Off on a Comet

Chapter XXX

In which Palmyrin Rosette finds the supplies of the colony to be insufficient for his needs

Under the still the still diminishing influence of the sun’s attraction, but without let or hindrance, Gallia continued its interplanetary course, accompanied by Nerina, its captured satellite, which performed its fortnightly revolutions with unvarying regularity.

Meanwhile, the question beyond all others important was ever recurring to the minds of Servadac and his two companions: were the astronomer’s calculations correct, and was there a sound foundation for his prediction that the comet would again touch the Earth? But whatever might be their doubts or anxieties, they were fain to keep all their misgivings to themselves; the professor was of a temper far too crossgrained for them to venture to ask him to revise or re-examine the results of his observations.

The rest of the community by no means shared in their uneasiness. Negrete and his fellow-countrymen yielded to their destiny with philosophical indifference. Happier and better provided for than they had ever been in their lives, it did not give them a passing thought, far less cause any serious concern, whether they were still circling round the sun, or whether they were being carried right away within the limits of another system. Utterly careless of the future, the majos, light-hearted as ever, carolled out their favourite songs, just as if they had never quitted the shores of their native land.

Happiest of all were Pablo and Nina. Racing through the galleries of the Hive, clambering over the rocks upon the shore, one day skating far away across the frozen ocean, the next fishing in the lake that was kept liquid by the heat of the lava-torrent, the two children led a life of perpetual enjoyment. Nor was their recreation allowed to interfere with their studies. Captain Servadac, who in common with the count really liked them both, conceived that the responsibilities of a parent in some degree had devolved upon him, and took great care in superintending their daily lessons, which he succeeded in making hardly less pleasant than their sports.

Indulged and loved by all, it was little wonder that young Pablo had no longing for the scorching plains of Andalusia, or that little Nina had lost all wish to return with her pet goat to the barren rocks of Sardinia. They had now a home in which they had nothing to desire.

“Have you no father nor mother?” asked Pablo, one day.

“No,” she answered.

“No more have I,” said the boy,

“I used to run along by the side of the diligences when I was in Spain.” “I used to look after goats at Madalena,” said Nina. “But now we are no longer alone,”

“Non, Nina, not in the least alone,” said Pablo.

“The governor is our papa, and the count and the lieutenant our uncles.”

“And Ben Zoof our comrade.”

“And everybody else is so kind. I am afraid they will spoil us, Pablo,” she added, smiling.

“Oh, no, Nina; you are too good to be spoiled, and when I am with you, you make me good too,” said Pablo.

“I am your sister, and you are my brother,” said Nina, gravely.

“That’s right,” replied Pablo.

July had now arrived. During the month Gallia’s advance along its orbit would be reduced to 22,000,000 leagues, the distance from the sun at the end being 172,000,000 leagues, about four and a half times as great as the average distance of the Earth from the sun. It was travelling now at about the same speed as the Earth, which traverses the ecliptic at a rate of 21,000,000 leagues a month, or 28,800 leagues an hour.

In due time the 62nd of April, according to the revised Gallian calendar, dawned; and in punctual fulfilment of the professor’s appointment, a note was delivered to Servadac to say that he was ready, and hoped that day to commence operations for calculating the mass and density of his comet, as well as the force of gravity at its surface.

A point of far greater interest to Captain Servadac and his friends would have been to ascertain the nature of the substance of which the comet was composed, but they felt pledged to render the professor any aid they could in the researches upon which he had set his heart. Without delay, therefore, they assembled in the central hall, where they were soon joined by Rosette, who seemed to be in fairly good temper.

“Gentlemen,” he began, “I propose today to endeavour to complete our observations of the elements of my comet. Three matters of investigation are before us. First, the measure of gravity at its surface; this attractive force we know, by the increase of our own muscular force, must of course be considerably less than that at the surface of the Earth. Secondly, its mass, that is, the quality of its matter. And thirdly, its density or quantity of matter in a unit of its volume. We will proceed, gentlemen, if you please, to weigh Gallia.”

Ben Zoof, who had just entered the hall, caught the professor’s last sentence, and without saying a word, went out again and was absent for some minutes. When he returned, he said, “If you want to weigh this comet of yours, I suppose you want a pair of scales; but I have been to look, and I cannot find a pair anywhere. And what’s more,” he added mischievously, “you won’t get them anywhere.”

A frown came over the professor’s countenance. Servadac saw it, and gave his orderly a sign that he should desist entirely from his bantering.

“I require, gentlemen,” resumed Rosette, “first of all to know by how much the weight of a kilogram here differs from its weight upon the Earth; the attraction, as we have said, being less, the weight will proportionately be less also.”

“Then an ordinary pair of scales, being under the influence of attraction, I suppose, would not answer your purpose,” submitted the lieutenant.

“And the very kilogram weight you used would have become lighter,” put in the count, deferentially.

“Pray, gentlemen, do not interrupt me,” said the professor, authoritatively, as if ex cathedra.” I need no instruction on these points.”

Procope and Timascheff demurely bowed their heads.

The professor resumed. “Upon a spring balance, or spring-balance, dependent upon mere tension or flexibility, the attraction will have no influence. If I suspend a weight equivalent to the weight of a kilogram, the index will register the proper weight on the surface of Gallia. Thus I shall arrive at the difference I want: the difference between the Earth’s attraction and the comet’s. Will you, therefore, have the goodness to provide me at once with a spring balance and a tested kilogram?”

The audience looked at one another, and then at Ben Zoof, who was thoroughly acquainted with all their resources. “We have neither one nor the other,” said the orderly.

The professor stamped with vexation.

“I believe old Hakkabut has a spring balance on board his tartan,” said Ben Zoof, presently.

“Then why didn’t you say so before, you idiot?” roared the excitable little man.

Anxious to pacify him, Servadac assured him that every exertion should be made to procure the instrument, and directed Ben Zoof to go to the Jew and borrow it.

“No, stop a moment,” he said, as Ben Zoof was moving away on his errand; “perhaps I had better go with you myself; the old Jew may make a difficulty about lending us any of his property.”

“Why should we not all go?” asked the count; “we should see what kind of a life the misanthrope leads on board the Hansa.”

The proposal met with general approbation. Before they started, Professor Rosette requested that one of the men might be ordered to cut him a cubic decimetre out of the solid substance of Gallia. “My engineer is the man for that,” said the count; “he will do it well for you if you will give him the precise measurement.”

“What! you don’t mean,” exclaimed the professor, again going off into a passion, “that you haven’t a proper measure of length?”

Ben Zoof was sent off to ransack the stores for the article in question, but no measure was forthcoming. “Most likely we shall find one on the tartan,” said the orderly.

“Then let us lose no time in trying,” answered the professor, as he hustled with hasty strides into the gallery.

The rest of the party followed, and were soon in the open air upon the rocks that overhung the shore. They descended to the level of the frozen water and made their way towards the little creek where the Dobryna and the Hansa lay firmly imprisoned in their icy bonds.

The temperature was low beyond previous experience; but well muffled up in fur, they all endured it without much actual suffering. Their breath issued in vapour, which was at once congealed into little crystals upon their whiskers, beards, eyebrows, and eyelashes, until their faces, covered with countless snow-white prickles, were truly ludicrous. The little professor, most comical of all, resembled nothing so much as the cub of an Arctic bear.

It was eight o’clock in the morning. The sun was rapidly approaching the zenith; but its disc, from the extreme remoteness, was proportionately dwarfed; its beams being all but destitute of their proper warmth and radiance. The volcano to its very summit and the surrounding rocks were still covered with the unsullied mantle of snow that had fallen while the atmosphere was still to some extent charged with vapour; but on the north side the snow had given place to the cascade of fiery lava, which, making its way down the sloping rocks as far as the vaulted opening of the central cavern, fell thence perpendicularly into the sea. Above the cavern, 130 feet up the mountain, was a dark hole, above which the stream of lava made a bifurcation in its course. From this hole projected the case of an astronomer’s telescope; it was the opening of Palmyrin Rosette’s observatory.

Sea and land seemed blended into one dreary whiteness, to which the pale blue sky offered scarcely any contrast. The shore was indented with the marks of many footsteps left by the colonists either on their way to collect ice for drinking purposes, or as the result of their skating expeditions; the edges of the skates had cut out a labyrinth of curves as complicated as the figures traced by aquatic insects upon the surface of a pool.

Across the quarter of a mile of level ground that lay between the mountain and the creek, a series of footprints, frozen hard into the snow, marked the course taken by Isaac Hakkabut on his last return from Nina’s Hive.

On approaching the creek, Lieutenant Procope drew his companions’ attention to the elevation of the Dobryna’s and Hansa’s waterlines, both vessels being now some fifteen feet above the level of the sea.

“What a strange phenomenon!” exclaimed the captain.

“It makes me very uneasy,” rejoined the lieutenant; “in shallow places like this, as the crust of ice thickens, it forces everything upwards with irresistible force.”

“But surely this process of congealing must have a limit!” said the count.

“But who can say what that limit will be? Remember that we have not yet reached our maximum of cold,” replied Procope.

“Indeed, I hope not!” exclaimed the professor; “where would be the use of our travelling 200,000,000 leagues from the sun, if we are only to experience the same temperature as we should find at the poles of the Earth?”

“Fortunately for us, however, professor,” said the lieutenant, with a smile, “the temperature of the remotest space never descends beyond 70 degrees below zero.”

“And as long as there is no wind,” added Servadac, “we may pass comfortably through the winter, without a single attack of catarrh.”

Lieutenant Procope proceeded to impart to the count his anxiety about the situation of his yacht. He pointed out that by the constant superposition of new deposits of ice, the vessel would be elevated to a great height, and consequently in the event of a thaw, it must be exposed to a calamity similar to those which in polar seas cause destruction to so many whalers.

There was no time now for concerting measures offhand to prevent the disaster, for the other members of the party had already reached the spot where the Hansa lay bound in her icy trammels. A flight of steps, recently hewn by Hakkabut himself, gave access for the present to the gangway, but it was evident that some different contrivance would have to be resorted to when the tartan should be elevated perhaps to a hundred feet.

A thin curl of blue smoke issued from the copper funnel that projected above the mass of snow which had accumulated upon the deck of the Hansa. The owner was sparing of his fuel, and it was only the nonconducting layer of ice enveloping the tartan that rendered the internal temperature endurable.

“Hi! old Nebuchadnezzar, where are you?” shouted Ben Zoof, at the full strength of his lungs.

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