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Book III Chapter 1

SATURN.

Landing on a place about ten degrees north of the equator, so that they might obtain a good view of the great rings--since ON the line only the thin edge would be visible--they opened a port-hole with the same caution they had exercised on Jupiter. Again there was a rush of air, showing that the pressure without was greater than that within; but on this occasion the barometer stopped at thirty-eight, from which they calculated that the pressure was nineteen pounds to the square inch on their bodies, instead of fifteen as at sea-level on earth. This difference was so slight that they scarcely felt it. They also discarded the apergetic outfits that had been so useful on Jupiter, as unnecessary here. The air was an icy blast, and though they quickly closed the opening, the interior of the Callisto was considerably chilled.

"We shall want our winter clothes," said Bearwarden; "it might be more comfortable for us exactly on the equator, though the scene at night will be far finer here, if we can stand the climate. Doubtless it will also be warmer soon, for the sun has but just risen."

"I suspect this is merely one of the cold waves that rush towards the equator at this season, which corresponds to about the 10th of our September," replied Cortlandt. "The poles of Saturn must be intensely cold during its long winter of fourteen and three quarter years, for, the axis being inclined twenty-seven degrees from the perpendicular of its orbit, the pole turned from the sun is more shut off from its heat than ours, and in addition to this the mean distance--more than eight hundred and eighty million miles--is very great. Since the chemical composition of the air we have inhaled has not troubled our lungs, it is fair to suppose we shall have no difficulty in breathing."

Having dressed themselves more warmly, and seen by a thermometer they had placed outside that the temperature was thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, which had seemed very cold compared with the warmth inside the Callisto, they again opened the port-hole, this time leaving it open longer. What they had felt before was evidently merely a sudden gust, for the air was now comparatively calm.

Finding that the doctor's prediction as to the suitability of the air to their lungs was correct, they ventured out, closing the door as they went.

Expecting, as on Jupiter, to find principally vertebrates of the reptile and bird order, they carried guns and cartridges loaded with buckshot and No. 1, trusting for solid-ball projectiles to their revolvers, which they shoved into their belts. They also took test- tubes for experiments on the Saturnian bacilli. Hanging a bucket under the pipe leading from the roof, to catch any rain that might fall--for they remembered the scarcity of drinking-water on Jupiter--they set out in a southwesterly direction.

Walking along, they noticed on all sides tall lilies immaculately pure in their whiteness, and mushrooms and toadstools nearly a foot high, the former having a delicious flavour and extreme freshness, as though only an hour old. They had seen no animal life, or even sign of it, and were wondering at its dearth, when suddenly two large white birds rose directly in front of them. Like thought, Bearwarden and Ayrault had their guns up, snapping the thumb-pieces over "safe" and pulling the triggers almost simultaneously. Bearwarden, having double buckshot, killed his bird at the first fire; but Ayrault, having only No. 1, had to give his the second barrel, almost all damage in both cases being in the head. On coming close to their victims they found them to measure twelve feet from tip to tip, and to have a tremendous thickness of feathers and down.

"From the looks of these beauties," said Bearwarden, "I should say they probably inhabited a pretty cold place."

"They are doubtless northern birds," said Cortlandt, "that have just come south. It is easy to believe that the depth to which the temperature may fall in the upper air of this planet must be something startling."

As they turned from the cranes, to which species the birds seemed to belong, they became mute with astonishment. Every mushroom had disappeared, but the toadstools still remained.

"Is it possible we did not see them?" gasped Ayrault.

"We must inadvertently have walked some distance since we saw them," said Cortlandt. "They were what I looked forward to for lunch," exclaimed Bearwarden.

They were greatly perplexed. The mushrooms were all about them when they shot the birds, which still lay where they had fallen.

"We must be very absent-minded," said the doctor, "or perchance our brains are affected by the air. We must analyze it to see if it contains our own proportion of oxygen and nitrogen. There was a good deal of carbonic-acid gas on Jupiter, but that would hardly confuse our senses. The strange thing is, that we all seem to have been impressed the same way."

Concluding that they must have been mistaken, they continued on their journey.

All about they heard a curious humming, as that of bees, or like the murmuring of prayers in a resonant cathedral. Thinking it was the wind in the great trees that grew singly around them, they paid no attention to it until, emerging on an open plain and finding that the sound continued, they stopped.

"Now," said Bearwarden, "this is more curious than anything we found on Jupiter. Here we have an incessant and rather pleasant sound, with no visible cause."

"It may possibly be some peculiarity of the grass," replied Cortlandt, "though, should it continue when we reach sandy or bare soil, I shall believe we need a dose of quinine."

"I FEEL perfectly well," said Ayrault; "how is it with you?"

Each finding that he was in a normal state, they proceeded, determined, if possible, to discover the source from which the sounds came. Suddenly Bearwarden raised his gun to bring down a long-beaked hawk; but the bird flew off, and he did not shoot. "Plague the luck!" said he; "I went blind just as I was about to pull. A haze seemed to cover both barrels, and completely screened the bird."

"The Callisto will soon be hidden by those trees," said Cortlandt. "I think we had better take our bearings, for, if our crack shot is going to miss like that, we may want canned provisions."

Accordingly, he got out his sextant, took the altitude of the sun, got cross-bearings and a few angles, and began to make a rough calculation. For several minutes he worked industriously, used the rubber at the end of his pencil, tried again, and then scratched out. "That humming confuses me so that I cannot work correctly," said he, "while the most irrelevant things enter my mind in spite of me, and mix up my figures."

"I found the same thing," said Bearwarden, "but said nothing, for fear I should not be believed. In addition to going blind, for a moment I almost forgot what I was trying to do."

Changing their course slightly, they went towards a range of hills, in the hope of finding rocky or sandy soil, in order to test the sounds, and ascertain if they would cease or vary.

Having ascended a few hundred feet, they sat down near some trees to rest, the musical hum continuing meanwhile unchanged. The ground was strewn with large coloured crystals, apparently rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, about the size of hens' eggs, and also large sheets of isinglass. Picking up one of the latter, Ayrault examined it. Points of light and shade kept forming on its surface, from which rings radiated like the circles spreading in all directions from a place in still water at which a pebble is thrown. He called his companions, and the three examined it. The isinglass was about ten inches long by eight across, and contained but few impurities. In addition to the spreading rings, curious forms were continually taking shape and dissolving.

"This is more interesting," said Bearwarden, "than sounding shells at the sea-shore. We must make a note of it as another thing to study."

They then spread their handkerchiefs on a mound of earth, so as to make a table, and began examining the gems.

"Does it not seem to you," asked Ayrault, a few minutes later, addressing his companions, "as though we were not alone? I have thought many times there was some one--or perhaps several persons--here besides ourselves."

"The same idea has occurred to me," replied Cortlandt. "I was convinced, a moment ago, that a shadow crossed the page on which I was taking notes. Can it be there are objects about us we cannot see? We know there are vibrations of both light and sound that do not affect our senses. I wish we had brought the magnetic eye; perchance that might tell us."

"Anything sufficiently dense to cast a shadow," said Ayrault, "should be seen, since it would also be able to make an image on our retinas. I believe any impressions we are receiving are produced through our minds, as if some one were thinking very intently about us, and that neither the magnetic eye nor a sensitive plate could reveal anything."

They then returned to the study of the isinglass, which they were able to split into extremely thin sheets. Suddenly a cloud passed over the table, and almost immediately disappeared, and then a sharpened pencil with which Ayrault had been writing began to trace on a sheet of paper, in an even hand, and with a slight frictional sound.

"Stop!" said Bearwarden; "let us each for himself describe in writing what he has seen."

In a moment they had done this, and then compared notes. In each case the vision was the same. Then they looked at the writing made by the invisible hand. "Absorpta est mors in Victoria," it ran.

"Gentlemen, began Bearwarden, as if addressing a meeting, "this cannot be coincidence; we are undoubtedly and unquestionably in the presence of a spirit or of several spirits. That they understand Latin, we see; and, from what they say, they may have known death. Time may show whether they have been terrestrials like ourselves. Though the conditions of life here might make us delirious, it is scarcely possible that different temperaments like ours should be affected in so precisely the same way; besides, in this writing we have tangible proof."

"It is perfectly reasonable," said Ayrault, "to conclude it was a spirit, if we may assume that spirits have the power to move the pencil, which is a material object. Nobody doubts nowadays that after death we live again; that being the case, we must admit that we live somewhere. Space, as I take it, can be no obstacle to a spirit; therefore, why suppose they remain on earth?"

"This is a wonderful place," said Cortlandt. "We have already seen enough to convince us of the existence of many unknown laws. I wish the spirit would reveal itself in some other way."

As he finished speaking, the rays of the distant and cold-looking sun were split, and the colours of the spectrum danced upon the linen cloth, as if obtained by a prism. In astonishment, they rose and looked closely at the table, when suddenly a shadow that no one recognized as his own appeared upon the cover. Tracing it to its source, their eyes met those of an old man with a white robe and beard and a look of great intelligence on his calm face. They knew he had not been in the little grove thirty seconds before, and as this was surrounded by open country there was no place from which he could have come.