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Chapter 19


CHAPTER XIX


A MONSTER MEETING


On the following day Barbicane, fearing that indiscreet
questions might be put to Michel Ardan, was desirous of reducing
the number of the audience to a few of the initiated, his own
colleagues for instance. He might as well have tried to
check the Falls of Niagara! he was compelled, therefore, to
give up the idea, and let his new friend run the chances of a
public conference. The place chosen for this monster meeting
was a vast plain situated in the rear of the town. In a few
hours, thanks to the help of the shipping in port, an immense
roofing of canvas was stretched over the parched prairie, and
protected it from the burning rays of the sun. There three
hundred thousand people braved for many hours the stifling heat
while awaiting the arrival of the Frenchman. Of this crowd of
spectators a first set could both see and hear; a second set saw
badly and heard nothing at all; and as for the third, it could
neither see nor hear anything at all. At three o'clock Michel
Ardan made his appearance, accompanied by the principal members
of the Gun Club. He was supported on his right by President
Barbicane, and on his left by J. T. Maston, more radiant than
the midday sun, and nearly as ruddy. Ardan mounted a platform,
from the top of which his view extended over a sea of black hats.

He exhibited not the slightest embarrassment; he was just as
gay, familiar, and pleasant as if he were at home. To the
hurrahs which greeted him he replied by a graceful bow; then,
waving his hands to request silence, he spoke in perfectly
correct English as follows:

"Gentlemen, despite the very hot weather I request your patience
for a short time while I offer some explanations regarding the
projects which seem to have so interested you. I am neither an
orator nor a man of science, and I had no idea of addressing you
in public; but my friend Barbicane has told me that you would
like to hear me, and I am quite at your service. Listen to me,
therefore, with your six hundred thousand ears, and please
excuse the faults of the speaker. Now pray do not forget that
you see before you a perfect ignoramus whose ignorance goes so
far that he cannot even understand the difficulties! It seemed
to him that it was a matter quite simple, natural, and easy
to take one's place in a projectile and start for the moon!
That journey must be undertaken sooner or later; and, as for the
mode of locomotion adopted, it follows simply the law of progress.
Man began by walking on all-fours; then, one fine day, on two
feet; then in a carriage; then in a stage-coach; and lastly
by railway. Well, the projectile is the vehicle of the future,
and the planets themselves are nothing else! Now some of you,
gentlemen, may imagine that the velocity we propose to impart to
it is extravagant. It is nothing of the kind. All the stars
exceed it in rapidity, and the earth herself is at this moment
carrying us round the sun at three times as rapid a rate, and
yet she is a mere lounger on the way compared with many others
of the planets! And her velocity is constantly decreasing.
Is it not evident, then, I ask you, that there will some day appear
velocities far greater than these, of which light or electricity
will probably be the mechanical agent?

"Yes, gentlemen," continued the orator, "in spite of the
opinions of certain narrow-minded people, who would shut up the
human race upon this globe, as within some magic circle which it
must never outstep, we shall one day travel to the moon, the
planets, and the stars, with the same facility, rapidity, and
certainty as we now make the voyage from Liverpool to New York!
Distance is but a relative expression, and must end by being
reduced to zero."

The assembly, strongly predisposed as they were in favor of the
French hero, were slightly staggered at this bold theory.
Michel Ardan perceived the fact.

"Gentlemen," he continued with a pleasant smile, "you do not
seem quite convinced. Very good! Let us reason the matter out.
Do you know how long it would take for an express train to reach
the moon? Three hundred days; no more! And what is that?
The distance is no more than nine times the circumference of
the earth; and there are no sailors or travelers, of even
moderate activity, who have not made longer journeys than that
in their lifetime. And now consider that I shall be only ninety-
seven hours on my journey. Ah! I see you are reckoning that the
moon is a long way off from the earth, and that one must think
twice before making the experiment. What would you say, then,
if we were talking of going to Neptune, which revolves at a
distance of more than two thousand seven hundred and twenty
millions of miles from the sun! And yet what is that compared
with the distance of the fixed stars, some of which, such as Arcturus,
are billions of miles distant from us? And then you talk of the
distance which separates the planets from the sun! And there
are people who affirm that such a thing as distance exists.
Absurdity, folly, idiotic nonsense! Would you know what I think
of our own solar universe? Shall I tell you my theory? It is
very simple! In my opinion the solar system is a solid
homogeneous body; the planets which compose it are in actual
contact with each other; and whatever space exists between them
is nothing more than the space which separates the molecules of
the densest metal, such as silver, iron, or platinum! I have
the right, therefore, to affirm, and I repeat, with the
conviction which must penetrate all your minds, `Distance is
but an empty name; distance does not really exist!'"

"Hurrah!" cried one voice (need it be said it was that of
J. T. Maston). "Distance does not exist!" And overcome by the
energy of his movements, he nearly fell from the platform to
the ground. He just escaped a severe fall, which would have
proved to him that distance was by no means an empty name.

"Gentlemen," resumed the orator, "I repeat that the distance
between the earth and her satellite is a mere trifle, and
undeserving of serious consideration. I am convinced that
before twenty years are over one-half of our earth will have
paid a visit to the moon. Now, my worthy friends, if you have
any question to put to me, you will, I fear, sadly embarrass a
poor man like myself; still I will do my best to answer you."

Up to this point the president of the Gun Club had been
satisfied with the turn which the discussion had assumed.
It became now, however, desirable to divert Ardan from
questions of a practical nature, with which he was doubtless
far less conversant. Barbicane, therefore, hastened to get in
a word, and began by asking his new friend whether he thought
that the moon and the planets were inhabited.

"You put before me a great problem, my worthy president,"
replied the orator, smiling. "Still, men of great intelligence,
such as Plutarch, Swedenborg, Bernardin de St. Pierre, and
others have, if I mistake not, pronounced in the affirmative.
Looking at the question from the natural philosopher's point of
view, I should say that nothing useless existed in the world;
and, replying to your question by another, I should venture to
assert, that if these worlds are habitable, they either are,
have been, or will be inhabited."

"No one could answer more logically or fairly," replied the
president. "The question then reverts to this: Are these
worlds habitable? For my own part I believe they are."

"For myself, I feel certain of it," said Michel Ardan.

"Nevertheless," retorted one of the audience, "there are many
arguments against the habitability of the worlds. The conditions
of life must evidently be greatly modified upon the majority
of them. To mention only the planets, we should be either
broiled alive in some, or frozen to death in others, according
as they are more or less removed from the sun."

"I regret," replied Michel Ardan, "that I have not the honor of
personally knowing my contradictor, for I would have attempted
to answer him. His objection has its merits, I admit; but I
think we may successfully combat it, as well as all others which
affect the habitability of other worlds. If I were a natural
philosopher, I would tell him that if less of caloric were set
in motion upon the planets which are nearest to the sun, and
more, on the contrary, upon those which are farthest removed
from it, this simple fact would alone suffice to equalize the
heat, and to render the temperature of those worlds supportable
by beings organized like ourselves. If I were a naturalist,
I would tell him that, according to some illustrious men of
science, nature has furnished us with instances upon the earth
of animals existing under very varying conditions of life;
that fish respire in a medium fatal to other animals; that
amphibious creatures possess a double existence very difficult
of explanation; that certain denizens of the seas maintain life
at enormous depths, and there support a pressure equal to that
of fifty or sixty atmospheres without being crushed; that
several aquatic insects, insensible to temperature, are met with
equally among boiling springs and in the frozen plains of the
Polar Sea; in fine, that we cannot help recognizing in nature a
diversity of means of operation oftentimes incomprehensible, but
not the less real. If I were a chemist, I would tell him that
the aerolites, bodies evidently formed exteriorly of our
terrestrial globe, have, upon analysis, revealed indisputable
traces of carbon, a substance which owes its origin solely to
organized beings, and which, according to the experiments of
Reichenbach, must necessarily itself have been endued with
animation. And lastly, were I a theologian, I would tell him
that the scheme of the Divine Redemption, according to St. Paul,
seems to be applicable, not merely to the earth, but to all the
celestial worlds. But, unfortunately, I am neither theologian,
nor chemist, nor naturalist, nor philosopher; therefore, in my
absolute ignorance of the great laws which govern the universe,
I confine myself to saying in reply, `I do not know whether the
worlds are inhabited or not: and since I do not know, I am going
to see!'"

Whether Michel Ardan's antagonist hazarded any further arguments
or not it is impossible to say, for the uproarious shouts of the
crowd would not allow any expression of opinion to gain a hearing.
On silence being restored, the triumphant orator contented himself
with adding the following remarks:

"Gentlemen, you will observe that I have but slightly touched
upon this great question. There is another altogether different
line of argument in favor of the habitability of the stars,
which I omit for the present. I only desire to call attention
to one point. To those who maintain that the planets are _not_
inhabited one may reply: You might be perfectly in the right,
if you could only show that the earth is the best possible
world, in spite of what Voltaire has said. She has but _one_
satellite, while Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn, Neptune have each
several, an advantage by no means to be despised. But that
which renders our own globe so uncomfortable is the inclination
of its axis to the plane of its orbit. Hence the inequality of
days and nights; hence the disagreeable diversity of the seasons.
On the surface of our unhappy spheroid we are always either too
hot or too cold; we are frozen in winter, broiled in summer;
it is the planet of rheumatism, coughs, bronchitis; while on the
surface of Jupiter, for example, where the axis is but slightly
inclined, the inhabitants may enjoy uniform temperatures.
It possesses zones of perpetual springs, summers, autumns, and
winters; every Jovian may choose for himself what climate he
likes, and there spend the whole of his life in security from
all variations of temperature. You will, I am sure, readily
admit this superiority of Jupiter over our own planet, to say
nothing of his years, which each equal twelve of ours!
Under such auspices and such marvelous conditions of existence,
it appears to me that the inhabitants of so fortunate a world
must be in every respect superior to ourselves. All we require,
in order to attain such perfection, is the mere trifle of having
an axis of rotation less inclined to the plane of its orbit!"

"Hurrah!" roared an energetic voice, "let us unite our efforts,
invent the necessary machines, and rectify the earth's axis!"

A thunder of applause followed this proposal, the author of
which was, of course, no other than J. T. Maston. And, in all
probability, if the truth must be told, if the Yankees could
only have found a point of application for it, they would have
constructed a lever capable of raising the earth and rectifying
its axis. It was just this deficiency which baffled these
daring mechanicians.

Jules Verne

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