Off on a Comet: Part Two

Chapter XV

A Journey and a Disappointment

It was as the professor had said. From the day that Isaac Hakkabut had entered upon his mercantile career, his dealings had all been carried on by a system of false weight. That deceitful steelyard had been the mainspring of his fortune. But when it had become his lot to be the purchaser instead of the vendor, his spirit had groaned within him at being compelled to reap the fruits of his own dishonesty. No one who had studied his character could be much surprised at the confession that was extorted from him, that for every supposed kilogramme that he had ever sold the true weight was only 750 grammes, or just five and twenty per cent. less than it ought to have been.

The professor, however, had ascertained all that he wanted to know. By estimating his comet at a third as much again as its proper weight, he had found that his calculations were always at variance with the observed situation of the satellite, which was immediately influenced by the mass of its primary.

But now, besides enjoying the satisfaction of having punished old Hakkabut, Rosette was able to recommence his calculations with reference to the elements of Nerina upon a correct basis, a task to which he devoted himself with redoubled energy.

It will be easily imagined that Isaac Hakkabut, thus caught in his own trap, was jeered most unmercifully by those whom he had attempted to make his dupes. Ben Zoof, in particular, was never wearied of telling him how on his return to the world he would be prosecuted for using false weights, and would certainly become acquainted with the inside of a prison. Thus badgered, he secluded himself more than ever in his dismal hole, never venturing, except when absolutely obliged, to face the other members of the community.

On the 7th of October the comet re-entered the zone of the telescopic planets, one of which had been captured as a satellite, and the origin of the whole of which is most probably correctly attributed to the disintegration of some large planet that formerly revolved between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. By the beginning of the following month half of this zone had been traversed, and only two months remained before the collision with the earth was to be expected. The temperature was now rarely below 12 degrees below zero, but that was far too cold to permit the slightest symptoms of a thaw. The surface of the sea remained as frozen as ever, and the two vessels, high up on their icy pedestals, remained unaltered in their critical position.

It was about this time that the question began to be mooted whether it would not be right to reopen some communication with the Englishmen at Gibraltar. Not that any doubt was entertained as to their having been able successfully to cope with the rigors of the winter; but Captain Servadac, in a way that did honor to his generosity, represented that, however uncourteous might have been their former behavior, it was at least due to them that they should be informed of the true condition of things, which they had had no opportunity of learning; and, moreover, that they should be invited to co-operate with the population of Nina’s Hive, in the event of any measures being suggested by which the shock of the approaching collision could be mitigated.

The count and the lieutenant both heartily concurred in Servadac’s sentiments of humanity and prudence, and all agreed that if the intercourse were to be opened at all, no time could be so suitable as the present, while the surface of the sea presented a smooth and solid footing. After a thaw should set in, neither the yacht nor the tartan could be reckoned on for service, and it would be inexpedient to make use of the steam launch, for which only a few tons of coal had been reserved, just sufficient to convey them to Gourbi Island when the occasion should arise; whilst as to the yawl, which, transformed into a sledge, had performed so successful a trip to Formentera, the absence of wind would make that quite unavailable. It was true that with the return of summer temperature, there would be certain to be a derangement in the atmosphere of Gallia, which would result in wind, but for the present the air was altogether too still for the yawl to have any prospects of making its way to Gibraltar.

The only question remaining was as to the possibility of going on foot. The distance was somewhere about 240 miles. Captain Servadac declared himself quite equal to the undertaking. To skate sixty or seventy miles a day would be nothing, he said, to a practical skater like himself. The whole journey there and back might be performed in eight days. Provided with a compass, a sufficient supply of cold meat, and a spirit lamp, by which he might boil his coffee, he was perfectly sure he should, without the least difficulty, accomplish an enterprise that chimed in so exactly with his adventurous spirit.

Equally urgent were both the count and the lieutenant to be allowed to accompany him; nay, they even offered to go instead; but Servadac, expressing himself as most grateful for their consideration, declined their offer, and avowed his resolution of taking no other companion than his own orderly.

Highly delighted at his master’s decision, Ben Zoof expressed his satisfaction at the prospect of “stretching his legs a bit,” declaring that nothing could induce him to permit the captain to go alone. There was no delay. The departure was fixed for the following morning, the 2nd of November.

Although it is not to be questioned that a genuine desire of doing an act of kindness to his fellow-creatures was a leading motive of Servadac’s proposed visit to Gibraltar, it must be owned that another idea, confided to nobody, least of all to Count Timascheff, had been conceived in the brain of the worthy Gascon. Ben Zoof had an inkling that his master was “up to some other little game,” when, just before starting, he asked him privately whether there was a French tricolor among the stores. “I believe so,” said the orderly.

“Then don’t say a word to anyone, but fasten it up tight in your knapsack.”

Ben Zoof found the flag, and folded it up as he was directed. Before proceeding to explain this somewhat enig-matical conduct of Servadac, it is necessary to refer to a certain physiological fact, coincident but unconnected with celestial phenomena, originating entirely in the frailty of human nature. The nearer that Gallia approached the earth, the more a sort of reserve began to spring up between the captain and Count Timascheff. Though they could not be said to be conscious of it, the remembrance of their former rivalry, so completely buried in oblivion for the last year and ten months, was insensibly recovering its hold upon their minds, and the question was all but coming to the surface as to what would happen if, on their return to earth, the handsome Madame de L—— should still be free. From companions in peril, would they not again be avowed rivals? Conceal it as they would, a coolness was undeniably stealing over an intimacy which, though it could never be called affectionate, had been uniformly friendly and courteous.

Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that Hector Servadac should not have confided to the count a project which, wild as it was, could scarcely have failed to widen the unacknowledged breach that was opening in their friendship.

The project was the annexation of Ceuta to the French dominion. The Englishmen, rightly enough, had continued to occupy the fragment of Gibraltar, and their claim was indisputable. But the island of Ceuta, which before the shock had commanded the opposite side of the strait, and had been occupied by Spaniards, had since been abandoned, and was therefore free to the first occupant who should lay claim to it. To plant the tricolor upon it, in the name of France, was now the cherished wish of Servadac’s heart.

“Who knows,” he said to himself, “whether Ceuta, on its return to earth, may not occupy a grand and commanding situation? What a proud thing it would be to have secured its possession to France!”

Next morning, as soon as they had taken their brief farewell of their friends, and were fairly out of sight of the shore, Servadac imparted his design to Ben Zoof, who entered into the project with the greatest zest, and expressed himself delighted, not only at the prospect of adding to the dominions of his beloved country, but of stealing a march upon England.

Both travelers were warmly clad, the orderly’s knapsack containing all the necessary provisions. The journey was accomplished without special incident; halts were made at regular intervals, for the purpose of taking food and rest. The temperature by night as well as by day was quite endurable, and on the fourth afternoon after starting, thanks to the straight course which their compass enabled them to maintain, the adventurers found themselves within a few miles of Ceuta.

As soon as Ben Zoof caught sight of the rock on the western horizon, he was all excitement. Just as if he were in a regiment going into action, he talked wildly about “columns” and “squares” and “charges.” The captain, although less demonstrative, was hardly less eager to reach the rock. They both pushed forward with all possible speed till they were within a mile and a half of the shore, when Ben Zoof, who had a very keen vision, stopped suddenly, and said that he was sure he could see something moving on the top of the island.

“Never mind, let us hasten on,” said Servadac. A few minutes carried them over another mile, when Ben Zoof stopped again.

“What is it, Ben Zoof?” asked the captain.

“It looks to me like a man on a rock, waving his arms in the air,” said the orderly.

“Plague on it!” muttered Servadac; “I hope we are not too late.” Again they went on; but soon Ben Zoof stopped for the third time.

“It is a semaphore, sir; I see it quite distinctly.” And he was not mistaken; it had been a telegraph in motion that had caught his eye.

“Plague on it!” repeated the captain.

“Too late, sir, do you think?” said Ben Zoof.

“Yes, Ben Zoof; if that’s a telegraph—and there is no doubt of it—somebody has been before us and erected it; and, moreover, if it is moving, there must be somebody working it now.”

He was keenly disappointed. Looking towards the north, he could distinguish Gibraltar faintly visible in the extreme distance, and upon the summit of the rock both Ben Zoof and himself fancied they could make out another semaphore, giving signals, no doubt, in response to the one here.

“Yes, it is only too clear; they have already occupied it, and established their communications,” said Servadac.

“And what are we to do, then?” asked Ben Zoof.

“We must pocket our chagrin, and put as good a face on the matter as we can,” replied the captain.

“But perhaps there are only four or five Englishmen to protect the place,” said Ben Zoof, as if meditating an assault.

“No, no, Ben Zoof,” answered Servadac; “we must do nothing rash. We have had our warning, and, unless our representations can induce them to yield their position, we must resign our hope.”

Thus discomfited, they had reached the foot of the rock, when all at once, like a “Jack-in-the-box,” a sentinel started up before them with the challenge:

“Who goes there?”

“Friends. Vive la France!” cried the captain.

“Hurrah for England!” replied the soldier.

By this time four other men had made their appearance from the upper part of the rock.

“What do you want?” asked one of them, whom Servadac remembered to have seen before at Gibraltar.

“Can I speak to your commanding officer?” Servadac inquired.

“Which?” said the man. “The officer in command of Ceuta?”

“Yes, if there is one.”

“I will acquaint him with your arrival,” answered the Englishman, and disappeared.

In a few minutes the commanding officer, attired in full uniform, was seen descending to the shore. It was Major Oliphant himself.

Servadac could no longer entertain a doubt that the Englishmen had forestalled him in the occupation of Ceuta. Provisions and fuel had evidently been conveyed thither in the boat from Gibraltar before the sea had frozen, and a solid casemate, hollowed in the rock, had afforded Major Oliphant and his contingent ample protection from the rigor of the winter. The ascending smoke that rose above the rock was sufficient evidence that good fires were still kept up; the soldiers appeared to have thriven well on what, no doubt, had been a generous diet, and the major himself, although he would scarcely have been willing to allow it, was slightly stouter than before.

Being only about twelve miles distant from Gibraltar, the little garrison at Ceuta had felt itself by no means isolated in its position; but by frequent excursions across the frozen strait, and by the constant use of the telegraph, had kept up their communication with their fellow-countrymen on the other island. Colonel Murphy and the major had not even been forced to forego the pleasures of the chessboard. The game that had been interrupted by Captain Servadac’s former visit was not yet concluded; but, like the two American clubs that played their celebrated game in 1846 between Washington and Baltimore, the two gallant officers made use of the semaphore to communicate their well-digested moves.

The major stood waiting for his visitor to speak.

“Major Oliphant, I believe?” said Servadac, with a courteous bow.

“Yes, sir, Major Oliphant, officer in command of the garrison at Ceuta,” was the Englishman’s reply. “And to whom,” he added, “may I have the honor of speaking?”

“To Captain Servadac, the governor general of Gallia.”

“Indeed!” said the major, with a supercilious look.

“Allow me to express my surprise,” resumed the captain, “at seeing you installed as commanding officer upon what I have always understood to be Spanish soil. May I demand your claim to your position?”

“My claim is that of first occupant.”

“But do you not think that the party of Spaniards now resident with me may at some future time assert a prior right to the proprietorship?”

“I think not, Captain Servadac.”

“But why not?” persisted the captain.

“Because these very Spaniards have, by formal contract, made over Ceuta, in its integrity, to the British government.”

Servadac uttered an exclamation of surprise.

“And as the price of that important cession,” continued Major Oliphant, “they have received a fair equivalent in British gold.”

“Ah!” cried Ben Zoof, “that accounts for that fellow Negrete and his people having such a lot of money.”

Servadac was silent. It had become clear to his mind what had been the object of that secret visit to Ceuta which he had heard of as being made by the two English officers. The arguments that he had intended to use had completely fallen through; all that he had now to do was carefully to prevent any suspicion of his disappointed project.

“May I be allowed to ask, Captain Servadac, to what I am indebted for the honor of this visit?” asked Major Oliphant presently.

“I have come, Major Oliphant, in the hope of doing you and your companions a service,” replied Servadac, rousing himself from his reverie.

“Ah, indeed!” replied the major, as though he felt himself quite independent of all services from exterior sources.

“I thought, major, that it was not unlikely you were in ignorance of the fact that both Ceuta and Gibraltar have been traversing the solar regions on the surface of a comet.”

The major smiled incredulously; but Servadac, nothing daunted, went on to detail the results of the collision between the comet and the earth, adding that, as there was the almost immediate prospect of another concussion, it had occurred to him that it might be advisable for the whole population of Gallia to unite in taking precautionary measures for the common welfare.

“In fact, Major Oliphant,” he said in conclusion, “I am here to inquire whether you and your friends would be disposed to join us in our present quarters.”

“I am obliged to you, Captain Servadac,” answered the major stiffly; “but we have not the slightest intention of abandoning our post. We have received no government orders to that effect; indeed, we have received no orders at all. Our own dispatch to the First Lord of the Admiralty still awaits the mail.”

“But allow me to repeat,” insisted Servadac, “that we are no longer on the earth, although we expect to come in contact with it again in about eight weeks.”

“I have no doubt,” the major answered, “that England will make every effort to reclaim us.”

Servadac felt perplexed. It was quite evident that Major Oliphant had not been convinced of the truth of one syllable of what he had been saying.

“Then I am to understand that you are determined to retain your two garrisons here and at Gibraltar?” asked Servadac, with one last effort at persuasion.

“Certainly; these two posts command the entrance of the Mediterranean.”

“But supposing there is no longer any Mediterranean?” retorted the captain, growing impatient.

“Oh, England will always take care of that,” was Major Oliphant’s cool reply. “But excuse me,” he added presently; “I see that Colonel Murphy has just telegraphed his next move. Allow me to wish you good-afternoon.”

And without further parley, followed by his soldiers, he retired into the casemate, leaving Captain Servadac gnawing his mustache with mingled rage and mortification.

“A fine piece of business we have made of this!” said Ben Zoof, when he found himself alone with his master.

“We will make our way back at once,” replied Captain Servadac.

“Yes, the sooner the better, with our tails between our legs,” rejoined the orderly, who this time felt no inclination to start off to the march of the Algerian zephyrs. And so the French tricolor returned as it had set out—in Ben Zoof’s knapsack.

On the eighth evening after starting, the travelers again set foot on the volcanic promontory just in time to witness a great commotion.

Palmyrin Rosette was in a furious rage. He had completed all his calculations about Nerina, but that perfidious satellite had totally disappeared. The astronomer was frantic at the loss of his moon. Captured probably by some larger body, it was revolving in its proper zone of the minor planets.

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