Now read on...
Two minutes after the sudden appearance of the meteor (to them two centuries of anguish) the projectile seemed almost about to strike it, when the globe of fire burst like a bomb, but without making any noise in that void where sound, which is but the agitation of the layers of air, could not be generated.
Nicholl uttered a cry, and he and his companions rushed to the scuttle. What a sight ! What pen can describe it ? What palette is rich enough in colours to reproduce so magnificent a spectacle ?
It was like the opening of a crater, like the scattering of an immense conflagration. Thousands of luminous fragments lit up and irradiated space with their fires. Every size, every colour, was there intermingled. There were rays of yellow and pale yellow, red, green, grey-a crown of fireworks of all colours. Of the enormous and much-dreaded globe there remained nothing but fragments carried in all directions, now become asteroids in their turn, some flashing like a sword, some surrounded by a whitish cloud, and others leaving them behind them trains of brilliant cosmical dust.
These incandescent blocks crossed and struck each other, scattering still smaller fragments, some of which struck the projectile. Its left scuttle was even cracked by a violent shock. It seemed to be floating amidst a howitzer shells, the smallest of which might destroy it instantly.
The light which saturated the ether was so wonderfully intense that Michel, drawing Barbicane and Nicholl to his window, exclaimed, "The invisible moon, visible at last!"
And through a luminous emanation, which lasted some seconds, the whole three caught a glimpse of that mysterious disc which the eye of man now saw for the first time.
But the lightnings in space subsided by degrees; its accidental brilliancy died away; the asteroids dispersed in different directions and were extinguished in the distance. The ether returned to its accustomed darkness; the stars, eclipsed for a moment, again twinkled in the firmament, and a the disc, so hastily discerned, was again buried in impenetrable night.
The Columbiad completed its circuit of the moon. It emerged into sunlight. Barbicane believed that its course had again been altered by near contact with the meteor. At any rate, it was now describing a closed curve around the moon, whose satellite it was now likely to become.
"Moon of the moon!" cried Michel Ardan.
"Only, I would have you observe, my worthy friend," replied Barbicane "that we are none the none the less lost for that."
With eyes glued to the windows of their space-ship, the astronauts studied the moon, once again lighted by the rays of the sun. Sheets of frozen snow were observed on the ridges of the lunar mountains, proving the presence of water and air. The world they looked upon, however, was desolate.
There was no trace of vegetation, on appearance of cities; nothing but stratification, beds of lava, overflowings polished like immense mirrors, reflecting the sun's rays with overpowering brilliancy. Nothing belonging to a living world-everthing to a dead world, where avalanches, rolling from the summits of the mountains, would disperse noiselessly a the bottom of the abyss, retaining the motion, but wanting for sound. In any case it was the image of death, without its being possible even to say that life ever existed there.
The question of the habitability of the moon was discussed seriously by the three.
Michel Ardan persuaded his two friends to form an opinion, and asked them directly if they thought that men and animal were represented in the lunar world.
"I think that we can answer," said Barbicane; "but according to my idea the question ought not to be put in that form. I ask it to be put differently."
"Put it your own way," replied Michel.
"Here it is," continued Barbicane, "The problem is a double one, and requires a double solution. Is the moon habitable? Has the moon ever been inhabited?"
"Good!" replied Nicholl. "First let us see whether the moon is habitable?"
"To tell the truth, I know nothing about it," answered Michel.
"And I answer in the negative," continued Barbicane. " In her actual state, with her surrounding atmosphere certainly very much reduced, her seas for the most part dried up, her day and nights of 354 hours: the moon does not seem habitable to me, nor does she seem propitious to animal development, nor sufficient for the wants of existence as we understand it."
"Agreed," replied Nicholl. "But is not the moon habitable for creatures differently organised from ourselves?"
"Without a doubt!" answered Nicholl.
"Then, my worthy companion, I would answer that we have observed the lunar continent at a distance of five hundred yards at most, and that nothing seemed to us to move on the moon's surface. The presence of any kind of life would have been betrayed by its attendant marks, such as divers buildings, and even by ruins. And what have we seen? Everywhere and always the geological works of nature, never the work of man. If, then, there exist representatives of the animal kingdom on the moon, they must have fled to those unfathomable cavities which the eye cannot reach; which I cannot admit, for they must have left traces of their passage on those plains which the atmosphere must cover, however slightly raised it may be. These traces are nowhere visible. There remains but one hypothesis, that of a living race to which motion, which is life, is foreign."
"One might as well say, living creatures which do not live," replied Michel.
"Just so," said Barbicane, "which for us has no meaning."
Having agreed that the moon was not habitable, the three proceeded to discuss whether it had ever been inhabited.
"My friends," said Barbicane, "I did not undertake this journey in order to form an opinion on the past habitability of our satellite; but I will add that our personal observations only confirm me in this opinion. I believe, indeed I affirm, that the moon has been inhabited by a human race organised like our own; that she has produced animals anatomically formed like the terrestrial animals; but I add that these races, human or animal, have have had their day, and are now for ever extinct!"
The Columbiad, following its long ellipse, was now leaving the moon. It was likely to reach the neutral line again, as it had done on its outward journey, where the opposing attractions of the earth and the moon cancelled each other out.
"And when arrived at this dead point, what will become of us?" asked Michel Ardan.
"We don't know," replied Barbicane.
"But one can draw some hypotheses, I suppose?"
"Two," answered Barbicane; "either the projectile's speed will be insufficient, and it will remain for ever immovable on this line of double attraction----"
"I prefer the other hypothesis, whatever it may be," interrupted Michel.
"Or," continued Barbicane, "its speed will be sufficient, and it will continue its elliptical course, to gravitate for ever around the orb of night."
Approaching the farthest point of its ellipse about the moon, the Columbiad's speed steadily lessened. The it was that Michel Ardan had his brightest idea. The rockets that they were originally going to use to create a recoil that would check their descent upon the moon could be used at the neutral line to project them on to the moon!
Patiently, yet with growing eagerness and excitement, they waited for the moment of the great experiment to arrive--twenty-two hours distant.
The day seemed long. However bold the travellers might be, they were greatly impressed by the approach of that moment which would decide all--either precipitate their fall on the moon, or for ever chain them in immutable orbit. They counted the hours as they passed too slow for their wish; Barbicane and Nicholl were obstinately plunged in their calculations, Michel going and coming between the narrow walls, and watching that impassive moon with a longing eye.
The terrestrial midnight arrived. The 8th of December was beginning. One hour more, and the point of equal attraction would be reached. What speed would the animate the projectile? They could not estimate it. But no error could vitiate Barbicane's calculations. At one in the morning, this speed ought to be, and would be nil.
Besides, another phenomenon would mark the projectile's stopping-point on the neutral line. At that spot the two attractions, lunar and terrestrial, would be annulled. Objects would "weigh" no more. This singular fact, which had surprised Barbicane and his companions so much in going, would be repeated on their return under the very same conditions. At this precise moment they must act.
Already the projectile's conical top was sensibly turned towards the lunar disc, presented in such a way as to utilise the whole of the recoil produced by the pressure of the rocket apparatus. The chances were in favour of the travellers. If its speed was utterly annulled on this dead point, a decided movement toward the moon would suffice, however slight, to determine its fall.
"Five minutes to one," said Nicholl.
"All is ready," replied Michel Arden, directing a lighted match to the flame of gas.
"Wait!" said Barbicane, holding his chronometer in his hand.
At that moment weight had no effect. The travellers felt in themselves the entire disappearance of it. They were very near the neutral point, if they did not touch it.
"One o'clock," said Barbicane.
Michel Ardan applied the lighted match to a train in communication with the rockets. No detonation was heard in the inside, for there was no air. But, through the scuttles, Barbicane saw a prolonged smoke, the flames of which were immediately extinguished.
The projectile sustained a certain shock, which was sensibly felt in the interior.
The three friends looked and listened without speaking and scarcely breathing. One might have heard the beating of their hearts amidst this perfect silence.
"Are we falling?" asked Michel Ardan, at length.
"No," said Nicholl, "since the bottom of the projectile in not turning to the lunar disc!"
At this moment, Barbicane, quitting the scuttle, turned to his two companions. He was frightfully pale, his forehead wrinkled, and his lips contracted.
"We are falling!" said he.
"Ah!" cried Michel Ardan, "on to the moon?"
"On to the earth!"
Yes, they were falling, falling back to Earth from a height of 160,000 miles. The speed at which the Columbiad had been travelling had carried it over the dead line, just as it had done on the journey outward, and the firing of the rockets had not sufficed to retard it. In obedience to physical laws, the projectile had passed "through every point which it had already gone through."
Barbicane, Nicholl, and Michel Ardan were now hurtling earthward at a velocity that at the moment of impact would reach over 115,000 miles per hour!
It was on the morning of December 12th, more than ten days after the launching of the Columbiad on its pioneer journey to the moon, that the waiting world received its first news of the intrepid astronauts. At seventeen minutes past one in the morning, Lieutenant Bronsfield, of the United States Navy corvette, Susquehanna, about to leave his watch, heard a curious loud hissing noise high above him. Before he had even time to consult with others concerning the cause of the unusual commotion, there rushed into view what appeared to be "an enormous meteor, ignited by the rapidity of its course and its friction through the atmospheric strata. This fiery mass grew larger to their eyes, and fell, with the noise of thunder, upon the bowsprit, which it smashed close to the stem, and buried itself in the waves with a deafening roar."
In an instant the true character of the flaming body was recognised. The whole world had awaited news of the moon-ship almost hourly since its departure. There could be no doubt that the dramatic visitation in the dark hours of earliest morning meant the return of the Columbiad to earth!
Captain Blomsbury, commanding the corvette, acted sensibly and promptly. Lacking equipment with which to grope for, grapple, and hoist up the space-ship from the depths, he steered at full-steam for San Francisco, where the news of the Columbiad's reappearance was flashed by telegraph to the Naval Secretary at Washington, to J.T. Maston, the enthusiastic secretary of the Gun Club, and to other individuals most closely concerned.
The news created a sensation. The Susquehanna was at once fitted up with diving chambers, grapplers, and haulage chains, divers were sent aboard, and with J.T. Maston and other members of the Gun Club as passengers it set out to search for and salvage the Columbiad.
The exact position of the corvette when the projectile plunged into the sea had been marked; but days of searching proved fruitless. Day after day the bed of the ocean was systematically combed, but no trace of the space-ship could be found. At last all hope failed. Despite the entreaties of J.T. Maston, the search was abandoned, and the Susquehanna set sail again for San Francisco.
Suddenly a sailor in the lookout cried: "A buoy on the lee bow!"
Hope sprang to life again when it was observed that from the cone of the shining metal buoy floated a flag.
All looked with feverish anxiety, but in silence. Non dared to give expression to the thoughts which came to the minds of all.
The corvette approached to within two cable lengths of the object.
A shudder ran through the whole crew. That flag was an American flag!
It was J.T. Maston who saw the truth first.
"Simpletons!" he cried. "It is that the projectile weighs only 19,250 lbs!"
"And that it displaces twenty-eight tons, or in other words 56,000 lbw, and that consequently it floats!"
Ah, what stress the worthy man laid on the verb "floats"! And it was true! All, yes! all these savants had forgotten this fundamental law, namely, that on account of its specific lightness, the projectile, after having been drawn by its fall to the greatest depths of the ocean, must naturally return to the surface. And now it was floating quietly at the mercy of the waves.
The boats were put to sea. J.T. Maston and his friends had rushed into them! Excitement was at its height! Every heart beat loudly whilst they advanced to the projectile. What did it contain? Living of dead? Living, yes! living at least unless death had struck Barbicane and his two friends since they had hoisted the flag. Profound silence reigned on the boats. All were breathless. Eyes no longer saw. One of the scuttles of the projectile was open. Some pieces of glass remained in the frame, showing that it had been broken. This scuttle was actually five feet above the water.
A boat came longside, that of J.T. Maston, and J.T. Maston rushed to the broken window.
At that moment they heard a clear and merry voice, the voice of Michel Arden, exclaiming in an accent of triumph:
"White all, Barbicane, white all!"
Barbicane, Michel Arden, and Nicholl were playing at dominoes!