Off on a Comet: Part Two

Chapter VI

Money at a Premium

“Who’s there? I have nothing here for anyone. Go away!” Such was the inhospitable greeting with which Isaac Hakkabut received his visitors.

“Hakkabut! do you take us for thieves?” asked Servadac, in tones of stern displeasure.

“Oh, your Excellency, my lord, I did not know that it was you,” whined the Jew, but without emerging any farther from his cabin.

“Now, old Hakkabut, come out of your shell! Come and show the governor proper respect, when he gives you the honor of his company,” cried Ben Zoof, who by this time had clambered onto the deck.

After considerable hesitation, but still keeping his hold upon the cabin-door, the Jew made up his mind to step outside. “What do you want?” he inquired, timorously.

“I want a word with you,” said Servadac, “but I do not want to stand talking out here in the cold.”

Followed by the rest of the party, he proceeded to mount the steps. The Jew trembled from head to foot. “But I cannot let you into my cabin. I am a poor man; I have nothing to give you,” he moaned piteously.

“Here he is!” laughed Ben Zoof, contemptuously; “he is beginning his chapter of lamentations over again. But standing out here will never do. Out of the way, old Hakkabut, I say! out of the way!” and, without more ado, he thrust the astonished Jew on one side and opened the door of the cabin.

Servadac, however, declined to enter until he had taken the pains to explain to the owner of the tartan that he had no intention of laying violent hands upon his property, and that if the time should ever come that his cargo was in requisition for the common use, he should receive a proper price for his goods, the same as he would in Europe.

“Europe, indeed!” muttered the Jew maliciously between his teeth. “European prices will not do for me. I must have Gallian prices—and of my own fixing, too!”

So large a portion of the vessel had been appropriated to the cargo that the space reserved for the cabin was of most meager dimensions. In one corner of the compartment stood a small iron stove, in which smoldered a bare handful of coals; in another was a trestle-board which served as a bed; two or three stools and a rickety deal table, together with a few cooking utensils, completed a stock of furniture which was worthy of its proprietor.

On entering the cabin, Ben Zoof’s first proceeding was to throw on the fire a liberal supply of coals, utterly regardless of the groans of poor Isaac, who would almost as soon have parted with his own bones as submit to such reckless expenditure of his fuel. The perishing temperature of the cabin, however, was sufficient justification for the orderly’s conduct, and by a little skillful manipulation he soon succeeded in getting up a tolerable fire.

The visitors having taken what seats they could, Hakkabut closed the door, and, like a prisoner awaiting his sentence, stood with folded hands, expecting the captain to speak.

“Listen,” said Servadac; “we have come to ask a favor.”

Imagining that at least half his property was to be confiscated, the Jew began to break out into his usual formula about being a poor man and having nothing to spare; but Servadac, without heeding his complainings, went on: “We are not going to ruin you, you know.”

Hakkabut looked keenly into the captain’s face.

“We have only come to know whether you can lend us a steelyard.”

So far from showing any symptom of relief, the old miser exclaimed, with a stare of astonishment, as if he had been asked for some thousand francs: “A steelyard?”

“Yes!” echoed the professor, impatiently; “a steelyard.”

“Have you not one?” asked Servadac.

“To be sure he has!” said Ben Zoof.

Old Isaac stammered and stuttered, but at last confessed that perhaps there might be one amongst the stores.

“Then, surely, you will not object to lend it to us?” said the captain.

“Only for one day,” added the professor.

The Jew stammered again, and began to object. “It is a very delicate instrument, your Excellency. The cold, you know, the cold may do injury to the spring; and perhaps you are going to use it to weigh something very heavy.”

“Why, old Ephraim, do you suppose we are going to weigh a mountain with it?” said Ben Zoof.

“Better than that!” cried out the professor, triumphantly; “we are going to weigh Gallia with it; my comet.”

“Merciful Heaven!” shrieked Isaac, feigning consternation at the bare suggestion.

Servadac knew well enough that the Jew was holding out only for a good bargain, and assured him that the steelyard was required for no other purpose than to weigh a kilogramme, which (considering how much lighter everything had become) could not possibly put the slightest strain upon the instrument.

The Jew still spluttered, and moaned, and hesitated.

“Well, then,” said Servadac, “if you do not like to lend us your steelyard, do you object to sell it to us?”

Isaac fairly shrieked aloud. “God of Israel!” he ejaculated, “sell my steelyard? Would you deprive me of one of the most indispensable of my means of livelihood? How should I weigh my merchandise without my steelyard—my solitary steelyard, so delicate and so correct?”

The orderly wondered how his master could refrain from strangling the old miser upon the spot; but Servadac, rather amused than otherwise, determined to try another form of persuasion. “Come, Hakkabut, I see that you are not disposed either to lend or to sell your steelyard. What do you say to letting us hire it?”

The Jew’s eyes twinkled with a satisfaction that he was unable to conceal. “But what security would you give? The instrument is very valuable;” and he looked more cunning than ever.

“What is it worth? If it is worth twenty francs, I will leave a deposit of a hundred. Will that satisfy you?”

He shook his head doubtfully. “It is very little; indeed, it is too little, your Excellency. Consider, it is the only steelyard in all this new world of ours; it is worth more, much more. If I take your deposit it must be in gold—all gold. But how much do you agree to give me for the hire—the hire, one day?”

“You shall have twenty francs,” said Servadac.

“Oh, it is dirt cheap; but never mind, for one day, you shall have it. Deposit in gold money a hundred francs, and twenty francs for the hire.” The old man folded his hands in meek resignation.

“The fellow knows how to make a good bargain,” said Servadac, as Isaac, after casting a distrustful look around, went out of the cabin.

“Detestable old wretch!” replied the count, full of disgust.

Hardly a minute elapsed before the Jew was back again, carrying his precious steelyard with ostentatious care. It was of an ordinary kind. A spring balance, fitted with a hook, held the article to be weighed; a pointer, revolving on a disc, indicated the weight of the article. Professor Rosette was manifestly right in asserting that such a machine would register results quite independently of any change in the force of attraction. On the earth it would have registered a kilogramme as a kilogramme; here it recorded a different value altogether, as the result of the altered force of gravity.

Gold coinage to the worth of one hundred and twenty francs was handed over to the Jew, who clutched at the money with unmistakable eagerness. The steelyard was committed to the keeping of Ben Zoof, and the visitors prepared to quit the Hansa.

All at once it occurred to the professor that the steelyard would be absolutely useless to him, unless he had the means for ascertaining the precise measurement of the unit of the soil of Gallia which he proposed to weigh. “Something more you must lend me,” he said, addressing the Jew. “I must have a measure, and I must have a kilogramme.”

“I have neither of them,” answered Isaac. “I have neither. I am sorry; I am very sorry.” And this time the old Jew spoke the truth. He would have been really glad to do another stroke or two of business upon terms as advantageous as the transaction he had just concluded.

Palmyrin Rosette scratched his head in perplexity, glaring round upon his companions as if they were personally responsible for his annoyance. He muttered something about finding a way out of his difficulty, and hastily mounted the cabin-ladder. The rest followed, but they had hardly reached the deck when the chink of money was heard in the room below. Hakkabut was locking away the gold in one of the drawers.

Back again, down the ladder, scrambled the little professor, and before the Jew was aware of his presence he had seized him by the tail of his slouchy overcoat. “Some of your money! I must have money!” he said.

“Money!” gasped Hakkabut; “I have no money.” He was pale with fright, and hardly knew what he was saying.

“Falsehood!” roared Rosette. “Do you think I cannot see?” And peering down into the drawer which the Jew was vainly trying to close, he cried, “Heaps of money! French money! Five-franc pieces! the very thing I want! I must have them!”

The captain and his friends, who had returned to the cabin looked on with mingled amusement and bewilderment.

“They are mine!” shrieked Hakkabut.

“I will have them!” shouted the professor.

“You shall kill me first!” bellowed the Jew.

“No, but I must!” persisted the professor again.

It was manifestly time for Servadac to interfere. “My dear professor,” he said, smiling, “allow me to settle this little matter for you.”

“Ah! your Excellency,” moaned the agitated Jew, “protect me! I am but a poor man—”

“None of that, Hakkabut. Hold your tongue.” And, turning to Rosette, the captain said, “If, sir, I understand right, you require some silver five-franc pieces for your operation?”

“Forty,” said Rosette, surlily.

“Two hundred francs!” whined Hakkabut.

“Silence!” cried the captain.

“I must have more than that,” the professor continued. “I want ten two-franc pieces, and twenty half-francs.”

“Let me see,” said Servadac, “how much is that in all? Two hundred and thirty francs, is it not?”

“I dare say it is,” answered the professor.

“Count, may I ask you,” continued Servadac, “to be security to the Jew for this loan to the professor?”

“Loan!” cried the Jew, “do you mean only a loan?”

“Silence!” again shouted the captain.

Count Timascheff, expressing his regret that his purse contained only paper money, begged to place it at Captain Servadac’s disposal.

“No paper, no paper!” exclaimed Isaac. “Paper has no currency in Gallia.”

“About as much as silver,” coolly retorted the count.

“I am a poor man,” began the Jew.

“Now, Hakkabut, stop these miserable lamentations of yours, once for all. Hand us over two hundred and thirty francs in silver money, or we will proceed to help ourselves.”

Isaac began to yell with all his might: “Thieves! thieves!”

In a moment Ben Zoof’s hand was clasped tightly over his mouth. “Stop that howling, Belshazzar!”

“Let him alone, Ben Zoof. He will soon come to his senses,” said Servadac, quietly.

When the old Jew had again recovered himself, the captain addressed him. “Now, tell us, what interest do you expect?”

Nothing could overcome the Jew’s anxiety to make another good bargain. He began: “Money is scarce, very scarce, you know—”

“No more of this!” shouted Servadac. “What interest, I say, what interest do you ask?”

Faltering and undecided still, the Jew went on. “Very scarce, you know. Ten francs a day, I think, would not be unreasonable, considering—”

The count had no patience to allow him to finish what he was about to say. He flung down notes to the value of several rubles. With a greediness that could not be concealed, Hakkabut grasped them all. Paper, indeed, they were; but the cunning Israelite knew that they would in any case be security far beyond the value of his cash. He was making some eighteen hundred per cent. interest, and accordingly chuckled within himself at his unexpected stroke of business.

The professor pocketed his French coins with a satisfaction far more demonstrative. “Gentlemen,” he said, “with these franc pieces I obtain the means of determining accurately both a meter and a kilogramme.”

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Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 15:48:03 $