Off on a Comet

Chapter XXVI

In which the reader is told what he has doubtless already worked out for himself

The date was now the 19th of April. Whilst their chiefs discussed after this fashion, the general population of the colony went about their ordinary business. The arrival of the stranger was a matter of small interest to them. The Spaniards were naturally too indolent to be affected in any way by an incident that concerned themselves so remotely; while the Russians felt themselves simply reliant on their master, and as long as they were with him were careless as to where or how they spent their days. Everything went on with them in an accustomed routine; and they lay down night after night, and awoke to their avocations morning after morning, just as if nothing extraordinary had occurred.

All night long Ben Zoof would not leave the professor’s bedside. He had constituted himself sick nurse, and considered his reputation at stake if he failed to set his patient on his feet again. He watched every movement, listened to every breath, and never failed to administer the strongest cordials upon the slightest pretext. Even in his sleep Rosette’s irritable nature revealed itself. Ever and again, sometimes in a tone of uneasiness, and sometimes with the expression of positive anger, the name of Gallia escaped his lips, as though he were dreaming that his claim to the discovery of the comet was being contested or denied; but although his attendant was on the alert to gather all he could, he was able to catch nothing in the incoherent sentences that served to throw any real light upon the problem that they were all eager to solve.

When the sun reappeared on the western horizon the professor was still sound asleep; and Ben Zoof, who was especially anxious that the repose which promised to be so beneficial should not be disturbed, felt considerable annoyance at hearing a loud knocking, evidently of some blunt heavy instrument against a door that had been placed at the entrance of the gallery, more for the purpose of retaining internal warmth than for guarding against intrusion from without.

“Confound it!” said Ben Zoof. “I must put a stop to this;” and he made his way towards the outer gallery.

As he reached the door:

“Who’s there?” he cried, in no very amiable tone.

“I,” replied the quavering voice.

“Who are you?”

“Isaac Hakkabut. Let me in; do, please, let me in.”

“Oh, it is you, old Ashtaroth, is it?”

“Please let me in, Monsieur Ben Zoof.”

“What do you want? Can’t you get anybody to buy your stuffs?”

“Nobody will pay me a proper price.”

“Well then. You had better be off.”

“Monsieur Ben Zoof; do, please—do, please, let me in,” supplicated the Jew. “I want to speak to his Excellency, the governor.”

“The governor is in bed, and asleep.”

“I can wait until he awakes.”

“Then wait where you are, Ambimelech!”

And with this inhospitable rejoinder the orderly was about to return to his place at the side of his patient, when Servadac, who had been roused by the sound of voices, called out, “What’s the matter, Ben Zoof?”

“Oh, nothing, sir; only that hound of a Hakkabut says he wants to speak to you.”

“Let him in, then.” Ben Zoof hesitated. “Let him in, I say,” repeated the captain, peremptorily.

However reluctantly, Ben Zoof obeyed. The door was unfastened, and Isaac Hakkabut, enveloped in an old overcoat, shuffled into the gallery. In a few moments Servadac approached, and Isaac began to overwhelm him with the most obsequious epithets. The captain beckoned to the old man to follow him, and leading the way to the central hall, stopped, and turning so as to look him steadily in the face, said, “Now is your opportunity. Tell me what you want.”

“Oh, my lord, my lord,” whined Isaac, “you must have some news to tell me.”

“News? What do you mean?”

“From my little tartan yonder, I saw the yawl go out from the rock here on a journey, and I saw it come back, and it was carefully unloaded…”


“So, Monsieur le Gouverneur, isn’t it true that you have entertained a stranger…?”

“Do you know him?”

“I didn’t say that, Monsieur le Gouverneur. It’s just that I wanted—I wanted—”

“Wanted what?”

“To speak to the stranger, since he has perhaps returned from…”

“From where?”

“From the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and surely he has brought…”

“Brought what?”

“Brought tidings of Europe,” Hakkabut blurted out at last.

Servadac shrugged his shoulders in contempt and turned away. Here was a man who had been resident three months in Gallia, a living witness of all the abnormal phenomena that had occurred, and yet refusing to believe that his hope of making good bargains with European traders was at an end. Surely nothing, thought the captain, will convince the old rascal now; and he moved off in disgust. The orderly, however, who had listened with much amusement, was by no means disinclined for the conversation to be continued. “Are you satisfied, old Ezekiel?” he asked.

“Isn’t it so? Am I not right?” inquired the trader, his eyes alight. “Didn’t a stranger arrive here last night?”

“He did,” replied Ben Zoof.


“I should hope so.”

“And if I could be permitted to know, Monsieur Ben Zoof, from which portion of Europe did this voyager come?”

“From the Balearic Isles,” replied Ben Zoof, who wanted to see where Isaac Hakkabut was going with these enquiries.

“The Balearic Isles?” echoed Isaac. “A pretty part of the Mediterranean for trade! Where I’ve often struck good bargains. The Hansa is well known in that archipelago!”

“Too well known!”

“But those islands are hardly twenty-five leagues from Spain! He must have brought news from Europe!”

“Yes, old Manasseh, and I’m sure he’d be delighted to pass them on to you”

“Truly, Monsieur Ben Zoof?”


“I couldn’t spare more…” said Isaac, hesitantly. “No… certainly… I am a poor man, you know … I couldn’t spare more than a few reals if you would let me talk to this stranger.”

“You could spare that?”

“Yes… But I’d give you them straight away … on condition that I speak to him straight away.”

“Done!” replied Ben Zoof. “Unfortunately, he is too tired, our traveller; he is fast asleep.”

“But if he were woken up….”

The captain had overheard the tenor of the conversation, and interposed sternly, “Hakkabut! if you make the least attempt to disturb our visitor, I shall have you turned outside that door immediately.”

“Monsieur le gouverneur, replied Isaac, humbly and in a suppliant tone. “I was only hoping to know…”

“I will tell you what,” said Captain Servadac. “I will give you leave to hear what our new companion has to say as soon as he is able to tell us any news from Europe.”

“Me too,” said Ben Zoof. “I’m keen to see the rejoicing figure you cut.”

Isaac Hakkabut did not have long to wait, for within a few minutes Rosette’s peevish voice was heard calling, “Eh! Joseph! The devil take that idiot. Are you coming, Jospeh?”

The professor did not open his eyes, and appeared to be still slumbering, but very shortly afterwards called out, “Joseph! Confound the fellow! where is he?” It was evident that he was half dreaming about a former servant now far away on the ancient globe. “Where’s my blackboard, Joseph?”

“Quite safe, sir,” answered Ben Zoof, quickly.

Rosette unclosed his eyes and fixed them full upon the orderly’s face. “Are you Joseph?” he asked.

“At your service, sir,” replied Ben Zoof with imperturbable gravity.

“Then get me my coffee, and be quick about it.”

Ben Zoof left to go into the kitchen, and Servadac approached the professor in order to assist him in rising to a sitting posture.

“Do you recognize your quondam pupil, professor?” he asked.

“Ah, yes, yes; you are Servadac,” replied Rosette. “It is twelve years or more since I saw you; I hope you have improved.”

“Quite a reformed character, sir, I assure you,” said Servadac, smiling.

“Well, that’s as it should be; that’s right,” said the astronomer with fussy importance. “But let me have my coffee,” he added impatiently; “I cannot collect my thoughts without my coffee.”

Fortunately, Ben Zoof appeared with a great cup, hot and strong. After draining it with much apparent relish, the professor got out of bed, walked into the common hall, round which he glanced with a preoccupied air, and proceeded to seat himself in an armchair, the most comfortable which the cabin of the Dobryna had supplied. Then, in a voice full of satisfaction, and that involuntarily recalled the exclamations of delight that had wound up the two first of the mysterious documents that had been received, he burst out, “Well, gentlemen, what do you think of Gallia?”

There was no time for anyone to make a reply before Isaac Hakkabut had darted forward.

At the sight of Isaac, the professor frowned severely and spoke in a startled tone:

“Who is that?” he demanded, and pushed Hakkabut away with his hand.

“Don’t mind him,” said Ben Zoof.

But it was no easy matter restraining Isaac, any more than it was preventing him from speaking. He pressed on regardless of the efforts that were made to silence him

“Sir,” he cried, “In the name of the God of Abraham, of Israel and Jacob, I beseech you to give me some tidings of Europe!”

The professor sprang from his seat as if he were electrified.

“News of Europe?” he shouted. “He wants news of Europe?”

“Yes... yes …” responded Isaac, clinging most tenaciously to the professor’s chair the better to resist Ben Zoof’s attempts to remove him.

“But… why?”

“I want to get back there!”

“He wants to get back there. Hmm. What’s today’s date?” asked the professor.

“It is the twentieth of April,” answered Captain Servadac.

“Then today, the twentieth of Aprul” said the astronomer, speaking with the greatest deliberation—“today Europe is a mere one hundred and twenty three million leagues away from us!”

Isaac Hakkabut collapsed like a man having a cardiac arrest.

“You seem here,” continued the professor, “to be very ignorant of the state of things.”

“How far we are ignorant,” rejoined Servadac, “I cannot tell. But I will tell you all that we do know, and all that we have surmised.” And as briefly as he could, he related all that had happened since the memorable night of the thirty-first of December; how they had experienced the shock; how the Dobryna had made her voyage; how they had discovered nothing except the fragments of the old continent at Tunis, Sardinia, Gibraltar, and now at Formentera; how at intervals the three anonymous documents had been received; and, finally, how the settlement at Gourbi Island had been abandoned for their present quarters at Nina’s Hive.

The astronomer had hardly patience to hear him to the end. “And what do you say is your surmise as to your present position?” he asked.

“We believe that we are on a new asteroid that is orbiting within the solar system,” the captain replied.

“And do you know of what this asteroid is composed?”

“A considerable fragment of the terrestrial globe.”

“Detached! Precisely, detached. A fragment of the terrestrial globe! And by what has it been detached?”

“By the shock of a cometary collision, a comet to which you appear to have given the name of Gallia.”

“Very good, messieurs,” said Palmyrin Rosette, leaping to his feet. “It’s even better than that!”

“Better than that?” Lieutenant Procope repeated in lively tones.

“Yes,” said the professor. “Yes! You are correct to a certain degree. It is quite true that at 47′ 35.6″ after two o’clock on the morning of the first of January there was a collision; my comet grazed the Earth; and the bits of the Earth which you have named were carried clean away.”

“Where, then,” cried Servadac eagerly, “where are we?”

“You are on my comet, on Gallia itself!”

And the professor gazed around him with a perfect air of triumph.

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