Off on a Comet

Chapter XXV

In which we meet the thirty-sixth inhabitant of the Gallia spheroid

By the return of the expedition, conveying its contribution from Formentera, the known population of Gallia was raised to a total of thirty-six.

On learning the details of his friends’ discoveries, Count Timascheff did not hesitate in believing that the exhausted individual who was lying before him was the author alike of the two unsigned documents picked up at sea, and of the third statement so recently brought to hand by the carrier-pigeon. Manifestly, he had arrived at some knowledge of Gallia’s movements: he had estimated her distance from the sun; he had calculated the diminution of her tangential speed; but there was nothing to show that he had arrived at the conclusions which were of the most paramount interest to them all. Had he ascertained the true character of her orbit? had he established any data from which it would be possible to reckon what time must elapse before she would again approach the Earth?

The only intelligible words which the astronomer had uttered had been, “My comet!”

To what could the exclamation refer? Was it to be conjectured that a fragment of the Earth had been chipped off by the collision of a comet? and if so, was it implied that the name of the comet itself was Gallia, and were they mistaken in supposing that such was the name given by the savant to the little world that had been so suddenly launched into space? Again and again they discussed, these questions; but no satisfactory answer could be found. The only man who was able to throw any light upon the subject was lying amongst them in an unconscious and half-dying condition.

Apart from motives of humanity, motives of self-interest made it a matter of the deepest concern to restore animation to that senseless form. Ben Zoof, after making the encouraging remark that savants have as many lives as a cat, proceeded, with Negrete’s assistance, to give the body such a vigorous rubbing as would have threatened serious injury to any ordinary mortal, whilst they administered cordials and restoratives from the Dobryna’s medical stores powerful enough, one might think, to rouse the very dead.

Meanwhile the captain was racking his brain in his exertions to recall what were the circumstances of his previous acquaintance with the Frenchman upon whose features he was gazing; he only grew more and more convinced that he had once been familiar with them. Perhaps it was not altogether surprising that he had almost forgotten him; he had never seen him since the days of his youth, that time of life which, with a certain show of justice, has been termed the age of ingratitude; for, in point of fact, the astronomer was none other than Servadac’s old science-master at the Lycee Charlemagne.

This professor was called Palmyrin Rosette. He had been a true intellectual, an expert in all the mathematical sciences. After completing his year of elementary studies, Hector Servadac had entered the school at Saint Cyr, and from that time he and his former tutor had never met, so that naturally they would well-nigh pass from each other’s recollection. One thing, however, on the other hand, might conduce to a mutual and permanent impression on their memories; during the year at the Lycee, young Servadac, never of a very studious turn of mind, had contrived, as the ringleader of a set of like calibre as himself, to lead the poor professor a life of perpetual torment. On the discovery of each delinquency he would fume and rage in a manner that was a source of unbounded delight to his audience.

Two years after Servadac left the Lycee, Professor Rosette had given up all educational employment in order that he might devote himself entirely to the study of astronomy. He endeavoured to obtain a post at the Observatory, but his ungenial character was so well known in scientific circles that he failed in his application; however, having some small private means, he determined on his own account to carry on his researches without any official salary. He had really considerable genius for the science that he had adopted; besides discovering three of the latest of the telescopic planets, he had worked out the elements of the three hundred and twenty-fifth comet in the catalogue. His chief delight was to criticize the publications of other astronomers, and he was never better pleased than when he detected a flaw in their reckonings.

hen Ben Zoof and Negrete had extricated their patient from the envelope of furs in which he had been wrapped by Servadac and the lieutenant, they found themselves face to face with a shrivelled little man, about five feet two inches high, with a round bald head, smooth and shiny as an ostrich’s egg, no beard unless the unshorn growth of a week could be so described, and a long hooked nose that supported a huge pair of spectacles such as with many near-sighted people seems to have become a part of their individuality. His nervous system was remarkably developed, and his body might not inaptly be compared to one of the Rhumkorff’s bobbins of which the thread, several hundred yards in length, is permeated throughout by electric fluid. But whatever he was, his life, if possible, must be preserved. When he had been partially divested of his clothing, his heart was found to be still beating, though very feebly. Asserting that while there was life there was hope, Ben Zoof recommenced his friction with more vigour than ever, humming to himself this well-known refrain:

To Tripoli, sons of glory!
Ready your glinting steel!

When the rubbing had been continued without a moment’s intermission for twenty minutes, the astronomer heaved a faint sigh, which ere long was followed by another and another. He half opened his eyes, closed them again, then opened them completely, but without exhibiting any consciousness whatever of his situation. A few words seemed to escape his lips, but they were quite unintelligible. Presently he raised his right hand to his forehead as though instinctively feeling for something that was missing; then, all of a sudden, his features became contracted, his face flushed with apparent irritation, and he exclaimed fretfully, “My spectacles!—where are my spectacles?”

In order to facilitate his operations, Ben Zoof had removed the spectacles in spite of the tenacity with which they seemed to adhere to the temples of his patient; but he now rapidly brought them back and readjusted them as best he could to what seemed to be their natural position on the aquiline nose. The professor heaved a long sigh of relief, and once more closed his eyes.

Before long the astronomer roused himself a little more, and glanced inquiringly about him, but soon relapsed into his comatose condition. When next he opened his eyes, Captain Servadac happened to be bending down closely over him, examining his features with curious scrutiny. The old man darted an angry look at him through the spectacles, and said sharply, “Servadac, five hundred lines tomorrow!”

It was an echo of days of old. The words were few, but they were enough to recall the identity which Servadac was trying to make out.

“Is it possible?” he exclaimed. “This is my old tutor, Mr. Rosette! His very flesh and bones!”

“His bones, at any rate,” muttered Ben Zoof.

“How strange to meet him again,” cried Servadac.

The old man had again fallen back into a torpid slumber.

“No need for worry, captain,” said Ben Zoof. “His sleep is getting more composed. Let him alone; he will come round yet. Haven’t I heard of men more dried up than he is, who came from much further away.”

“Came from where, Ben Zoof?”

“All the way from Egypt. In pretty cases covered with pictures.”

“You idiot!—those were mummies; they had been dead for ages.”

“Anything you say, sir,” replied Ben Zoof. He went on preparing a warm bed, into which he managed to remove his patient, who soon fell into a calm and natural sleep.

Too impatient to await the awakening of the astronomer and to hear what representations he had to make, Servadac, the count, and the lieutenant, constituting themselves what might be designated “the Academy of Sciences” of the colony, spent the whole of the remainder of the day in starting and discussing the wildest conjectures about their situation. The hypothesis, to which they had now accustomed themselves for so long, that a new asteroid had been formed by a fracture of the Earth’s surface, seemed to fall to the ground when they found that Professor Palmyrin Rosette had associated the name of Gallia, not with their present home, but with what he called “my comet”; and that theory being abandoned, they were driven to make the most improbable speculations to replace it.

Alluding to Rosette, Servadac took care to inform his companions that, although the professor was always eccentric, and at times very irascible, yet he was really exceedingly good-hearted; his bark was worse than his bite; and if suffered to take their course without observation, his outbreaks of ill-temper seldom lasted long.

“We will certainly do our best to get on with him,” said the count. “He is no doubt the author of the papers, and we must hope that he will be able to give us some valuable information.”

“Beyond a question the documents have originated with him,” assented the lieutenant. “Gallia was the word written at the top of every one of them, and Gallia was the first word uttered by him in our hearing.”

The astronomer slept on. Meanwhile, the three together had no hesitation in examining his papers, and scrutinizing the figures on his extemporized blackboard. The handwriting corresponded with that of the papers already received; the blackboard was covered with algebraic symbols traced in chalk, which they were careful not to obliterate; and the papers, which consisted for the most part of detached scraps, presented a perfect wilderness of geometrical figures, conic sections of every variety being repeated in countless profusion.

Lieutenant Procope pointed out that these curves evidently had reference to the orbits of comets, which are variously parabolic, hyperbolic, or elliptic. If either of the first two, the comet, after once appearing within the range of terrestrial vision, would vanish forever in the outlying regions of space; if the last, it would be sure, sooner or later, after some periodic interval, to return.

From the prima facie appearance of his papers, then, it seemed probable that the astronomer, during his sojourn at Formentera, had been devoting himself to the study of cometary orbits; and as calculations of this kind are ordinarily based upon the assumption that the orbit is a parabola, it was not unlikely that he had been endeavouring to trace the path of some particular comet.

“I wonder whether these calculations were made before or after the 1st of January. It would make all the difference,” said Lieutenant Procope.

“We must bide our time and hear,” replied the count.

Servadac paced restlessly up and down. “I would give a month of my life,” he cried, impetuously, “for every hour that the old fellow goes sleeping on.”

“You might be making a bad bargain,” said Procope, smiling. “Perhaps after all the comet has had nothing to do with the convulsion that we have experienced.”

“Nonsense!” exclaimed the captain; “I know better than that, and so do you. Is it not as clear as daylight that the Earth and this comet have been in collision, and the result has been that our little world has been split off and sent flying far into space?”

Count Timascheff and the lieutenant looked at each other in silence.

“I do not deny your theory,” said Procope after a while. “If it be correct, I suppose we must conclude that the enormous disc we observed on the night of the catastrophe was the comet itself; and the velocity with which it was travelling must have been so great that it was hardly arrested at all by the attraction of the Earth.”

“Plausible enough,” answered Count Timascheff; “and it is to this comet that our scientific friend here has given the name of Gallia.”

It still remained a puzzle to them all why the astronomer should apparently be interested in the comet so much more than in the new little world in which their strange lot was cast.

“Can you explain this?” asked the count.

“There is no accounting for the freaks of philosophers, you know,” said Servadac; “and have I not told you that this philosopher in particular is one of the most eccentric beings in creation?”

“Besides,” added the lieutenant, “it is exceedingly likely that his observations had been going on for some considerable period before the convulsion happened.”

Thus, the general conclusion arrived at by the Gallian Academy of Science was this: That on the night of the 31st of December, a comet, crossing the ecliptic, had come into collision with the Earth, and that the violence of the shock had separated a huge fragment from the globe, which fragment from that date had been traversing the remote inter-planetary regions. Palmyrin Rosette would doubtless confirm their solution of the phenomenon.

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