Off on a Comet

Chapter VI

In which we ask the reader to accompany Captain Servadac in his first excursion across his new domain

Hector Servadac was not the man to remain long unnerved by any untoward event. It was part of his character to discover the why and the wherefore of everything that came under his observation, and he would have faced a cannon ball the more unflinchingly from understanding the dynamic force by which it was propelled. Such being his temperament, it may well be imagined that he was anxious not to remain long in ignorance of the cause of the phenomena which had been so startling in their consequences.

“We must inquire into this tomorrow,” he exclaimed, as darkness fell suddenly upon him. Then, after a pause, he added: “That is to say, if there is to be a tomorrow; for if I were to be put to the torture, I could not tell what has become of the sun.”

“May I ask, sir, what we are to do now?” put in Ben Zoof.

“Stay where we are for the present; and when daylight appears—if it ever does appear—we will explore the coast to the west and south, and return to the gourbi. If we can find out nothing else, we must at least discover where we are. So we’ll follow the coast west and south.”

“If there is a coast,” said the orderly.

“If there is a south!” replied captain Servadac.

“Till then, should we sleep?”

“Certainly, if we can.”

Nothing loath to avail himself of his master’s permission, Ben Zoof crouched down in an angle of the shore, threw his arms over his eyes, and very soon slept the sleep of the ignorant, which is often sounder than the sleep of the just. Overwhelmed by the questions that crowded upon his brain, Captain Servadac could only wander up and down the shore. Again and again he asked himself what the catastrophe could portend. Had the towns of Algiers, Oran, and Mostaganem escaped the inundation? Could he bring himself to believe that all the inhabitants, his friends, and comrades had perished; or was it not more probable that the Mediterranean had merely invaded the region of the mouth of the Shelif? But this supposition did not in the least explain the other physical disturbances.

Another hypothesis that presented itself to his mind was that the African coast might have been suddenly transported to the equatorial zone. But although this might get over the difficulty of the altered altitude of the sun and the absence of twilight, yet it would neither account for the sun setting in the east, nor for the length of the day being reduced to six hours.

“We must wait till tomorrow,” he repeated; adding, for he had become distrustful of the future, “that is to say, if tomorrow ever comes.”

Although not very learned in astronomy, Servadac was acquainted with the position of the principal constellations. It was therefore a considerable disappointment to him that, in consequence of the heavy clouds, not a star was visible in the firmament. To have ascertained that the pole-star had become displaced would have been an undeniable proof that the Earth was revolving on a new axis; but not a rift appeared in the lowering clouds, which seemed to threaten torrents of rain.

It happened that the moon was new on that very day; naturally, therefore, it would have set at the same time as the sun. What, then, was the captain’s bewilderment when, after he had been walking for about an hour and a half, he noticed on the western horizon a strong glare that penetrated even the masses of the clouds.

“The moon in the west!” he cried aloud; but suddenly bethinking himself, he added: “But no, that can’t be her. How could the chariot of the chaste goddess Diana have risen in the west? No, that cannot be the moon. Unless she has shifted very much nearer the Earth, she could never give a light as intense as this.”

As he spoke the screen of vapour was illuminated to such a degree that the whole country was as it were bathed in twilight. “What can this be?” soliloquized the captain. “It cannot be the sun, for the sun set in the east only an hour and a half ago. Would that those clouds would disclose what enormous luminary lies behind them! What a fool I was not to have learnt more astronomy! Perhaps, after all, I am racking my brain over something that is quite in the ordinary course of nature.”

But, reason as he might, the mysteries of the heavens still remained impenetrable. For about an hour some luminous body, its disc evidently of gigantic dimensions, shed its rays upon the upper strata of the clouds; then, marvellous to relate, instead of obeying the ordinary laws of celestial mechanism, and descending upon the opposite horizon, it seemed to retreat farther off, grew dimmer, and vanished.

The darkness that returned to the face of the Earth was not more profound than the gloom which fell upon the captain’s soul. Everything was incomprehensible. The simplest mechanical rules seemed falsified; the planets had defied the laws of gravitation; the motions of the celestial spheres were erroneous as those of a watch with a defective mainspring, and there was reason to fear that the sun would never again shed his radiance upon the Earth.

But these last fears were groundless. In three hours’ time, without any intervening twilight, the morning sun made its appearance in the west, and day once more had dawned. On consulting his watch, Servadac found that night had lasted precisely six hours. Ben Zoof, who was unaccustomed to so brief a period of repose, was still slumbering soundly.

“Come, wake up!” said Servadac, shaking him by the shoulder; “it is time to start.”

“Time to start?” exclaimed Ben Zoof, rubbing his eyes. “I feel as if I had only just gone to sleep.”

“You have slept all night, at any rate,” replied the captain.

“A whole night? That?”

“A whole night of six hours, at any rate, but you must make it enough.”

“Enough it shall be, sir.”

“And now,” continued Servadac, “there’s no time to lose. We will take the shortest way back to the gourbi, and see what our horses think about it all.”

“They will think that they ought to be groomed,” said the orderly.

“Very good; groom them and saddle them as quickly as you like. I want to know what has become of the rest of Algeria.”

“And then?”

“And then if we cannot get round by the south to Mostaganem, we must go eastwards to Tenes.” And forthwith they started. Beginning to feel hungry, they had no hesitation in gathering figs, dates, and oranges from the plantations that formed a continuous rich and luxuriant orchard along their path. The district was quite deserted, and they had no reason to fear any legal penalty.

In an hour and a half they reached the gourbi. Everything was just as they had left it, and it was evident that no one had visited the place during their absence. All was desolate as the shore they had quitted.

The preparations for the expedition were brief and simple. Ben Zoof saddled the horses and filled his pouch with biscuits and game; water, he felt certain, could be obtained in abundance from the numerous tributaries of the Shelif, which, although they now flowed directly into the Mediterranean, still meandered through the plain. Captain Servadac mounted his horse Zephyr, and Ben Zoof simultaneously got astride his mare Galette, named after the mill of Montmartre. They galloped off in the direction of the Shelif.

They were not long in discovering that the diminution in the pressure of the atmosphere had precisely the same effect upon their horses as it had had upon themselves. Their muscular strength seemed five times as great as hitherto; their hoofs scarcely touched the ground, and they seemed transformed from ordinary quadrupeds into veritable hippogriffs. Happily, Servadac and his orderly were fearless riders; they made no attempt to curb their steeds, but even urged them to still greater exertions.

Twenty minutes sufficed to carry them over the four or five miles that intervened between the gourbi and the mouth of the Shelif; then, slackening their speed, they proceeded at a more leisurely pace to the southeast, along what had once been the right bank of the river.

This littoral still retained its former characteristic, although it no longer formed the bank of the Shelif; for the other river bank, as it had once been, had disappeared and had been replaced by a horizon of sea. In other words all this portion of the province of Oran before Mostaganem must have swallowed up between the night of the 31st December and the 1st of January.

Captain Servadac knew the country well; he had at one time been engaged upon a trigonometric survey of the district, and consequently had an accurate knowledge of its topography. His idea now was to draw up a report of his investigations: to whom that report should be delivered was a problem he had yet to solve.

During the four hours of daylight that still remained, the travellers rode about twenty-one miles from the river mouth. To their vast surprise, they did not meet a single human being. At nightfall they again encamped in a slight bend of the shore, at a point which on the previous evening had faced the mouth of the Mina, one of the left-hand affluents of the Shelif, but was now absorbed into the newly revealed ocean. Ben Zoof made the sleeping accommodation as comfortable as the circumstances would allow; the horses were clogged and turned out to feed upon the rich pasture that clothed the shore, and the night passed without special incident.

At sunrise on the following morning, the 2nd of January, or what, according to the ordinary calendar, would have been the night of the 1st, the captain and his orderly remounted their horses, and during the sixhours’ day accomplished a distance of forty-two miles.

The right bank of the river still continued to be the margin of the land, and only in one spot had its integrity been impaired. This was about twelve miles from the Mina, and on the site of the annex or suburb of Surkelmittoo. Here a large portion of the bank had been swept away, and the hamlet, with its eight hundred inhabitants, had no doubt been swallowed up by the encroaching waters. It seemed, therefore, more than probable that a similar fate had overtaken the larger towns beyond the Shelif.

In the evening the explorers encamped, as previously, in a nook of the shore which here abruptly terminated their new domain, not far from where they might have expected to find the important village of Memounturroy; but of this, too, there was now no trace. “I had quite reckoned upon a supper and a bed at Orleansville tonight,” said Servadac, as, full of despondency, he surveyed the waste of water.

“Quite impossible,” replied Ben Zoof, “except you had gone by a boat.”

“I tell you what, Ben Zoof. Between the two of us, I’d say we have a good chance!”

That’s the spirit, captain! And you know we will soon devise some means for getting across to Mostaganem.”

“If, as I hope,” rejoined the captain, “we are on a peninsula, we are more likely to get to Tenes. There we shall hear the news.”

“Far more likely to carry the news ourselves,” answered Ben Zoof, as he threw himself down for his night’s rest.

Six hours later, only waiting for sunrise, Captain Servadac set himself in movement again to renew his investigations. At this spot the shore, that hitherto had been running in a southeasterly direction, turned abruptly to the north, being no longer formed by the natural bank of the Shelif, but consisting of an absolutely new coastline. No land was in sight. Nothing could be seen of Orleansville, which ought to have been about six miles to the southwest; and Ben Zoof, who had mounted the highest point of view attainable, could distinguish sea, and nothing but sea, to the farthest horizon.

Quitting their encampment and riding on, the bewildered explorers kept close to the new shore. This, since it had ceased to be formed by the original river bank, had considerably altered its aspect. Frequent landslips occurred, and in many places deep chasms rifted the ground; great gaps furrowed the fields, and trees, half uprooted, overhung the water, remarkable by the fantastic distortions of their gnarled trunks, looking as though they had been chopped by a hatchet.

The sinuosities of the coast line, alternately gully and headland, had the effect of making a devious progress for the travellers, and at sunset, although they had accomplished more than twenty miles, they had only just arrived at the foot of the Merdeyah Mountains, which, before the cataclysm, had formed the extremity of the chain of the Little Atlas. The ridge, however, had been violently ruptured, and now rose perpendicularly from the water.

On the following morning Servadac and Ben Zoof traversed one of the mountain gorges; and next, in order to make a more thorough acquaintance with the limits and condition of the section of Algerian territory of which they seemed to be left as the sole occupants, they dismounted, and proceeded on foot to the summit of one of the highest peaks. From this elevation they ascertained that from the base of the Merdeyah to the Mediterranean, a distance of about eighteen miles, a new coast line had come into existence; no land was visible in any direction; no isthmus existed to form a connecting link with the territory of Tenes, which had entirely disappeared. The result was that Captain Servadac was driven to the irresistible conclusion that the tract of land which he had been surveying was not, as he had at first imagined, a peninsula; it was actually an island.

Strictly speaking, this island was quadrilateral, but the sides were so irregular that it was much more nearly a triangle, the comparison of the sides exhibiting these proportions: The section of the right bank of the Shelif, seventy-two miles; the southern boundary from the Shelif to the chain of the Little Atlas, twenty-one miles; from the Little Atlas to the Mediterranean, eighteen miles; and sixty miles of the shore of the Mediterranean itself, making in all an entire circumference of about 171 miles.

“I see!” exclaimed the captain. “But why is it all like this?”

“Bah! Why shouldn’t it be?” replied Ben Zoof. “It’s the way it is, because that’s the way it is. It’s the will of the Heavenly Father wills it, and there’s nothing more to say about the why of it.”

With this reflection, the two men silently descended the mountain and remounted their horses who had been quietly grazing on the green grass. Before evening they had reached the Mediterranean. On their road they failed to discern a vestige of the little town of Montenotte; like Tenes, of which not so much as a ruined cottage was visible on the horizon, it seemed to be annihilated.

On the following day, the 5th of January, the two men made a forced march along the coast of the Mediterranean, which they found less altered than the captain had at first supposed; but four villages had entirely disappeared, and the headlands, unable to resist the shock of the convulsion, had been detached from the mainland.

The circuit of the island had been now completed, and the explorers, after a period of sixty hours, found themselves once more beside the ruins of their gourbi. Five days, or what, according to the established order of things, would have been two days and a half, had been occupied in tracing the boundaries of their new domain; and they had ascertained beyond a doubt that they were the sole human inhabitants left upon the island.

“Well, sir, here you are, captain” exclaimed Ben Zoof, as they reached the gourbi.

“Here we are.”

“It seems you’re Governor General of Algeria!”

“With not a soul to govern,” gloomily rejoined the captain.

“So! How do you reckon me?”

“Ben Zoof, what are you?”

“What am I? Why, I am the population!”

“And what about my rondo?” said the captain, as he lay down to sleep. “Such a shame I went to the trouble of composing that.”

[prev] [up] [next]
Translation Copyright © 2007 Adam Roberts
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:43 $