Off on a Comet

Page 21

That magnificent planet which--as Phosphorus or Lucifer, Hesperus or Vesper, the evening star, the morning star, or the shepherd's star--has never failed to attract the rapturous admiration of the most indifferent observers, here revealed herself with unprecedented glory, exhibiting all the phases of a lustrous moon in miniature. Various indentations in the outline of its crescent showed that the solar beams were refracted into regions of its surface where the sun had already set, and proved, beyond a doubt, that the planet had an atmosphere of her own; and certain luminous points projecting from the crescent as plainly marked the existence of mountains. As the result of Servadac's computations, he formed the opinion that Venus could hardly be at a greater distance than 6,000,000 miles from the earth.

"And a very safe distance, too," said Ben Zoof, when his master told him the conclusion at which he had arrived.

"All very well for two armies, but for a couple of planets not quite so safe, perhaps, as you may imagine. It is my impression that it is more than likely we may run foul of Venus," said the captain.

"Plenty of air and water there, sir?" inquired the orderly.

"Yes; as far as I can tell, plenty," replied Servadac.

"Then why shouldn't we go and visit Venus?"

Servadac did his best to explain that as the two planets were of about equal volume, and were traveling with great velocity in opposite directions, any collision between them must be attended with the most disastrous consequences to one or both of them. But Ben Zoof failed to see that, even at the worst, the catastrophe could be much more serious than the collision of two railway trains.

The captain became exasperated. "You idiot!" he angrily exclaimed; "cannot you understand that the planets are traveling a thousand times faster than the fastest express, and that if they meet, either one or the other must be destroyed? What would become of your darling Montmartre then?"

The captain had touched a tender chord. For a moment Ben Zoof stood with clenched teeth and contracted muscles; then, in a voice of real concern, he inquired whether anything could be done to avert the calamity.

"Nothing whatever; so you may go about your own business," was the captain's brusque rejoinder.

All discomfited and bewildered, Ben Zoof retired without a word.

During the ensuing days the distance between the two planets continued to decrease, and it became more and more obvious that the earth, on her new orbit, was about to cross the orbit of Venus. Throughout this time the earth had been making a perceptible approach towards Mercury, and that planet--which is rarely visible to the naked eye, and then only at what are termed the periods of its greatest eastern and western elongations--now appeared in all its splendor. It amply justified the epithet of "sparkling" which the ancients were accustomed to confer upon it, and could scarcely fail to awaken a new interest. The periodic recurrence of its phases; its reflection of the sun's rays, shedding upon it a light and a heat seven times greater than that received by the earth; its glacial and its torrid zones, which, on account of the great inclination of the axis, are scarcely separable; its equatorial bands; its mountains eleven miles high;--were all subjects of observation worthy of the most studious regard.

But no danger was to be apprehended from Mercury; with Venus only did collision appear imminent. By the l8th of January the distance between that planet and the earth had become reduced to between two and three millions of miles, and the intensity of its light cast heavy shadows from all terrestrial objects. It might be observed to turn upon its own axis in twenty-three hours twenty-one minutes--an evidence, from the unaltered duration of its days, that the planet had not shared in the disturbance. On its disc the clouds formed from its atmospheric vapor were plainly perceptible, as also were the seven spots, which, according to Bianchini, are a chain of seas.

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