Off on a Comet
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What would be the measure of the eccentricity of its path?
What would be its period round the sun? Might it not, like a comet,
be carried away into the vast infinity of space? or, on the other hand,
might it not be attracted to the great central source of light and heat,
and be absorbed in it? Did its orbit correspond with the orbit
of the ecliptic? and was there no chance of its ever uniting again
with the globe, from which it had been torn off by so sudden and
violent a disruption?
A thoughtful silence fell upon them all, which Servadac was the first
to break. "Lieutenant," he said, "your explanation is ingenious,
and accounts for many appearances; but it seems to me that in one
point it fails."
"How so?" replied Procope. "To my mind the theory meets all objections."
"I think not," Servadac answered. "In one point, at least,
it appears to me to break down completely."
"What is that?" asked the lieutenant.
"Stop a moment," said the captain. "Let us see that we understand
each other right. Unless I mistake you, your hypothesis is that a
fragment of the earth, comprising the Mediterranean and its shores
from Gibraltar to Malta, has been developed into a new asteroid,
which is started on an independent orbit in the solar regions.
Is not that your meaning?"
"Precisely so," the lieutenant acquiesced.
"Well, then," continued Servadac, "it seems to me to be at
fault in this respect: it fails, and fails completely,
to account for the geological character of the land that we
have found now encompassing this sea. Why, if the new land is
a fragment of the old--why does it not retain its old formation?
What has become of the granite and the calcareous deposits?
How is it that these should all be changed into a mineral
concrete with which we have no acquaintance?"
No doubt, it was a serious objection; for, however likely it might
be that a mass of the earth on being detached would be eccentric
in its movements, there was no probable reason to be alleged why
the material of its substance should undergo so complete a change.
There was nothing to account for the fertile shores, rich in vegetation,
being transformed into rocks arid and barren beyond precedent.
The lieutenant felt the difficulty, and owned himself unprepared to give at
once an adequate solution; nevertheless, he declined to renounce his theory.
He asserted that the arguments in favor of it carried conviction to his mind,
and that he entertained no doubt but that, in the course of time,
all apparently antagonistic circumstances would be explained so as to become
consistent with the view he took. He was careful, however, to make it
understood that with respect to the original cause of the disruption
he had no theory to offer; and although he knew what expansion
might be the result of subterranean forces, he did not venture to say
that he considered it sufficient to produce so tremendous an effect.
The origin of the catastrophe was a problem still to be solved.
"Ah! well," said Servadac, "I don't know that it matters much
where our new little planet comes from, or what it is made of,
if only it carries France along with it."
"And Russia," added the count.
"And Russia, of course," said Servadac, with a polite bow.
There was, however, not much room for this sanguine expectation,
for if a new asteroid had thus been brought into existence,
it must be a sphere of extremely limited dimensions, and there could
be little chance that it embraced more than the merest fraction
of either France or Russia. As to England, the total cessation
of all telegraphic communication between her shores and Gibraltar
was a virtual proof that England was beyond its compass.
And what was the true measurement of the new little world?
At Gourbi Island the days and nights were of equal length,
and this seemed to indicate that it was situated on the equator;
hence the distance by which the two poles stood apart would
be half what had been reckoned would be the distance completed
by the _Dobryna_ in her circuit. That distance had been already
estimated to be something under 1,400 miles, so that the Arctic Pole
of their recently fashioned world must be about 350 miles to the north,
and the Antarctic about 350 miles to the south of the island.
Compare these calculations with the map, and it is at once
apparent that the northernmost limit barely touched the coast
of Provence, while the southernmost reached to about lat.
20 degrees N., and fell in the heart of the desert.
The practical test of these conclusions would be made by
future investigation, but meanwhile the fact appeared very much
to strengthen the presumption that, if Lieutenant Procope
had not arrived at the whole truth, he had made a considerable
advance towards it.
The weather, ever since the storm that had driven the _Dobryna_
into the creek, had been magnificent. The wind continued favorable,
and now under both steam and canvas, she made a rapid progress towards
the north, a direction in which she was free to go in consequence
of the total disappearance of the Spanish coast, from Gibraltar right
away to Alicante. Malaga, Almeria, Cape Gata, Car-thagena. Cape Palos--
all were gone. The sea was rolling over the southern extent of the peninsula,
so that the yacht advanced to the latitude of Seville before it sighted
any land at all, and then, not shores such as the shores of Andalusia,
but a bluff and precipitous cliff, in its geological features resembling
exactly the stern and barren rock that she had coasted beyond the site
of Malta. Here the sea made a decided indentation on the coast;
it ran up in an acute-angled triangle till its apex coincided with
the very spot upon which Madrid had stood. But as hitherto the sea
had encroached upon the land, the land in its turn now encroached
upon the sea; for a frowning headland stood out far into the basin
of the Mediterranean, and formed a promontory stretching out beyond
the proper places of the Balearic Isles. Curiosity was all alive.
There was the intensest interest awakened to determine whether no
vestige could be traced of Majorca, Minorca, or any of the group,
and it was during a deviation from the direct course for the purpose
of a more thorough scrutiny, that one of the sailors raised a thrill
of general excitement by shouting, "A bottle in the sea!"
Here, then, at length was a communication from the outer world.
Surely now they would find a document which would throw
some light upon all the mysteries that had happened?
Had not the day now dawned that should set their speculations
all at rest?
It was the morning of the 21st of February. The count,
the captain, the lieutenant, everybody hurried to the forecastle;
the schooner was dexterously put about, and all was eager
impatience until the supposed bottle was hauled on deck.
It was not, however, a bottle; it proved to be a round leather
telescope-case, about a foot long, and the first thing
to do before investigating its contents was to make a careful
examination of its exterior. The lid was fastened on by wax,
and so securely that it would take a long immersion before any
water could penetrate; there was no maker's name to be deciphered;
but impressed very plainly with a seal on the wax were the two
initials "P. R."
When the scrutiny of the outside was finished, the wax was removed
and the cover opened, and the lieutenant drew out a slip of ruled paper,
evidently torn from a common note-book. The paper had an inscription
written in four lines, which were remarkable for the profusion of notes
of admiration and interrogation with which they were interspersed:
_Ab sole_, au 15 fev. 59,000,000 1. !
Chemin parcouru de janv. a fev. 82,000,000 1. !!
_Va bene! All right!!_ Parfait!!!"
There was a general sigh of disappointment. They turned
the paper over and over, and handed it from one to another.
"What does it all mean?" exclaimed the count.
"Something mysterious here!" said Servadac. "But yet,"
he continued, after a pause, "one thing is tolerably certain:
on the 15th, six days ago, someone was alive to write it."
"Yes; I presume there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the date,"
assented the count.
To this strange conglomeration of French, English, Italian, and Latin,
there was no signature attached; nor was there anything to give a clue
as to the locality in which it had been committed to the waves.
A telescope-case would probably be the property of some one on board
a ship; and the figures obviously referred to the astronomical wonders
that had been experienced.
To these general observations Captain Servadac objected that
he thought it unlikely that any one on board a ship would use
a telescope-case for this purpose, but would be sure to use
a bottle as being more secure; and, accordingly, he should rather
be inclined to believe that the message had been set afloat
by some _savant_ left alone, perchance, upon some isolated coast.
"But, however interesting it might be," observed the count,
"to know the author of the lines, to us it is of far greater
moment to ascertain their meaning."
And taking up the paper again, he said, "Perhaps we might analyze it
word by word, and from its detached parts gather some clue to its sense
as a whole."
"What can be the meaning of all that cluster of interrogations
after Gallia?" asked Servadac.
Lieutenant Procope, who had hitherto not spoken, now broke his silence
by saying, "I beg, gentlemen, to submit my opinion that this document
goes very far to confirm my hypothesis that a fragment of the earth
has been precipitated into space."
Captain Servadac hesitated, and then replied, "Even if it does,
I do not see how it accounts in the least for the geological
character of the new asteroid."
"But will you allow me for one minute to take my supposition
for granted?" said Procope. "If a new little planet has been formed,
as I imagine, by disintegration from the old, I should conjecture
that Gallia is the name assigned to it by the writer of this paper.
The very notes of interrogation are significant that he was in doubt