as solid as the rock.

Lost in the vapours, our car seemed at rest; but although we saw nothing, we could hear a vague and distant murmur which charmed our ears after the long silence of space like a strain of music. Whether this was due to the sounds of the surface collected in the clouds, or to electrical discharges I cannot say, for we were trying to solve the mystery by hearkening to it, when it abruptly died away as the car shot into the clear air beneath the clouds.

"The sea! the sea!" cried Miss Carmichael, starting up in joyful excitement to join her father; and sure enough we were flying above a dark blue hemisphere which could only be the ocean.

Gazen now made another test of the atmosphere, and, finding it satisfactory, we opened the door of the car and ventured on the gallery.

After our confinement the fresh air acted like a charm. It felt so cool and sweet in the nostrils that every breath was a pleasure. We inhaled it in long, deep, loving draughts, which imparted vigour to our exhausted frames, and intoxicated our spirits like laughing gas. I could hardly restrain a wild impulse to leap from the car into the unruffled bosom of the sea below, and Gazen, habitually staid, actually shouted with glee. His voice startled the utter stillness, and was mocked by a faint echo from the surface of the water. By timing the interval between a call and its echo we found it nearly ten seconds, which corresponded to a height of about a mile. A repetition of the test from time to time showed that the car was now travelling at a fairly constant level. The wide ocean spread all around us; neither sail nor shore, nor living creature was visible, and we had begun to ask ourselves whether we had not found a watery planet, when Gazen suddenly cried out,


"Whereaway?" I enquired with breathless interest.

He pointed a little to the right of our course, and following the direction of his finger, I saw a dim outline where sea and sky met. It might have been mistaken for the tip of a cloud, but as we advanced it rose above the horizon and took a definite shape not unlike a truncated cone.

The glasses showed it to be an island apparently of volcanic formation, and after a brief consultation with Carmichael, we steered towards it. The emotion of Columbus when he arrived at the Bahamas affords, perhaps, the nearest parallel to our feelings, but in our case the land in sight was the outlier of another planet. Watchful curiosity and silent expectation, the ineffable sorcery of new scenes, the mystery of the unknown, the romance of adventure, the exultation of triumph, and the dread of disaster, were inextricably blended in our hearts. It was a glorious hour, and come what might, we all felt that we had not lived in vain.

The island rose o

ut of the sea like a volcanic peak, and was evidently encircled with a barrier reef, as we could trace a line of snowy surf breaking on its outer verge, and parting the sapphire blue of the deep water without from the emerald green shoals within. The coast, sweeping in beautiful bays, dotted with overgrown islets, and fended by rocky promontories, was rimmed with beaches of yellow sand. The steep sides of the mountain, broken with precipices, and shaggy with vegetation, ascended from a multitude of spurs and buttresses, resembling billows of verdure, and towered into the clouds.

I have used the word verdure, but it is really a misnomer, for although the prevailing tint of the foliage was a dark green, the entire forest was streaked like a rainbow with innumerable flowers, and the breeze which blew from it was laden with the most delightful perfume, Evidently it was all a howling wilderness, for we could not detect the slightest vestige of human dwellings or cultivation. We did not even observe any signs of bird or beast. A profound stillness brooded over the solitude, and was scarcely broken by the drowsy murmur of distant waterfalls.

A forest, like the sea or desert, has a magical power to stimulate the fancy and touch the primitive chords of the heart. Even a Scotch hillside, or a Devonshire moor, can throw their wild spells over the civilised man of letters, and appeal to savage or poetical instincts underlying all his culture. So now, where everything seen or unseen, was new and strange, and the imagination was quite free to rove, the charm was more intense. We stood and gazed upon the moving panorama like persons in a trance. The trees and plants grew in zones according to their different levels above the sea, after the manner of those on the earth, but we were too high to distinguish the various kinds. Apparently, however, feathery palms and gigantic grasses prevailed in the lower, and glossy evergreens, resembling the magnolia and rhododendron, in the middle grounds. All this part of the forest was so thickly encumbered with flowering creepers and parasites as to seem one immense bower, dense enough to exclude the sunlight and make a perpetual twilight underneath. The higher slopes were clad with pine-trees, having long thin needles, which hung from their boughs like fringes of green hair, and bushy shrubs which reminded me of heaths. Above these, enormous ferns with fronds twenty or thirty feet in length, and thickets draped in variegated mosses were thriving in the spray of a thousand slender cataracts which poured from the brink of the precipitous crags on the summit of the mountain.

Seen from a distance, the cliffs appeared of a ruddy tint, but on coming closer we found this was due to myriads of huge lichens of a deep crimson and orange, and that the natural colours of the rock, vermilion and blue, lemon, yellow, purple, and olive green, almost vied with those of the forest lower down the steep.

We glided over the crest at a point where it was almost free of cloud, and were astonished to find it carved by the weather into the most fantastic shapes, rudely imitating the colossal figures of men and animals, or the towers and turrets of ruined castles. After the novelty of this goblin architecture had passed, however, its effect was somewhat dreary. The wind, moaning through the lifeless aisles and crannies of the dripping rocks, the rolling mist and shuddering pools of water, induced a sense of loneliness and depression. The revulsion in our feelings was therefore all the greater when the car suddenly escaped from this height of desolation, and a magnificent prospect burst upon our view.

An immense valley seemed to lie far beneath us, but it was really a table-land of hills, rocks, and mountains, shaggy with vegetation, and flung together in riotous confusion like the billows of a raging sea. The stupendous cliffs behind us dropped sheerly down to the level of the plateau, some ten or twenty thousand feet below, and swept around it as a curving wall on either hand until they vanished in the distance. It was evidently the crater of the extinct volcano.

Our journey across that blooming wilderness will never fade from my recollection, but when I attempt to give the reader an idea of it, impressions crowd so thick and fast upon me as to choke my utterance; I am equally in danger of soaring into a wild extravagance of generality and sinking into a mere catalogue of detail. Yet I find it impossible to hit a mean that can do any justice to it. The extraordinary way in which the ancient lavas of the interior had been riven, upheaved, and piled upon each other by the volcanic forces, the bewildering variety and exuberance of the tropical plants and trees which battened on the rich and crumbling soil, completely baffles all description. What the imagination is unable to conceive, and the eye itself is overpowered in beholding, the pen can never hope to depict. Let the grandest mountain scenes of your memory be jumbled together as in a dream and overgrown with the maddest jungles of the Ganges or the Amazon, and the phantasmagoria would still be nothing to the living reality.

Most of the highest peaks and ridges, as well as the deepest valleys and ravines, were covered with the embowering forest; but here and there a huge boss of granite or porphyry reared its bare scalp out of the verdure like the head and shoulders of some antediluvian monster. The gigantic palms and foliage trees, all tufted with air-plants or strangled with climbers, were literally buried in flowers of every hue, and the crown of the forest rolled under us like a sea of blossoms. Every moment one enchanting prospect after another opened to our wondering eyes. Now it was a waterfall, gleaming like a vein of silver on the brow of a lofty precipice, and descending into a lakelet bordered with red, blue, and yellow lilies. Again it was a natural bridge, spanning a deep chasm or tunnel in the rock, through which a river boiled and roared in a series of cascades and rapids. Ever and anon we passed over glades and prairies, carpeted with orchids, and dotted with clumps of shrubbery, a mass of golden bloom, or tremendous blocks of basalt hung with crimson creepers. Butterflies with azure wings of a surprising spread and lustre, alighted on the flowers, and great birds of resplendent plumage flashed from grove to grove. A sun, twice the diameter of ours, blazed in the northern sky, but the intensity of his rays was tempered by a thin veil of cloud. The atmosphere although warm and moist, was not oppressive like that of a forcing-house, and the breeze was balmy with delicious perfume.

As each new marvel came in sight, unstaled by familiar and untarnished by vulgar associations, fresh from the hand of nature, so to speak, we were filled as we had never been before with an intoxicating sense of the divine mystery and miracle of life. For myself I was fairly dumbfounded with amazement, and my companion, the hard-headed sceptical astronomer, kept on crying and muttering to himself, "My God! my God!" as if he had become a drivelling fool.

We travelled league after league of this paradise run wild (I cannot tell how many) without noticing any change in the character of the scenery. At length, however, it grew less savage by degrees, and we entered on a park-like country which gained in loveliness what it lost in grandeur. Low hills, clad from base to summit in masses of gorgeous bloom, and mirrored in sequestered lakes fringed with pied water-lilies; groves of majestic cedars inviting to repose; rambling shrubberies and evergreen trees festooned with flowering vines; brooks as clear as crystal, murmuring over their pebbly beds, now hiding under drooping boughs, now lost in brakes of tall reeds and foliage plants; grassy meadows gay with crocusses, hyacinths, and tulips, or such-like flowers; isolated rocks and boulders mantled with vivid moss and lichens; hot springs falling over basins and terraces of tinted alabaster; clustering palms and groups of spiry pine-trees; geysers throwing up columns of spray tinged with rainbows; all these and a thousand other features of the landscape which must be nameless passed before our view.

Again and again we startled some herd of wild quadrupeds or flock of gaudy birds unknown to science. Legions of large and burnished insects, veritable living jewels, might be seen everywhere, and flaunting butterflies hovered about the car. So far we had not observed the least sign of human occupation, and yet, as Gazen remarked, the appearance of the country seemed to betray the influence of art. It had not the wild and wasteful luxuriance of the earlier tract, of a region left entirely in the hands of Nature, but rather of a paradise which had been dressed and kept by the gods.

Owing to the height at which we were travelling, and the undulating character of the surface, we could not see very far ahead. At length, however, on emerging from a gap in a range of hills, we came upon a vast plain or prairie stretching away into the distance, and there in the blue haze of the horizon we saw, or fancied we saw, the architecture and gardens of a great city, on the borders of a lake, and above the lake, suspended in mid-air, a spectral palace, glittering in the sunbeams.

We raised a shout of joy and triumph at this discovery.

"Stop a minute, though," said Gazen, and a shade of doubt passed over his face. "Perhaps it is only a mirage."

We levelled our glasses at the distant scene, and scanned it with palpitating hearts. We could discern the general shape, and even the details of many houses, and the roofs and minarets of the palace, which was evidently built on the top of an island in the midst of the lake.

"That is not a phantasm," said I at last; "it is a real city."

Gazen made no reply, but turned and silently shook me by the hand. The tears were standing in his eyes.

A delightful breeze, fragrant with innumerable flowers, mantled the long grass of the prairie which was threaded by a maze of silver streams, and diversified with bosky woodlands. Ere long we observed fantastic cottages and picturesque villas nestling in the coppices, and as may be imagined we were all on tip-toe with curiosity to catch a sight of their inhabitants. We were anxious to see whether they looked like human beings, and how they were disposed towards us.

For a long time we looked in vain, but at length we saw a figure moving across the prairie which turned out to be that of-a man. Yes, a man like ourselves, but well stricken in years, and to judge by his costume apparently a savage. His back was towards us, and as we floated past the professor shouted in a tone loud enough for him to hear,

"Good evening, sir."

The native started, and lifting his eyes to the car beheld it with astonishment and awe. He raised his hands in the air, then dropped them by his side, and sank upon his knees.

"That's a good sign," said Gazen with a grim smile. "I wonder if he understands English. Let's try him again," and he cried out, "What's the name of this place?" but the car was going rapidly, and if there was any response it was lost upon the wind.

As we approached the city, the cottages became thicker and thicker. They were of various sizes, and of a light fanciful design adapted to a warm climate. Each of them was surrounded by a grove or garden rich in flowers and fruit. There were grassy trails and roads from one to another, but we did not see any fields or fences, flocks or herds.

We also saw more and more of the inhabitants-men, women, and children. They were evidently a fine race, tall, handsome, and of white complexion; but the men in general were darker than the women. From their gay dresses, and the condition of the land, we had set them down for savages; but on a nearer view, their lack of arms, the beauty of their homes, and their own graceful demeanour, obliged us to reconsider our opinion. When they first saw the car they did not fly in terror, or muster hastily in armed and yelling bands. Many of them ran and cried, it is true, but only to call their friends, and while some stood with bowed heads and upraised hands as the car floated by, others, like the old man, fell upon their knees as though in prayer.

It was getting late in the day, and the sun was now sloping to the crest of the mountain wall encircling the crater. Accordingly we held a consultation with Carmichael as to whether we should land there, or proceed to the city.

Carmichael thought we should go on.

"But," said Gazen, "would it not be safer to try the temper of the people first, here in the country?"

"These people are not savages," replied Carmichael. "They are civilised, or semi-civilised, else how could they have built so fine a city as that appears. If we should see any signs of hostility amongst them, however, the car is plated with metal and will protect us-we have arms and can defend ourselves-and, besides, we can rise again, and slip away from them."

We decided to advance, but Gazen and I took the precaution to belt on our revolvers.

The huge limb of the sun, red and glowing, sank to rest in a bed of purple clouds on the summit of the rosy precipice, and filled all the green plain with a rich amber light. The fantastic towers and trees of the distant city by the lake shone in his mellow lustre; the solitary island swam in a flood of gold, and the quaint edifice which crowned it blazed with insufferable splendour. As the eerie gloaming died in the west, and thin grey mists began to veil the outlandish scene, we realised to the full that we were all alone and friendless in an unknown world, and a deep sentiment of exile took possession of our souls.

The gloaming fell, and myriads of lights twinkled in the dusk, some flitting about like fireflies, others stationary, while a hum of many voices ascended to our ears. The lights showed us that we were gliding over the city, and the voices told us that our arrival was causing a great commotion. Presently we floated above a large open space or square, lit with coloured lanterns, and evidently adorned with trees, fountains, and statuary. Here a great number of people had assembled, and as they appeared quite orderly and peaceable, we determined to land. While the car descended cautiously, Gazen and I kept a sharp watch on the crowd, with our revolvers in our hands. Instead of anger and resistance, however, the natives only manifested friendly signs of welcome. They withdrew to a respectful distance, and, dropping on their knees, burst into a song or hymn of wonderful sweetness as the car touched the ground.

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