EXCERPT: Prisoner of the Vampires of Mars
Robert Darvel stood up, reeling from a strange feeling of vertigo: the planet Mars! These magic words resonated in his ears, in the blowing wind, in the melancholy rustling of the leaves, in the monotonous murmur of the sea.
“The planet Mars!”
He had spoken these words aloud and they frightened him. A cacophony of voices seemed to respond from the bushes. He wheeled around instinctively, searching, his eyes wide with fear of the Unknown. It seemed to him that misshapen beings in the undergrowth were sneering and snickering as they softly echoed:
“Ah! Ah! The planet Mars . . .”
He took a few steps toward a clearing where the light of the two moons flowed pure and calm, luminously outlining the russet and pink shadows of the yellow willows and red beeches.
He felt a terrible urge to run, but he didn’t dare, for he thought he heard someone treading close behind him, following in his footsteps, breathing softly on his neck. Animals were nibbling fruits in the trees; weary trunks were groaning in the wind; in the distance a spring was weeping: all of these noises added to his terror. Accounts he had read long ago of the strange inhabitants of other planets flooded into his memory. Was Mars peopled by monstrous cannibalistic brutes or by beings of a superior civilization, with the marvelous resources of a new science at their disposal? All these thoughts collided in his brain and he felt the same fears as the first men must have experienced in the forests of the Tertiary Period.
Large bats gliding on silent, velvet wings passed in front of him, and he dreamed of winged imps and evil dwarves and night prowlers who, hiding in caves and old hollow trees in the day, emerge only at night, like vampire bats, to suck the blood of their sleeping victims.
Robert felt his mind slipping away, tormented by a fear of solitude and of his own weakness. The calm night and quiet forest, redolent with decomposing foliage and damp earth, seemed to him full of peril. The horror of being alone made his blood freeze. The old home planet, Earth, which to him was now no more than a speck of light lost in the distance of the immense expanse of the heavens, appeared to his desolate soul as a place of delights, a privileged corner of the immense universe.
At the very least, there were men there!
Robert would have been very happy to be alone and without a home, protector, or money in the poorest neighborhood of Paris or London, even on the miserable Siberian steppes, even a prisoner of ferocious savages deep in Java or New Guinea.
He looked around frantically and an urge came over him, an irresistible urge, to cower in a hole in the rock or a hollow of a bush like a timid animal and wait for daylight.
Suddenly he happened on a brook that ran between two large red rocks, and whose clear surface gleamed in the light of the two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Reeds, rushes, and a mixture of succulents with spreading leaves adorned the waterway’s banks, and quick golden fish as agile as trout darted among the plants. Huge trees admired their dark foliage in the water.
Robert had never beheld such a charming landscape illuminated by such soft glimmers of light. His courage returned; he was embarrassed by the fear that assailed him.
Kneeling on the damp grass, he drank water from his cupped hands and found it exquisite and soothing.
“No!” he proudly exclaimed. “I will not succumb to these senseless fears. I will be faithful to the role that I myself have chosen; I wanted to get to know new worlds, whatever the risks. Whatever enemies or dangers may await, I have come with all the venerable riches of human science. Whether I succeed or fail I will have accomplished the goal I set for myself. I will have filled the page I wished to write and my mission will not have been in vain. I have no right to complain nor to be afraid.”
Stimulated by this burst of enthusiasm, Robert found himself in complete control of his faculties. The strangeness of the situation revived him and he walked on at a brisk pace, leaving the spring and the clearing behind to plunge into a long avenue with a carpet of brown moss as soft as velvet under his feet.
If his friends on Earth had seen the young engineer at this moment, walking briskly with no idea where he was headed down the paths of an untamed forest, none of them, certainly, would have recognized him. Robert was as thin as a skeleton, his features were haggard, his shoulders were stooped, and his wild hair and beard were turning gray. His only clothing was the cotton sack that had served as his shroud, under which he was shivering, although it wasn’t terribly cold.
He had made rudimentary sandals from thin strips of tree bark that he wrapped around his aching feet. And finally his incredibly long and sharp nails made him look more like a Stone Age man than a respectable mathematician who had graduated third in his class from the Ecole Polytechnique.
Robert Darvel, now certain that he had left the planet of his birth and that what he had taken to be a Canadian forest was instead a part of Mars, walked with great strides, as much to revive his sluggish limbs as to reach, as quickly as possible, some Martian settlement, the existence of which he was impatient to discover.
“If they are friendly and intelligent,” he had told himself, “I will find a way to make myself understood and they will help me. If they are hostile and stupid, I will frighten them and they will be obliged to come to my assistance anyway.”
Greatly fortified by these rather fanciful hopes, he pressed on, but after a quarter of an hour he was overcome by fatigue and, despite his sandals of vines, his feet were raw and terribly sore. He broke off a thick, mostly straight branch to serve as a cane and also as a weapon of self-defense.