Off on a Comet
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"Nonsense!" exclaimed the captain; "I know better than that, and so do you.
Is it not as clear as daylight that the earth and this comet have been
in collision, and the result has been that our little world has been split
off and sent flying far into space?"
Count Timascheff and the lieutenant looked at each other in silence.
"I do not deny your theory," said Procope after a while.
"If it be correct, I suppose we must conclude that the enormous disc
we observed on the night of the catastrophe was the comet itself;
and the velocity with which it was traveling must have been
so great that it was hardly arrested at all by the attraction
of the earth."
"Plausible enough," answered Count Timascheff; "and it is to this comet
that our scientific friend here has given the name of Gallia."
It still remained a puzzle to them all why the astronomer should apparently
be interested in the comet so much more than in the new little world
in which their strange lot was cast.
"Can you explain this?" asked the count.
"There is no accounting for the freaks of philosophers, you know,"
said Servadac; "and have I not told you that this philosopher
in particular is one of the most eccentric beings in creation?"
"Besides," added the lieutenant, "it is exceedingly likely
that his observations had been going on for some considerable
period before the convulsion happened."
Thus, the general conclusion arrived at by the Gallian Academy
of Science was this: That on the night of the 31st of December,
a comet, crossing the ecliptic, had come into collision with
the earth, and that the violence of the shock had separated
a huge fragment from the globe, which fragment from that date
had been traversing the remote inter-planetary regions.
Palmyrin Rosette would doubtless confirm their solution
of the phenomenon.
To the general population of the colony the arrival of the stranger was
a matter of small interest. The Spaniards were naturally too indolent to be
affected in any way by an incident that concerned themselves so remotely;
while the Russians felt themselves simply reliant on their master, and as long
as they were with him were careless as to where or how they spent their days.
Everything went on with them in an accustomed routine; and they lay down
night after night, and awoke to their avocations morning after morning,
just as if nothing extraordinary had occurred.
All night long Ben Zoof would not leave the professor's bedside.
He had constituted himself sick nurse, and considered his reputation
at stake if he failed to set his patient on his feet again.
He watched every movement, listened to every breath, and never failed
to administer the strongest cordials upon the slightest pretext.
Even in his sleep Rosette's irritable nature revealed itself.
Ever and again, sometimes in a tone of uneasiness, and sometimes
with the expression of positive anger, the name of Gallia
escaped his lips, as though he were dreaming that his claim
to the discovery of the comet was being contested or denied;
but although his attendant was on the alert to gather all he could,
he was able to catch nothing in the incoherent sentences
that served to throw any real light upon the problem that they
were all eager to solve.
When the sun reappeared on the western horizon the professor
was still sound asleep; and Ben Zoof, who was especially
anxious that the repose which promised to be so beneficial
should not be disturbed, felt considerable annoyance at hearing
a loud knocking, evidently of some blunt heavy instrument against
a door that had been placed at the entrance of the gallery,
more for the purpose of retaining internal warmth than for guarding
against intrusion from without.
"Confound it!" said Ben Zoof. "I must put a stop to this;"
and he made his way towards the door.
"Who's there?" he cried, in no very amiable tone.
"I." replied the quavering voice.
"Who are you?"
"Isaac Hakkabut. Let me in; do, please, let me in."
"Oh, it is you, old Ashtaroth, is it? What do you want?
Can't you get anybody to buy your stuffs?"
"Nobody will pay me a proper price."
"Well, old Shimei, you won't find a customer here.
You had better be off."
"No; but do, please--do, please, let me in," supplicated the Jew. "I want
to speak to his Excellency, the governor."
"The governor is in bed, and asleep."
"I can wait until he awakes."
"Then wait where you are."
And with this inhospitable rejoinder the orderly was about to
return to his place at the side of his patient, when Servadac,
who had been roused by the sound of voices, called out,
"What's the matter, Ben Zoof?"
"Oh, nothing, sir; only that hound of a Hakkabut says he wants
to speak to you."
"Let him in, then."
Ben Zoof hesitated.
"Let him in, I say," repeated the captain, peremptorily.
However reluctantly, Ben Zoof obeyed. The door was unfastened,
and Isaac Hakkabut, enveloped in an old overcoat, shuffled into the gallery.
In a few moments Servadac approached, and the Jew began to overwhelm
him with the most obsequious epithets. Without vouchsafing any reply,
the captain beckoned to the old man to follow him, and leading
the way to the central hall, stopped, and turning so as to look
him steadily in the face, said, "Now is your opportunity.
Tell me what you want."
"Oh, my lord, my lord," whined Isaac, "you must have some news
to tell me."
"News? What do you mean?"
"From my little tartan yonder, I saw the yawl go out from the rock
here on a journey, and I saw it come back, and it brought a stranger;
and I thought--I thought--I thought--"
"Well, you thought--what did you think?"
"Why, that perhaps the stranger had come from the northern shores
of the Mediterranean, and that I might ask him--"
He paused again, and gave a glance at the captain.
"Ask him what? Speak out, man?"
"Ask him if he brings any tidings of Europe," Hakkabut blurted
out at last.
Servadac shrugged his shoulders in contempt and turned away.
Here was a man who had been resident three months in Gallia,
a living witness of all the abnormal phenomena that had occurred,
and yet refusing to believe that his hope of making good bargains with
European traders was at an end. Surely nothing, thought the captain,
will convince the old rascal now; and he moved off in disgust.
The orderly, however, who had listened with much amusement,
was by no means disinclined for the conversation to be continued.
"Are you satisfied, old Ezekiel?" he asked.
"Isn't it so? Am I not right? Didn't a stranger arrive here last night?"
inquired the Jew.
"Yes, quite true."
"From the Balearic Isles."
"The Balearic Isles?" echoed Isaac.
"Fine quarters for trade! Hardly twenty leagues from Spain! He must
have brought news from Europe!"
"Well, old Manasseh, what if he has?"
"I should like to see him."
The Jew sidled close up to Ben Zoof, and laying his hand on his arm,
said in a low and insinuating tone, "I am poor, you know; but I would
give you a few reals if you would let me talk to this stranger."
But as if he thought he was making too liberal an offer, he added,
"Only it must be at once."
"He is too tired; he is worn out; he is fast asleep,"
answered Ben Zoof.
"But I would pay you to wake him."
The captain had overheard the tenor of the conversation,
and interposed sternly, "Hakkabut! if you make the least
attempt to disturb our visitor, I shall have you turned outside
that door immediately."