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   Chapter 12 SUNWARD HO!

A Trip to Venus: A Novel By John Munro Characters: 21851

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"By the way," said Gazen to me, "I've got a new theory for the rising and sinking of the sun behind the cliffs at Womla-a theory that will simply explode Professor Possil, and shake the Royal Astronomical Society to its foundations."

The astronomer and I were together in the observatory, where he was adjusting his telescope to look at the sun. After our misadventure with the flying ape, we had returned to our former station on the summit of the mountain, to pick up the drawing materials of Miss Carmichael; but as Gazen was anxious to get as near the sun as possible, and being disgusted with the infernal scenery as well as the foetid, malarial atmosphere of Mercury, we left as soon as we had replenished our cistern from the pools in the rock.

"Another theory?" I responded. "Thought you had settled that question."

"Alas, my friend, theories, like political treatises, are made to be broken."

"Well, what do you think of it now?"

"You remember how we came to the conclusion that Schiaparelli was right, and that the planet Venus, by rotating about her own axis in the same time as she takes to revolve around the sun, always keeps the same face turned to the sun, one hemisphere being in perpetual light and summer, whilst the other is in perpetual darkness and winter?"

"Yes."

"You remember, too, how we explained the growing altitude of the sun in the heavens which culminated on the great day of the Festival, by supposing that the axis of the planet swayed to and from the sun so as to tilt each pole towards the sun, and the other from it, alternately, thus producing what by courtesy we may call the seasons in Womla?"

"Yes."

"Well, judging from the observations I have made, we were probably right so far; but if you recollect, I accounted for the mysterious daily rise and set of the sun, if I may use the words, by changes in the density of the atmosphere bending the solar rays, and making the disk appear to rise and sink periodically, though in reality it does nothing of the kind. A similar effect is well-known on the earth. It produces the 'after glow' on the peaks of the Alps when the sun is far below the horizon; it sometimes makes the sun bob up and down again after sunset, and it has been known to make the sun show in the Arctic regions three weeks before the proper time. I had some difficulty in understanding how the effect could take place so regularly."

"I think you ascribed it to the interaction of the solar heat and the evaporation from the surface."

"Quite so. I assumed that when the sun is low the vapours above the edge of the crater and elsewhere cool and condense, thus bending the rays and seeming to lift the sun higher; but after a time the rays heat and rarefy the vapours, thus lowering the sun again. It seemed a plausible hypothesis and satisfied me for a time, but still not altogether, and now I believe I have made a discovery."

"And it is?"

"That Venus is a wobbler."

"A wobbler?"

"That she wobbles-that she doesn't keep steady-swings from side to side. You have seen a top, how stiff and erect it is when it is spinning fast, and how it wobbles when it is spinning slow, just before it falls. Well, I think something of the kind is going on with Venus. The earth may be compared to a top that is whirling fast, and Venus to one that has slowed down. She is less able than the earth to resist the disturbing attraction of the sun on the inequalities of her figure, and therefore she wobbles. In addition to the slow swinging of her axis which produces her 'seasons,' she has a quicker nodding, which gives rise to day and night in some favoured spots like Womla."

"After all," said I, "tis a feminine trait. Souvent femme varie."

"Oh, she is constant to her lord the sun," rejoined Gazen. "She never turns her back upon him, but if I have not discovered a mare's nest, which is very likely, she becks and bows to him a good deal, and thus maintains her 'infinite variety.'"

The cloudy surface of Mercury now lay far beneath us, and the glowing disc of the sun, which appeared four or five times larger than it does on the earth, had taken a bluish tinge-a proof that we had reached a very great altitude.

"What a magnificent 'sun-spot!'" exclaimed the professor in a tone of admiration. "Just take a peep at it."

I placed my eye to the telescope, and saw the glowing surface of the disc resolved into a marvellous web of shining patches on a dimmer background, and in the midst a large blotch which reminded me of a quarry hole as delineated on the plan of a surveyor.

"Have you been able to throw any fresh light on these mysterious 'spots?'" I enquired.

"I am more than ever persuaded they are breaks in the photosphere caused by eruptions of heated matter, chiefly gaseous from the interior-eruptions such as might give rise to craters like that of Womla, or those of the moon, were the sun cooler. No doubt that eminent authority, Professor Sylvanus Pettifer Possil, regards them as aerial hurricanes; but the more I see, the more I am constrained to regard Sylvanus Pettifer Possil as a silly vain asteroid."

While Gazen was yet speaking we both became sensible of an unwonted stillness in the car.

The machinery had ceased to vibrate.

Our feelings at this discovery were akin to those of passengers in an ocean steamer when the screw stops-a welcome relief to the monotony of the voyage, a vague apprehension of danger, and curiosity to learn what had happened.

"Is there anything wrong, Carmichael?" asked Gazen through the speaking tube.

There was no response.

"I say, Carmichael, is anything the matter?" he reiterated in a louder tone.

Still no answer.

We were now thoroughly alarmed, and though it was against the rules, we descended into the machinery room. The cause of Carmichael's silence was only too apparent. We saw him lying on the floor beside his strange machine, with his head leaning against the wall. There was a placid expression on his face, and he appeared to slumber; but we soon found that he was either in a faint or dead. Without loss of time we tried the first simple restoratives at hand, but they proved of no avail.

Gazen went and called Miss Carmichael.

She had been resting in her cabin after her trying experience with the dragon, and although most anxious about her father, and far from well herself, she behaved with calm self-possession.

"I think the heat has overcome him," she said, after a quick examination; and truly the cabin was insufferably hot, thanks to the machinery and the fervid rays of the sun.

We could not open the scuttles and admit fresh air, for there was little or none to admit.

"I shall try oxygen," she said on reflecting a moment.

Accordingly, while Gazen, in obedience to her directions began to work Carmichael's arms up and down, after the method of artificial respiration which had brought me round at the outset of our journey, she and I administered oxygen gas from one of our steel bottles to his lungs by means of a makeshift funnel applied to his mouth. In some fifteen or twenty minutes he began to show signs of returning animation, and soon afterwards, to our great relief, he opened his eyes.

At first he looked about him in a bewildered way, and then he seemed to recollect his whereabouts. After an ineffectual attempt to speak, and move his limbs, he fixed his eyes with a meaning expression on the engines.

We had forgotten their stoppage. Miss Carmichael sprang to investigate the cause.

"They are jammed," she said after a short inspection. "The essential part is jammed with the heat. Whatever is to be done?"

We stared at each other blankly as the terrible import of her words came home to us. Unless we could start the machines again, we must inevitably fall back on Mercury. Perhaps we were falling now!

We endeavoured to think of a ready and practicable means of cooling the engines, but without success. The water and oil on board was lukewarm; none of us knew how to make a freezing mixture even if we had the materials; our stock of liquid air had long been spent.

Miss Carmichael tried to make her father understand the difficulty in hopes that he would suggest a remedy, but all her efforts were in vain. Carmichael lay with his eyes closed in a kind of lethargy or paralysis.

"Perhaps, when we are falling through the planet's atmosphere," said I, "if we open the scuttles and let the cold air blow through the room, it will cool the engines."

"I'm afraid there will not be time," replied Gazen, shaking his head; "we shall fall much faster than we rose. The friction of the air against the car will generate heat. We shall drop down like a meteoric stone and be smashed to atoms."

"We have parachutes," said Miss Carmichael, "do you think we shall be able to save our lives?"

"I doubt it," answered Gazen sadly. "They would be torn and whirled away."

"So far as I can see there is only one hope for us," said I. "If we should happen to fall into a deep sea or lake, the car would rise to the surface again."

"Yes, that is true," responded Gazen; "the car is hollow and light. It would float. The water would also cool the machines and we might escape."

The bare possibility cheered us with a ray of hope.

"If we only had time, my father might recover, and I believe he would save us yet," said Miss Carmichael.

"I wonder how much time we have," muttered Gazen.

"We can't tell," said I. "It depends on the height we had reached and the speed we were going at when the engines stopped. We shall rise like a ball thrown into the air and then fall back to the ground."

"I wonder if we are still rising," ejaculated Gazen. "Let us take a look at the planet."

"Don't be long," pleaded Miss Carmichael, as we turned to go. "Meanwhile, I shall try and bring my father round."

On getting to the observatory, we consulted the atmospheric pressure gauge and found it out of use, a sign that we had attained an altitude beyond the atmosphere of Mercury, and were now in empty space.

We turned to the planet, whose enormous disc, muffled in cloud, was shining lividly in the weird sky. At one part of the limb a range of lofty mountain peaks rose above the clouds and chequered them with shadow.

Fixing our eyes upon this landmark we watched it with bated breath. Was it coming nearer, or was it receding from us? That was the momentous question.

My feelings might be compared to those of a prisoner at the bar watching the face of the juryman who is about to deliver the verdict.

After a time-I know not how long-but it seemed an age-the professor exclaimed,

"I believe we are still rising."

It was my own impression, for the peak I was regarding had grown as I thought smaller, but I did not feel sure, and preferred to trust the more experienced eyes of the astronomer.

"I shall try the telescop

e," he went on; "we are a long way from the planet."

"How far do you think?"

"Many thousand miles at least."

"So much the better. We shall get more time."

"Humph! prolonging the agony, that's all. I begin to wish it was all over."

Gazen directed his instrument on the planet, and we resumed our observations.

"We are no longer rising," said Gazen after a time. "I suppose we are near the turning-point."

As a prisoner scans the countenance of the judge who is about to pronounce the sentence of life or death, I scanned the cloudy surface underneath us, to see if I could discover any signs of an ocean that would break our fall, but the vapours were too thick and compact.

Every instant I expected to hear the fatal intelligence that our descent had begun.

"Strange!" muttered Gazen by-and-by, as if speaking to himself.

"What is strange?"

"We are neither rising nor falling now. We don't seem to move."

"Impossible!"

"Nevertheless, it's a fact," he exclaimed at the end of some minutes. "The focus of the telescope is constant. We are evidently standing still."

His words sounded like a reprieve to a condemned man on the morning of his execution, and in the revulsion of my feeling I shouted,

"Hurrah!"

"What can it mean?" cried Gazen.

"Simply this," said I joyfully. "We have reached the 'dead-point,' where the attraction of Mercury on the car is balanced by the attraction of the sun. It can't be anything else."

"Wait a minute," said Gazen, making a rapid calculation. "Yes, yes, probably you are right. I did not think we had come so far; but I had forgotten that gravitation on Mercury is only half as strong as it is on the Earth or Venus. Let us go and tell Miss Carmichael."

We hurried downstairs to the engine room and found her kneeling beside her father, who was no better.

She did not seem much enlivened by the good news.

"What will that do for us?" she enquired doubtfully.

"We can remain here as long as we like, suspended between the Sun and Mercury," replied Gazen.

"Is it better to linger and die in a living tomb than be dashed to pieces and have done with it?"

"But we shall gain time for your father to recover."

"I am afraid my father will never recover in this place. The heat is killing him. Unless we can get further away from the sun he will die, I'm sure he will."

Her eyes filled with tears.

"Don't distress yourself, dear Miss Carmichael, please don't," said Gazen tenderly. "Now that we have time to think, perhaps we shall hit upon some plan."

An idea flashed into my head.

"Look here," said I to Gazen, "you remember our conversation in your observatory one day on the propelling power of rockets-how a rocket might be used to drive a car through space?"

"Yes; but we have no rockets."

"No, but we have rifles, and rifle bullets fired from the car, though not so powerful, will have a similar effect."

"Well?"

"The car is now at rest in space. A slight impulse will direct it one way or another. Why should we not send it off in such a way that in falling towards Mercury it will not strike the planet, but circle round it; or if it should fall towards the surface, will do so at a great slant, and allow the atmosphere to cool the engines."

"Let me see," said Gazen, drawing a diagram in his note-book, and studying it attentively. "Yes, there is something in that. It's a forlorn hope at best, but perhaps it's our only hope. If we could only get into the shadow of the planet we might be saved."

As delay might prove fatal to Carmichael, and since it was uncertain whether he could right the engines in their present situation, we decided to act on the suggestion without loss of time. Gazen and I calculated the positions of the rifles and the number of shots to be fired in order to give the required impetus to the car. The engine-room, being well provided with scuttles, was chosen as the scene of our operations. A brace of magazine rifles were fixed through two of the scuttles in such a way that the recoil of the shots would urge the car in an oblique direction backwards, so as to clear or almost clear the planet, allowance being made for the forward motion of the latter in its orbit. Needless to say, the barrel of each rifle was packed round so as to keep the air in the car from escaping into space.

At a given signal the rifles were discharged simultaneously by Gazen and myself. There was little noise, but the car trembled with the shock, and the prostrate man opened his eyes.

Had it produced the desired effect? We could not tell without an appeal to the telescope.

"I'll be back in a moment," cried Gazen, springing upstairs to the observatory.

"Do you feel any better, father?" enquired Miss Carmichael, laying her cool hand on the invalid's fevered brow.

He winked, and tried to nod in the affirmative. "Were you asleep, father? Did the shock rouse you?"

He winked again.

"Do you know what we are doing?" Before he could answer the foot of Gazen sounded on the stair. He had left us with an eager, almost a confident eye. He came back looking grave in the extreme.

"We are not falling towards Mercury," he said gloomily. "We are rushing to the sun!"

I cannot depict our emotion at this awful announcement which changed our hopes into despair. Probably it affected each of us in a different manner. I cannot recollect my own feelings well enough to analyse them, and suppose I must have been astounded for a time. A vision of the car, plunging through an atmosphere of flame, into the fiery entrails of the sun, flashed across my excited brain, and then I seemed to lose the power of thought.

"Out of the frying-pan into the fire," said I at last, in frivolous reaction.

"His will be done!" murmured Miss Carmichael, instinctively drawing closer to her father, who seemed to realise our jeopardy.

"We must look the matter in the face," said Gazen, with a sigh.

"What a death!" I exclaimed, "to sit and watch the vast glowing furnace that is to swallow us up come nearer and nearer, second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour."

"The nearer we approach the sun the faster we shall go," said Gazen. "For one thing, we shall be dead long before we reach him. The heat will stifle us. It will be all over in a few hours."

What a death! To see, to feel ourselves roasting as in an oven. It was too horrible.

"Are you certain there is no mistake?" I asked at length.

"Quite," replied Gazen. "Come and see for yourself."

We had all but gained the door when Miss Carmichael followed us.

"Professor," she said, with a tremor in her voice, and a look of supplication in her eyes, "you will come back soon-you will not leave us long."

"No, my darling-I beg your pardon," answered Gazen, obeying the impulse of his heart. "God knows I would give my life to save you if I could."

In another instant he had locked her in his arms.

I left them together, and ascended to the observatory, where Gazen soon afterwards rejoined me.

"I'm the happiest man alive," said he, with a beaming countenance. "Congratulate me. I'm betrothed to Miss Carmichael."

I took his proffered hand, scarcely knowing whether to laugh or cry.

"It seems to me that I have found my life in losing it," he continued with a grim smile. "Saturn! what a courtship is ours-what an engagement-what a bridal bed! But there, old fellow, I'm afraid I'm happier than you-alone in spirit, and separated from her you love. Perhaps I was wrong to carry you away from Venus-it has not turned out well-but I acted for the best. Forgive me!"

I wrung his hand in silence.

"Now let us take a look through the telescope," he went on, wiping his eyes, and adjusting the instrument. "You will see how soon it gets out of focus. We are flying from Mercury, my friend, faster and faster."

It was true.

"But I don't understand how that should be," said I. "The firing ought to have had a contrary effect."

"The rifles are not to blame," answered Gazen. "If we had used them earlier we might have saved ourselves. But all the time that we were discussing ways and means, and making our preparations to shoot, we were gradually drifting towards the sun without knowing it. We overlooked the fact that the orbit of Mercury is very far from circular, and that he is now moving further away from the sun every instant. As a consequence his attractive power over the car is growing weaker every moment. The car had reached the 'dead-point' where the attractive powers of the sun and planet over it just balanced each other; but as that of the planet grew feebler the balance turned, and the car was drawn with ever accelerating velocity towards the sun."

"Like enough."

"I can satisfy you of it by pointing the telescope at a sun-spot," said Gazen, bringing the instrument to bear upon the sun. "You will then see how fast we are running to perdition. I say-what would our friends in London think if they could see us now? Wouldn't old Possil snigger! Well, I shall get the better of him at last. I shall solve the great mystery of the 'sun-spots' and the 'willow leaves.' Only he will never know it. That's a bitter drop in the cup!"

So saying, he applied his eye to the telescope, his ruling passion strong in death. For myself, as often as I had admired the glorious luminary, I could not think of it now without a shudder, and fell a prey to my own melancholy ruminations.

So this was the end! After all our care and forethought, after all our struggles, after all our success, to perish miserably like moths in a candle, to plunge headlong into that immense conflagration as a vessel dives into the ocean, and is never heard of more! Not a vestige of us, not even a charred bone to tell the tale. Alumion-our friends at home-when they admired the sun would they ever fancy that it was our grave-ever dream that our ashes were whirling in its flames. The cry of Othello, in his despair, which I had learned at school, came back to my mind-"Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulphur! Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!"

Regrets, remorse, and bitter reflections overwhelmed me. Why had we not stayed in Venus? Why had we come to Mercury? Why had we endeavoured to do so much? What folly had drawn me into this mad venture at all? No, I could not say that. I could not call it folly which had brought me to Alumion. I had no regret, but on the contrary an unspeakable joy and gratitude on that score. But why had we attempted to approach so near the sun, daring the heat, which had jammed our engines, and disabled our best intellect; risking the powerful attraction that was hurrying us to our doom?

Suddenly a peculiar thrill shook the car. With a bounding heart I started to my feet and dashed into the engine-room. It was true then. Yes, it was true. The engines were at work, and we were saved!

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