The door was slammed (for the second time that night) and after a moment's groping Ransom had found and lit a candle. I glanced quickly round and could see no one but ourselves. The most noticeable thing in the room was the big white object. I recognised the shape well enough this time. It was a large coffin-shaped casket, open. On the floor beside it lay its lid, and it was doubtless this that I had tripped over. Both were made of the same white material, like ice, but more cloudy and less shining.
"By Jove, I'm glad to see you," said Ransom, advancing and shaking hands with me. "I'd hoped to be able to meet you at the station, but everything has had to be arranged in such a hurry and I found at the last moment that I'd got to go up to Cambridge. I never intended to leave you to make that journey alone." Then, seeing, I suppose, that I was still staring at him rather stupidly, he added, "I say - you're all right, aren't you? You got through the barrage without any damage?"
"The barrage? - I don't understand."
"I was thinking you would have met some difficulties in getting here."
"Oh, that!" said I. "You mean it wasn't just my nerves? There really was something in the way?"
"Yes: They didn't want you to get here. I was afraid something of the sort might happen but there was no time to do anything about it. I was pretty sure you'd get through somehow."
"By they you mean the others - our own eldila?"
"Of course. They've got wind of what's on hand ...
I interrupted him. "To tell you the truth, Ransom," I said, "I'm getting more worried every day about the whole business. It came into my head as I was on my way here - "
"Oh, they'll put all sorts of things into your head if you let them," said Ransom lightly. "The best plan is to take no notice and keep straight on. Don't try to answer them. They like drawing you into an interminable argument."
"But, look here," said I. "This isn't child's play. Are you quite certain that this Dark Lord, this depraved Oyarsa of Tellus, really exists? Do you know for certain either that there are two sides, or which side is ours?"
He fixed me suddenly with one of his mild, but strangely formidable, glances.
"You are in real doubt about either, are you?" he asked.
"No," said I, after a pause, and felt rather ashamed.
"That's all right, then," said Ransom cheerfully. "Now let's get some supper and I'll explain as we go along."
"What's that coffin affair?" I asked as we moved into the kitchen.
"That is what I'm to travel in."
"Ransom!" I exclaimed. "He - it - the eldil - is not going to take you back to Malacandra?"
"Don't!" said he. "Oh, Lewis, you don't understand. Take me back to Malacandra? If only he would! I'd give anything I possess ... just to look down one of those gorges again and see the blue, blue water winding in and out among the woods. Or to be up on top - to see a Sorn go gliding along the slopes. Or to be back there of an evening when Jupiter was rising, too bright to look at, and all the asteroids like a Milky Way, with each star in it as bright as Venus looks from Earth! And the smells! It is hardly ever out of my mind. You'd expect it to be worse at night when Malacandra is up and I can actually see it. But it isn't then that I get the real twinge. It's on hot summer days - looking up at the deep blue and thinking that in there, millions of miles deep where I can never, never get back to it, there's a place I know, and flowers at that very moment growing over Meldilorn, and friends of mine, going about their business, who would welcome me back. No. No such luck. It's not Malacandra I'm being sent to. It's Perelandra."
"That's what we call Venus, isn't it?"
"And you say you're being sent."
"Yes. If you remember, before I left Malacandra the Oyarsa hinted to me that my going there at all might be the beginning of a whole new phase in the life of the Solar System - the Field of Arbol. It might mean, he said, that the isolation of our world, the siege, was beginning to draw to an end."
"Yes. I remember."
"Well, it really does look as if something of the sort were afoot. For one thing, the two sides, as you call them, have begun to appear much more clearly, much less mixed, here on Earth, in our own human affairs - to show in something a little more like their true colours."
"I see that all right."
"The other thing is this. The black archon - our own bent Oyarsa - is meditating some sort of attack on Perelandra."
"But is he at large like that in the Solar System? Can he get there?"
"That's just the point. He can't get there in his own person, in his own photosome or whatever we should call it. As you know, he was driven back within these bounds centuries before any human life existed on our planet. If he ventured to show himself outside the Moon's orbit he'd be driven back again by main force. That would be a different kind of war. You or I could contribute no more to it than a flea could contribute to the defence of Moscow. No. He must be attempting Perelandra in some different way."
"And where do you come in?"
"Well - simply I've been ordered there."
"By the - by Oyarsa, you mean?"
"No. The order comes from much higher up. They all do, you know, in the long run."
"And what have you got to do when you get there?"
"I haven't been told."
"You are just part of the Oyarsa's entourage?"
"Oh no. He isn't going to be there. He is to transport me to Venus - to deliver me there. After that, as far as I know, I shall be alone."
"But, look here, Ransom - I mean ..." my voice trailed away.
"I know!" said he with one of his singularly disarming smiles. "You are feeling the absurdity of it. Dr Elwin Ransom setting out single-handed to combat powers and principalities. You may even be wondering if I've got megalomania."
"I didn't mean that quite," said I.
"Oh, but I think you did. At any rate that is what I have been feeling myself ever since the thing was sprung on me. But when you come to think of it, is it odder than what all of us have to do every day? When the Bible used that very expression about fighting with principalities and powers and depraved hypersomatic beings at great heights (our translation is very misleading at that point, by the way) it meant that quite ordinary people were to do the fighting."
"Oh, I dare say," said I. "But that's rather different. That refers to a moral conflict."
Ransom threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, Lewis, Lewis," he said, "you are inimitable, simply inimitable!"
"Say what you like, Ransom, there is a difference."
"Yes. There is. But not a difference that makes it megalomania to think that any of us might have to fight either way. I'll tell you how I look at it. Haven't you noticed how in our own little war here on earth, there are different phases, and while any one phase is going on people get into the habit of thinking and behaving as if it was going to be permanent? But really the thing is changing under your hands all the time, and neither your assets nor your dangers this year are the same as the year before. Now your idea that ordinary people will never have to meet the Dark Eldila in any form except a psychological or moral form - as temptations or the like - is simply an idea that held good for a certain phase of the cosmic war: the phase of the great siege, the phase which gave to our planet its name of Thulcandra, the silent planet. But supposing that phase is passing? In the next phase it may be anyone's job to meet them, well, in some quite different mode."
"Don't imagine I've been selected to go to Perelandra because I'm anyone in particular. One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job. And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity. Certainly, it is never for what the man himself would have regarded as his chief qualifications. I rather fancy I am being sent because those two blackguards who kidnapped me and took me to Malacandra, did something which they never intended: namely, gave a human being a chance to learn that language."
"What language do you mean?"
"Hressa-Hlab, of course. The language I learned in Malacandra."
"But surely you don't imagine they will speak the same language on Venus?"
"Didn't I tell you about that?" said Ransom, leaning forward. We were now at table and had nearly finished our cold meat and beer and tea. "I'm surprised I didn't, for I found out two or three months ago, and scientifically it is one of the most interesting things about the whole affair. It appears we were quite mistaken in thinking Hressa-Hlab the peculiar speech of Mars. It is really what may be called Old Solar, Hlab-Eribolef-Cordi."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"I man that there was originally a common speech for all rational creatures inhabiting the planets of our system: those that were ever inhabited, I mean - what the eldils call the Low Worlds. Most of them, of course, have never been inhabited and never will be. At least not what we'd call inhabited. That original speech was lost on Thulcandra, our own world, when our whole tragedy took place. No human language now known in the world is descended from it."
"But what about the other two languages on Mars?"
"I admit I don't understand about them. One thing I do know, and I believe I could prove it on purely philological grounds. They are incomparably less ancient than Hressa-Hlab, specially Surnibur, the speech of the Sorns. I believe it could be shown that Surnibur is, by Malacandrian standards, quite a modern development. I doubt if its birth can be put farther back than a date which would fall within our Cambrian Period."
"And you think you will find Hressa-Hlab, or Old Solar, spoken on Venus?"
"Yes. I shall arrive knowing the language. It saves a lot of trouble - though, as a philologist, I find it rather disappointing.
"But you've no idea what you are to do, or what conditions you will find?"
"No idea at all what I'm to do. There are jobs, you know, where it is essential that one should not know too much beforehand ... things one might have to say which one couldn't say effectively if one had prepared them. As to conditions, well, I don't know much. It will be warm: I'm to go naked. Our astronomers don't know anything about the surface of Perelandra at all. The outer layer of her atmosphere is too thick. The main problem, apparently, is whether she revolves on her own axis or not, and at what speed. There are two schools of thought. There's a man called Schiaparelli who thinks she revolves once on herself in the same time it takes her to go once round Arbol - I mean, the Sun. The other people think she revolves on her own axis once in every twenty-three hours. That's one of the things I shall find out."
"If Schiaparelli is right there'd be perpetual day on one side of her and perpetual night on the other?"
He nodded, musing. "It'd be a funny frontier," he said presently. "Just think of it. You'd come to a country of eternal twilight, getting colder and darker every mile you went. And then presently you wouldn't be able to go farther because there'd be no more air. I wonder can you stand in the day, just on the right side of the frontier, and look into the night which you can never reach? And perhaps see a star or two - the only place you could see them, for of course in the Day-Lands they would never be visible .... Of course if they have a scientific civilisation they may have diving-suits or things like submarines on wheels for going into the Night."
His eyes sparkled, and even I, who had been mainly thinking of how I should miss him and wondering what chances there were of my ever seeing him again, felt a vicarious thrill of wonder and of longing to know. Presently he spoke again.
"You haven't yet asked me where you come in," he said.
"Do you mean I'm to go too?" said I, with a thrill of exactly the opposite kind.
"Not at all. I mean you are to pack me up, and to stand by to unpack me when I return - if all goes well."
"Pack you? Oh, I'd forgotten about that coffin affair. Ransom, how on earth are you going to travel in that thing? What's the motive power? What about air - and food - and water? There's only just room for you to lie in it."
"The Oyarsa of Malacandra himself will be the motive power. He will simply move it to Venus. Don't ask me how. I have no idea what organs or instruments they use. But a creature who has kept a planet in its orbit for several billions of years will be able to manage a packing-case!"
"But what will you eat? How will you breathe?"
"He tell me [sic] I shall need to do neither. I shall be in some state of suspended animation, as far as I can make out. I can't understand him when he tries to describe it. But that's his affair."
"Do you feel quite happy about it?" said I, for a sort of horror was beginning once more to creep over me.
"If you mean, Does my reason accept the view that he will (accidents apart) deliver me safe on the surface of Perelandra? - the answer is Yes," said Ransom. "If you mean, Do my nerves and my imagination respond to this view? - I'm afraid the answer is No. One can believe in anaesthetics and yet feel in a panic when they actually put the mask over your face. I think I feel as a man who believes in the future life feels when he is taken out to face a firing party. Perhaps it's good practice."
"And I'm to pack you into that accursed thing?" said I.
"Yes," said Ransom. "That's the first step. We must get out into the garden as soon as the sun is up and point it so that there are no trees or buildings in the way. Across the cabbage bed will do. Then I get in - with a bandage across my eyes, for those walls won't keep out all the sunlight once I'm beyond the air - and you screw me down. After that, I think you'll just see it glide off."
"Well, then comes the difficult part. You must hold yourself in readiness to come down here again the moment you are summoned, to take off the lid and let me out when I return."
"When do you expect to return?"
"Nobody can say. Six months - a year - twenty years. That's the trouble. I'm afraid I'm laying a pretty heavy burden on you."
"I might be dead."
"I know. I'm afraid part of your burden is to select a successor: at once, too. There are four or five people whom we can trust."
"What will the summons be?"
"Oyarsa will give it. It won't be mistakable for anything else. You needn't bother about that side of it. One other point. I've no particular reason to suppose I shall come back wounded. But just in case - if you can find a doctor whom we can let into the secret, it might be just as well to bring him with you when you come down to let me out."
"Would Humphrey do?"
"The very man. And now for some more personal matters. I've had to leave you out of my will, and I'd like you to know why."
"My dear chap, I never thought about your will till this moment."
"Of course not. But I'd like to have left you something. The reason I haven't, is this. I'm going to disappear. It is possible I may not come back. It's just conceivable there might be a murder trial, and if so one can't be too careful. I mean, for your sake. And now for one or two other private arrangements."
We laid our heads together and for a long time we talked about those matters which one usually discusses with relatives and not with friends. I got to know a lot more about Ransom than I had known before, and from the number of odd people whom he recommended to my care, 'If ever I happened to be able to do anything', I came to realise the extent and intimacy of his charities. With every sentence the shadow of approaching separation and a kind of graveyard gloom began to settle more emphatically upon us. I found myself noticing and loving all sorts of little mannerisms and expressions in him such as we notice always in a woman we love, but notice in a man only as the last hours of his leave run out or the date of the probably fatal operation draws near. I felt our nature's incurable incredulity; and could hardly believe that what was now so close, so tangible and (in a sense) so much at my command, would in a few hours be wholly inaccessible, an image - soon, even an elusive image - in my memory. And finally a sort of shyness fell between us because each knew what the other was feeling. It had got very cold.
"We must be going soon," said Ransom.
"Not till he - the Oyarsa - comes back," said I - though, indeed, now that the thing was so near I wished it to be over.
"He has never left us," said Ransom, "he has been in the cottage all the time."
"You mean he has been waiting in the next room all these hours?'
"Not waiting. They never have that experience. You and I are conscious of waiting, because we have a body that grows tired or restless, and therefore a sense of cumulative duration. Also we can distinguish duties and spare time and therefore have a conception of leisure. It is not like that with him. He has been here all this time, but you can no more call it waiting than you can call the whole of his existence waiting. You might as well say that a tree in a wood was waiting, or the sunlight waiting on the side of a hill." Ransom yawned. "I'm tired," he said, "and so are you. I shall sleep well in that coffin of mine. Come. Let us lug it out."
We went into the next room and I was made to stand before the featureless flame which did not wait but just was, and there, with Ransom as our interpreter, I was in some fashion presented and with my own tongue sworn in to this great business. Then we took down the blackout and let in the grey, comfortless morning. Between us we carried out the casket and the lid, so cold they seemed to burn our fingers. There was a heavy dew on the grass and my feet were soaked through at once. The eldil was with us, outside there, on the little lawn; hardly visible to my eyes at all in the daylight. Ransom showed me the clasps of the lid and how it was to be fastened on, and then there was some miserable hanging about, and then the final moment when he went back into the house and reappeared, naked; a tall, white, shivering, weary scarecrow of a man at that pale, raw hour. When he had got into the hideous box he made me tie a thick black bandage round his eyes and head. Then he lay down. I had no thoughts of the planet Venus now and no real belief that I should see him again. If I had dared I would have gone back on the whole scheme: but the other thing - the creature that did not wait - was there, and the fear of it was upon me. With feelings that have since often returned to me in nightmare I fastened the cold lid down on top of the living man and stood back. Next moment I was alone. I didn't see how it went. I went back indoors and was sick. A few hours later I shut up the cottage and returned to Oxford.
Then the months went past and grew to a year and a little more than a year, and we had raids and bad news and hopes deferred and all the earth became full of darkness and cruel habitations, till the night when Oyarsa came to me again. After that there was a journey in haste for Humphrey and me, standings in crowded corridors and waitings at small hours on windy platforms, and finally the moment when we stood in clear early sunlight in the little wilderness of deep weeds which Ransom's garden had now become and saw a black speck against the sunrise and then, almost silently, the casket had glided down between us. We flung ourselves upon it and had the lid off in about a minute and a half.
"Good God! All smashed to bits," I cried at my first glance of the interior.
"Wait a moment," said Humphrey. And as he spoke the figure in the coffin began to stir and then sat up, shaking off as it did so a mass of red things which had covered its head and shoulders and which I had momentarily mistaken for ruin and blood. As they streamed off him and were caught in the wind, I perceived them to be flowers. He blinked for a second or so, then called us by our names, gave each of us a hand, and stepped out on the grass.
"How are you both?" he said. "You're looking rather knocked up."
I was silent for a moment, astonished at the form which had risen from that narrow house - almost a new Ransom, glowing with health and rounded with muscle and seemingly ten years younger. In the old days he had been beginning to show a few grey hairs; but now the beard which swept his chest was pure gold.
"Hullo, you've cut your foot," said Humphrey: and I saw now that Ransom was bleeding from the heel.
"Ugh, it's cold down here," said Ransom. "I hope you've got the boiler going and some hot water - and some clothes."
"Yes," said I, as we followed him into the house. "Humphrey thought of all that. I'm afraid I shouldn't have."
Ransom was now in the bathroom, with the door open, veiled in clouds of steam, and Humphrey and I were talking to him from the landing. Our questions were more numerous than he could answer.
"That idea of Schiaparelli's is all wrong," he shouted. "They have an ordinary day and right there," and "No, my heel doesn't hurt - or, at least, it's only just begun to," and "Thanks, any old clothes. Leave them on the chair," and "No, thanks. I don't somehow feel like bacon or eggs or anything of that kind. No fruit, you say? Oh well, no matter. Bread or porridge or something," and "I'll be down in five minutes now."
He kept on asking if we were really all right and seemed to think we looked ill. I went down to get the breakfast, and Humphrey said he would stay and examine and dress the cut on Ransom's heel. When he rejoined me I was looking at one of the red petals which had come in the casket.
"That's rather a beautiful flower," said I, handing it to him.
"Yes," said Humphrey, studying it with the hands and eyes of a scientist. "What extraordinary delicacy! It makes an English violet seem like a coarse weed."
"Let's put some of them in water."
"Not much good. Look - it's withered already."
"How do you think he is?"
"Tip-top in general. But I don't quite like that heel. He says the haemorrhage has been going on for a long time."
Ransom, joined us, fully dressed, and I poured out the tea. And all that day and far into the night he told us the story that follows.