Off on a Comet: Part Two

Chapter XIV

The Professor Perplexed

Another month passed away, and it was now September, but it was still impossible to leave the warmth of the subterranean retreat for the more airy and commodious quarters of the Hive, where “the bees” would certainly have been frozen to death in their cells. It was altogether quite as much a matter of congratulation as of regret that the volcano showed no symptoms of resuming its activity; for although a return of the eruption might have rendered their former resort again habitable, any sudden outbreak would have been disastrous to them where they were, the crater being the sole outlet by which the burning lava could escape.

“A wretched time we have had for the last seven months,” said the orderly one day to his master; “but what a comfort little Nina has been to us all!”

“Yes, indeed,” replied Servadac; “she is a charming little creature. I hardly know how we should have got on without her.”

“What is to become of her when we arrive back at the earth?”

“Not much fear, Ben Zoof, but that she will be well taken care of. Perhaps you and I had better adopt her.”

“Ay, yes,” assented the orderly. “You can be her father, and I can be her mother.”

Servadac laughed. “Then you and I shall be man and wife.”

“We have been as good as that for a long time,” observed Ben Zoof, gravely.

By the beginning of October, the temperature had so far moderated that it could scarcely be said to be intolerable. The comet’s distance was scarcely three times as great from the sun as the earth from the sun, so that the thermometer rarely sunk beyond 35 degrees below zero. The whole party began to make almost daily visits to the Hive, and frequently proceeded to the shore, where they resumed their skating exercise, rejoicing in their recovered freedom like prisoners liberated from a dungeon. Whilst the rest were enjoying their recreation, Servadac and the count would hold long conversations with Lieutenant Procope about their present position and future prospects, discussing all manner of speculations as to the results of the anticipated collision with the earth, and wondering whether any measures could be devised for mitigating the violence of a shock which might be terrible in its consequences, even if it did not entail a total annihilation of themselves.

There was no visitor to the Hive more regular than Rosette. He had already directed his telescope to be moved back to his former observatory, where, as much as the cold would permit him, he persisted in making his all-absorbing studies of the heavens.

The result of these studies no one ventured to inquire; but it became generally noticed that something was very seriously disturbing the professor’s equanimity. Not only would he be seen toiling more frequently up the arduous way that lay between his nook below and his telescope above, but he would be heard muttering in an angry tone that indicated considerable agitation.

One day, as he was hurrying down to his study, he met Ben Zoof, who, secretly entertaining a feeling of delight at the professor’s manifest discomfiture, made some casual remark about things not being very straight. The way in which his advance was received the good orderly never divulged, but henceforward he maintained the firm conviction that there was something very much amiss up in the sky.

To Servadac and his friends this continual disquietude and ill-humor on the part of the professor occasioned no little anxiety. From what, they asked, could his dissatisfaction arise? They could only conjecture that he had discovered some flaw in his reckonings; and if this were so, might there not be reason to apprehend that their anticipations of coming into contact with the earth, at the settled time, might all be falsified?

Day followed day, and still there was no cessation of the professor’s discomposure. He was the most miserable of mortals. If really his calculations and his observations were at variance, this, in a man of his irritable temperament, would account for his perpetual perturbation. But he entered into no explanation; he only climbed up to his telescope, looking haggard and distressed, and when compelled by the frost to retire, he would make his way back to his study more furious than ever. At times he was heard giving vent to his vexation. “Confound it! what does it mean? what is she doing? All behind! Is Newton a fool? Is the law of universal gravitation the law of universal nonsense?” And the little man would seize his head in both his hands, and tear away at the scanty locks which he could ill afford to lose.

Enough was overheard to confirm the suspicion that there was some irreconcilable discrepancy between the results of his computation and what he had actually observed; and yet, if he had been called upon to say, he would have sooner insisted that there was derangement in the laws of celestial mechanism, than have owned there was the least probability of error in any of his own calculations. Assuredly, if the poor professor had had any flesh to lose he would have withered away to a shadow.

But this state of things was before long to come to an end. On the 12th, Ben Zoof, who was hanging about outside the great hall of the cavern, heard the professor inside utter a loud cry. Hurrying in to ascertain the cause, he found Rosette in a state of perfect frenzy, in which ecstasy and rage seemed to be struggling for the predominance.

“Eureka! Eureka!” yelled the excited astronomer.

“What, in the name of peace, do you mean?” bawled Ben Zoof, in open-mouthed amazement.

“Eureka!” again shrieked the little man.

“How? What? Where?” roared the bewildered orderly.

“Eureka! I say,” repeated Rosette; “and if you don’t understand me, you may go to the devil!”

Without availing himself of this polite invitation, Ben Zoof betook himself to his master. “Something has happened to the professor,” he said; “he is rushing about like a madman, screeching and yelling ‘Eureka!’”

“Eureka?” exclaimed Servadac. “That means he has made a discovery;” and, full of anxiety, he hurried off to meet the professor.

But, however great was his desire to ascertain what this discovery implied, his curiosity was not yet destined to be gratified. The professor kept muttering in incoherent phrases: “Rascal! he shall pay for it yet. I will be even with him! Cheat! Thrown me out!” But he did not vouchsafe any reply to Servadac’s inquiries, and withdrew to his study.

From that day Rosette, for some reason at present incomprehensible, quite altered his behavior to Isaac Hakkabut, a man for whom he had always hitherto evinced the greatest repugnance and contempt. All at once he began to show a remarkable interest in the Jew and his affairs, paying several visits to the dark little storehouse, making inquiries as to the state of business and expressing some solicitude about the state of the exchequer.

The wily Jew was taken somewhat by surprise, but came to an immediate conclusion that the professor was contemplating borrowing some money; he was consequently very cautious in all his replies.

It was not Hakkabut’s habit ever to advance a loan except at an extravagant rate of interest, or without demanding far more than an adequate security. Count Timascheff, a Russian nobleman, was evidently rich; to him perhaps, for a proper consideration, a loan might be made: Captain Servadac was a Gascon, and Gascons are proverbially poor; it would never do to lend any money to him; but here was a professor, a mere man of science, with circumscribed means; did he expect to borrow? Certainly Isaac would as soon think of flying, as of lending money to him. Such were the thoughts that made him receive all Rosette’s approaches with a careful reservation.

It was not long, however, before Hakkabut was to be called upon to apply his money to a purpose for which he had not reckoned. In his eagerness to effect sales, he had parted with all the alimentary articles in his cargo without having the precautionary prudence to reserve enough for his own consumption. Amongst other things that failed him was his stock of coffee, and as coffee was a beverage without which he deemed it impossible to exist, he found himself in considerable perplexity.

He pondered the matter over for a long time, and ultimately persuaded himself that, after all, the stores were the common property of all, and that he had as much right to a share as anyone else. Accordingly, he made his way to Ben Zoof, and, in the most amiable tone he could assume, begged as a favor that he would let him have a pound of coffee.

The orderly shook his head dubiously.

“A pound of coffee, old Nathan? I can’t say.”

“Why not? You have some?” said Isaac.

“Oh yes! plenty—a hundred kilogrammes.”

“Then let me have one pound. I shall be grateful.”

“Hang your gratitude!”

“Only one pound! You would not refuse anybody else.”

“That’s just the very point, old Samuel; if you were anybody else, I should know very well what to do. I must refer the matter to his Excellency.”

“Oh, his Excellency will do me justice.”

“Perhaps you will find his justice rather too much for you.” And with this consoling remark, the orderly went to seek his master.

Rosette meanwhile had been listening to the conversation, and secretly rejoicing that an opportunity for which he had been watching had arrived. “What’s the matter, Master Isaac? Have you parted with all your coffee?” he asked, in a sympathizing voice, when Ben Zoof was gone.

“Ah! yes, indeed,” groaned Hakkabut, “and now I require some for my own use. In my little black hole I cannot live without my coffee.”

“Of course you cannot,” agreed the professor.

“And don’t you think the governor ought to let me have it?”

“No doubt.”

“Oh, I must have coffee,” said the Jew again.

“Certainly,” the professor assented. “Coffee is nutritious; it warms the blood. How much do you want?”

“A pound. A pound will last me for a long time.”

“And who will weigh it for you?” asked Rosette, scarcely able to conceal the eagerness that prompted the question.

“Why, they will weigh it with my steelyard, of course. There is no other balance here.” And as the Jew spoke, the professor fancied he could detect the faintest of sighs.

“Good, Master Isaac; all the better for you! You will get your seven pounds instead of one!”

“Yes; well, seven, or thereabouts—thereabouts,” stammered the Jew with considerable hesitation.

Rosette scanned his countenance narrowly, and was about to probe him with further questions, when Ben Zoof returned. “And what does his Excellency say?” inquired Hakkabut.

“Why, Nehemiah, he says he shan’t give you any.”

“Merciful heavens!” began the Jew.

“He says he doesn’t mind selling you a little.”

“But, by the holy city, why does he make me pay for what anybody else could have for nothing?”

“As I told you before, you are not anybody else; so, come along. You can afford to buy what you want. We should like to see the color of your money.”

“Merciful heavens!” the old man whined once more.

“Now, none of that! Yes or no? If you are going to buy, say so at once; if not, I shall shut up shop.”

Hakkabut knew well enough that the orderly was not a man to be trifled with, and said, in a tremulous voice, “Yes, I will buy.”

The professor, who had been looking on with much interest, betrayed manifest symptoms of satisfaction.

“How much do you want? What will you charge for it?” asked Isaac, mournfully, putting his hand into his pocket and chinking his money.

“Oh, we will deal gently with you. We will not make any profit. You shall have it for the same price that we paid for it. Ten francs a pound, you know.”

The Jew hesitated.

“Come now, what is the use of your hesitating? Your gold will have no value when you go back to the world.”

“What do you mean?” asked Hakkabut, startled.

“You will find out some day,” answered Ben Zoof, significantly.

Hakkabut drew out a small piece of gold from his pocket, took it close under the lamp, rolled it over in his hand, and pressed it to his lips. “Shall you weigh me the coffee with my steelyard?” he asked, in a quavering voice that confirmed the professor’s suspicions.

“There is nothing else to weigh it with; you know that well enough, old Shechem,” said Ben Zoof. The steelyard was then produced; a tray was suspended to the hook, and upon this coffee was thrown until the needle registered the weight of one pound. Of course, it took seven pounds of coffee to do this.

“There you are! There’s your coffee, man!” Ben Zoof said.

“Are you sure?” inquired Hakkabut, peering down close to the dial. “Are you quite sure that the needle touches the point?”

“Yes; look and see.”

“Give it a little push, please.”



“Well, because of what?” cried the orderly, impatiently.

“Because I think, perhaps—I am not quite sure—perhaps the steelyard is not quite correct.”

The words were not uttered before the professor, fierce as a tiger, had rushed at the Jew, had seized him by the throat, and was shaking him till he was black in the face.

“Help! help!” screamed Hakkabut. “I shall be strangled.”

“Rascal! consummate rascal! thief! villain!” the professor reiterated, and continued to shake the Jew furiously.

Ben Zoof looked on and laughed, making no attempt to interfere; he had no sympathy with either of the two.

The sound of the scuffling, however, drew the attention of Servadac, who, followed by his companions, hastened to the scene. The combatants were soon parted. “What is the meaning of all this?” demanded the captain.

As soon as the professor had recovered his breath, exhausted by his exertions, he said, “The old reprobate, the rascal has cheated us! His steelyard is wrong! He is a thief!”

Captain Servadac looked sternly at Hakkabut.

“How is this, Hakkabut? Is this a fact?”

“No, no—yes—no, your Excellency, only—”

“He is a cheat, a thief!” roared the excited astronomer. “His weights deceive!”

“Stop, stop!” interposed Servadac; “let us hear. Tell me, Hakkabut—”

“The steelyard lies! It cheats! it lies!” roared the irrepressible Rosette.

“Tell me, Hakkabut, I say,” repeated Servadac.

The Jew only kept on stammering, “Yes—no—I don’t know.”

But heedless of any interruption, the professor continued, “False weights! That confounded steelyard! It gave a false result! The mass was wrong! The observations contradicted the calculations; they were wrong! She was out of place! Yes, out of place entirely.”

“What!” cried Servadac and Procope in a breath, “out of place?”

“Yes, completely,” said the professor.

“Gallia out of place?” repeated Servadac, agitated with alarm.

“I did not say Gallia,” replied Rosette, stamping his foot impetuously; “I said Nerina.”

“Oh, Nerina,” answered Servadac. “But what of Gallia?” he inquired, still nervously.

“Gallia, of course, is on her way to the earth. I told you so. But that Jew is a rascal!”

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