Off on a Comet
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his exertions, he said, "The old reprobate, the rascal has cheated us!
His steelyard is wrong! He is a thief!"
Captain Servadac looked sternly at Hakkabut.
"How is this, Hakkabut? Is this a fact?"
"No, no--yes--no, your Excellency, only--"
"He is a cheat, a thief!" roared the excited astronomer.
"His weights deceive!"
"Stop, stop!" interposed Servadac; "let us hear.
Tell me, Hakkabut--"
"The steelyard lies! It cheats! it lies!" roared the irrepressible Rosette.
"Tell me, Hakkabut, I say," repeated Servadac.
The Jew only kept on stammering, "Yes--no--I don't know."
But heedless of any interruption, the professor continued, "False weights!
That confounded steelyard! It gave a false result! The mass was wrong!
The observations contradicted the calculations; they were wrong!
She was out of place! Yes, out of place entirely."
"What!" cried Servadac and Procope in a breath, "out of place?"
"Yes, completely," said the professor.
"Gallia out of place?" repeated Servadac, agitated with alarm.
"I did not say Gallia," replied Rosette, stamping his foot impetuously;
"I said Nerina."
"Oh, Nerina," answered Servadac. "But what of Gallia?"
he inquired, still nervously.
"Gallia, of course, is on her way to the earth. I told you so.
But that Jew is a rascal!"
A JOURNEY AND A DISAPPOINTMENT
It was as the professor had said. From the day that
Isaac Hakkabut had entered upon his mercantile career,
his dealings had all been carried on by a system of false weight.
That deceitful steelyard had been the mainspring of his fortune.
But when it had become his lot to be the purchaser instead
of the vendor, his spirit had groaned within him at being
compelled to reap the fruits of his own dishonesty.
No one who had studied his character could be much surprised
at the confession that was extorted from him, that for every
supposed kilogramme that he had ever sold the true weight
was only 750 grammes, or just five and twenty per cent.
less than it ought to have been.
The professor, however, had ascertained all that he wanted to know.
By estimating his comet at a third as much again as its proper weight,
he had found that his calculations were always at variance with the observed
situation of the satellite, which was immediately influenced by the mass
of its primary.
But now, besides enjoying the satisfaction of having punished
old Hakkabut, Rosette was able to recommence his calculations
with reference to the elements of Nerina upon a correct basis,
a task to which he devoted himself with redoubled energy.
It will be easily imagined that Isaac Hakkabut, thus caught in his own trap,
was jeered most unmercifully by those whom he had attempted to make
his dupes. Ben Zoof, in particular, was never wearied of telling him how on
his return to the world he would be prosecuted for using false weights,
and would certainly become acquainted with the inside of a prison.
Thus badgered, he secluded himself more than ever in his dismal hole,
never venturing, except when absolutely obliged, to face the other members
of the community.
On the 7th of October the comet re-entered the zone of the telescopic planets,
one of which had been captured as a satellite, and the origin of the whole
of which is most probably correctly attributed to the disintegration of some
large planet that formerly revolved between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
By the beginning of the following month half of this zone had been traversed,
and only two months remained before the collision with the earth was to
be expected. The temperature was now rarely below 12 degrees below zero,
but that was far too cold to permit the slightest symptoms of a thaw.
The surface of the sea remained as frozen as ever, and the two vessels,
high up on their icy pedestals, remained unaltered in their critical position.
It was about this time that the question began to be mooted whether it
would not be right to reopen some communication with the Englishmen
at Gibraltar. Not that any doubt was entertained as to their having
been able successfully to cope with the rigors of the winter;
but Captain Servadac, in a way that did honor to his generosity,
represented that, however uncourteous might have been their
former behavior, it was at least due to them that they should
be informed of the true condition of things, which they had had
no opportunity of learning; and, moreover, that they should
be invited to co-operate with the population of Nina's Hive,
in the event of any measures being suggested by which the shock
of the approaching collision could be mitigated.
The count and the lieutenant both heartily concurred in Servadac's
sentiments of humanity and prudence, and all agreed that if the intercourse
were to be opened at all, no time could be so suitable as the present,
while the surface of the sea presented a smooth and solid footing.
After a thaw should set in, neither the yacht nor the tartan could be reckoned
on for service, and it would be inexpedient to make use of the steam launch,
for which only a few tons of coal had been reserved, just sufficient
to convey them to Gourbi Island when the occasion should arise; whilst as
to the yawl, which, transformed into a sledge, had performed so successful
a trip to Formentera, the absence of wind would make that quite unavailable.
It was true that with the return of summer temperature, there would be certain
to be a derangement in the atmosphere of Gallia, which would result in wind,
but for the present the air was altogether too still for the yawl to have
any prospects of making its way to Gibraltar.
The only question remaining was as to the possibility of going on foot.
The distance was somewhere about 240 miles. Captain Servadac declared
himself quite equal to the undertaking. To skate sixty or seventy miles
a day would be nothing, he said, to a practical skater like himself.
The whole journey there and back might be performed in eight days.
Provided with a compass, a sufficient supply of cold meat, and a spirit lamp,
by which he might boil his coffee, he was perfectly sure he should,
without the least difficulty, accomplish an enterprise that chimed
in so exactly with his adventurous spirit.
Equally urgent were both the count and the lieutenant to be allowed
to accompany him; nay, they even offered to go instead; but Servadac,
expressing himself as most grateful for their consideration,
declined their offer, and avowed his resolution of taking no other
companion than his own orderly.
Highly delighted at his master's decision, Ben Zoof expressed
his satisfaction at the prospect of "stretching his legs a bit,"
declaring that nothing could induce him to permit the captain to go alone.
There was no delay. The departure was fixed for the following morning,
the 2nd of November.
Although it is not to be questioned that a genuine desire of doing an act
of kindness to his fellow-creatures was a leading motive of Servadac's
proposed visit to Gibraltar, it must be owned that another idea,
confided to nobody, least of all to Count Timascheff, had been conceived
in the brain of the worthy Gascon. Ben Zoof had an inkling that his
master was "up to some other little game," when, just before starting,
he asked him privately whether there was a French tricolor among the stores.
"I believe so," said the orderly.
"Then don't say a word to anyone, but fasten it up tight in your knapsack."
Ben Zoof found the flag, and folded it up as he was directed.
Before proceeding to explain this somewhat enig-matical conduct
of Servadac, it is necessary to refer to a certain physiological fact,
coincident but unconnected with celestial phenomena, originating entirely
in the frailty of human nature. The nearer that Gallia approached
the earth, the more a sort of reserve began to spring up between
the captain and Count Timascheff. Though they could not be said
to be conscious of it, the remembrance of their former rivalry,
so completely buried in oblivion for the last year and ten months,
was insensibly recovering its hold upon their minds, and the question
was all but coming to the surface as to what would happen if, on their
return to earth, the handsome Madame de L---- should still be free.
From companions in peril, would they not again be avowed rivals?
Conceal it as they would, a coolness was undeniably stealing over
an intimacy which, though it could never be called affectionate,
had been uniformly friendly and courteous.
Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that Hector Servadac
should not have confided to the count a project which, wild as it was,
could scarcely have failed to widen the unacknowledged breach that was
opening in their friendship.
The project was the annexation of Ceuta to the French dominion.
The Englishmen, rightly enough, had continued to occupy
the fragment of Gibraltar, and their claim was indisputable.
But the island of Ceuta, which before the shock had commanded
the opposite side of the strait, and had been occupied
by Spaniards, had since been abandoned, and was therefore
free to the first occupant who should lay claim to it.
To plant the tricolor upon it, in the name of France, was now
the cherished wish of Servadac's heart.
"Who knows," he said to himself, "whether Ceuta, on its return to earth,
may not occupy a grand and commanding situation? What a proud thing it
would be to have secured its possession to France!"
Next morning, as soon as they had taken their brief farewell
of their friends, and were fairly out of sight of the shore,
Servadac imparted his design to Ben Zoof, who entered into the project
with the greatest zest, and expressed himself delighted, not only
at the prospect of adding to the dominions of his beloved country,
but of stealing a march upon England.
Both travelers were warmly clad, the orderly's knapsack
containing all the necessary provisions. The journey was
accomplished without special incident; halts were made at
regular intervals, for the purpose of taking food and rest.