"A female savage," I said, "belonging to some backward race like those found in New Guinea or hi our African forests?"
I had spoken without the slightest conviction. Arthur Levain asked me, almost violently, if I had ever noted such grace and fineness of feature among primitive tribes. He was a hundred times right and I could think of nothing else to say. Professor Antelle, who appeared to be lost in thought, had nevertheless listened to our conversation.
"The most primitive people on our planet have a language," he finally said. "This girl cannot talk."
We searched for the stranger around the region of the stream, but unable to find the slightest trace of her, made our way back to our launch hi the clearing. The professor thought of taking off again to attempt a landing at some more civilized spot, but Levain suggested stopping where we were for at least twenty-four hours to try to establish another contact with this jungle's inhabitants. I supported him in this suggestion, which eventually prevailed. We dared not admit to one another that the hope of seeing the girl again held us to the area.
The afternoon went by without incident; but toward evening, after admiring the fantastic setting of Betelgeuse, which flooded the horizon beyond all human imagination, we had the impression of some change in our surroundings. The jungle gradually became alive with furtive rustlings and snappings, and we felt that invisible eyes were spying on us through the foliage. We spent an uneventful night, however, barricaded in our launch, keeping watch in turns.
At dawn we experienced the same sensation, and I fancied I heard some shrill little cries like those Nova had uttered the day before. But none of the creatures with which our feverish imagination peopled the forest revealed itself.
So we decided to return to the waterfall. The entire way, we were obsessed by the unnerving impression of being followed and watched by creatures that dared not show themselves. Yet Nova, the day before, had been willing to approach us.
"Perhaps it's our clothes that frighten them," Arthur Levain said suddenly.
This seemed a most likely explanation. I distinctly remembered that when Nova had fled after strangling our monkey, she had found herself in front of our pile of clothes. She had then sprung aside quickly to avoid them, like a shy horse
"We'll soon see."
And, diving into the lake after undressing, we started playing again as on the day before, ostensibly oblivious of all that surrounded us.
The same trick worked again. After a few minutes we noticed the girl on the rocky ledge, without having heard her approach. She was not alone. There was a man standing beside her, a man built like us, resembling men on Earth, a middle-aged man also completely naked, whose features were so similar to those of our goddess that I assumed he was her father. He was watching us, as she was, hi an attitude of bewilderment and concern.
And there were many others. We noticed them little by little, while we forced ourselves to maintain our feigned indifference. They crept furtively out of the forest and gradually formed an unbroken circle around the lake. They were all sturdy, handsome specimens of humanity, men and women with golden skin, now looking restless, evidently prey to a great excitement and uttering an occasional sharp cry.
We were hemmed in and felt somewhat anxious, remembering the incident with the chimpanzee. But their attitude was not menacing; they simply appeared to be interested in our actions.
That was it. Presently Nova—Nova whom I already regarded as an old acquaintance—slipped into the water and the others followed one by one with varying degrees of hesitation. They all drew closer and we began to chase one another in the manner of seals as we had done the previous day; only now we were surrounded by a score or more of these strange creatures, splashing about and playing, all with solemn expressions contrasting oddly with these childish frolics.
After a quarter of an hour of this I was beginning to feel tired. Was it just to behave like school children that we had come all the way to the universe of Betelgeuse? I felt almost ashamed of myself and was vexed to see that the learned Antelle appeared to be taking great pleasure in this game. But what else could we do? It is hard to imagine the difficulty of establishing contact with creatures who are ignorant of the spoken word or of laughter. Yet I did my best. I went through a few motions that I hoped might convey some meaning. I clasped my hands in as friendly a manner as possible, bowing at the same time, rather like the Chinese. I waved kisses at them. None of these gestures evoked the least response. Not a glimmer of comprehension appeared in their eyes.
Whenever we had discussed, during the voyage, our eventual encounter with living beings, we saw in our mind's eye monstrous, misshapen creatures of a physical aspect very different from ours, but we always implicitly imagined the presence in them of a mind. On the planet Soror reality appeared to be quite the reverse: we had to do with inhabitants resembling us hi every way from the physical point of view but who appeared to be completely devoid of the power of reason. This indeed was the meaning of the expression I had found so disturbing in Nova and that I now saw in all the others: a lack of conscious thought; the absence of intelligence.
They were interested only in playing. And even then the game had to be pretty simple! With the idea of introducing into it a semblance of coherence that they could grasp, the three of us linked hands and, with the water up to our waists, shuffled around in a circle, raising and lowering our arms together as small children might have done. This seemed not to move them in the slightest. Most of them drew away from us; others gazed as us with such an obvious absence of comprehension that we were ourselves dumfounded.
It was the intensity of our dismay that gave rise to the tragedy. We were so amazed to find ourselves, three grown men, one of whom was a world celebrity, holding hands while executing a childish dance under the mocking eye of Betelgeuse, that we were unable to keep straight faces. We had undergone such restraint for the last quarter of an hour that we needed some relief. We were overcome by bursts of wild and uncontrollable laughter.
This explosion of hilarity at last awakened a response in the onlookers, but certainly not the one we had been hoping for. A sort of tempest ruffled the lake. They started rushing off in all directions in a state of fright that in other circumstances would have struck us as laughable. After a few moments we found ourselves alone in the water. They ended up by collecting together on the bank at the edge of the pool, in a trembling mob, uttering their furious little cries and stretching their arms out toward us in rage. Their gestures were so menacing that we took fright. Levain and I made for our weapons, but the wise Antelle whispered to us not to use them and even' not to brandish them so long as they did not approach us.
We hastily dressed without taking our eyes off them. But scarcely had we put on our trousers and shirts than their agitation grew into a frenzy. It appeared that the sight of men wearing clothes was unbearable to them. Some of them took to their heels; others advanced toward us, their arms outstretched, their hands clawing the air. I picked up my carbine. Paradoxically for such obtuse people, they seemed to grasp the meaning of this gesture, turned tail, and disappeared into the trees.
We made haste to regain the launch. On our way back I had the impression that they were still there, albeit invisible, and were following our withdrawal in silence.