Off on a Comet: Part One

Chapter XXI

Winter Quarters

The habitation that had now revealed itself, well lighted and thoroughly warm, was indeed marvelous. Not only would it afford ample accommodation for Hector Servadac and “his subjects,” as Ben Zoof delighted to call them, but it would provide shelter for the two horses, and for a considerable number of domestic animals.

This enormous cavern was neither more or less than the common junction of nearly twenty tunnels (similar to that which had been traversed by the explorers), forming ramifications in the solid rock, and the pores, as it were, by which the internal heat exuded from the heart of the mountain. Here, as long as the volcano retained its activity, every living creature on the new asteroid might brave the most rigorous of climates; and as Count Timascheff justly remarked, since it was the only burning mountain they had sighted, it was most probably the sole outlet for Gallia’s subterranean fires, and consequently the eruption might continue unchanged for ages to come.

But not a day, not an hour, was to be lost now. The steam-launch returned to Gourbi Island, and preparations were forthwith taken in hand for conveying man and beast, corn and fodder, across to the volcanic headland. Loud and hearty were the acclamations of the little colony, especially of the Spaniards, and great was the relief of Nina, when Servadac announced to them the discovery of their future domicile; and with requickened energies they labored hard at packing, anxious to reach their genial winter quarters without delay.

For three successive days the Dobryna, laden to her very gunwale, made a transit to and fro. Ben Zoof was left upon the island to superintend the stowage of the freight, whilst Servadac found abundant occupation in overlooking its disposal within the recesses of the mountain. First of all, the large store of corn and fodder, the produce of the recent harvest, was landed and deposited in one of the vaults; then, on the 15th, about fifty head of live cattle—bullocks, cows, sheep, and pigs—were conveyed to their rocky stalls. These were saved for the sake of preserving the several breeds, the bulk of the island cattle being slaughtered, as the extreme severity of the climate insured all meat remaining fresh for almost an indefinite period. The winter which they were expecting would probably be of unprecedented length; it was quite likely that it would exceed the six months’ duration by which many arctic explorers have been tried; but the population of Gallia had no anxiety in the matter of provisions—their stock was far more than adequate; while as for drink, as long as they were satisfied with pure water, a frozen sea would afford them an inexhaustible reservoir.

The need for haste in forwarding their preparations became more and more manifest; the sea threatened to be un-navigable very soon, as ice was already forming which the noonday sun was unable to melt. And if haste were necessary, so also were care, ingenuity, and forethought. It was indispensable that the space at their command should be properly utilized, and yet that the several portions of the store should all be readily accessible.

On further investigation an unexpected number of galleries was discovered, so that, in fact, the interior of the mountain was like a vast bee-hive perforated with innumerable cells; and in compliment to the little Italian it was unanimously voted by the colony that their new home should be called “Nina’s Hive.”

The first care of Captain Servadac was to ascertain how he could make the best possible use of the heat which nature had provided for them so opportunely and with so lavish a hand. By opening fresh vents in the solid rock (which by the action of the heat was here capable of fissure) the stream of burning lava was diverted into several new channels, where it could be available for daily use; and thus Mochel, the Dobryna’s cook, was furnished with an admirable kitchen, provided with a permanent stove, where he was duly installed with all his culinary apparatus.

“What a saving of expense it would be,” exclaimed Ben Zoof, “if every household could be furnished with its own private volcano!”

The large cavern at the general junction of the galleries was fitted up as a drawing-room, and arranged with all the best furniture both of the gourbi and of the cabin of the Dobryna. Hither was also brought the schooner’s library, containing a good variety of French and Russian books; lamps were suspended over the different tables; and the walls of the apartment were tapestried with the sails and adorned with the flags belonging to the yacht. The curtain of fire extending over the opening of the cavern provided it, as already stated, with light and heat.

The torrent of lava fell into a small rock-bound basin that had no apparent communication with the sea, and was evidently the aperture of a deep abyss, of which the waters, heated by the descent of the eruptive matter, would no doubt retain their liquid condition long after the Gallian Sea had become a sheet of ice.

A small excavation to the left of the common hall was allotted for the special use of Servadac and the count; another on the right was appropriated to the lieutenant and Ben Zoof; whilst a third recess, immediately at the back, made a convenient little chamber for Nina. The Spaniards and the Russian sailors took up their sleeping-quarters in the adjacent galleries, and found the temperature quite comfortable.

Such were the internal arrangements of Nina’s Hive, the refuge where the little colony were full of hope that they would be able to brave the rigors of the stern winter-time that lay before them—a winter-time during which Gallia might possibly be projected even to the orbit of Jupiter, where the temperature would not exceed one twenty-fifth of the normal winter temperature of the earth.

The only discontented spirit was Isaac Hakkabut. Throughout all the preparations which roused even the Spaniards to activity, the Jew, still incredulous and deaf to every representation of the true state of things, insisted upon remaining in the creek at Gourbi Island; nothing could induce him to leave his tartan, where, like a miser, he would keep guard over his precious cargo, ever grumbling and growling, but with his weather-eye open in the hope of catching sight of some passing sail. It must be owned that the whole party were far from sorry to be relieved of his presence; his uncomely figure and repulsive countenance was a perpetual bugbear. He had given out in plain terms that he did not intend to part with any of his property, except for current money, and Servadac, equally resolute, had strictly forbidden any purchases to be made, hoping to wear out the rascal’s obstinacy.

Hakkabut persistently refused to credit the real situation; he could not absolutely deny that some portions of the terrestrial globe had undergone a certain degree of modification, but nothing could bring him to believe that he was not, sooner or later, to résumé his old line of business in the Mediterranean. With his wonted distrust of all with whom he came in contact, he regarded every argument that was urged upon him only as evidence of a plot that had been devised to deprive him of his goods. Repudiating, as he did utterly, the hypothesis that a fragment had become detached from the earth, he scanned the horizon for hours together with an old telescope, the case of which had been patched up till it looked like a rusty stove-pipe, hoping to descry the passing trader with which he might effect some bartering upon advantageous terms.

At first he professed to regard the proposed removal into winter-quarters as an attempt to impose upon his credulity; but the frequent voyages made by the Dobryna to the south, and the repeated consignments of corn and cattle, soon served to make him aware that Captain Servadac and his companions were really contemplating a departure from Gourbi Island.

The movement set him thinking. What, he began to ask himself—what if all that was told him was true? What if this sea was no longer the Mediterranean? What if he should never again behold his German fatherland? What if his marts for business were gone for ever? A vague idea of ruin began to take possession of his mind: he must yield to necessity; he must do the best he could. As the result of his cogitations, he occasionally left his tartan and made a visit to the shore. At length he endeavored to mingle with the busy group, who were hurrying on their preparations; but his advances were only met by jeers and scorn, and, ridiculed by all the rest, he was fain to turn his attention to Ben Zoof, to whom he offered a few pinches of tobacco.

“No, old Zebulon,” said Ben Zoof, steadily refusing the gift, “it is against orders to take anything from you. Keep your cargo to yourself; eat and drink it all if you can; we are not to touch it.”

Finding the subordinates incorruptible, Isaac determined to go to the fountain-head. He addressed himself to Servadac, and begged him to tell him the whole truth, piteously adding that surely it was unworthy of a French officer to deceive a poor old man like himself.

“Tell you the truth, man!” cried Servadac. “Confound it, I have told you the truth twenty times. Once for all, I tell you now, you have left yourself barely time enough to make your escape to yonder mountain.”

“God and Mahomet have mercy on me!” muttered the Jew, whose creed frequently assumed a very ambiguous character.

“I will tell you what,” continued the captain—“you shall have a few men to work the Hansa across, if you like.”

“But I want to go to Algiers,” whimpered Hakkabut.

“How often am I to tell you that Algiers is no longer in existence? Only say yes or no—are you coming with us into winter-quarters?”

“God of Israel! what is to become of all my property?”

“But, mind you,” continued the captain, not heeding the interruption, “if you do not choose voluntarily to come with us, I shall have the Hansa, by my orders, removed to a place of safety. I am not going to let your cursed obstinacy incur the risk of losing your cargo altogether.”

“Merciful Heaven! I shall be ruined!” moaned Isaac, in despair.

“You are going the right way to ruin yourself, and it would serve you right to leave you to your own devices. But be off! I have no more to say.”

And, turning contemptuously on his heel, Servadac left the old man vociferating bitterly, and with uplifted hands protesting vehemently against the rapacity of the Gentiles.

By the 20th all preliminary arrangements were complete, and everything ready for a final departure from the island. The thermometer stood on an average at 8 degrees below zero, and the water in the cistern was completely frozen. It was determined, therefore, for the colony to embark on the following day, and take up their residence in Nina’s Hive.

A final consultation was held about the Hansa. Lieutenant Procope pronounced his decided conviction that it would be impossible for the tartan to resist the pressure of the ice in the harbor of the Shelif, and that there would be far more safety in the proximity of the volcano. It was agreed on all hands that the vessel must be shifted; and accordingly orders were given, four Russian sailors were sent on board, and only a few minutes elapsed after the Dobryna had weighed anchor, before the great lateen sail of the tartan was unfurled, and the “shop-ship,” as Ben Zoof delighted to call it, was also on her way to the southward.

Long and loud were the lamentations of the Jew. He kept exclaiming that he had given no orders, that he was being moved against his will, that he had asked for no assistance, and needed none; but it required no very keen discrimination to observe that all along there was a lurking gleam of satisfaction in his little gray eyes, and when, a few hours later, he found himself securely anchored, and his property in a place of safety, he quite chuckled with glee.

“God of Israel!” he said in an undertone, “they have made no charge; the idiots have piloted me here for nothing.”

For nothing! His whole nature exulted in the consciousness that he was enjoying a service that had been rendered gratuitously.

Destitute of human inhabitants, Gourbi Island was now left to the tenancy of such birds and beasts as had escaped the recent promiscuous slaughter. Birds, indeed, that had migrated in search of warmer shores, had returned, proving that this fragment of the French colony was the only shred of land that could yield them any sustenance; but their life must necessarily be short. It was utterly impossible that they could survive the cold that would soon ensue.

The colony took possession of their new abode with but few formalities. Everyone, however, approved of all the internal arrangements of Nina’s Hive, and were profuse in their expressions of satisfaction at finding themselves located in such comfortable quarters. The only malcontent was Hakkabut; he had no share in the general enthusiasm, refused even to enter or inspect any of the galleries, and insisted on remaining on board his tartan.

“He is afraid,” said Ben Zoof, “that he will have to pay for his lodgings. But wait a bit; we shall see how he stands the cold out there; the frost, no doubt, will drive the old fox out of his hole.”

Towards evening the pots were set boiling, and a bountiful supper, to which all were invited, was spread in the central hall. The stores of the Dobryna contained some excellent wine, some of which was broached to do honor to the occasion. The health of the governor general was drunk, as well as the toast “Success to his council,” to which Ben Zoof was called upon to return thanks. The entertainment passed off merrily. The Spaniards were in the best of spirits; one of them played the guitar, another the castanets, and the rest joined in a ringing chorus. Ben Zoof contributed the famous Zouave refrain, well known throughout the French army, but rarely performed in finer style than by this virtuoso:

“Misti goth dar dar tire lyre!
Flic! floc! flac! lirette, lira!
Far la rira,
Tour tala rire,
Tour la Ribaud,
Sans repos, repit, repit, repos, ris pot, ripette!
Si vous attrapez mon refrain,
Fameux vous etes.”

The concert was succeeded by a ball, unquestionably the first that had ever taken place in Gallia. The Russian sailors exhibited some of their national dances, which gained considerable applause, even although they followed upon the marvelous fandangos of the Spaniards. Ben Zoof, in his turn, danced a pas seul (often performed in the Elysee Montmartre) with an elegance and vigor that earned many compliments from Negrete.

It was nine o’clock before the festivities came to an end, and by that time the company, heated by the high temperature of the hall, and by their own exertions, felt the want of a little fresh air. Accordingly the greater portion of the party, escorted by Ben Zoof, made their way into one of the adjacent galleries that led to the shore. Servadac, with the count and lieutenant, did not follow immediately; but shortly afterwards they proceeded to join them, when on their way they were startled by loud cries from those in advance.

Their first impression was that they were cries of distress, and they were greatly relieved to find that they were shouts of delight, which the dryness and purity of the atmosphere caused to re-echo like a volley of musketry.

Reaching the mouth of the gallery, they found the entire group pointing with eager interest to the sky.

“Well, Ben Zoof,” asked the captain, “what’s the matter now?”

“Oh, your Excellency,” ejaculated the orderly, “look there! look there! The moon! the moon’s come back!”

And, sure enough, what was apparently the moon was rising above the mists of evening.

[prev] [up] [next]
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 15:48:03 $