“Then, major, I capture your bishop,” said Colonel Murphy, as he made the move that he had taken since the previous evening to consider.
“I was afraid you would,” replied Major Oliphant, looking intently at the chess-board.
Such was the way in which a long silence was broken on the morning of the 17th of February by the old calendar.
Another day elapsed before another move was made. It was a protracted game; it had, in fact, already lasted some months—the players being so deliberate, and so fearful of taking a step without the most mature consideration, that even now they were only making the twentieth move.
Both of them, moreover, were rigid disciples of the renowned Philidor, who pronounces that to play the pawns well is “the soul of chess”; and, accordingly, not one pawn had been sacrificed without a most vigorous defence.
The men who were thus beguiling their leisure were two officers in the British army—Colonel Heneage Finch Murphy and Major Sir John Temple Oliphant. Remarkably similar in personal appearance, they were hardly less so in personal character. Both of them were about forty years of age; both of them were tall and fair, with bushy whiskers and moustaches; both of them were phlegmatic in temperament, and both much addicted to the wearing of their uniforms. They were proud of their nationality, and exhibited a manifest dislike, verging upon contempt, of everything foreign. Probably they would have felt no surprise if they had been told that Anglo-Saxons were fashioned out of some specific clay, the properties of which surpassed the investigation of chemical analysis. Without any intentional disparagement they might, in a certain way, be compared to two scarecrows which, though perfectly harmless in themselves, inspire some measure of respect, and are excellently adapted to protect the territory entrusted to their guardianship.
English-like, the two officers had made themselves thoroughly at home in the station abroad in which it had been their lot to be quartered. The faculty of colonization seems to be indigenous to the native character; once let an Englishman plant his national standard on the surface of the moon, and it would not be long before a colony was established round it.
The officers had a servant, named Kirke, and a company of ten soldiers of the line. This party of thirteen men were apparently the sole survivors of an overwhelming catastrophe, which on the 1st of January had transformed an enormous rock, garrisoned with well-nigh two thousand troops, into an insignificant island far out to sea. But although the transformation had been so marvellous, it cannot be said that either Colonel Murphy or Major Oliphant had made much demonstration of astonishment.
“Oh!” observed the colonel. “This is what one might call a peculiar circumstance.”
“Yes, colonel; very peculiar,” replied the major.
“But England endures.”
“England will be sure to send for us,” said one officer.
“No doubt she will,” answered the other.
“Should we stick, therefore, at our posts?”
“At our posts.”
To say the truth, it would have been a difficult matter for the gallant officers to do otherwise; they had but one small boat; therefore, it was well that they made a virtue of necessity, and resigned themselves to patient expectation of the British ship which, in due time, would bring relief.
They had no fear of starvation. Their island was mined with subterranean stores, more than ample for thirteen men—nay, for thirteen Englishmen—for the next five years at least. Preserved meat, ale, brandy—all were in abundance; consequently, as the men expressed it, they were in this respect “all right.”
Of course, the physical changes that had taken place had attracted the notice both of officers and men. But the reversed position of east and west, the diminution of the force of gravity, the altered rotation of the Earth, and her projection upon a new orbit, were all things that gave them little concern and no uneasiness; and when the colonel and the major had replaced the pieces on the board which had been disturbed by the convulsion, any surprise they might have felt at the chess-men losing some portion of their weight was quite forgotten in the satisfaction of seeing them retain their equilibrium.
One phenomenon, however, did not fail to make its due impression upon the men; this was the diminution in the length of day and night. Three days after the catastrophe, Corporal Pim, on behalf of himself and his comrades, solicited a formal interview with the officers. The request having been granted, Pim, with the nine soldiers, all punctiliously wearing the regimental tunic of scarlet and trousers of invisible green, presented themselves at the door of the colonel’s room, where he and his brother-officer were continuing their game. Raising his hand respectfully to his cap, which he wore poised jauntily over his right ear, and scarcely held on by the strap below his under lip, the corporal waited permission to speak.
After a lingering survey of the chess-board, the colonel slowly lifted his eyes, and said with official dignity, “Well, men, what is it?”
“First of all, sir,” replied the corporal, “we want to speak to you about our pay, and then we wish to have a word with the major about our rations.”
“Say on, then,” said Colonel Murphy. “What is it about your pay?”
“Just this, sir; as the days are only half as long as they were, we should like to know whether our pay is to be diminished in proportion.”
The colonel was taken somewhat aback, and did not reply immediately, though by some significant nods towards the major, he indicated that he thought the question very reasonable. After a few moments’ reflection, he replied, “It must, I think, be allowed that your pay was calculated from sunrise to sunrise; there was no specification of what the interval should be. Your pay will continue as before. England can afford it.”
A buzz of approval burst involuntarily from all the men, but military discipline and the respect due to their officers kept them in check from any boisterous demonstration of their satisfaction.
“And now, corporal, what is your business with me?” asked Major Oliphant.
“We want to know whether, as the days are only six hours long, we are to have but two meals instead of four?”
The officers looked at each other, and by their glances agreed that the corporal was a man of sound common sense.
“Eccentricities of nature,” said the major, “cannot interfere with military regulations. It is true that there will be but an interval of an hour and a half between them, but the rule stands good—four meals a day. England is too rich to grudge her soldiers any of her soldiers’ due. Yes; four meals a day.”
“Hurrah!” shouted the soldiers, unable this time to keep their delight within the bounds of military decorum; and, turning to the right-about, they marched away, leaving the officers to renew the all-absorbing game.
However confident everyone upon the island might profess to be that succour would be sent them from their native land—for Britain never abandons any of her sons—it could not be disguised that that succour was somewhat tardy in making its appearance. Many and various were the conjectures to account for the delay. Perhaps England was engrossed with domestic matters, or perhaps she was absorbed in diplomatic difficulties; or perchance, more likely than all, Northern Europe had received no tidings of the convulsion that had shattered the south. The whole party throve remarkably well upon the liberal provisions of the commissariat department, and if the officers failed to show the same tendency to embonpoint which was fast becoming characteristic of the men, it was only because they deemed it due to their rank to curtail any indulgences which might compromise the fit of their uniform.
On the whole, time passed indifferently well. An Englishman rarely suffers from ennui, and then only in his own country, when required to conform to what he calls “the humbug of society”; and the two officers, with their similar tastes, ideas, and dispositions, got on together admirably. It is not to be questioned that they were deeply affected by a sense of regret for their lost comrades, and astounded beyond measure at finding themselves the sole survivors of a garrison of 1,895 men, but with true British pluck and self-control, they had done nothing more than draw up a report that 1,882 names were missing from the musterroll.
The island itself, the sole surviving fragment of an enormous pile of rock that had reared itself some 1,600 feet above the sea, was not, strictly speaking, the only land that was visible; for about twelve miles to the south there was another island, apparently the very counterpart of what was now occupied by the Englishmen. It was only natural that this should awaken some interest even in the most imperturbable minds, and there was no doubt that the two officers, during one of the rare intervals when they were not absorbed in their game, had decided that it would be desirable at least to ascertain whether the island was deserted, or whether it might not be occupied by some others, like themselves, survivors from the general catastrophe. Certain it is that one morning, when the weather was bright and calm, they had embarked alone in the little boat, and been absent for seven or eight hours. Not even to Corporal Pim did they communicate the object of their excursion, nor say one syllable as to its result, and it could only be inferred from their manner that they were quite satisfied with what they had seen; and very shortly afterwards Major Oliphant was observed to draw up a lengthy document, which was no sooner finished than it was formally signed and sealed with the seal of the 33rd Regiment. It was directed:
To Admiral Fairfax
First Lord of the Admiralty,
—and kept in readiness for transmission by the first ship that should hail in sight. But time elapsed, and here was the 18th of February without an opportunity having been afforded for any communication with the British Government.
That morning Colonel Murphy rose, and spoke the following words to Major Oliphant.
“The 18th of February, you know, Oliphant. An important day to anyone in whose breast beats an English heart.”
“An important day,” replied the major.
“I do not think,” continued the colonel, “that the circumstances in which we happen to find ourselves should prevent two British officers and ten British soldiers from celebrating a royal birthday.”
“I agree,” replied the major.
“If it so happens that her Majesty has not been in direct communication with us, it may be because it is not convenient for her to do so.”
“A glass of port, Major Oliphant?”
“Don’t mind if I do, Colonel Murphy.”
This wine, which seems particularly associated with English consumption, disappeared into that same British mouth that the cockneys call “the cake hole”, although it could just as easily be called “the port hole.”
“So now,” the colonel observed, “we should proceed by the book—to a royal salute.”
“By the book,” agreed the major.
Corporal Pim was summoned and appeared, smacking his lips, having, by a ready intuition, found a pretext for a double morning ration of spirits.
“Corporal Pim,” said the colonel. “Today is the 18th of February, if we have been counting correctly, as all Englishmen must, according to the ancient methods of the British calendar.”
“Sir,” replied the corporal.
“The Queen’s birthday.” The corporal saluted.
“Corporal Pim,” said the colonel, “we must have a salute of twentyone guns.”
“As you wish, sir,” replied Pim.
“And take care that your fellows don’t get their arms and legs blown off,” added the officer.
“Very good, sir,” said the corporal; and he made his salute and withdrew.
Of all the bombs, howitzers, and various species of artillery with which the fortress had been crowded, one solitary piece remained. This was a cumbrous muzzle-loader of 9-inch calibre, and, in default of the smaller ordnance generally employed for the purpose, had to be brought into requisition for the royal salute.
A sufficient number of charges having been provided, the corporal brought his men to the reduct, whence the gun’s mouth projected over a sloping embrasure. The two officers, in cocked hats and full staff uniform, attended to take charge of the proceedings. The gun was manoeuvred in strict accordance with the rules of “The Artilleryman’s Manual,” and the firing commenced.
Not unmindful of the warning he had received, the corporal was most careful between each discharge to see that every vestige of fire was extinguished, so as to prevent an untimely explosion while the men were reloading; and accidents, such as so frequently mar public rejoicings, were all happily avoided.
Much to the chagrin of both Colonel Murphy and Major Oliphant, the effect of the salute fell altogether short of their anticipations. The weight of the atmosphere was so reduced that there was comparatively little resistance to the explosive force of the gases, liberated at the cannon’s mouth, and there was consequently none of the reverberation, like rolling thunder, that ordinarily follows the discharge of heavy artillery.
Twenty times had the gun been fired, and it was on the point of being loaded for the last time, when the colonel laid his hand upon the arm of the man who had the ramrod. “Stop!” he said; “we will have a ball this time. Let us put the range of the piece to the test.”
“A good idea!” replied the major. “Corporal, you hear the orders.”
“I have, sir,” replied Corporal Pim.
In quick time an artillery-wagon was on the spot, and the men lifted out a full-sized shot, weighing 200 lbs., which, under ordinary circumstances, the cannon would carry about four miles. It was proposed, by means of telescopes, to note the place where the ball first touched the water, and thus to obtain an approximation sufficiently accurate as to the true range.
Having been duly charged with powder and ball, the gun was raised to an angle of something under 45 degrees, so as to allow proper development to the curve that the projectile would make, and, at a signal from the major, the light was applied to the priming.
“Heavens!” “By all that’s good!” exclaimed both officers in one breath, as, standing open-mouthed, they hardly knew whether they were to believe the evidence of their own senses. “Is it possible?”
The diminution of the force of attraction at the Earth’s surface was so considerable that the ball had sped beyond the horizon.
“Incredible!” exclaimed the colonel.
“Incredible!” echoed the major.
“Six miles at least!” observed the one.
“Ay, more than that!” replied the other.
Awhile, they gazed at the sea and at each other in mute amazement. But in the midst of their perplexity, what sound was that which startled them? Was it mere fancy? Was it the reverberation of the cannon still booming in their ears? Or was it not truly the report of another and a distant gun in answer to their own? Attentively and eagerly they listened. Twice, thrice did the sound repeat itself. It was quite distinct. There could be no mistake.
“I told you so,” cried the colonel, triumphantly. “I knew our country would not forsake us; it is an English ship, no doubt.”
In half an hour two masts were visible above the horizon. “See! Was I not right? Our country was sure to send to our relief. Here is the ship.”
“Yes,” replied the major; “she responded to our gun.”
“It is to be hoped,” muttered the corporal, “that our ball has done her no damage.”
Before long the hull was full in sight. A long trail of smoke betokened her to be a steamer; and very soon, by the aid of the telescope, it could be ascertained that she was a schooner-yacht, and making straight for the island. A flag at her mast-head fluttered in the breeze, and towards this the two officers, with the keenest attention, respectively adjusted their focus.
Simultaneously the two telescopes were lowered. The colonel and the major stared at each other in blank astonishment. “Russian!” they gasped.
And true it was that the flag that floated at the head of yonder mast was the blue cross of Russia.