Off on a Comet

Chapter XXIII

Which details an event of the greatest significance, and one which causes excitement throughout the colony

When, three hours after sunset, on the 23rd of March, the Gallian moon rose upon the western horizon, it was observed that she had entered upon her last quarter. She had taken only four days to pass from syzygy to quadrature, and it was consequently evident that she would be visible for little more than a week at a time, and that her lunation would be accomplished within sixteen days. The lunar months, like the solar days, had been diminished by one-half. Three days later the moon was in conjunction with the sun, and was consequently lost to view; Ben Zoof, as the first observer of the satellite, was extremely interested in its movements, and wondered whether it would ever reappear.

On the 26th, under an atmosphere perfectly clear and dry, the thermometer fell to 12 degrees F. below zero. Of the present distance of Gallia from the sun, and the number of leagues she had traversed since the receipt of the last mysterious document, there were no means of judging; the extent of diminution in the apparent disc of the sun did not afford sufficient basis even for an approximate calculation; and Captain Servadac was perpetually regretting that they could receive no further tidings from the anonymous correspondent, whom he persisted in regarding as a fellow-countryman.

The solidity of the ice was perfect; the utter stillness of the air at the time when the final congealing of the waters had taken place had resulted in the formation of a surface that for smoothness would rival a skating-rink; without a crack or flaw it extended far beyond the range of vision.

The contrast to the ordinary aspect of polar seas was very remarkable. There, the ice-fields are an agglomeration of hummocks and icebergs, massed in wild confusion, often towering higher than the masts of the largest whalers, and from the instability of their foundations liable to an instantaneous loss of equilibrium; a breath of wind, a slight modification of the temperature, not infrequently serving to bring about a series of changes outrivaling the most elaborate transformation scenes of a pantomime. Here, on the contrary, the vast white plain was as level as the desert of Sahara or the Russian steppes; the waters of the Gallian Sea were imprisoned beneath the solid sheet, which became continually stouter in the increasing cold.

Accustomed to the uneven crystallizations of their own frozen seas, the Russians could not be otherwise than delighted with the polished surface that afforded them such excellent opportunity for enjoying their favourite pastime of skating. A supply of skates, found hidden away amongst the Dobryna’s stores, was speedily brought into use. The Russians undertook the instruction of the Spaniards, and at the end of a few days, during which the temperature was only endurable through the absence of wind, there was not a Gallian who could not skate tolerably well, while many of them could describe figures involving the most complicated curves. Nina and Pablo earned loud applause by their rapid proficiency; Captain Servadac, an adept in athletics, almost outperformed his instructor, the count; and Ben Zoof, who had upon some rare occasions skated upon the Lake of Montmartre (in his eyes, of course, a sea), performed prodigies in the art.

This exercise was not only healthful in itself, but also proved a useful distraction for the inhabitants of the volcano. It was acknowledged that, in case of necessity, it might in addition become a very useful means of locomotion. And in fact Lieutenant Procope, one of the best skaters in Gallia, undertook the journey from Nina’s Hive to Gourbi island more than once—a distance of twelve leagues or more—in the space of two hours.

“It’s clear what will be the Gallian replacements for the railroads of Old Earth,” Captain Servadac remarked. “What’s more, the blade of a skate is nothing more than a piece of mobile rail, fixed to the feet of the traveller!”

The temperature, meanwhile, continued to decrease, and the average reading of the thermometer was about 16 degrees F. below zero; the light also diminished in proportion, and all objects appeared to be enveloped in a half-defined shadow, as though the sun were undergoing a perpetual eclipse. It was not surprising that the effect of this continuously overhanging gloom should be to induce a frequent depression of spirits amongst the majority of the little population, exiles as they were from their mother Earth, and not unlikely, as it seemed, to be swept far away into the regions of another planetary sphere. Probably Count Timascheff, Captain Servadac, and Lieutenant Procope were the only members of the community who could bring any scientific judgment to bear upon the uncertainty that was before them, but a general sense of the strangeness of their situation could not fail at times to weigh heavily upon the minds of all. Under these circumstances it was very necessary to counteract the tendency to despond by continual diversion; and the recreation of skating thus opportunely provided, seemed just the thing to arouse the flagging spirits, and to restore a wholesome excitement.

With dogged obstinacy, Isaac Hakkabut refused to take any share either in the labours or the amusements of the colony. In spite of the cold, he had not been seen since the day of his arrival from Gourbi Island. Captain Servadac had strictly forbidden any communication with him; and the smoke that rose from the cabin chimney of the Hansa was the sole indication of the proprietor being still on board. There was nothing to prevent him, if he chose, from partaking gratuitously of the volcanic light and heat which were being enjoyed by all besides; but rather than abandon his close and personal oversight of his precious cargo, he preferred to sacrifice his own slender stock of fuel.

Both the schooner and the tartan had been carefully moored in the way that seemed to promise best for withstanding the rigor of the winter. After seeing the vessels made secure in the frozen creek, Lieutenant Procope, following the example of many Arctic explorers, had the precaution to have the ice bevelled away from the keels, so that there should be no risk of the ships’ sides being crushed by the increasing pressure; he hoped that they would follow any rise in the level of the ice-field, and when the thaw should come, that they would easily regain their proper water-line.

On his last visit to Gourbi Island, the lieutenant had ascertained that north, east, and west, far as the eye could reach, the Gallian Sea had become one uniform sheet of ice. One spot alone refused to freeze; this was the pool immediately below the central cavern, the receptacle for the stream of burning lava. It was entirely enclosed by rocks, and if ever a few icicles were formed there by the action of the cold, they were very soon melted by the fiery shower. Hissing and spluttering as the hot lava came in contact with it, the water was in a continual state of ebullition, and the fish that abounded in its depths defied the angler’s craft; they were, as Ben Zoof remarked, “too much boiled to bite.”

At the beginning of April the weather changed. The sky became overcast, but there was no rise in the temperature. Unlike the polar winters of the Earth, which ordinarily are affected by atmospheric influence, and liable to slight intermissions of their severity at various shiftings of the wind, Gallia’s winter was caused by her immense distance from the source of all light and heat, and the cold was consequently destined to go on steadily increasing until it reached the limit ascertained by Fourier to be the normal temperature of the realms of space.

With the over-clouding of the heavens there arose a violent tempest; but although the wind raged with an almost inconceivable fury, it was unaccompanied by either snow or rain. Its effect upon the burning curtain that covered the aperture of the central hall was very remarkable. So far from there being any likelihood of the fire being extinguished by the vehemence of the current of air, the hurricane seemed rather to act as a ventilator, which fanned the flame into greater activity, and the utmost care was necessary to avoid being burnt by the fragments of lava that were drifted into the interior of the grotto. More than once the curtain itself was rifted entirely asunder, but only to close up again immediately after allowing a momentary draught of cold air to penetrate the hall in a way that was refreshing and rather advantageous than otherwise.

On the 4th of April, after an absence of about four days, the new satellite, to Ben Zoof’s great satisfaction, made its reappearance in a crescent form, a circumstance that seemed to justify the anticipation that henceforward it would continue to make a periodic revolution every fortnight.

The crust of ice and snow was far too stout for the beaks of the strongest birds to penetrate, and accordingly large swarms had left the island, and, following the human population, had taken refuge on the volcanic promontory; not that there the barren shore had anything in the way of nourishment to offer them, but their instinct impelled them to haunt now the very habitations which formerly they would have shunned. Scraps of food were thrown to them from the galleries; these were speedily devoured, but were altogether inadequate in quantity to meet the demand. At length, emboldened by hunger, several hundred birds ventured through the tunnel, and took up their quarters actually in Nina’s Hive. Congregating in the large hall, the half-famished creatures did not hesitate to snatch bread, meat, or food of any description from the hands of the residents as they sat at table, and soon became such an intolerable nuisance that it formed one of the daily diversions to hunt them down; but although they were vigorously attacked by stones and sticks, and even occasionally by shot, it was with some difficulty that their number could be sensibly reduced.

By a systematic course of warfare the bulk of the birds were all expelled, with the exception of about a hundred, which began to build in the crevices of the rocks. These were left in quiet possession of their quarters, as not only was it deemed advisable to perpetuate the various breeds, but it was found that these birds acted as a kind of police, never failing either to chase away or to kill any others of their species who infringed upon what they appeared to regard as their own special privilege in intruding within the limits of their domain.

On the 15th, loud cries were suddenly heard issuing from the mouth of the principal gallery.

“Help, help! They’re going to kill me!”

Pablo in a moment recognized the voice as Nina’s. Outrunning even Ben Zoof he hurried to the assistance of his little playmate, and discovered that she was being attacked by half a dozen great sea-gulls, and only after receiving some severe blows from their beaks could he succeed by means of a stout cudgel in driving them away.

“Tell me, Nina, what is this?” he asked as soon as the tumult had subsided.

The child pointed to a bird which she was caressing tenderly in her bosom.

“A pigeon!” exclaimed Ben Zoof, who had reached the scene of commotion, adding:

“A carrier-pigeon! And by all the saints of Montmartre, there is a little bag attached to its neck!”

He took the bird, and rushing into the hall placed it in Servadac’s hands.

“Another message, no doubt,” cried the captain, “from our unknown friend. Let us hope that this time he has given us his name and address.”

All crowded round, eager to hear the news. In the struggle with the gulls the bag had been partially torn open, but still contained the following dispatch:

Chemin parcouru du 1er Mars au 1er Avril: 39,000,000 1.!
Distance du soleil: 110,000,000 1.!
Capte Nerina en passant.
Vivres vont manquer et...

The rest of the document had been so damaged by the beaks of the gulls that it was illegible.

“Oh unlucky mischance!” cried Captain Servadac. “The signature was obviously there, and the date, and the place of origin of the message! It’s all written in French, this one, which means it must be a Frenchman who wrote it! And we can do nothing to help this poor importunate!”

Count Timascheff and Lieutenant Procope searched the entire area hoping to find some torn-off shred of the document that might contain a name, or a signature, or some indication of who had sent the message. But it was useless.

Little Nina had again taken possession of the pigeon, and was hugging it to her breast, said:

“Ah!” she cried suddenly, “My friend Zoof! Look, see!”

And as she spoke she pointed to the left wing of the bird. The wing bore the faint impress of a postagestamp, and upon this stamp the one word: “FORMENTERA.”

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Translation Copyright © 2007 Adam Roberts
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:44 $