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Off on a Comet by Jules Verne

Part 7 out of 7

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Palmyrin Rosette. Leaning over the side of the car, he kept his eyes fixed
upon the abandoned comet, now floating about a mile and a half below him,
bright in the general irradiation which was flooding the surrounding space.

Chronometer in hand, Lieutenant Procope stood marking the minutes
and seconds as they fled; and the stillness which had once again
fallen upon them all was only broken by his order to replenish
the stove, that the montgolfier might retain its necessary level.
Servadac and the count continued to gaze upon the earth with an
eagerness that almost amounted to awe. The balloon was slightly
in the rear of Gallia, a circumstance that augured somewhat favorably,
because it might be presumed that if the comet preceded the balloon
in its contact with the earth, there would be a break in the suddenness
of transfer from one atmosphere to the other.

The next question of anxiety was, where would the balloon alight?
If upon _terra firma_, would it be in a place where adequate resources
for safety would be at hand? If upon the ocean, would any passing
vessel be within hail to rescue them from their critical position?
Truly, as the count observed to his comrades, none but a Divine Pilot
could steer them now.

"Forty-two minutes past!" said the lieutenant, and his voice seemed
to thrill through the silence of expectation.

There were not 20,000 miles between the comet and the earth!

The calculated time of impact was 2 hours 47 minutes 35.6 seconds.
Five minutes more and collision must ensue!

But was it so? Just at this moment, Lieutenant Procope observed
that the comet deviated sensibly in an oblique course.
Was it possible that after all collision would not occur?

The deviation, however, was not great; it did not justify any anticipation
that Gallia would merely graze the earth, as it had done before;
it left it certain that the two bodies would inevitably impinge.

"No doubt," said Ben Zoof, "this time we shall stick together."

Another thought occurred. Was it not only too likely that,
in the fusion of the two atmospheres, the balloon itself,
in which they were being conveyed, would be rent into ribbons,
and every one of its passengers hurled into destruction,
so that not a Gallian should survive to tell the tale of
their strange peregrinations?

Moments were precious; but Hector Servadac resolved that he would adopt
a device to secure that at least some record of their excursion in solar
distances should survive themselves.

Tearing a leaf from his note-book, he wrote down the name of the comet,
the list of the fragments of the earth it had carried off,
the names of his companions, and the date of the comet's aphelion;
and having subscribed it with his signature, turned to Nina and told
her he must have the carrier-pigeon which was nestling in her bosom.

The child's eyes filled with tears; she did not say a word,
but imprinting a kiss upon its soft plumage, she surrendered it
at once, and the message was hurriedly fastened to its neck.
The bird wheeled round and round in a few circles that widened
in their diameter, and quickly sunk to an altitude in the comet's
atmosphere much inferior to the balloon.

Some minutes more were thus consumed and the interval of distance
was reduced to less than 8,000 miles.

The velocity became inconceivably great, but the increased rate of motion
was in no way perceptible; there was nothing to disturb the equilibrium
of the car in which they were making their aerial adventure.

"Forty-six minutes!" announced the lieutenant.

The glowing expanse of the earth's disc seemed like a vast funnel,
yawning to receive the comet and its atmosphere, balloon and all,
into its open mouth.

"Forty-seven!" cried Procope.

There was half a minute yet. A thrill ran through every vein.
A vibration quivered through the atmosphere. The montgolfier,
elongated to its utmost stretch, was manifestly being sucked into a vortex.
Every passenger in the quivering car involuntarily clung spasmodically
to its sides, and as the two atmospheres amalgamated, clouds accumulated
in heavy masses, involving all around in dense obscurity, while flashes
of lurid flame threw a weird glimmer on the scene.

In a mystery every one found himself upon the earth again.
They could not explain it, but here they were once more
upon terrestrial soil; in a swoon they had left the earth,
and in a similar swoon they had come back!

Of the balloon not a vestige remained, and contrary to previous computation,
the comet had merely grazed the earth, and was traversing the regions
of space, again far away!



"In Algeria, captain?"

"Yes, Ben Zoof, in Algeria; and not far from Mostaganem." Such were
the first words which, after their return to consciousness,
were exchanged between Servadac and his orderly.

They had resided so long in the province that they could not for a
moment be mistaken as to their whereabouts, and although they were
incapable of clearing up the mysteries that shrouded the miracle,
yet they were convinced at the first glance that they had been returned
to the earth at the very identical spot where they had quitted it.

In fact, they were scarcely more than a mile from Mostaganem,
and in the course of an hour, when they had all recovered from
the bewilderment occasioned by the shock, they started off in a body
and made their way to the town. It was a matter of extreme surprise
to find no symptom of the least excitement anywhere as they went along.
The population was perfectly calm; every one was pursuing his
ordinary avocation; the cattle were browsing quietly upon the pastures
that were moist with the dew of an ordinary January morning.
It was about eight o'clock; the sun was rising in the east;
nothing could be noticed to indicate that any abnormal incident
had either transpired or been expected by the inhabitants.
As to a collision with a comet, there was not the faintest trace
of any such phenomenon crossing men's minds, and awakening,
as it surely would, a panic little short of the certified approach
of the millennium.

"Nobody expects us," said Servadac; "that is very certain."

"No, indeed," answered Ben Zoof, with a sigh; he was manifestly disappointed
that his return to Mostaganem was not welcomed with a triumphal reception.

They reached the Mascara gate. The first persons that Servadac recognized
were the two friends that he had invited to be his seconds in the duel
two years ago, the colonel of the 2nd Fusiliers and the captain of
the 8th Artillery. In return to his somewhat hesitating salutation,
the colonel greeted him heartily, "Ah! Servadac, old fellow! is it you?"

"I, myself," said the captain.

"Where on earth have you been to all this time? In the name of peace,
what have you been doing with yourself?"

"You would never believe me, colonel," answered Servadac, "if I
were to tell you; so on that point I had better hold my tongue."

"Hang your mysteries!" said the colonel; "tell me, where have you been?"

"No, my friend, excuse me," replied Servadac; "but shake hands
with me in earnest, that I may be sure I am not dreaming."
Hector Servadac had made up his mind, and no amount of persuasion
could induce him to divulge his incredible experiences.

Anxious to turn the subject, Servadac took the earliest opportunity of asking,
"And what about Madame de L----?"

"Madame de L-----!" exclaimed the colonel, taking the words out of his mouth;
"the lady is married long ago; you did not suppose that she was going to wait
for you. 'Out of sight, out of mind,' you know."

"True," replied Servadac; and turning to the count he said,
"Do you hear that? We shall not have to fight our duel after all."

"Most happy to be excused," rejoined the count. The rivals took
each other by the hand, and were united henceforth in the bonds
of a sincere and confiding friendship.

"An immense relief," said Servadac to himself, "that I have no occasion
to finish that confounded rondo!"

It was agreed between the captain and the count that it would
be desirable in every way to maintain the most rigid silence upon
the subject of the inexplicable phenomena which had come within
their experience. It was to them both a subject of the greatest
perplexity to find that the shores of the Mediterranean had
undergone no change, but they coincided in the opinion that it
was prudent to keep their bewilderment entirely to themselves.
Nothing induced them to break their reserve.

The very next day the small community was broken up.

The _Dobryna's_ crew, with the count and the lieutenant, started for Russia,
and the Spaniards, provided, by the count's liberality, with a competency
that ensured them from want, were despatched to their native shores.
The leave taking was accompanied by genuine tokens of regard and goodwill.

For Isaac Hakkabut alone there was no feeling of regret.
Doubly ruined by the loss of his tartan, and by the abandonment
of his fortune, he disappeared entirely from the scene.
It is needless to say that no one troubled himself to institute
a search after him, and, as Ben Zoof sententiously remarked,
"Perhaps old Jehoram is making money in America by exhibiting
himself as the latest arrival from a comet!"

But however great was the reserve which Captain Servadac might make
on his part, nothing could induce Professor Rosette to conceal
his experiences. In spite of the denial which astronomer after
astronomer gave to the appearance of such a comet as Gallia at all,
and of its being refused admission to the catalogue, he published
a voluminous treatise, not only detailing his own adventures,
but setting forth, with the most elaborate precision,
all the elements which settled its period and its orbit.
Discussions arose in scientific circles; an overwhelming
majority decided against the representations of the professor;
an unimportant minority declared themselves in his favor,
and a pamphlet obtained some degree of notice, ridiculing the whole
debate under the title of "The History of an Hypothesis." In reply
to this impertinent criticism of his labors, Rosette issued
a rejoinder full with the most vehement expressions of indignation,
and reiterating his asseveration that a fragment of Gibraltar
was still traversing the regions of space, carrying thirteen
Englishmen upon its surface, and concluding by saying that it
was the great disappointment of his life that he had not been
taken with them.

Pablo and little Nina were adopted, the one by Servadac, the other
by the count, and under the supervision of their guardians,
were well educated and cared for. Some years later, Colonel,
no longer Captain, Servadac, his hair slightly streaked with grey,
had the pleasure of seeing the handsome young Spaniard united
in marriage to the Italian, now grown into a charming girl,
upon whom the count bestowed an ample dowry; the young people's
happiness in no way marred by the fact that they had not been destined,
as once seemed likely, to be the Adam and Eve of a new world.

The career of the comet was ever a mystery which neither Servadac
nor his orderly could eliminate from the regions of doubt.
Anyhow, they were firmer and more confiding friends than ever.

One day, in the environs of Montmartre, where they were secure
from eavesdroppers, Ben Zoof incidentally referred to the experiences
in the depths of Nina's Hive; but stopped short and said,
"However, those things never happened, sir, did they?"

His master could only reply, "Confound it, Ben Zoof! What is
a man to believe?"

Note: I have omitted the designation "V. IX. Verne" from those pages where
it appeared as the last line; I have also made the following changes to the text:
16 10 o'clock. o'clock."
18 4 singe single
85 6 Parfait!!! Parfait!!!"
87 5 asteriod asteroid
130 13 colonly colony
143 17 tin tain
161 30 Europe. Europe."
179 15 Leiutenant Lieutenant
241 14 coud could

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