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The Twilight Of Space






Part of: Secrets of Space
From: Pharaoh's Broker

"Shall I come up into your compartment for the operation?" I asked.

"No; for this first time we will pump out my compartment, as I wish to
observe from the rear port-hole the action of the air which we set
free."

The bulkhead, with its bevelled edge, was therefore fitted into the
opening between the compartments, and I took the first turn at the lever
handle of the air-pump, while the doctor observed from the window. I had
given the handle less than a dozen vigorous strokes when the doctor
suddenly exclaimed,--

"Stop! Wait a moment;" and he began pulling at the bulkhead, which was
already rather tightly wedged in by the air pressure. "I have left the
rabbit inside," he said, when he found breath to speak. And poor little
bunny's heart was beginning to beat fast when he was rescued.

Then we began again. The doctor watched the escaping air for some time,
evidently forgetting that I was at all interested in it.

"All quite as I expected," he said at last. "Only I had forgotten about
the snow."

"Nothing will ever be very new or interesting to you," I put in; "but
pray remember I am here, and rapidly getting empty of breath and full of
curiosity."

Then he relieved me at the pump handle, and this is what I saw from the
port-hole: The air escaping from the discharge pipe of the air-pump was
visible, and looked like dull, grey steam. Immediately on being set free
it swelled and expanded greatly, and sank away from us slowly. But at
the instant of its expansion the cold thus produced froze the moisture
of the air into a fine fleecy snow, which lasted but a second as it sank
away from us and melted in the heat, which the thermometer showed to be
close upon ninety-five degrees. This miniature snowstorm was seen for an
instant only after each down motion of the pump handle.

"Where is this air going?" I inquired. "The little clouds of it seem to
drop away from us like lead; but that must be because of our speed."

"It is falling back to the Earth, to join the outer layer of rare
atmosphere there. If we had a positive current instead of a negative
one, the air would not leave us, but we should gradually be surrounded
by an atmosphere of our own, which we should retain until some planet,
whose gravitational attraction is vastly stronger than ours, stole it
from us. When we begin to fall into Mars, we shall acquire such an
enveloping atmosphere; and we can draw upon it and re-compress it if our
inner supply should become exhausted."

"If this air is falling home to earth," said I, "we could send messages
back in that manner."

"We can drop them back at any time, regardless of the air," he answered,
and then added suddenly, "but it will make a beautiful experiment to
drop out a bottle now."

He ceased pumping, and opening a bottle of asparagus tips, he placed
them in a bowl, and prepared to drop out the bottle. I took my pencil
and wrote this message to go inside,--"Behold, I have decreed a judgment
upon the Earth; for it shall rain pickle bottles and biscuit tins for
the period of forty days, because of the wickedness of the world, unless
she repent!" And I pictured to myself the perplexity of the poor devil
who should see this message come straight down from heaven!

In order to make his experiment more successful, the doctor put in half
a dozen bullets from one of the rifles, to make the weight more
perceptible. Then he put the bottle into the discharging cylinder, and
preparing to push it out he stooped over the port-hole. At a signal from
him I gave the pump handle several quick, successive motions, and at the
same instant he let drop the bottle. At once he cried out,--

"Beautiful! and just as I thought."

"But I didn't see it!" I protested. "What was it?"

"The instant the bottle was released the discharged air was immediately
attracted toward it, and gradually surrounded it entirely. It was like a
little planet with an atmosphere of its own, as they fell back to the
Earth together."

"But I couldn't see it; I had to pump," I complained. "We must do it
again."

"We shall soon have our bottled things all emptied out on plates to dry
up and spoil," he objected. So I emptied a biscuit tin this time, and
delaying for no message, I put it in the discharging cylinder. Then I
bent over the port-hole and gave the signal for the pumping. As I thrust
out the tin I was astonished to see the lid pop off the first thing. The
quick expansion of the air inside it did that. This air, as well as the
air from the discharge pipe, seemed to flee from it instead of
surrounding it, as the doctor had said. I continued watching so long
that he finally said,--

"Hasn't it fallen out of sight yet?"

"No; it is not falling away swiftly as the air does. It is following the
projectile! It is not gathering any air about it as you said it would.
It does not quite keep up with us; but considering our speed, it is
doing remarkably well!"

The doctor was not inclined to believe me until he had looked for
himself. He watched and pondered for a minute or two. Then his surprise
ceased, and he spoke in that assured way which always irritated me.

"Quite natural, after all," he said. "That biscuit can is made of thin
sheet-iron with a surface coating of tin. The iron has become magnetized
by induction, and the Earth repels the can just as it repels us. It will
follow us to the dead-line, and probably on to Mars, unless the
sheet-iron loses its polarization. If we had cast out a thing of solid
iron, it would rush ahead of us, instead of falling a little behind, as
this does, for it would have no dead weight to carry. But we could not
put such a thing out of the rear end, for no force would make it fall
that way. If we put it out of the forward port-hole, it would beat us in
the race toward Mars."

I remarked to the doctor that the air-pump seemed to be incorrectly
built, for its action was strangely difficult in the reverse manner that
it should have been. The down strokes went by themselves with a quick
snap, but the up strokes were as if against pressure, and the moment the
handle was released it flew down again. He had not tested the pump at
the surface, as it was of a well-known make, but it certainly seemed to
work backwards. Moreover, the more nearly we had a compartment emptied
of air, the more difficult the pumping should become, but here again the
reverse seemed to be the case, for the longer we worked the easier the
up strokes became.

The temperature of the projectile was still fairly comfortable, and the
doctor allowed the condensed air to issue very slowly into the partial
vacuum in his compartment until it produced a barometric pressure of
twenty-seven. Then we pulled back the bulkhead, and when the new
atmosphere had mixed with the old in my compartment, a pressure of
twenty-eight resulted.

"That is about the way the barometer stands during tempests at sea,"
remarked the doctor. I could not notice much difference from the air we
had previously had. Possibly it was fresher and slightly more
exhilarating.

The effort at the pump had made us both hungry again, and I prepared
from meat extracts a warm and rather thick gravy to put over the
asparagus tips. I attempted to pour it, but it was so light that its
sticky consistency prevented it from running. We had a hundred such
examples daily of the changes which lack of weight caused in the
simplest operations. With sandwiches made of biscuits and condensed
meat, we eked out a luncheon. This must have been about noon, for when
it was over I remember noticing that we no longer needed the gas in the
compartment, for there was a gradually increasing mellow light outside.

"Are we already emerging from the shadow?" I inquired eagerly.

"No, not yet," replied the doctor. "But we are now entering its
illuminated core. I must prepare to photograph the strange appearance of
the Sun that we shall see presently."

I hastened to the port-hole, and did not leave until it was all over.
What I then saw was one of the most beautiful things of the whole trip.
The light outside was not bright, but soft and dreamy, like the first
twilight after a rich day of summer. The great corona all around the
outer edge of the Earth was the most magnificent appearance I have ever
seen. It was not at all dazzling, but had the melting shades, first of a
sunrise and then of a gorgeous sunset. We had missed the gradual
appearance of the phenomenon, but we had a good view of its highest
splendour. The colours were continually but slowly changing, and finally
the darker hues gradually suffused and dyed the pinks and crimsons.

The Earth was now about three times the diameter of a rising Full Moon,
and the corona was about a quarter her width, and looked as if twenty
shell-pink suns were set one against the other and overlapping all about
the edge of the dark orb.

"How do you know that is not really the extending edge of the Sun?" I
asked the doctor. "Perhaps we are already far enough away to see it all
about the Earth like that."

"If that were really the Sun, the light from his extending edge would
illuminate the surface of the Earth towards us. The planet's outline
would be irregular and partly glowing, but you see it is quite dull and
dark, and the outline is most plainly visible."

In rapt attention I watched the delicate shell-pink change to a deeper
hue of orange, and then our twilight waned a little and turned a sombre
grey. Presently the corona glowed a rich maroon, gradually dying to a
luminous purple, which slowly deepened and darkened, and finally melted
into the general blackness. And lo! we were in the shadow again, and the
dreamily beautiful panorama was over.

"It must have lasted nearly an hour," said the doctor. "I am sorry we
did not notice the beginning, but it must have commenced with the same
dull shades we saw at the end, and gradually changed to brighter
colours. I secured three negatives when the glow was most intense."

"Then we have had a waxing and a waning twilight coming together in the
middle of our night. And the corona was like a sunrise, followed
immediately by a sunset," I exclaimed.

"And why shouldn't it appear so?" said the matter-of-fact doctor.
"Twilight is the commonest phenomenon of refraction with which we are
acquainted, and sunrise and sunset are merely a mixture of refraction
and reflection. There is nothing new about it."

"Now, Doctor, we must remain friends, but you shall not continually
tarnish my poetry with your accursed science! I thank my Creator that
He made me ignorant enough to admire the beauties of nature. You are
continually peeping behind the scenes, and pointing out the grease
paints, the lime-lights and the sham effects. Let me enjoy the beauty of
the tableau, no matter how it is produced. I would give all of your pat
knowledge for that feeling of profound awe which rises in the untutored
breast at beholding the magnificent grandeur of unfamiliar nature."

"When your ecstasy has quite passed, I shall appreciate a little cold
mutton and biscuits, and then we must pump out again," he replied.





Next: Telling The Time By Geography

Previous: Tricks Of Refraction



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