Off on a Comet: Part Two

Chapter IX

Market Prices in Gallia

“All right!” said Servadac, convinced by the professor’s ill humor that the danger was past; “no doubt we are in for a two years’ excursion, but fifteen months more will take us back to the earth!”

“And we shall see Montmartre again!” exclaimed Ben Zoof, in excited tones that betrayed his delight in the anticipation.

To use a nautical expression, they had safely “rounded the point,” and they had to be congratulated on their successful navigation; for if, under the influence of Jupiter’s attraction, the comet had been retarded for a single hour, in that hour the earth would have already traveled 2,300,000 miles from the point where contact would ensue, and many centuries would elapse before such a coincidence would possibly again occur.

On the 1st of November Gallia and Jupiter were 40,000,000 miles apart. It was little more than ten weeks to the 15th of January, when the comet would begin to re-approach the sun. Though light and heat were now reduced to a twenty-fifth part of their terrestrial intensity, so that a perpetual twilight seemed to have settled over Gallia, yet the population felt cheered even by the little that was left, and buoyed up by the hope that they should ultimately regain their proper position with regard to the great luminary, of which the temperature has been estimated as not less than 5,000,000 degrees.

Of the anxiety endured during the last two months Isaac Hakkabut had known nothing. Since the day he had done his lucky stroke of business he had never left the tartan; and after Ben Zoof, on the following day, had returned the steelyard and the borrowed cash, receiving back the paper roubles deposited, all communication between the Jew and Nina’s Hive had ceased. In the course of the few minutes’ conversation which Ben Zoof had held with him, he had mentioned that he knew that the whole soil of Gallia was made of gold; but the old man, guessing that the orderly was only laughing at him as usual, paid no attention to the remark, and only meditated upon the means he could devise to get every bit of the money in the new world into his own possession. No one grieved over the life of solitude which Hakkabut persisted in leading. Ben Zoof giggled heartily, as he repeatedly observed “it was astonishing how they reconciled themselves to his absence.”

The time came, however, when various circumstances prompted him to think he must renew his intercourse with the inhabitants of the Hive. Some of his goods were beginning to spoil, and he felt the necessity of turning them into money, if he would not be a loser; he hoped, moreover, that the scarcity of his commodities would secure very high prices.

It happened, just about this same time, that Ben Zoof had been calling his master’s attention to the fact that some of their most necessary provisions would soon be running short, and that their stock of coffee, sugar, and tobacco would want replenishing. Servadac’s mind, of course, turned to the cargo on board the Hansa, and he resolved, according to his promise, to apply to the Jew and become a purchaser. Mutual interest and necessity thus conspired to draw Hakkabut and the captain together.

Often and often had Isaac gloated in his solitude over the prospect of first selling a portion of his merchandise for all the gold and silver in the colony. His recent usurious transaction had whetted his appetite. He would next part with some more of his cargo for all the paper money they could give him; but still he should have goods left, and they would want these. Yes, they should have these, too, for promissory notes. Notes would hold good when they got back again to the earth; bills from his Excellency the governor would be good bills; anyhow there would be the sheriff. By the God of Israel! he would get good prices, and he would get fine interest!

Although he did not know it, he was proposing to follow the practice of the Gauls of old, who advanced money on bills for payment in a future life. Hakkabut’s “future life,” however, was not many months in advance of the present.

Still Hakkabut hesitated to make the first advance, and it was accordingly with much satisfaction that he hailed Captain Servadac’s appearance on board the Hansa.

“Hakkabut,” said the captain, plunging without further preface into business, “we want some coffee, some tobacco, and other things. I have come to-day to order them, to settle the price, and to-morrow Ben Zoof shall fetch the goods away.”

“Merciful, heavens!” the Jew began to whine; but Servadac cut him short.

“None of that miserable howling! Business! I am come to buy your goods. I shall pay for them.”

“Ah yes, your Excellency,” whispered the Jew, his voice trembling like a street beggar. “Don’t impose on me. I am poor; I am nearly ruined already.”

“Cease your wretched whining!” cried Servadac. “I have told you once, I shall pay for all I buy.”

“Ready money?” asked Hakkabut.

“Yes, ready money. What makes you ask?” said the captain, curious to hear what the Jew would say.

“Well, you see—you see, your Excellency,” stammered out the Jew, “to give credit to one wouldn’t do, unless I gave credit to another. You are solvent—I mean honorable, and his lordship the count is honorable; but maybe—maybe—”

“Well?” said Servadac, waiting, but inclined to kick the old rascal out of his sight.

“I shouldn’t like to give credit,” he repeated.

“I have not asked you for credit. I have told you, you shall have ready money.”

“Very good, your Excellency. But how will you pay me?”

“Pay you? Why, we shall pay you in gold and silver and copper, while our money lasts, and when that is gone we shall pay you in bank notes.”

“Oh, no paper, no paper!” groaned out the Jew, relapsing into his accustomed whine.

“Nonsense, man!” cried Servadac.

“No paper!” reiterated Hakkabut.

“Why not? Surely you can trust the banks of England, France, and Russia.”

“Ah no! I must have gold. Nothing so safe as gold.”

“Well then,” said the captain, not wanting to lose his temper, “you shall have it your own way; we have plenty of gold for the present. We will leave the bank notes for by and by.” The Jew’s countenance brightened, and Servadac, repeating that he should come again the next day, was about to quit the vessel.

“One moment, your Excellency,” said Hakkabut, sidling up with a hypocritical smile; “I suppose I am to fix my own prices.”

“You will, of course, charge ordinary prices—proper market prices; European prices, I mean.”

“Merciful heavens!” shrieked the old man, “you rob me of my rights; you defraud me of my privilege. The monopoly of the market belongs to me. It is the custom; it is my right; it is my privilege to fix my own prices.”

Servadac made him understand that he had no intention of swerving from his decision.

“Merciful heavens!” again howled the Jew, “it is sheer ruin. The time of monopoly is the time for profit; it is the time for speculation.”

“The very thing, Hakkabut, that I am anxious to prevent. Just stop now, and think a minute. You seem to forget my rights; you are forgetting that, if I please, I can confiscate all your cargo for the common use. You ought to think yourself lucky in getting any price at all. Be contented with European prices; you will get no more. I am not going to waste my breath on you. I will come again to-morrow;” and, without allowing Hakkabut time to renew his lamentations, Servadac went away.

All the rest of the day the Jew was muttering bitter curses against the thieves of Gentiles in general, and the governor of Gallia in particular, who were robbing him of his just profits, by binding him down to a maximum price for his goods, just as if it were a time of revolution in the state. But he would be even with them yet; he would have it all out of them: he would make European prices pay, after all. He had a plan—he knew how; and he chuckled to himself, and grinned maliciously.

True to his word, the captain next morning arrived at the tartan. He was accompanied by Ben Zoof and two Russian sailors. “Good-morning, old Eleazar; we have come to do our little bit of friendly business with you, you know,” was Ben Zoof’s greeting.

“What do you want to-day?” asked the Jew.

“To-day we want coffee, and we want sugar, and we want tobacco. We must have ten kilogrammes of each. Take care they are all good; all first rate. I am commissariat officer, and I am responsible.”

“I thought you were the governor’s aide-de-camp,” said Hakkabut.

“So I am, on state occasions; but to-day, I tell you. I am superintendent of the commissariat department. Now, look sharp!”

Hakkabut hereupon descended into the hold of the tartan, and soon returned, carrying ten packets of tobacco, each weighing one kilogramme, and securely fastened by strips of paper, labeled with the French government stamp.

“Ten kilogrammes of tobacco at twelve francs a kilogramme: a hundred and twenty francs,” said the Jew.

Ben Zoof was on the point of laying down the money, when Servadac stopped him.

“Let us just see whether the weight is correct.”

Hakkabut pointed out that the weight was duly registered on every packet, and that the packets had never been unfastened. The captain, however, had his own special object in view, and would not be diverted. The Jew fetched his steelyard, and a packet of the tobacco was suspended to it.

“Merciful heavens!” screamed Isaac.

The index registered only 133 grammes!

“You see, Hakkabut, I was right. I was perfectly justified in having your goods put to the test,” said Servadac, quite seriously.

“But—but, your Excellency—” stammered out the bewildered man.

“You will, of course, make up the deficiency,” the captain continued, not noticing the interruption.

“Oh, my lord, let me say—” began Isaac again.

“Come, come, old Caiaphas, do you hear? You are to make up the deficiency,” exclaimed Ben Zoof.

“Ah, yes, yes; but—”

The unfortunate Israelite tried hard to speak, but his agitation prevented him. He understood well enough the cause of the phenomenon, but he was overpowered by the conviction that the “cursed Gentiles” wanted to cheat him. He deeply regretted that he had not a pair of common scales on board.

“Come, I say, old Jedediah, you are a long while making up what’s short,” said Ben Zoof, while the Jew was still stammering on.

As soon as he recovered his power of articulation, Isaac began to pour out a medley of lamentations and petitions for mercy. The captain was inexorable. “Very sorry, you know, Hakkabut. It is not my fault that the packet is short weight; but I cannot pay for a kilogramme except I have a kilogramme.”

Hakkabut pleaded for some consideration.

“A bargain is a bargain,” said Servadac. “You must complete your contract.”

And, moaning and groaning, the miserable man was driven to make up the full weight as registered by his own steelyard. He had to repeat the process with the sugar and coffee: for every kilogramme he had to weigh seven. Ben Zoof and the Russians jeered him most unmercifully.

“I say, old Mordecai, wouldn’t you rather give your goods away, than sell them at this rate? I would.”

“I say, old Pilate, a monopoly isn’t always a good thing, is it?”

“I say, old Sepharvaim, what a flourishing trade you’re driving!”

Meanwhile seventy kilogrammes of each of the articles required were weighed, and the Jew for each seventy had to take the price of ten.

All along Captain Servadac had been acting only in jest. Aware that old Isaac was an utter hypocrite, he had no compunction in turning a business transaction with him into an occasion for a bit of fun. But the joke at an end, he took care that the Jew was properly paid all his legitimate due.

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Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 15:48:04 $