What had happened? What effect had this frightful shock produced? Had the ingenuity of the constructors of the projectile obtained any happy result? Had the shock been deadened, thanks to the springs, the four plugs, the water-cushions, and the partition-breaks? Had they been able to subdue the frightful pressure of the initiatory speed of more than 11,000 yards, which was enough to traverse Paris or New York in a second? This was evidently the question suggested to the thousand spectators of this moving scene. They forgot the aim of the journey, and thought only of the travelers. And if one of them—Joseph T. Maston for example—could have cast one glimpse into the projectile, what would he have seen?
Nothing then. The darkness was profound. But its cylindro-conical partitions had resisted wonderfully. Not a rent or a dent anywhere! The wonderful projectile was not even heated under the intense deflagration of the powder, nor liquefied, as they seemed to fear, in a shower of aluminum.
The interior showed but little disorder; indeed, only a few objects had been violently thrown toward the roof; but the most important seemed not to have suffered from the shock at all; their fixtures were intact.
On the movable disc, sunk down to the bottom by the smashing of the partition-breaks and the escape of the water, three bodies lay apparently lifeless. Barbicane, Nicholl, and Michel Ardan—did they still breathe? or was the projectile nothing now but a metal coffin, bearing three corpses into space?
Some minutes after the departure of the projectile, one of the bodies moved, shook its arms, lifted its head, and finally succeeded in getting on its knees. It was Michel Ardan. He felt himself all over, gave a sonorous “Hem!” and then said:
“Michel Ardan is whole. How about the others?”
The courageous Frenchman tried to rise, but could not stand. His head swam, from the rush of blood; he was blind; he was a drunken man.
“Bur-r!” said he. “It produces the same effect as two bottles of Corton, though perhaps less agreeable to swallow.” Then, passing his hand several times across his forehead and rubbing his temples, he called in a firm voice:
He waited anxiously. No answer; not even a sigh to show that the hearts of his companions were still beating. He called again. The same silence.
“The devil!” he exclaimed. “They look as if they had fallen from a fifth story on their heads. Bah!” he added, with that imperturbable confidence which nothing could check, “if a Frenchman can get on his knees, two Americans ought to be able to get on their feet. But first let us light up.”
Ardan felt the tide of life return by degrees. His blood became calm, and returned to its accustomed circulation. Another effort restored his equilibrium. He succeeded in rising, drew a match from his pocket, and approaching the burner lighted it. The receiver had not suffered at all. The gas had not escaped. Besides, the smell would have betrayed it; and in that case Michel Ardan could not have carried a lighted match with impunity through the space filled with hydrogen. The gas mixing with the air would have produced a detonating mixture, and the explosion would have finished what the shock had perhaps begun. When the burner was lit, Ardan leaned over the bodies of his companions: they were lying one on the other, an inert mass, Nicholl above, Barbicane underneath.
Ardan lifted the captain, propped him up against the divan, and began to rub vigorously. This means, used with judgment, restored Nicholl, who opened his eyes, and instantly recovering his presence of mind, seized Ardan’s hand and looked around him.
“And Barbicane?” said he.
“Each in turn,” replied Michel Ardan. “I began with you, Nicholl, because you were on the top. Now let us look to Barbicane.” Saying which, Ardan and Nicholl raised the president of the Gun Club and laid him on the divan. He seemed to have suffered more than either of his companions; he was bleeding, but Nicholl was reassured by finding that the hemorrhage came from a slight wound on the shoulder, a mere graze, which he bound up carefully.
Still, Barbicane was a long time coming to himself, which frightened his friends, who did not spare friction.
“He breathes though,” said Nicholl, putting his ear to the chest of the wounded man.
“Yes,” replied Ardan, “he breathes like a man who has some notion of that daily operation. Rub, Nicholl; let us rub harder.” And the two improvised practitioners worked so hard and so well that Barbicane recovered his senses. He opened his eyes, sat up, took his two friends by the hands, and his first words were—
“Nicholl, are we moving?”
Nicholl and Ardan looked at each other; they had not yet troubled themselves about the projectile; their first thought had been for the traveler, not for the car.
“Well, are we really moving?” repeated Michel Ardan.
“Or quietly resting on the soil of Florida?” asked Nicholl.
“Or at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico?” added Michel Ardan.
“What an idea!” exclaimed the president.
And this double hypothesis suggested by his companions had the effect of recalling him to his senses. In any case they could not decide on the position of the projectile. Its apparent immovability, and the want of communication with the outside, prevented them from solving the question. Perhaps the projectile was unwinding its course through space. Perhaps after a short rise it had fallen upon the earth, or even in the Gulf of Mexico—a fall which the narrowness of the peninsula of Florida would render not impossible.
The case was serious, the problem interesting, and one that must be solved as soon as possible. Thus, highly excited, Barbicane’s moral energy triumphed over physical weakness, and he rose to his feet. He listened. Outside was perfect silence; but the thick padding was enough to intercept all sounds coming from the earth. But one circumstance struck Barbicane, viz., that the temperature inside the projectile was singularly high. The president drew a thermometer from its case and consulted it. The instrument showed 81° Fahr.
“Yes,” he exclaimed, “yes, we are moving! This stifling heat, penetrating through the partitions of the projectile, is produced by its friction on the atmospheric strata. It will soon diminish, because we are already floating in space, and after having nearly stifled, we shall have to suffer intense cold.”
“What!” said Michel Ardan. “According to your showing, Barbicane, we are already beyond the limits of the terrestrial atmosphere?”
“Without a doubt, Michel. Listen to me. It is fifty-five minutes past ten; we have been gone about eight minutes; and if our initiatory speed has not been checked by the friction, six seconds would be enough for us to pass through the forty miles of atmosphere which surrounds the globe.”
“Just so,” replied Nicholl; “but in what proportion do you estimate the diminution of speed by friction?”
“In the proportion of one-third, Nicholl. This diminution is considerable, but according to my calculations it is nothing less. If, then, we had an initiatory speed of 12,000 yards, on leaving the atmosphere this speed would be reduced to 9,165 yards. In any case we have already passed through this interval, and——”
“And then,” said Michel Ardan, “friend Nicholl has lost his two bets: four thousand dollars because the Columbiad did not burst; five thousand dollars because the projectile has risen more than six miles. Now, Nicholl, pay up.”
“Let us prove it first,” said the captain, “and we will pay afterward. It is quite possible that Barbicane’s reasoning is correct, and that I have lost my nine thousand dollars. But a new hypothesis presents itself to my mind, and it annuls the wager.”
“What is that?” asked Barbicane quickly.
“The hypothesis that, for some reason or other, fire was never set to the powder, and we have not started at all.”
“My goodness, captain,” exclaimed Michel Ardan, “that hypothesis is not worthy of my brain! It cannot be a serious one. For have we not been half annihilated by the shock? Did I not recall you to life? Is not the president’s shoulder still bleeding from the blow it has received?”
“Granted,” replied Nicholl; “but one question.”
“Did you hear the detonation, which certainly ought to be loud?”
“No,” replied Ardan, much surprised; “certainly I did not hear the detonation.”
“And you, Barbicane?”
“Nor I, either.”
“Very well,” said Nicholl.
“Well now,” murmured the president “why did we not hear the detonation?”
The three friends looked at each other with a disconcerted air. It was quite an inexplicable phenomenon. The projectile had started, and consequently there must have been a detonation.
“Let us first find out where we are,” said Barbicane, “and let down this panel.”
This very simple operation was soon accomplished.
The nuts which held the bolts to the outer plates of the right-hand scuttle gave way under the pressure of the English wrench. These bolts were pushed outside, and the buffers covered with India-rubber stopped up the holes which let them through. Immediately the outer plate fell back upon its hinges like a porthole, and the lenticular glass which closed the scuttle appeared. A similar one was let into the thick partition on the opposite side of the projectile, another in the top of the dome, and finally a fourth in the middle of the base. They could, therefore, make observations in four different directions; the firmament by the side and most direct windows, the earth or the moon by the upper and under openings in the projectile.
Barbicane and his two companions immediately rushed to the uncovered window. But it was lit by no ray of light. Profound darkness surrounded them, which, however, did not prevent the president from exclaiming:
“No, my friends, we have not fallen back upon the earth; no, nor are we submerged in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes! we are mounting into space. See those stars shining in the night, and that impenetrable darkness heaped up between the earth and us!”
“Hurrah! hurrah!” exclaimed Michel Ardan and Nicholl in one voice.
Indeed, this thick darkness proved that the projectile had left the earth, for the soil, brilliantly lit by the moon-beams would have been visible to the travelers, if they had been lying on its surface. This darkness also showed that the projectile had passed the atmospheric strata, for the diffused light spread in the air would have been reflected on the metal walls, which reflection was wanting. This light would have lit the window, and the window was dark. Doubt was no longer possible; the travelers had left the earth.
“I have lost,” said Nicholl.
“I congratulate you,” replied Ardan.
“Here are the nine thousand dollars,” said the captain, drawing a roll of paper dollars from his pocket.
“Will you have a receipt for it?” asked Barbicane, taking the sum.
“If you do not mind,” answered Nicholl; “it is more business-like.”
And coolly and seriously, as if he had been at his strong-box, the president drew forth his notebook, tore out a blank leaf, wrote a proper receipt in pencil, dated and signed it with the usual flourish,1 and gave it to the captain, who carefully placed it in his pocketbook. Michel Ardan, taking off his hat, bowed to his two companions without speaking. So much formality under such circumstances left him speechless. He had never before seen anything so “American.”
This affair settled, Barbicane and Nicholl had returned to the window, and were watching the constellations. The stars looked like bright points on the black sky. But from that side they could not see the orb of night, which, traveling from east to west, would rise by degrees toward the zenith. Its absence drew the following remark from Ardan:
“And the moon; will she perchance fail at our rendezvous?”
“Do not alarm yourself,” said Barbicane; “our future globe is at its post, but we cannot see her from this side; let us open the other.”
As Barbicane was about leaving the window to open the opposite scuttle, his attention was attracted by the approach of a brilliant object. It was an enormous disc, whose colossal dimension could not be estimated. Its face, which was turned to the earth, was very bright. One might have thought it a small moon reflecting the light of the large one. She advanced with great speed, and seemed to describe an orbit round the earth, which would intersect the passage of the projectile. This body revolved upon its axis, and exhibited the phenomena of all celestial bodies abandoned in space.
“Ah!” exclaimed Michel Ardan, “What is that? another projectile?”
Barbicane did not answer. The appearance of this enormous body surprised and troubled him. A collision was possible, and might be attended with deplorable results; either the projectile would deviate from its path, or a shock, breaking its impetus, might precipitate it to earth; or, lastly, it might be irresistibly drawn away by the powerful asteroid. The president caught at a glance the consequences of these three hypotheses, either of which would, one way or the other, bring their experiment to an unsuccessful and fatal termination. His companions stood silently looking into space. The object grew rapidly as it approached them, and by an optical illusion the projectile seemed to be throwing itself before it.
“By Jove!” exclaimed Michel Ardan, “we shall run into one another!”
Instinctively the travelers drew back. Their dread was great, but it did not last many seconds. The asteroid passed several hundred yards from the projectile and disappeared, not so much from the rapidity of its course, as that its face being opposite the moon, it was suddenly merged into the perfect darkness of space.
“A happy journey to you,” exclaimed Michel Ardan, with a sigh of relief. “Surely infinity of space is large enough for a poor little projectile to walk through without fear. Now, what is this portentous globe which nearly struck us?”
“I know,” replied Barbicane.
“Oh, indeed! you know everything.”
“It is,” said Barbicane, “a simple meteorite, but an enormous one, which the attraction of the earth has retained as a satellite.”
“Is it possible!” exclaimed Michel Ardan; “the earth then has two moons like Neptune?”
“Yes, my friends, two moons, though it passes generally for having only one; but this second moon is so small, and its speed so great, that the inhabitants of the earth cannot see it. It was by noticing disturbances that a French astronomer, M. Petit, was able to determine the existence of this second satellite and calculate its elements. According to his observations, this meteorite will accomplish its revolution around the earth in three hours and twenty minutes, which implies a wonderful rate of speed.”
“Do all astronomers admit the existence of this satellite?” asked Nicholl.
“No,” replied Barbicane; “but if, like us, they had met it, they could no longer doubt it. Indeed, I think that this meteorite, which, had it struck the projectile, would have much embarrassed us, will give us the means of deciding what our position in space is.”
“How?” said Ardan.
“Because its distance is known, and when we met it, we were exactly four thousand six hundred and fifty miles from the surface of the terrestrial globe.”
“More than two thousand French leagues,” exclaimed Michel Ardan. “That beats the express trains of the pitiful globe called the earth.”
“I should think so,” replied Nicholl, consulting his chronometer; “it is eleven o’clock, and it is only thirteen minutes since we left the American continent.”
“Only thirteen minutes?” said Barbicane.
“Yes,” said Nicholl; “and if our initiatory speed of twelve thousand yards has been kept up, we shall have made about twenty thousand miles in the hour.”
“That is all very well, my friends,” said the president, “but the insoluble question still remains. Why did we not hear the detonation of the Columbiad?”
For want of an answer the conversation dropped, and Barbicane began thoughtfully to let down the shutter of the second side. He succeeded; and through the uncovered glass the moon filled the projectile with a brilliant light. Nicholl, as an economical man, put out the gas, now useless, and whose brilliancy prevented any observation of the inter-planetary space.
The lunar disc shone with wonderful purity. Her rays, no longer filtered through the vapory atmosphere of the terrestrial globe, shone through the glass, filling the air in the interior of the projectile with silvery reflections. The black curtain of the firmament in reality heightened the moon’s brilliancy, which in this void of ether unfavorable to diffusion did not eclipse the neighboring stars. The heavens, thus seen, presented quite a new aspect, and one which the human eye could never dream of. One may conceive the interest with which these bold men watched the orb of night, the great aim of their journey.
In its motion the earth’s satellite was insensibly nearing the zenith, the mathematical point which it ought to attain ninety-six hours later. Her mountains, her plains, every projection was as clearly discernible to their eyes as if they were observing it from some spot upon the earth; but its light was developed through space with wonderful intensity. The disc shone like a platinum mirror. Of the earth flying from under their feet, the travelers had lost all recollection.
It was captain Nicholl who first recalled their attention to the vanishing globe.
“Yes,” said Michel Ardan, “do not let us be ungrateful to it. Since we are leaving our country, let our last looks be directed to it. I wish to see the earth once more before it is quite hidden from my eyes.”
To satisfy his companions, Barbicane began to uncover the window at the bottom of the projectile, which would allow them to observe the earth direct. The disc, which the force of the projection had beaten down to the base, was removed, not without difficulty. Its fragments, placed carefully against a wall, might serve again upon occasion. Then a circular gap appeared, nineteen inches in diameter, hollowed out of the lower part of the projectile. A glass cover, six inches thick and strengthened with upper fastenings, closed it tightly. Beneath was fixed an aluminum plate, held in place by bolts. The screws being undone, and the bolts let go, the plate fell down, and visible communication was established between the interior and the exterior.
Michel Ardan knelt by the glass. It was cloudy, seemingly opaque.
“Well!” he exclaimed, “and the earth?”
“The earth?” said Barbicane. “There it is.”
“What! that little thread; that silver crescent?”
“Doubtless, Michel. In four days, when the moon will be full, at the very time we shall reach it, the earth will be new, and will only appear to us as a slender crescent which will soon disappear, and for some days will be enveloped in utter darkness.”
“That the earth?” repeated Michel Ardan, looking with all his eyes at the thin slip of his native planet.
The explanation given by President Barbicane was correct. The earth, with respect to the projectile, was entering its last phase. It was in its octant, and showed a crescent finely traced on the dark background of the sky. Its light, rendered bluish by the thick strata of the atmosphere was less intense than that of the crescent moon, but it was of considerable dimensions, and looked like an enormous arch stretched across the firmament. Some parts brilliantly lighted, especially on its concave part, showed the presence of high mountains, often disappearing behind thick spots, which are never seen on the lunar disc. They were rings of clouds placed concentrically round the terrestrial globe.
While the travelers were trying to pierce the profound darkness, a brilliant cluster of shooting stars burst upon their eyes. Hundreds of meteorites, ignited by the friction of the atmosphere, irradiated the shadow of the luminous train, and lined the cloudy parts of the disc with their fire. At this period the earth was in its perihelion, and the month of December is so propitious to these shooting stars, that astronomers have counted as many as twenty-four thousand in an hour. But Michel Ardan, disdaining scientific reasonings, preferred thinking that the earth was thus saluting the departure of her three children with her most brilliant fireworks.
Indeed this was all they saw of the globe lost in the solar world, rising and setting to the great planets like a simple morning or evening star! This globe, where they had left all their affections, was nothing more than a fugitive crescent!
Long did the three friends look without speaking, though united in heart, while the projectile sped onward with an ever-decreasing speed. Then an irresistible drowsiness crept over their brain. Was it weariness of body and mind? No doubt; for after the over-excitement of those last hours passed upon earth, reaction was inevitable.
“Well,” said Nicholl, “since we must sleep, let us sleep.”
And stretching themselves on their couches, they were all three soon in a profound slumber.
But they had not forgotten themselves more than a quarter of an hour, when Barbicane sat up suddenly, and rousing his companions with a loud voice, exclaimed——
“I have found it!”
“What have you found?” asked Michel Ardan, jumping from his bed.
“The reason why we did not hear the detonation of the Columbiad.”
“And it is——?” said Nicholl.
“Because our projectile traveled faster than the sound!”