Off on a Comet
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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,