CHARLES F. HORNE, Ph.D.
Professor of English, College of the City of New York; Author of “The Technique of the Novel,” etc.
F. TYLER DANIELS COMPANY, INC.
NEW YORK : : : : LONDON
BY VINCENT PARKE AND COMPANY
_INTRODUCTION TO VOLUME NINE
Among so many effective and artistic tales, it is difficult to give a preference to one over all the rest. Yet, certainly, even amid Verne’s remarkable works, his “Off on a Comet” must be given high rank. Perhaps this story will be remembered when even “Round the World in Eighty Days” and “Michael Strogoff” have been obliterated by centuries of time. At least, of the many books since written upon the same theme as Verne’s, no one has yet succeeded in equaling or even approaching it.
In one way “Off on a Comet” shows a marked contrast to Verne’s earlier books. Not only does it invade a region more remote than even the “Trip to the Moon,” but the author here abandons his usual scrupulously scientific attitude. In order that he may escort us through the depths of immeasurable space, show us what astronomy really knows of conditions there and upon the other planets, Verne asks us to accept a situation frankly impossible. The earth and a comet are brought twice into collision without mankind in general, or even our astronomers, becoming conscious of the fact. Moreover several people from widely scattered places are carried off by the comet and returned uninjured. Yet further, the comet snatches for the convenience of its travelers, both air and water. Little, useful tracts of earth are picked up and, as it were, turned over and clapped down right side up again upon the comet’s surface. Even ships pass uninjured through this remarkable somersault. These events all belong frankly to the realm of fairyland.
If the situation were reproduced in actuality, if ever a comet should come into collision with the earth, we can conceive two scientifically possible results. If the comet were of such attenuation, such almost infinitesimal mass as some of these celestial wanderers seem to be, we can imagine our earth self-protective and possibly unharmed. If, on the other hand, the comet had even a hundredth part of the size and solidity and weight which Verne confers upon his monster so as to give his travelers a home– in that case the collision would be unspeakably disastrous– especially to the unlucky individuals who occupied the exact point of contact.
But once granted the initial and the closing extravagance, the departure and return of his characters, the alpha and omega of his tale, how closely the author clings to facts between! How closely he follows, and imparts to his readers, the scientific probabilities of the universe beyond our earth, the actual knowledge so hard won by our astronomers! Other authors who, since Verne, have told of trips through the planetary and stellar universe have given free rein to fancy, to dreams of what might be found. Verne has endeavored to impart only what is known to exist.
In the same year with “Off on a Comet,” 1877, was published also the tale variously named and translated as “The Black Indies,” “The Underground City,” and “The Child of the Cavern.” This story, like “Round the World in Eighty Days” was first issued in “feuilleton” by the noted Paris newspaper “Le Temps.” Its success did not equal that of its predecessor in this style. Some critics indeed have pointed to this work as marking the beginning of a decline in the author’s power of awaking interest. Many of his best works were, however, still to follow. And, as regards imagination and the elements of mystery and awe, surely in the “Underground City” with its cavern world, its secret, undiscoverable, unrelenting foe, the “Harfang,” bird of evil omen, and the “fire maidens” of the ruined castle, surely with all these “imagination” is anything but lacking.
From the realistic side, the work is painstaking and exact as all the author’s works. The sketches of mines and miners, their courage and their dangers, their lives and their hopes, are carefully studied. So also is the emotional aspect of the deeps under ground, the blackness, the endless wandering passages, the silence, and the awe._
Off on a Comet OR Hector Servadac
Nothing, sir, can induce me to surrender my claim.”
“I am sorry, count, but in such a matter your views cannot modify mine.”
“But allow me to point out that my seniority unquestionably gives me a prior right.”
“Mere seniority, I assert, in an affair of this kind, cannot possibly entitle you to any prior claim whatever.”
“Then, captain, no alternative is left but for me to compel you to yield at the sword’s point.”
“As you please, count; but neither sword nor pistol can force me to forego my pretensions. Here is my card.”
This rapid altercation was thus brought to an end by the formal interchange of the names of the disputants. On one of the cards was inscribed:
_Captain Hector Servadac,
Staff Officer, Mostaganem._
On the other was the title:
_Count Wassili Timascheff,
On board the Schooner “Dobryna.”_
It did not take long to arrange that seconds should be appointed, who would meet in Mostaganem at two o’clock that day; and the captain and the count were on the point of parting from each other, with a salute of punctilious courtesy, when Timascheff, as if struck by a sudden thought, said abruptly: “Perhaps it would be better, captain, not to allow the real cause of this to transpire?”
“Far better,” replied Servadac; “it is undesirable in every way for any names to be mentioned.”
“In that case, however,” continued the count, “it will be necessary to assign an ostensible pretext of some kind. Shall we allege a musical dispute? a contention in which I feel bound to defend Wagner, while you are the zealous champion of Rossini?”
“I am quite content,” answered Servadac, with a smile; and with another low bow they parted.
The scene, as here depicted, took place upon the extremity of a little cape on the Algerian coast, between Mostaganem and Tenes, about two miles from the mouth of the Shelif. The headland rose more than sixty feet above the sea-level, and the azure waters of the Mediterranean, as they softly kissed the strand, were tinged with the reddish hue of the ferriferous rocks that formed its base. It was the 31st of December. The noontide sun, which usually illuminated the various projections of the coast with a dazzling brightness, was hidden by a dense mass of cloud, and the fog, which for some unaccountable cause, had hung for the last two months over nearly every region in the world, causing serious interruption to traffic between continent and continent, spread its dreary veil across land and sea.
After taking leave of the staff-officer, Count Wassili Timascheff wended his way down to a small creek, and took his seat in the stern of a light four-oar that had been awaiting his return; this was immediately pushed off from shore, and was soon alongside a pleasure-yacht, that was lying to, not many cable lengths away.
At a sign from Servadac, an orderly, who had been standing at a respectful distance, led forward a magnificent Arabian horse; the captain vaulted into the saddle, and followed by his attendant, well mounted as himself, started off towards Mostaganem. It was half-past twelve when the two riders crossed the bridge that had been recently erected over the Shelif, and a quarter of an hour later their steeds, flecked with foam, dashed through the Mascara Gate, which was one of five entrances opened in the embattled wall that encircled the town.
At that date, Mostaganem contained about fifteen thousand inhabitants, three thousand of whom were French. Besides being one of the principal district towns of the province of Oran, it was also a military station. Mostaganem rejoiced in a well-sheltered harbor, which enabled her to utilize all the rich products of the Mina and the Lower Shelif. It was the existence of so good a harbor amidst the exposed cliffs of this coast that had induced the owner of the _Dobryna_ to winter in these parts, and for two months the Russian standard had been seen floating from her yard, whilst on her mast-head was hoisted the pennant of the French Yacht Club, with the distinctive letters M. C. W. T., the initials of Count Timascheff.
Having entered the town, Captain Servadac made his way towards Matmore, the military quarter, and was not long in finding two friends on whom he might rely–a major of the 2nd Fusileers, and a captain of the 8th Artillery. The two officers listened gravely enough to Servadac’s request that they would act as his seconds in an affair of honor, but could not resist a smile on hearing that the dispute between him and the count had originated in a musical discussion. Surely, they suggested, the matter might be easily arranged; a few slight concessions on either side, and all might be amicably adjusted. But no representations on their part were of any avail. Hector Servadac was inflexible.
“No concession is possible,” he replied, resolutely. “Rossini has been deeply injured, and I cannot suffer the injury to be unavenged. Wagner is a fool. I shall keep my word. I am quite firm.”
“Be it so, then,” replied one of the officers; “and after all, you know, a sword-cut need not be a very serious affair.”
“Certainly not,” rejoined Servadac; “and especially in my case, when I have not the slightest intention of being wounded at all.”
Incredulous as they naturally were as to the assigned cause of the quarrel, Servadac’s friends had no alternative but to accept his explanation, and without farther parley they started for the staff office, where, at two o’clock precisely, they were to meet the seconds of Count Timascheff. Two hours later they had returned. All the preliminaries had been arranged; the count, who like many Russians abroad was an aide-de-camp of the Czar, had of course proposed swords as the most appropriate weapons, and the duel was to take place on the following morning, the first of January, at nine o’clock, upon the cliff at a spot about a mile and a half from the mouth of the Shelif. With the assurance that they would not fail to keep their appointment with military punctuality, the two officers cordially wrung their friend’s hand and retired to the Zulma Cafe for a game at piquet. Captain Servadac at once retraced his steps and left the town.
For the last fortnight Servadac had not been occupying his proper lodgings in the military quarters; having been appointed to make a local levy, he had been living in a gourbi, or native hut, on the Mostaganem coast, between four and five miles from the Shelif. His orderly was his sole companion, and by any other man than the captain the enforced exile would have been esteemed little short of a severe penance.
On his way to the gourbi, his mental occupation was a very laborious effort to put together what he was pleased to call a rondo, upon a model of versification all but obsolete. This rondo, it is unnecessary to conceal, was to be an ode addressed to a young widow by whom he had been captivated, and whom he was anxious to marry, and the tenor of his muse was intended to prove that when once a man has found an object in all respects worthy of his affections, he should love her “in all simplicity.” Whether the aphorism were universally true was not very material to the gallant captain, whose sole ambition at present was to construct a roundelay of which this should be the prevailing sentiment. He indulged the fancy that he might succeed in producing a composition which would have a fine effect here in Algeria, where poetry in that form was all but unknown.
“I know well enough,” he said repeatedly to himself, “what I want to say. I want to tell her that I love her sincerely, and wish to marry her; but, confound it! the words won’t rhyme. Plague on it! Does nothing rhyme with ‘simplicity’? Ah! I have it now: ‘Lovers should, whoe’er they be,
Love in all simplicity.’
But what next? how am I to go on? I say, Ben Zoof,” he called aloud to his orderly, who was trotting silently close in his rear, “did you ever compose any poetry?”
“No, captain,” answered the man promptly: “I have never made any verses, but I have seen them made fast enough at a booth during the fete of Montmartre.”
“Can you remember them?”
“Remember them! to be sure I can. This is the way they began:
‘Come in! come in! you’ll not repent
The entrance money you have spent;
The wondrous mirror in this place
Reveals your future sweetheart’s face.'”
“Bosh!” cried Servadac in disgust; “your verses are detestable trash.”
“As good as any others, captain, squeaked through a reed pipe.”
“Hold your tongue, man,” said Servadac peremptorily; “I have made another couplet.
‘Lovers should, whoe’er they be, Love in all simplicity;
Lover, loving honestly,
Offer I myself to thee.'”
Beyond this, however, the captain’s poetical genius was impotent to carry him; his farther efforts were unavailing, and when at six o’clock he reached the gourbi, the four lines still remained the limit of his composition.
CAPTAIN SERVADAC AND HIS ORDERLY
At the time of which I write, there might be seen in the registers of the Minister of War the following entry:
SERVADAC (_Hector_), born at St. Trelody in the district of Lesparre, department of the Gironde, July 19th, 18–.
_Property:_ 1200 francs in rentes.
_Length of service:_ Fourteen years, three months, and five days.
_Service:_ Two years at school at St. Cyr; two years at L’Ecole d’Application; two years in the 8th Regiment of the Line; two years in the 3rd Light Cavalry; seven years in Algeria.
_Campaigns:_ Soudan and Japan.
_Rank:_ Captain on the staff at Mostaganem.
_Decorations:_ Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, March 13th, 18–.
Hector Servadac was thirty years of age, an orphan without lineage and almost without means. Thirsting for glory rather than for gold, slightly scatter-brained, but warm-hearted, generous, and brave, he was eminently formed to be the protege of the god of battles.
For the first year and a half of his existence he had been the foster-child of the sturdy wife of a vine-dresser of Medoc– a lineal descendant of the heroes of ancient prowess; in a word, he was one of those individuals whom nature seems to have predestined for remarkable things, and around whose cradle have hovered the fairy godmothers of adventure and good luck.
In appearance Hector Servadac was quite the type of an officer; he was rather more than five feet six inches high, slim and graceful, with dark curling hair and mustaches, well-formed hands and feet, and a clear blue eye. He seemed born to please without being conscious of the power he possessed. It must be owned, and no one was more ready to confess it than himself, that his literary attainments were by no means of a high order. “We don’t spin tops” is a favorite saying amongst artillery officers, indicating that they do not shirk their duty by frivolous pursuits; but it must be confessed that Servadac, being naturally idle, was very much given to “spinning tops.” His good abilities, however, and his ready intelligence had carried him successfully through the curriculum of his early career. He was a good draughtsman, an excellent rider–having thoroughly mastered the successor to the famous “Uncle Tom” at the riding-school of St. Cyr– and in the records of his military service his name had several times been included in the order of the day.
The following episode may suffice, in a certain degree, to illustrate his character. Once, in action, he was leading a detachment of infantry through an intrenchment. They came to a place where the side-work of the trench had been so riddled by shell that a portion of it had actually fallen in, leaving an aperture quite unsheltered from the grape-shot that was pouring in thick and fast. The men hesitated. In an instant Servadac mounted the side-work, laid himself down in the gap, and thus filling up the breach by his own body, shouted, “March on!”
And through a storm of shot, not one of which touched the prostrate officer, the troop passed in safety.
Since leaving the military college, Servadac, with the exception of his two campaigns in the Soudan and Japan, had been always stationed in Algeria. He had now a staff appointment at Mostaganem, and had lately been entrusted with some topographical work on the coast between Tenes and the Shelif. It was a matter of little consequence to him that the gourbi, in which of necessity he was quartered, was uncomfortable and ill-contrived; he loved the open air, and the independence of his life suited him well. Sometimes he would wander on foot upon the sandy shore, and sometimes he would enjoy a ride along the summit of the cliff; altogether being in no hurry at all to bring his task to an end. His occupation, moreover, was not so engrossing but that he could find leisure for taking a short railway journey once or twice a week; so that he was ever and again putting in an appearance at the general’s receptions at Oran, and at the fetes given by the governor at Algiers.
It was on one of these occasions that he had first met Madame de L—-, the lady to whom he was desirous of dedicating the rondo, the first four lines of which had just seen the light. She was a colonel’s widow, young and handsome, very reserved, not to say haughty in her manner, and either indifferent or impervious to the admiration which she inspired. Captain Servadac had not yet ventured to declare his attachment; of rivals he was well aware he had not a few, and amongst these not the least formidable was the Russian Count Timascheff. And although the young widow was all unconscious of the share she had in the matter, it was she, and she alone, who was the cause of the challenge just given and accepted by her two ardent admirers.
During his residence in the gourbi, Hector Servadac’s sole companion was his orderly, Ben Zoof. Ben Zoof was devoted, body and soul, to his superior officer. His own personal ambition was so entirely absorbed in his master’s welfare, that it is certain no offer of promotion–even had it been that of aide-de-camp to the Governor-General of Algiers– would have induced him to quit that master’s service. His name might seem to imply that he was a native of Algeria; but such was by no means the case. His true name was Laurent; he was a native of Montmartre in Paris, and how or why he had obtained his patronymic was one of those anomalies which the most sagacious of etymologists would find it hard to explain.
Born on the hill of Montmartre, between the Solferino tower and the mill of La Galette, Ben Zoof had ever possessed the most unreserved admiration for his birthplace; and to his eyes the heights and district of Montmartre represented an epitome of all the wonders of the world. In all his travels, and these had been not a few, he had never beheld scenery which could compete with that of his native home. No cathedral–not even Burgos itself–could vie with the church at Montmartre. Its race-course could well hold its own against that at Pentelique; its reservoir would throw the Mediterranean into the shade; its forests had flourished long before the invasion of the Celts; and its very mill produced no ordinary flour, but provided material for cakes of world-wide renown. To crown all, Montmartre boasted a mountain–a veritable mountain; envious tongues indeed might pronounce it little more than a hill; but Ben Zoof would have allowed himself to be hewn in pieces rather than admit that it was anything less than fifteen thousand feet in height.
Ben Zoof’s most ambitious desire was to induce the captain to go with him and end his days in his much-loved home, and so incessantly were Servadac’s ears besieged with descriptions of the unparalleled beauties and advantages of this eighteenth arrondissement of Paris, that he could scarcely hear the name of Montmartre without a conscious thrill of aversion. Ben Zoof, however, did not despair of ultimately converting the captain, and meanwhile had resolved never to leave him. When a private in the 8th Cavalry, he had been on the point of quitting the army at twenty-eight years of age, but unexpectedly he had been appointed orderly to Captain Servadac. Side by side they fought in two campaigns. Servadac had saved Ben Zoof’s life in Japan; Ben Zoof had rendered his master a like service in the Soudan. The bond of union thus effected could never be severed; and although Ben Zoof’s achievements had fairly earned him the right of retirement, he firmly declined all honors or any pension that might part him from his superior officer. Two stout arms, an iron constitution, a powerful frame, and an indomitable courage were all loyally devoted to his master’s service, and fairly entitled him to his _soi-disant_ designation of “The Rampart of Montmartre.” Unlike his master, he made no pretension to any gift of poetic power, but his inexhaustible memory made him a living encyclopaedia; and for his stock of anecdotes and trooper’s tales he was matchless.
Thoroughly appreciating his servant’s good qualities, Captain Servadac endured with imperturbable good humor those idiosyncrasies, which in a less faithful follower would have been intolerable, and from time to time he would drop a word of sympathy that served to deepen his subordinate’s devotion.
On one occasion, when Ben Zoof had mounted his hobby-horse, and was indulging in high-flown praises about his beloved eighteenth arrondissement, the captain had remarked gravely, “Do you know, Ben Zoof, that Montmartre only requires a matter of some thirteen thousand feet to make it as high as Mont Blanc?”
Ben Zoof’s eyes glistened with delight; and from that moment Hector Servadac and Montmartre held equal places in his affection.
Composed of mud and loose stones, and covered with a thatch of turf and straw, known to the natives by the name of “driss,” the gourbi, though a grade better than the tents of the nomad Arabs, was yet far inferior to any habitation built of brick or stone. It adjoined an old stone hostelry, previously occupied by a detachment of engineers, and which now afforded shelter for Ben Zoof and the two horses. It still contained a considerable number of tools, such as mattocks, shovels, and pick-axes.
Uncomfortable as was their temporary abode, Servadac and his attendant made no complaints; neither of them was dainty in the matter either of board or lodging. After dinner, leaving his orderly to stow away the remains of the repast in what he was pleased to term the “cupboard of his stomach.” Captain Servadac turned out into the open air to smoke his pipe upon the edge of the cliff. The shades of night were drawing on. An hour previously, veiled in heavy clouds, the sun had sunk below the horizon that bounded the plain beyond the Shelif.
The sky presented a most singular appearance. Towards the north, although the darkness rendered it impossible to see beyond a quarter of a mile, the upper strata of the atmosphere were suffused with a rosy glare. No well-defined fringe of light, nor arch of luminous rays, betokened a display of aurora borealis, even had such a phenomenon been possible in these latitudes; and the most experienced meteorologist would have been puzzled to explain the cause of this striking illumination on this 31st of December, the last evening of the passing year.
But Captain Servadac was no meteorologist, and it is to be doubted whether, since leaving school, he had ever opened his “Course of Cosmography.” Besides, he had other thoughts to occupy his mind. The prospects of the morrow offered serious matter for consideration. The captain was actuated by no personal animosity against the count; though rivals, the two men regarded each other with sincere respect; they had simply reached a crisis in which one of them was _de trop;_ which of them, fate must decide.
At eight o’clock, Captain Servadac re-entered the gourbi, the single apartment of which contained his bed, a small writing-table, and some trunks that served instead of cupboards. The orderly performed his culinary operations in the adjoining building, which he also used as a bed-room, and where, extended on what he called his “good oak mattress,” he would sleep soundly as a dormouse for twelve hours at a stretch. Ben Zoof had not yet received his orders to retire, and ensconcing himself in a corner of the gourbi, he endeavored to doze–a task which the unusual agitation of his master rendered somewhat difficult. Captain Servadac was evidently in no hurry to betake himself to rest, but seating himself at his table, with a pair of compasses and a sheet of tracing-paper, he began to draw, with red and blue crayons, a variety of colored lines, which could hardly be supposed to have much connection with a topographical survey. In truth, his character of staff-officer was now entirely absorbed in that of Gascon poet. Whether he imagined that the compasses would bestow upon his verses the measure of a mathematical accuracy, or whether he fancied that the parti-colored lines would lend variety to his rhythm, it is impossible to determine; be that as it may, he was devoting all his energies to the compilation of his rondo, and supremely difficult he found the task.
“Hang it!” he ejaculated, “whatever induced me to choose this meter? It is as hard to find rhymes as to rally fugitive in a battle. But, by all the powers! it shan’t be said that a French officer cannot cope with a piece of poetry. One battalion has fought– now for the rest!”
Perseverance had its reward. Presently two lines, one red, the other blue, appeared upon the paper, and the captain murmured: “Words, mere words, cannot avail,
Telling true heart’s tender tale.”
“What on earth ails my master?” muttered Ben Zoof; “for the last hour he has been as fidgety as a bird returning after its winter migration.”
Servadac suddenly started from his seat, and as he paced the room with all the frenzy of poetic inspiration, read out: “Empty words cannot convey
All a lover’s heart would say.”
“Well, to be sure, he is at his everlasting verses again!” said Ben Zoof to himself, as he roused himself in his corner. “Impossible to sleep in such a noise;” and he gave vent to a loud groan.
“How now, Ben Zoof?” said the captain sharply. “What ails you?”
“Nothing, sir, only the nightmare.”
“Curse the fellow, he has quite interrupted me!” ejaculated the captain. “Ben Zoof!” he called aloud.
“Here, sir!” was the prompt reply; and in an instant the orderly was upon his feet, standing in a military attitude, one hand to his forehead, the other closely pressed to his trouser-seam.
“Stay where you are! don’t move an inch!” shouted Servadac; “I have just thought of the end of my rondo.” And in a voice of inspiration, accompanying his words with dramatic gestures, Servadac began to declaim:
“Listen, lady, to my vows —
O, consent to be my spouse;
Constant ever I will be,
Constant . . . .”
No closing lines were uttered. All at once, with unutterable violence, the captain and his orderly were dashed, face downwards, to the ground.
A CONVULSION OF NATURE
Whence came it that at that very moment the horizon underwent so strange and sudden a modification, that the eye of the most practiced mariner could not distinguish between sea and sky?
Whence came it that the billows raged and rose to a height hitherto unregistered in the records of science?
Whence came it that the elements united in one deafening crash; that the earth groaned as though the whole framework of the globe were ruptured; that the waters roared from their innermost depths; that the air shrieked with all the fury of a cyclone?
Whence came it that a radiance, intenser than the effulgence of the Northern Lights, overspread the firmament, and momentarily dimmed the splendor of the brightest stars?
Whence came it that the Mediterranean, one instant emptied of its waters, was the next flooded with a foaming surge?
Whence came it that in the space of a few seconds the moon’s disc reached a magnitude as though it were but a tenth part of its ordinary distance from the earth?
Whence came it that a new blazing spheroid, hitherto unknown to astronomy, now appeared suddenly in the firmament, though it were but to lose itself immediately behind masses of accumulated cloud?
What phenomenon was this that had produced a cataclysm so tremendous in effect upon earth, sky, and sea?
Was it possible that a single human being could have survived the convulsion? and if so, could he explain its mystery?
A MYSTERIOUS SEA
Violent as the commotion had been, that portion of the Algerian coast which is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean, and on the west by the right bank of the Shelif, appeared to have suffered little change. It is true that indentations were perceptible in the fertile plain, and the surface of the sea was ruffled with an agitation that was quite unusual; but the rugged outline of the cliff was the same as heretofore, and the aspect of the entire scene appeared unaltered. The stone hostelry, with the exception of some deep clefts in its walls, had sustained little injury; but the gourbi, like a house of cards destroyed by an infant’s breath, had completely subsided, and its two inmates lay motionless, buried under the sunken thatch.
It was two hours after the catastrophe that Captain Servadac regained consciousness; he had some trouble to collect his thoughts, and the first sounds that escaped his lips were the concluding words of the rondo which had been so ruthlessly interrupted; “Constant ever I will be,
Constant . . . .”
His next thought was to wonder what had happened; and in order to find an answer, he pushed aside the broken thatch, so that his head appeared above the _debris_. “The gourbi leveled to the ground!” he exclaimed, “surely a waterspout has passed along the coast.”
He felt all over his body to perceive what injuries he had sustained, but not a sprain nor a scratch could he discover. “Where are you, Ben Zoof?” he shouted.
“Here, sir!” and with military promptitude a second head protruded from the rubbish.
“Have you any notion what has happened, Ben Zoof?”
“I’ve a notion, captain, that it’s all up with us.”
“Nonsense, Ben Zoof; it is nothing but a waterspout!”
“Very good, sir,” was the philosophical reply, immediately followed by the query, “Any bones broken, sir?”
“None whatever,” said the captain.
Both men were soon on their feet, and began to make a vigorous clearance of the ruins, beneath which they found that their arms, cooking utensils, and other property, had sustained little injury.
“By-the-by, what o’clock is it?” asked the captain.
“It must be eight o’clock, at least,” said Ben Zoof, looking at the sun, which was a considerable height above the horizon. “It is almost time for us to start.”
“To start! what for?”
“To keep your appointment with Count Timascheff.”
“By Jove! I had forgotten all about it!” exclaimed Servadac. Then looking at his watch, he cried, “What are you thinking of, Ben Zoof? It is scarcely two o’clock.”
“Two in the morning, or two in the afternoon?” asked Ben Zoof, again regarding the sun.
Servadac raised his watch to his ear. “It is going,” said he; “but, by all the wines of Medoc, I am puzzled. Don’t you see the sun is in the west? It must be near setting.”
“Setting, captain! Why, it is rising finely, like a conscript at the sound of the reveille. It is considerably higher since we have been talking.”
Incredible as it might appear, the fact was undeniable that the sun was rising over the Shelif from that quarter of the horizon behind which it usually sank for the latter portion of its daily round. They were utterly bewildered. Some mysterious phenomenon must not only have altered the position of the sun in the sidereal system, but must even have brought about an important modification of the earth’s rotation on her axis.
Captain Servadac consoled himself with the prospect of reading an explanation of the mystery in next week’s newspapers, and turned his attention to what was to him of more immediate importance. “Come, let us be off,” said he to his orderly; “though heaven and earth be topsy-turvy, I must be at my post this morning.”
“To do Count Timascheff the honor of running him through the body,” added Ben Zoof.
If Servadac and his orderly had been less preoccupied, they would have noticed that a variety of other physical changes besides the apparent alteration in the movement of the sun had been evolved during the atmospheric disturbances of that New Year’s night. As they descended the steep footpath leading from the cliff towards the Shelif, they were unconscious that their respiration became forced and rapid, like that of a mountaineer when he has reached an altitude where the air has become less charged with oxygen. They were also unconscious that their voices were thin and feeble; either they must themselves have become rather deaf, or it was evident that the air had become less capable of transmitting sound.
The weather, which on the previous evening had been very foggy, had entirely changed. The sky had assumed a singular tint, and was soon covered with lowering clouds that completely hid the sun. There were, indeed, all the signs of a coming storm, but the vapor, on account of the insufficient condensation, failed to fall.
The sea appeared quite deserted, a most unusual circumstance along this coast, and not a sail nor a trail of smoke broke the gray monotony of water and sky. The limits of the horizon, too, had become much circumscribed. On land, as well as on sea, the remote distance had completely disappeared, and it seemed as though the globe had assumed a more decided convexity.
At the pace at which they were walking, it was very evident that the captain and his attendant would not take long to accomplish the three miles that lay between the gourbi and the place of rendezvous. They did not exchange a word, but each was conscious of an unusual buoyancy, which appeared to lift up their bodies and give as it were, wings to their feet. If Ben Zoof had expressed his sensations in words, he would have said that he felt “up to anything,” and he had even forgotten to taste so much as a crust of bread, a lapse of memory of which the worthy soldier was rarely guilty.
As these thoughts were crossing his mind, a harsh bark was heard to the left of the footpath, and a jackal was seen emerging from a large grove of lentisks. Regarding the two wayfarers with manifest uneasiness, the beast took up its position at the foot of a rock, more than thirty feet in height. It belonged to an African species distinguished by a black spotted skin, and a black line down the front of the legs. At night-time, when they scour the country in herds, the creatures are somewhat formidable, but singly they are no more dangerous than a dog. Though by no means afraid of them, Ben Zoof had a particular aversion to jackals, perhaps because they had no place among the fauna of his beloved Montmartre. He accordingly began to make threatening gestures, when, to the unmitigated astonishment of himself and the captain, the animal darted forward, and in one single bound gained the summit of the rock.
“Good Heavens!” cried Ben Zoof, “that leap must have been thirty feet at least.”
“True enough,” replied the captain; “I never saw such a jump.”
Meantime the jackal had seated itself upon its haunches, and was staring at the two men with an air of impudent defiance. This was too much for Ben Zoof’s forbearance, and stooping down he caught up a huge stone, when to his surprise, he found that it was no heavier than a piece of petrified sponge. “Confound the brute!” he exclaimed, “I might as well throw a piece of bread at him. What accounts for its being as light as this?”
Nothing daunted, however, he hurled the stone into the air. It missed its aim; but the jackal, deeming it on the whole prudent to decamp, disappeared across the trees and hedges with a series of bounds, which could only be likened to those that might be made by an india-rubber kangaroo. Ben Zoof was sure that his own powers of propelling must equal those of a howitzer, for his stone, after a lengthened flight through the air, fell to the ground full five hundred paces the other side of the rock.
The orderly was now some yards ahead of his master, and had reached a ditch full of water, and about ten feet wide. With the intention of clearing it, he made a spring, when a loud cry burst from Servadac. “Ben Zoof, you idiot! What are you about? You will break your back!”
And well might he be alarmed, for Ben Zoof had sprung to a height of forty feet into the air. Fearful of the consequences that would attend the descent of his servant to _terra firma_, Servadac bounded forwards, to be on the other side of the ditch in time to break his fall. But the muscular effort that he made carried him in his turn to an altitude of thirty feet; in his ascent he passed Ben Zoof, who had already commenced his downward course; and then, obedient to the laws of gravitation, he descended with increasing rapidity, and alighted upon the earth without experiencing a shock greater than if he had merely made a bound of four or five feet high.
Ben Zoof burst into a roar of laughter. “Bravo!” he said, “we should make a good pair of clowns.”
But the captain was inclined to take a more serious view of the matter. For a few seconds he stood lost in thought, then said solemnly, “Ben Zoof, I must be dreaming. Pinch me hard; I must be either asleep or mad.”
“It is very certain that something has happened to us,” said Ben Zoof. “I have occasionally dreamed that I was a swallow flying over the Montmartre, but I never experienced anything of this kind before; it must be peculiar to the coast of Algeria.”
Servadac was stupefied; he felt instinctively that he was not dreaming, and yet was powerless to solve the mystery. He was not, however, the man to puzzle himself for long over any insoluble problem. “Come what may,” he presently exclaimed, “we will make up our minds for the future to be surprised at nothing.”
“Right, captain,” replied Ben Zoof; “and, first of all, let us settle our little score with Count Timascheff.”
Beyond the ditch lay a small piece of meadow land, about an acre in extent. A soft and delicious herbage carpeted the soil, whilst trees formed a charming framework to the whole. No spot could have been chosen more suitable for the meeting between the two adversaries.
Servadac cast a hasty glance round. No one was in sight. “We are the first on the field,” he said.
“Not so sure of that, sir,” said Ben Zoof.
“What do you mean?” asked Servadac, looking at his watch, which he had set as nearly as possible by the sun before leaving the gourbi; “it is not nine o’clock yet.”
“Look up there, sir. I am much mistaken if that is not the sun;” and as Ben Zoof spoke, he pointed directly overhead to where a faint white disc was dimly visible through the haze of clouds.
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Servadac. “How can the sun be in the zenith, in the month of January, in lat. 39 degrees N.?”
“Can’t say, sir. I only know the sun is there; and at the rate he has been traveling, I would lay my cap to a dish of couscous that in less than three hours he will have set.”
Hector Servadac, mute and motionless, stood with folded arms. Presently he roused himself, and began to look about again. “What means all this?” he murmured. “Laws of gravity disturbed! Points of the compass reversed! The length of day reduced one half! Surely this will indefinitely postpone my meeting with the count. Something has happened; Ben Zoof and I cannot both be mad!”
The orderly, meantime, surveyed his master with the greatest equanimity; no phenomenon, however extraordinary, would have drawn from him a single exclamation of surprise. “Do you see anyone, Ben Zoof?” asked the captain, at last.
“No one, sir; the count has evidently been and gone.” “But supposing that to be the case,” persisted the captain, “my seconds would have waited, and not seeing me, would have come on towards the gourbi. I can only conclude that they have been unable to get here; and as for Count Timascheff–“
Without finishing his sentence. Captain Servadac, thinking it just probable that the count, as on the previous evening, might come by water, walked to the ridge of rock that overhung the shore, in order to ascertain if the _Dobryna_ were anywhere in sight. But the sea was deserted, and for the first time the captain noticed that, although the wind was calm, the waters were unusually agitated, and seethed and foamed as though they were boiling. It was very certain that the yacht would have found a difficulty in holding her own in such a swell. Another thing that now struck Servadac was the extraordinary contraction of the horizon. Under ordinary circumstances, his elevated position would have allowed him a radius of vision at least five and twenty miles in length; but the terrestrial sphere seemed, in the course of the last few hours, to have become considerably reduced in volume, and he could now see for a distance of only six miles in every direction.
Meantime, with the agility of a monkey, Ben Zoof had clambered to the top of a eucalyptus, and from his lofty perch was surveying the country to the south, as well as towards both Tenes and Mostaganem. On descending, be informed the captain that the plain was deserted.
“We will make our way to the river, and get over into Mostaganem,” said the captain.
The Shelif was not more than a mile and a half from the meadow, but no time was to be lost if the two men were to reach the town before nightfall. Though still hidden by heavy clouds, the sun was evidently declining fast; and what was equally inexplicable, it was not following the oblique curve that in these latitudes and at this time of year might be expected, but was sinking perpendicularly on to the horizon.
As he went along, Captain Servadac pondered deeply. Perchance some unheard-of phenomenon had modified the rotary motion of the globe; or perhaps the Algerian coast had been transported beyond the equator into the southern hemisphere. Yet the earth, with the exception of the alteration in its convexity, in this part of Africa at least, seemed to have undergone no change of any very great importance. As far as the eye could reach, the shore was, as it had ever been, a succession of cliffs, beach, and arid rocks, tinged with a red ferruginous hue. To the south–if south, in this inverted order of things, it might still be called–the face of the country also appeared unaltered, and some leagues away, the peaks of the Merdeyah mountains still retained their accustomed outline.
Presently a rift in the clouds gave passage to an oblique ray of light that clearly proved that the sun was setting in the east.
“Well, I am curious to know what they think of all this at Mostaganem,” said the captain. “I wonder, too, what the Minister of War will say when he receives a telegram informing him that his African colony has become, not morally, but physically disorganized; that the cardinal points are at variance with ordinary rules, and that the sun in the month of January is shining down vertically upon our heads.”
Ben Zoof, whose ideas of discipline were extremely rigid, at once suggested that the colony should be put under the surveillance of the police, that the cardinal points should be placed under restraint, and that the sun should be shot for breach of discipline.
Meantime, they were both advancing with the utmost speed. The decompression of the atmosphere made the specific gravity of their bodies extraordinarily light, and they ran like hares and leaped like chamois. Leaving the devious windings of the footpath, they went as a crow would fly across the country. Hedges, trees, and streams were cleared at a bound, and under these conditions Ben Zoof felt that he could have overstepped Montmartre at a single stride. The earth seemed as elastic as the springboard of an acrobat; they scarcely touched it with their feet, and their only fear was lest the height to which they were propelled would consume the time which they were saving by their short cut across the fields.
It was not long before their wild career brought them to the right bank of the Shelif. Here they were compelled to stop, for not only had the bridge completely disappeared, but the river itself no longer existed. Of the left bank there was not the slightest trace, and the right bank, which on the previous evening had bounded the yellow stream, as it murmured peacefully along the fertile plain, had now become the shore of a tumultuous ocean, its azure waters extending westwards far as the eye could reach, and annihilating the tract of country which had hitherto formed the district of Mostaganem. The shore coincided exactly with what had been the right bank of the Shelif, and in a slightly curved line ran north and south, whilst the adjacent groves and meadows all retained their previous positions. But the river-bank had become the shore of an unknown sea.
Eager to throw some light upon the mystery, Servadac hurriedly made his way through the oleander bushes that overhung the shore, took up some water in the hollow of his hand, and carried it to his lips. “Salt as brine!” he exclaimed, as soon as he had tasted it. “The sea has undoubtedly swallowed up all the western part of Algeria.”
“It will not last long, sir,” said Ben Zoof. “It is, probably, only a severe flood.”
The captain shook his head. “Worse than that, I fear, Ben Zoof,” he replied with emotion. “It is a catastrophe that may have very serious consequences. What can have become of all my friends and fellow-officers?”
Ben Zoof was silent. Rarely had he seen his master so much agitated; and though himself inclined to receive these phenomena with philosophic indifference, his notions of military duty caused his countenance to reflect the captain’s expression of amazement.
But there was little time for Servadac to examine the changes which a few hours had wrought. The sun had already reached the eastern horizon, and just as though it were crossing the ecliptic under the tropics, it sank like a cannon ball into the sea. Without any warning, day gave place to night, and earth, sea, and sky were immediately wrapped in profound obscurity.
THE CAPTAIN MAKES AN EXPLORATION
Hector Servadac was not the man to remain long unnerved by any untoward event. It was part of his character to discover the why and the wherefore of everything that came under his observation, and he would have faced a cannon ball the more unflinchingly from understanding the dynamic force by which it was propelled. Such being his temperament, it may well be imagined that he was anxious not to remain long in ignorance of the cause of the phenomena which had been so startling in their consequences.
“We must inquire into this to-morrow,” he exclaimed, as darkness fell suddenly upon him. Then, after a pause, he added: “That is to say, if there is to be a to-morrow; for if I were to be put to the torture, I could not tell what has become of the sun.”
“May I ask, sir, what we are to do now?” put in Ben Zoof.
“Stay where we are for the present; and when daylight appears– if it ever does appear–we will explore the coast to the west and south, and return to the gourbi. If we can find out nothing else, we must at least discover where we are.”
“Meanwhile, sir, may we go to sleep?”
“Certainly, if you like, and if you can.”
Nothing loath to avail himself of his master’s permission, Ben Zoof crouched down in an angle of the shore, threw his arms over his eyes, and very soon slept the sleep of the ignorant, which is often sounder than the sleep of the just. Overwhelmed by the questions that crowded upon his brain, Captain Servadac could only wander up and down the shore. Again and again he asked himself what the catastrophe could portend. Had the towns of Algiers, Oran, and Mostaganem escaped the inundation? Could he bring himself to believe that all the inhabitants, his friends, and comrades had perished; or was it not more probable that the Mediterranean had merely invaded the region of the mouth of the Shelif? But this supposition did not in the least explain the other physical disturbances. Another hypothesis that presented itself to his mind was that the African coast might have been suddenly transported to the equatorial zone. But although this might get over the difficulty of the altered altitude of the sun and the absence of twilight, yet it would neither account for the sun setting in the east, nor for the length of the day being reduced to six hours.
“We must wait till to-morrow,” he repeated; adding, for he had become distrustful of the future, “that is to say, if to-morrow ever comes.”
Although not very learned in astronomy, Servadac was acquainted with the position of the principal constellations. It was therefore a considerable disappointment to him that, in consequence of the heavy clouds, not a star was visible in the firmament. To have ascertained that the pole-star had become displaced would have been an undeniable proof that the earth was revolving on a new axis; but not a rift appeared in the lowering clouds, which seemed to threaten torrents of rain.
It happened that the moon was new on that very day; naturally, therefore, it would have set at the same time as the sun. What, then, was the captain’s bewilderment when, after he had been walking for about an hour and a half, he noticed on the western horizon a strong glare that penetrated even the masses of the clouds.
“The moon in the west!” he cried aloud; but suddenly bethinking himself, he added: “But no, that cannot be the moon; unless she had shifted very much nearer the earth, she could never give a light as intense as this.”
As he spoke the screen of vapor was illuminated to such a degree that the whole country was as it were bathed in twilight. “What can this be?” soliloquized the captain. “It cannot be the sun, for the sun set in the east only an hour and a half ago. Would that those clouds would disclose what enormous luminary lies behind them! What a fool I was not to have learnt more astronomy! Perhaps, after all, I am racking my brain over something that is quite in the ordinary course of nature.”
But, reason as he might, the mysteries of the heavens still remained impenetrable. For about an hour some luminous body, its disc evidently of gigantic dimensions, shed its rays upon the upper strata of the clouds; then, marvelous to relate, instead of obeying the ordinary laws of celestial mechanism, and descending upon the opposite horizon, it seemed to retreat farther off, grew dimmer, and vanished.
The darkness that returned to the face of the earth was not more profound than the gloom which fell upon the captain’s soul. Everything was incomprehensible. The simplest mechanical rules seemed falsified; the planets had defied the laws of gravitation; the motions of the celestial spheres were erroneous as those of a watch with a defective mainspring, and there was reason to fear that the sun would never again shed his radiance upon the earth.
But these last fears were groundless. In three hours’ time, without any intervening twilight, the morning sun made its appearance in the west, and day once more had dawned. On consulting his watch, Servadac found that night had lasted precisely six hours. Ben Zoof, who was unaccustomed to so brief a period of repose, was still slumbering soundly.
“Come, wake up!” said Servadac, shaking him by the shoulder; “it is time to start.”
“Time to start?” exclaimed Ben Zoof, rubbing his eyes. “I feel as if I had only just gone to sleep.”
“You have slept all night, at any rate,” replied the captain; “it has only been for six hours, but you must make it enough.”
“Enough it shall be, sir,” was the submissive rejoinder.
“And now,” continued Servadac, “we will take the shortest way back to the gourbi, and see what our horses think about it all.”
“They will think that they ought to be groomed,” said the orderly.
“Very good; you may groom them and saddle them as quickly as you like. I want to know what has become of the rest of Algeria: if we cannot get round by the south to Mostaganem, we must go eastwards to Tenes.” And forthwith they started. Beginning to feel hungry, they had no hesitation in gathering figs, dates, and oranges from the plantations that formed a continuous rich and luxuriant orchard along their path. The district was quite deserted, and they had no reason to fear any legal penalty.
In an hour and a half they reached the gourbi. Everything was just as they had left it, and it was evident that no one had visited the place during their absence. All was desolate as the shore they had quitted.
The preparations for the expedition were brief and simple. Ben Zoof saddled the horses and filled his pouch with biscuits and game; water, he felt certain, could be obtained in abundance from the numerous affluents of the Shelif, which, although they had now become tributaries of the Mediterranean, still meandered through the plain. Captain Servadac mounted his horse Zephyr, and Ben Zoof simultaneously got astride his mare Galette, named after the mill of Montmartre. They galloped off in the direction of the Shelif, and were not long in discovering that the diminution in the pressure of the atmosphere had precisely the same effect upon their horses as it had had upon themselves. Their muscular strength seemed five times as great as hitherto; their hoofs scarcely touched the ground, and they seemed transformed from ordinary quadrupeds into veritable hippogriffs. Happily, Servadac and his orderly were fearless riders; they made no attempt to curb their steeds, but even urged them to still greater exertions. Twenty minutes sufficed to carry them over the four or five miles that intervened between the gourbi and the mouth of the Shelif; then, slackening their speed, they proceeded at a more leisurely pace to the southeast, along what had once been the right bank of the river, but which, although it still retained its former characteristics, was now the boundary of a sea, which extending farther than the limits of the horizon, must have swallowed up at least a large portion of the province of Oran. Captain Servadac knew the country well; he had at one time been engaged upon a trigo-nometrical survey of the district, and consequently had an accurate knowledge of its topography. His idea now was to draw up a report of his investigations: to whom that report should be delivered was a problem he had yet to solve.
During the four hours of daylight that still remained, the travelers rode about twenty-one miles from the river mouth. To their vast surprise, they did not meet a single human being. At nightfall they again encamped in a slight bend of the shore, at a point which on the previous evening had faced the mouth of the Mina, one of the left-hand affluents of the Shelif, but now absorbed into the newly revealed ocean. Ben Zoof made the sleeping accommodation as comfortable as the circumstances would allow; the horses were clogged and turned out to feed upon the rich pasture that clothed the shore, and the night passed without special incident.
At sunrise on the following morning, the 2nd of January, or what, according to the ordinary calendar, would have been the night of the 1st, the captain and his orderly remounted their horses, and during the six-hours’ day accomplished a distance of forty-two miles. The right bank of the river still continued to be the margin of the land, and only in one spot had its integrity been impaired. This was about twelve miles from the Mina, and on the site of the annex or suburb of Surkelmittoo. Here a large portion of the bank had been swept away, and the hamlet, with its eight hundred inhabitants, had no doubt been swallowed up by the encroaching waters. It seemed, therefore, more than probable that a similar fate had overtaken the larger towns beyond the Shelif.
In the evening the explorers encamped, as previously, in a nook of the shore which here abruptly terminated their new domain, not far from where they might have expected to find the important village of Memounturroy; but of this, too, there was now no trace. “I had quite reckoned upon a supper and a bed at Orleansville to-night,” said Servadac, as, full of despondency, he surveyed the waste of water.
“Quite impossible,” replied Ben Zoof, “except you had gone by a boat. But cheer up, sir, cheer up; we will soon devise some means for getting across to Mostaganem.”
“If, as I hope,” rejoined the captain, “we are on a peninsula, we are more likely to get to Tenes; there we shall hear the news.”
“Far more likely to carry the news ourselves,” answered Ben Zoof, as he threw himself down for his night’s rest.
Six hours later, only waiting for sunrise, Captain Servadac set himself in movement again to renew his investigations. At this spot the shore, that hitherto had been running in a southeasterly direction, turned abruptly to the north, being no longer formed by the natural bank of the Shelif, but consisting of an absolutely new coast-line. No land was in sight. Nothing could be seen of Orleansville, which ought to have been about six miles to the southwest; and Ben Zoof, who had mounted the highest point of view attainable, could distinguish sea, and nothing but sea, to the farthest horizon.
Quitting their encampment and riding on, the bewildered explorers kept close to the new shore. This, since it had ceased to be formed by the original river bank, had considerably altered its aspect. Frequent landslips occurred, and in many places deep chasms rifted the ground; great gaps furrowed the fields, and trees, half uprooted, overhung the water, remarkable by the fantastic distortions of their gnarled trunks, looking as though they had been chopped by a hatchet.
The sinuosities of the coast line, alternately gully and headland, had the effect of making a devious progress for the travelers, and at sunset, although they had accomplished more than twenty miles, they had only just arrived at the foot of the Merdeyah Mountains, which, before the cataclysm, had formed the extremity of the chain of the Little Atlas. The ridge, however, had been violently ruptured, and now rose perpendicularly from the water.
On the following morning Servadac and Ben Zoof traversed one of the mountain gorges; and next, in order to make a more thorough acquaintance with the limits and condition of the section of Algerian territory of which they seemed to be left as the sole occupants, they dismounted, and proceeded on foot to the summit of one of the highest peaks. From this elevation they ascertained that from the base of the Merdeyah to the Mediterranean, a distance of about eighteen miles, a new coast line had come into existence; no land was visible in any direction; no isthmus existed to form a connecting link with the territory of Tenes, which had entirely disappeared. The result was that Captain Servadac was driven to the irresistible conclusion that the tract of land which he had been surveying was not, as he had at first imagined, a peninsula; it was actually an island.
Strictly speaking, this island was quadrilateral, but the sides were so irregular that it was much more nearly a triangle, the comparison of the sides exhibiting these proportions: The section of the right bank of the Shelif, seventy-two miles; the southern boundary from the Shelif to the chain of the Little Atlas, twenty-one miles; from the Little Atlas to the Mediterranean, eighteen miles; and sixty miles of the shore of the Mediterranean itself, making in all an entire circumference of about 171 miles.
“What does it all mean?” exclaimed the captain, every hour growing more and more bewildered.
“The will of Providence, and we must submit,” replied Ben Zoof, calm and undisturbed. With this reflection, the two men silently descended the mountain and remounted their horses. Before evening they had reached the Mediterranean. On their road they failed to discern a vestige of the little town of Montenotte; like Tenes, of which not so much as a ruined cottage was visible on the horizon, it seemed to be annihilated.
On the following day, the 6th of January, the two men made a forced march along the coast of the Mediterranean, which they found less altered than the captain had at first supposed; but four villages had entirely disappeared, and the headlands, unable to resist the shock of the convulsion, had been detached from the mainland.
The circuit of the island had been now completed, and the explorers, after a period of sixty hours, found themselves once more beside the ruins of their gourbi. Five days, or what, according to the established order of things, would have been two days and a half, had been occupied in tracing the boundaries of their new domain; and they had ascertained beyond a doubt that they were the sole human inhabitants left upon the island.
“Well, sir, here you are, Governor General of Algeria!” exclaimed Ben Zoof, as they reached the gourbi.
“With not a soul to govern,” gloomily rejoined the captain.
“How so? Do you not reckon me?”
“Pshaw! Ben Zoof, what are you?”
“What am I? Why, I am the population.”
The captain deigned no reply, but, muttering some expressions of regret for the fruitless trouble he had taken about his rondo, betook himself to rest.
BEN ZOOF WATCHES IN VAIN
In a few minutes the governor general and his population were asleep. The gourbi being in ruins, they were obliged to put up with the best accommodation they could find in the adjacent erection. It must be owned that the captain’s slumbers were by no means sound; he was agitated by the consciousness that he had hitherto been unable to account for his strange experiences by any reasonable theory. Though far from being advanced in the knowledge of natural philosophy, he had been instructed, to a certain degree, in its elementary principles; and, by an effort of memory, he managed to recall some general laws which he had almost forgotten. He could understand that an altered inclination of the earth’s axis with regard to the ecliptic would introduce a change of position in the cardinal points, and bring about a displacement of the sea; but the hypothesis entirely failed to account, either for the shortening of the days, or for the diminution in the pressure of the atmosphere. He felt that his judgment was utterly baffled; his only remaining hope was that the chain of marvels was not yet complete, and that something farther might throw some light upon the mystery.
Ben Zoof’s first care on the following morning was to provide a good breakfast. To use his own phrase, he was as hungry as the whole population of three million Algerians, of whom he was the representative, and he must have enough to eat. The catastrophe which had overwhelmed the country had left a dozen eggs uninjured, and upon these, with a good dish of his famous couscous, he hoped that he and his master might have a sufficiently substantial meal. The stove was ready for use, the copper skillet was as bright as hands could make it, and the beads of condensed steam upon the surface of a large stone al-caraza gave evidence that it was supplied with water. Ben Zoof at once lighted a fire, singing all the time, according to his wont, a snatch of an old military refrain.
Ever on the lookout for fresh phenomena, Captain Servadac watched the preparations with a curious eye. It struck him that perhaps the air, in its strangely modified condition, would fail to supply sufficient oxygen, and that. the stove, in consequence, might not fulfill its function. But no; the fire was lighted just as usual, and fanned into vigor by Ben Zoof applying his mouth in lieu of bellows, and a bright flame started up from the midst of the twigs and coal. The skillet was duly set upon the stove, and Ben Zoof was prepared to wait awhile for the water to boil. Taking up the eggs, he was surprised to notice that they hardly weighed more than they would if they had been mere shells; but he was still more surprised when he saw that before the water had been two minutes over the fire it was at full boil.
“By jingo!” he exclaimed, “a precious hot fire!”
Servadac reflected. “It cannot be that the fire is hotter,” he said, “the peculiarity must be in the water.” And taking down a centigrade thermometer, which hung upon the wall, he plunged it into the skillet. Instead of 100 degrees, the instrument registered only 66 degrees.
“Take my advice, Ben Zoof,” he said; “leave your eggs in the saucepan a good quarter of an hour.”
“Boil them hard! That will never do,” objected the orderly.
“You will not find them hard, my good fellow. Trust me, we shall be able to dip our sippets into the yolks easily enough.”
The captain was quite right in his conjecture, that this new phenomenon was caused by a diminution in the pressure of the atmosphere. Water boiling at a temperature of 66 degrees was itself an evidence that the column of air above the earth’s surface had become reduced by one-third of its altitude. The identical phenomenon would have occurred at the summit of a mountain 35,000 feet high; and had Servadac been in possession of a barometer, he would have immediately discovered the fact that only now for the first time, as the result of experiment, revealed itself to him–a fact, moreover, which accounted for the compression of the blood-vessels which both he and Ben Zoof had experienced, as well as for the attenuation of their voices and their accelerated breathing. “And yet,” he argued with himself, “if our encampment has been projected to so great an elevation, how is it that the sea remains at its proper level?”
Once again Hector Servadac, though capable of tracing consequences, felt himself totally at a loss to comprehend their cause; hence his agitation and bewilderment!
After their prolonged immersion in the boiling water, the eggs were found to be only just sufficiently cooked; the couscous was very much in the same condition; and Ben Zoof came to the conclusion that in future he must be careful to commence his culinary operations an hour earlier. He was rejoiced at last to help his master, who, in spite of his perplexed preoccupation, seemed to have a very fair appetite for breakfast.
“Well, captain?” said Ben Zoof presently, such being his ordinary way of opening conversation.
“Well, Ben Zoof?” was the captain’s invariable response to his servant’s formula.
“What are we to do now, sir?”
“We can only for the present wait patiently where we are. We are encamped upon an island, and therefore we can only be rescued by sea.”
“But do you suppose that any of our friends are still alive?” asked Ben Zoof.
“Oh, I think we must indulge the hope that this catastrophe has not extended far. We must trust that it has limited its mischief to some small portion of the Algerian coast, and that our friends are all alive and well. No doubt the governor general will be anxious to investigate the full extent of the damage, and will send a vessel from Algiers to explore. It is not likely that we shall be forgotten. What, then, you have to do, Ben Zoof, is to keep a sharp lookout, and to be ready, in case a vessel should appear, to make signals at once.”
“But if no vessel should appear!” sighed the orderly.
“Then we must build a boat, and go in search of those who do not come in search of us.”
“Very good. But what sort of a sailor are you?”
“Everyone can be a sailor when he must,” said Servadac calmly.
Ben Zoof said no more. For several succeeding days he scanned the horizon unintermittently with his telescope. His watching was in vain. No ship appeared upon the desert sea. “By the name of a Kabyle!” he broke out impatiently, “his Excellency is grossly negligent!”
Although the days and nights had become reduced from twenty-four hours to twelve, Captain Servadac would not accept the new condition of things, but resolved to adhere to the computations of the old calendar. Notwithstanding, therefore, that the sun had risen and set twelve times since the commencement of the new year, he persisted in calling the following day the 6th of January. His watch enabled him to keep an accurate account of the passing hours.
In the course of his life, Ben Zoof had read a few books. After pondering one day, he said: “It seems to me, captain, that you have turned into Robinson Crusoe, and that I am your man Friday. I hope I have not become a negro.”
“No,” replied the captain. “Your complexion isn’t the fairest in the world, but you are not black yet.”
“Well, I had much sooner be a white Friday than a black one,” rejoined Ben Zoof.
Still no ship appeared; and Captain Servadac, after the example of all previous Crusoes, began to consider it advisable to investigate the resources of his domain. The new territory of which he had become the monarch he named Gourbi Island. It had a superficial area of about nine hundred square miles. Bullocks, cows, goats, and sheep existed in considerable numbers; and as there seemed already to be an abundance of game, it was hardly likely that a future supply would fail them. The condition of the cereals was such as to promise a fine ingathering of wheat, maize, and rice; so that for the governor and his population, with their two horses, not only was there ample provision, but even if other human inhabitants besides themselves should yet be discovered, there was not the remotest prospect of any of them perishing by starvation.
From the 6th to the 13th of January the rain came down in torrents; and, what was quite an unusual occurrence at this season of the year, several heavy storms broke over the island. In spite, however, of the continual downfall, the heavens still remained veiled in cloud. Servadac, moreover, did not fail to observe that for the season the temperature was unusually high; and, as a matter still more surprising, that it kept steadily increasing, as though the earth were gradually and continuously approximating to the sun. In proportion to the rise of temperature, the light also assumed greater intensity; and if it had not been for the screen of vapor interposed between the sky and the island, the irradiation which would have illumined all terrestrial objects would have been vivid beyond all precedent.
But neither sun, moon, nor star ever appeared; and Servadac’s irritation and annoyance at being unable to identify any one point of the firmament may be more readily imagined than described. On one occasion Ben Zoof endeavored to mitigate his master’s impatience by exhorting him to assume the resignation, even if he did not feel the indifference, which he himself experienced; but his advice was received with so angry a rebuff that he retired in all haste, abashed, to résumé his watchman’s duty, which he performed with exemplary perseverance. Day and night, with the shortest possible intervals of rest, despite wind, rain, and storm, he mounted guard upon the cliff– but all in vain. Not a speck appeared upon the desolate horizon. To say the truth, no vessel could have stood against the weather. The hurricane raged with tremendous fury, and the waves rose to a height that seemed to defy calculation. Never, even in the second era of creation, when, under the influence of internal heat, the waters rose in vapor to descend in deluge back upon the world, could meteorological phenomena have been developed with more impressive intensity.
But by the night of the 13th the tempest appeared to have spent its fury; the wind dropped; the rain ceased as if by a spell; and Servadac, who for the last six days had confined himself to the shelter of his roof, hastened to join Ben Zoof at his post upon the cliff. Now, he thought, there might be a chance of solving his perplexity; perhaps now the huge disc, of which he had had an imperfect glimpse on the night of the 31st of December, might again reveal itself; at any rate, he hoped for an opportunity of observing the constellations in a clear firmament above.
The night was magnificent. Not a cloud dimmed the luster of the stars, which spangled the heavens in surpassing brilliancy, and several nebulae which hitherto no astronomer had been able to discern without the aid of a telescope were clearly visible to the naked eye.
By a natural impulse, Servadac’s first thought was to observe the position of the pole-star. It was in sight, but so near to the horizon as to suggest the utter impossibility of its being any longer the central pivot of the sidereal system; it occupied a position through which it was out of the question that the axis of the earth indefinitely prolonged could ever pass. In his impression he was more thoroughly confirmed when, an hour later, he noticed that the star had approached still nearer the horizon, as though it had belonged to one of the zodiacal constellations.
The pole-star being manifestly thus displaced, it remained to be discovered whether any other of the celestial bodies had become a fixed center around which the constellations made their apparent daily revolutions. To the solution of this problem Servadac applied himself with the most thoughtful diligence. After patient observation, he satisfied himself that the required conditions were answered by a certain star that was stationary not far from the horizon. This was Vega, in the constellation Lyra, a star which, according to the precession of the equinoxes, will take the place of our pole-star 12,000 years hence. The most daring imagination could not suppose that a period of 12,000 years had been crowded into the space of a fortnight; and therefore the captain came, as to an easier conclusion, to the opinion that the earth’s axis had been suddenly and immensely shifted; and from the fact that the axis, if produced, would pass through a point so little removed above the horizon, he deduced the inference that the Mediterranean must have been transported to the equator.
Lost in bewildering maze of thought, he gazed long and intently upon the heavens. His eyes wandered from where the tail of the Great Bear, now a zodiacal constellation, was scarcely visible above the waters, to where the stars of the southern hemisphere were just breaking on his view. A cry from Ben Zoof recalled him to himself.
“The moon!” shouted the orderly, as though overjoyed at once again beholding what the poet has called:
“The kind companion of terrestrial night;”
and he pointed to a disc that was rising at a spot precisely opposite the place where they would have expected to see the sun. “The moon!” again he cried.
But Captain Servadac could not altogether enter into his servant’s enthusiasm. If this were actually the moon, her distance from the earth must have been increased by some millions of miles. He was rather disposed to suspect that it was not the earth’s satellite at all, but some planet with its apparent magnitude greatly enlarged by its approximation to the earth. Taking up the powerful field-glass which he was accustomed to use in his surveying operations, he proceeded to investigate more carefully the luminous orb. But he failed to trace any of the lineaments, supposed to resemble a human face, that mark the lunar surface; he failed to decipher any indications of hill and plain; nor could he make out the aureole of light which emanates from what astronomers have designated Mount Tycho. “It is not the moon,” he said slowly.
“Not the moon?” cried Ben Zoof. “Why not?”
“It is not the moon,” again affirmed the captain.
“Why not?” repeated Ben Zoof, unwilling to renounce his first impression.
“Because there is a small satellite in attendance.” And the captain drew his servant’s attention to a bright speck, apparently about the size of one of Jupiter’s satellites seen through a moderate telescope, that was clearly visible just within the focus of his glass.
Here, then, was a fresh mystery. The orbit of this planet was assuredly interior to the orbit of the earth, because it accompanied the sun in its apparent motion; yet it was neither Mercury nor Venus, because neither one nor the other of these has any satellite at all.
The captain stamped and stamped again with mingled vexation, agitation, and bewilderment. “Confound it!” he cried, “if this is neither Venus nor Mercury, it must be the moon; but if it is the moon, whence, in the name of all the gods, has she picked up another moon for herself?”
The captain was in dire perplexity.
VENUS IN PERILOUS PROXIMITY
The light of the returning sun soon extinguished the glory of the stars, and rendered it necessary for the captain to postpone his observations. He had sought in vain for further trace of the huge disc that had so excited his wonder on the 1st, and it seemed most probable that, in its irregular orbit, it had been carried beyond the range of vision.
The weather was still superb. The wind, after veering to the west, had sunk to a perfect calm. Pursuing its inverted course, the sun rose and set with undeviating regularity; and the days and nights were still divided into periods of precisely six hours each– a sure proof that the sun remained close to the new equator which manifestly passed through Gourbi Island.
Meanwhile the temperature was steadily increasing. The captain kept his thermometer close at hand where he could repeatedly consult it, and on the 15th he found that it registered 50 degrees centigrade in the shade.
No attempt had been made to rebuild the gourbi, but the captain and Ben Zoof managed to make up quarters sufficiently comfortable in the principal apartment of the adjoining structure, where the stone walls, that at first afforded a refuge from the torrents of rain, now formed an equally acceptable shelter from the burning sun. The heat was becoming insufferable, surpassing the heat of Senegal and other equatorial regions; not a cloud ever tempered the intensity of the solar rays; and unless some modification ensued, it seemed inevitable that all vegetation should become scorched and burnt off from the face of the island.
In spite, however, of the profuse perspirations from which he suffered, Ben Zoof, constant to his principles, expressed no surprise at the unwonted heat. No remonstrances from his master could induce him to abandon his watch from the cliff. To withstand the vertical beams of that noontide sun would seem to require a skin of brass and a brain of adamant; but yet, hour after hour, he would remain conscientiously scanning the surface of the Mediterranean, which, calm and deserted, lay outstretched before him. On one occasion, Servadac, in reference to his orderly’s indomitable perseverance, happened to remark that he thought he must have been born in the heart of equatorial Africa; to which Ben Zoof replied, with the utmost dignity, that he was born at Montmartre, which was all the same. The worthy fellow was unwilling to own that, even in the matter of heat, the tropics could in any way surpass his own much-loved home.
This unprecedented temperature very soon began to take effect upon the products of the soil. The sap rose rapidly in the trees, so that in the course of a few days buds, leaves, flowers, and fruit had come to full maturity. It was the same with the cereals; wheat and maize sprouted and ripened as if by magic, and for a while a rank and luxuriant pasturage clothed the meadows. Summer and autumn seemed blended into one. If Captain Servadac had been more deeply versed in astronomy, he would perhaps have been able to bring to bear his knowledge that if the axis of the earth, as everything seemed to indicate, now formed a right angle with the plane of the ecliptic, her various seasons, like those of the planet Jupiter, would become limited to certain zones, in which they would remain invariable. But even if he had understood the _rationale_ of the change, the convulsion that had brought it about would have been as much a mystery as ever.
The precocity of vegetation caused some embarrassment. The time for the corn and fruit harvest had fallen simultaneously with that of the haymaking; and as the extreme heat precluded any prolonged exertions, it was evident “the population” of the island would find it difficult to provide the necessary amount of labor. Not that the prospect gave them much concern: the provisions of the gourbi were still far from exhausted, and now that the roughness of the weather had so happily subsided, they had every encouragement to hope that a ship of some sort would soon appear. Not only was that part of the Mediterranean systematically frequented by the government steamers that watched the coast, but vessels of all nations were constantly cruising off the shore.
In spite, however, of all their sanguine speculations, no ship appeared. Ben Zoof admitted the necessity of extemporizing a kind of parasol for himself, otherwise he must literally have been roasted to death upon the exposed summit of the cliff.
Meanwhile, Servadac was doing his utmost–it must be acknowledged, with indifferent success–to recall the lessons of his school-days. He would plunge into the wildest speculations in his endeavors to unravel the difficulties of the new situation, and struggled into a kind of conviction that if there had been a change of manner in the earth’s rotation on her axis, there would be a corresponding change in her revolution round the sun, which would involve the consequence of the length of the year being either diminished or increased.
Independently of the increased and increasing heat, there was another very conclusive demonstration that the earth had thus suddenly approximated towards the sun. The diameter of the solar disc was now exactly twice what it ordinarily looks to the naked eye; in fact, it was precisely such as it would appear to an observer on the surface of the planet Venus. The most obvious inference would therefore be that the earth’s distance from the sun had been diminished from 91,000,000 to 66,000,000 miles. If the just equilibrium of the earth had thus been destroyed, and should this diminution of distance still continue, would there not be reason to fear that the terrestrial world would be carried onwards to actual contact with the sun, which must result in its total annihilation?
The continuance of the splendid weather afforded Servadac every facility for observing the heavens. Night after night, constellations in their beauty lay stretched before his eyes– an alphabet which, to his mortification, not to say his rage, he was unable to decipher. In the apparent dimensions of the fixed stars, in their distance, in their relative position with regard to each other, he could observe no change. Although it is established that our sun is approaching the constellation of Hercules at the rate of more than 126,000,000 miles a year, and although Arcturus is traveling through space at the rate of fifty-four miles a second–three times faster than the earth goes round the sun,–yet such is the remoteness of those stars that no appreciable change is evident to the senses. The fixed stars taught him nothing.
Far otherwise was it with the planets. The orbits of Venus and Mercury are within the orbit of the earth, Venus rotating at an average distance of 66,130,000 miles from the sun, and Mercury at that of 35,393,000. After pondering long, and as profoundly as he could, upon these figures, Captain Servadac came to the conclusion that, as the earth was now receiving about double the amount of light and heat that it had been receiving before the catastrophe, it was receiving about the same as the planet Venus; he was driven, therefore, to the estimate of the measure in which the earth must have approximated to the sun, a deduction in which he was confirmed when the opportunity came for him to observe Venus herself in the splendid proportions that she now assumed.
That magnificent planet which–as Phosphorus or Lucifer, Hesperus or Vesper, the evening star, the morning star, or the shepherd’s star–has never failed to attract the rapturous admiration of the most indifferent observers, here revealed herself with unprecedented glory, exhibiting all the phases of a lustrous moon in miniature. Various indentations in the outline of its crescent showed that the solar beams were refracted into regions of its surface where the sun had already set, and proved, beyond a doubt, that the planet had an atmosphere of her own; and certain luminous points projecting from the crescent as plainly marked the existence of mountains. As the result of Servadac’s computations, he formed the opinion that Venus could hardly be at a greater distance than 6,000,000 miles from the earth.
“And a very safe distance, too,” said Ben Zoof, when his master told him the conclusion at which he had arrived.
“All very well for two armies, but for a couple of planets not quite so safe, perhaps, as you may imagine. It is my impression that it is more than likely we may run foul of Venus,” said the captain.
“Plenty of air and water there, sir?” inquired the orderly.
“Yes; as far as I can tell, plenty,” replied Servadac.
“Then why shouldn’t we go and visit Venus?”
Servadac did his best to explain that as the two planets were of about equal volume, and were traveling with great velocity in opposite directions, any collision between them must be attended with the most disastrous consequences to one or both of them. But Ben Zoof failed to see that, even at the worst, the catastrophe could be much more serious than the collision of two railway trains.
The captain became exasperated. “You idiot!” he angrily exclaimed; “cannot you understand that the planets are traveling a thousand times faster than the fastest express, and that if they meet, either one or the other must be destroyed? What would become of your darling Montmartre then?”
The captain had touched a tender chord. For a moment Ben Zoof stood with clenched teeth and contracted muscles; then, in a voice of real concern, he inquired whether anything could be done to avert the calamity.
“Nothing whatever; so you may go about your own business,” was the captain’s brusque rejoinder.
All discomfited and bewildered, Ben Zoof retired without a word.
During the ensuing days the distance between the two planets continued to decrease, and it became more and more obvious that the earth, on her new orbit, was about to cross the orbit of Venus. Throughout this time the earth had been making a perceptible approach towards Mercury, and that planet–which is rarely visible to the naked eye, and then only at what are termed the periods of its greatest eastern and western elongations–now appeared in all its splendor. It amply justified the epithet of “sparkling” which the ancients were accustomed to confer upon it, and could scarcely fail to awaken a new interest. The periodic recurrence of its phases; its reflection of the sun’s rays, shedding upon it a light and a heat seven times greater than that received by the earth; its glacial and its torrid zones, which, on account of the great inclination of the axis, are scarcely separable; its equatorial bands; its mountains eleven miles high;–were all subjects of observation worthy of the most studious regard.
But no danger was to be apprehended from Mercury; with Venus only did collision appear imminent. By the l8th of January the distance between that planet and the earth had become reduced to between two and three millions of miles, and the intensity of its light cast heavy shadows from all terrestrial objects. It might be observed to turn upon its own axis in twenty-three hours twenty-one minutes–an evidence, from the unaltered duration of its days, that the planet had not shared in the disturbance. On its disc the clouds formed from its atmospheric vapor were plainly perceptible, as also were the seven spots, which, according to Bianchini, are a chain of seas. It was now visible in broad daylight. Buonaparte, when under the Directory, once had his attention called to Venus at noon, and immediately hailed it joyfully, recognizing it as his own peculiar star in the ascendant. Captain Servadac, it may well be imagined, did not experience the same gratifying emotion.
On the 20th, the distance between the two bodies had again sensibly diminished. The captain had ceased to be surprised that no vessel had been sent to rescue himself and his companion from their strange imprisonment; the governor general and the minister of war were doubtless far differently occupied, and their interests far otherwise engrossed. What sensational articles, he thought, must now be teeming to the newspapers! What crowds must be flocking to the churches! The end of the world approaching! the great climax close at hand! Two days more, and the earth, shivered into a myriad atoms, would be lost in boundless space!
These dire forebodings, however, were not destined to be realized. Gradually the distance between the two planets began to increase; the planes of their orbits did not coincide, and accordingly the dreaded catastrophe did not ensue. By the 25th, Venus was sufficiently remote to preclude any further fear of collision. Ben Zoof gave a sigh of relief when the captain communicated the glad intelligence.
Their proximity to Venus had been close enough to demonstrate that beyond a doubt that planet has no moon or satellite such as Cassini, Short, Montaigne of Limoges, Montbarron, and some other astronomers have imagined to exist. “Had there been such a satellite,” said Servadac, “we might have captured it in passing. But what can be the meaning,” he added seriously, “of all this displacement of the heavenly bodies?”
“What is that great building at Paris, captain, with a top like a cap?” asked Ben Zoof.
“Do you mean the Observatory?”
“Yes, the Observatory. Are there not people living in the Observatory who could explain all this?”
“Very likely; but what of that?”
“Let us be philosophers, and wait patiently until we can hear their explanation.”
Servadac smiled. “Do you know what it is to be a philosopher, Ben Zoof?” he asked.
“I am a soldier, sir,” was the servant’s prompt rejoinder, “and I have learnt to know that ‘what can’t be cured must be endured.'”
The captain made no reply, but for a time, at least, he desisted from puzzling himself over matters which he felt he was utterly incompetent to explain. But an event soon afterwards occurred which awakened his keenest interest.
About nine o’clock on the morning of the 27th, Ben Zoof walked deliberately into his master’s apartment, and, in reply to a question as to what he wanted, announced with the utmost composure that a ship was in sight.
“A ship!” exclaimed Servadac, starting to his feet. “A ship! Ben Zoof, you donkey! you speak as unconcernedly as though you were telling me that my dinner was ready.”
“Are we not philosophers, captain?” said the orderly.
But the captain was out of hearing.
Fast as his legs could carry him, Servadac had made his way to the top of the cliff. It was quite true that a vessel was in sight, hardly more than six miles from the shore; but owing to the increase in the earth’s convexity, and the consequent limitation of the range of vision, the rigging of the topmasts alone was visible above the water. This was enough, however, to indicate that the ship was a schooner– an impression that was confirmed when, two hours later, she came entirely in sight.
“The _Dobryna_!” exclaimed Servadac, keeping his eye unmoved at his telescope.
“Impossible, sir!” rejoined Ben Zoof; “there are no signs of smoke.”
“The _Dobryna_!” repeated the captain, positively. “She is under sail; but she is Count Timascheff’s yacht.”
He was right. If the count were on board, a strange fatality was bringing him to the presence of his rival. But no longer now could Servadac regard him in the light of an adversary; circumstances had changed, and all animosity was absorbed in the eagerness with which he hailed the prospect of obtaining some information about the recent startling and inexplicable events. During the twenty-seven days that she had been absent, the _Dobryna_, he conjectured, would have explored the Mediterranean, would very probably have visited Spain, France, or Italy, and accordingly would convey to Gourbi Island some intelligence from one or other of those countries. He reckoned, therefore, not only upon ascertaining the extent of the late catastrophe, but upon learning its cause. Count Timascheff was, no doubt, magnanimously coming to the rescue of himself and his orderly.
The wind being adverse, the _Dobryna_ did not make very rapid progress; but as the weather, in spite of a few clouds, remained calm, and the sea was quite smooth, she was enabled to hold a steady course. It seemed unaccountable that she should not use her engine, as whoever was on board, would be naturally impatient to reconnoiter the new island, which must just have come within their view. The probability that suggested itself was that the schooner’s fuel was exhausted.
Servadac took it for granted that the _Dobryna_ was endeavoring to put in. It occurred to him, however, that the count, on discovering an island where he had expected to find the mainland of Africa, would not unlikely be at a loss for a place of anchorage. The yacht was evidently making her way in the direction of the former mouth of the Shelif, and the captain was struck with the idea that he would do well to investigate whether there was any suitable mooring towards which he might signal her. Zephyr and Galette were soon saddled, and in twenty minutes had carried their riders to the western extremity of the island, where they both dismounted and began to explore the coast.
They were not long in ascertaining that on the farther side of the point there was a small well-sheltered creek of sufficient depth to accommodate a vessel of moderate tonnage. A narrow channel formed a passage through the ridge of rocks that protected it from the open sea, and which, even in the roughest weather, would ensure the calmness of its waters.
Whilst examining the rocky shore, the captain observed, to his great surprise, long and well-defined rows of seaweed, which undoubtedly betokened that there had been a very considerable ebb and flow of the waters–a thing unknown in the Mediterranean, where there is scarcely any perceptible tide. What, however, seemed most remarkable, was the manifest evidence that ever since the highest flood (which was caused, in all probability, by the proximity of the body of which the huge disc had been so conspicuous on the night of the 31st of December) the phenomenon had been gradually lessening, and in fact was now reduced to the normal limits which had characterized it before the convulsion.
Without doing more than note the circumstance, Servadac turned his entire attention to the _Dobryna_, which, now little more than a mile from shore, could not fail to see and understand his signals. Slightly changing her course, she first struck her mainsail, and, in order to facilitate the movements of her helmsman, soon carried nothing but her two topsails, brigantine and jib. After rounding the peak, she steered direct for the channel to which Servadac by his gestures was pointing her, and was not long in entering the creek. As soon as the anchor, imbedded in the sandy bottom, had made good its hold, a boat was lowered. In a few minutes more Count Timascheff had landed on the island. Captain Servadac hastened towards him.
“First of all, count,” he exclaimed impetuously, “before we speak one other word, tell me what has happened.”
The count, whose imperturbable composure presented a singular contrast to the French officer’s enthusiastic vivacity, made a stiff bow, and in his Russian accent replied: “First of all, permit me to express my surprise at seeing you here. I left you on a continent, and here I have the honor of finding you on an island.”
“I assure you, count, I have never left the place.”
“I am quite aware of it. Captain Servadac, and I now beg to offer you my sincere apologies for failing to keep my appointment with you.”
“Never mind, now,” interposed the captain; “we will talk of that by-and-by. First, tell me what has happened.”
“The very question I was about to put to you, Captain Servadac.”
“Do you mean to say you know nothing of the cause, and can tell me nothing of the extent, of the catastrophe which has transformed this part of Africa into an island?”
“Nothing more than you know yourself.”
“But surely, Count Timascheff, you can inform me whether upon the northern shore of the Mediterranean–“
“Are you certain that this is the Mediterranean?” asked the count significantly, and added, “I have discovered no sign of land.”
The captain stared in silent bewilderment. For some moments he seemed perfectly stupefied; then, recovering himself, he began to overwhelm the count with a torrent of questions. Had he noticed,