Off on a Comet
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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.