Off on a Comet
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The temperature by night as well as by day was quite endurable,
and on the fourth afternoon after starting, thanks to the
straight course which their compass enabled them to maintain,
the adventurers found themselves within a few miles of Ceuta.
As soon as Ben Zoof caught sight of the rock on the western horizon,
he was all excitement. Just as if he were in a regiment going into action,
he talked wildly about "columns" and "squares" and "charges." The captain,
although less demonstrative, was hardly less eager to reach the rock.
They both pushed forward with all possible speed till they were within
a mile and a half of the shore, when Ben Zoof, who had a very keen vision,
stopped suddenly, and said that he was sure he could see something moving
on the top of the island.
"Never mind, let us hasten on," said Servadac. A few minutes
carried them over another mile, when Ben Zoof stopped again.
"What is it, Ben Zoof?" asked the captain.
"It looks to me like a man on a rock, waving his arms in the air,"
said the orderly.
"Plague on it!" muttered Servadac; "I hope we are not too late."
Again they went on; but soon Ben Zoof stopped for the third time.
"It is a semaphore, sir; I see it quite distinctly."
And he was not mistaken; it had been a telegraph in motion
that had caught his eye.
"Plague on it!" repeated the captain.
"Too late, sir, do you think?" said Ben Zoof.
"Yes, Ben Zoof; if that's a telegraph--and there is no doubt of it--
somebody has been before us and erected it; and, moreover, if it is moving,
there must be somebody working it now."
He was keenly disappointed. Looking towards the north, he could
distinguish Gibraltar faintly visible in the extreme distance,
and upon the summit of the rock both Ben Zoof and himself fancied
they could make out another semaphore, giving signals, no doubt,
in response to the one here.
"Yes, it is only too clear; they have already occupied it,
and established their communications," said Servadac.
"And what are we to do, then?" asked Ben Zoof.
"We must pocket our chagrin, and put as good a face on the matter as we can,"
replied the captain.
"But perhaps there are only four or five Englishmen to protect the place,"
said Ben Zoof, as if meditating an assault.
"No, no, Ben Zoof," answered Servadac; "we must do nothing rash.
We have had our warning, and, unless our representations can induce
them to yield their position, we must resign our hope."
Thus discomfited, they had reached the foot of the rock,
when all at once, like a "Jack-in-the-box," a sentinel started
up before them with the challenge:
"Who goes there?"
"Friends. Vive la France!" cried the captain.
"Hurrah for England!" replied the soldier.
By this time four other men had made their appearance from the upper part
of the rock.
"What do you want?" asked one of them, whom Servadac remembered
to have seen before at Gibraltar.
"Can I speak to your commanding officer?" Servadac inquired.
"Which?" said the man. "The officer in command of Ceuta?"
"Yes, if there is one."
"I will acquaint him with your arrival," answered the Englishman,
In a few minutes the commanding officer, attired in full uniform,
was seen descending to the shore. It was Major Oliphant himself.
Servadac could no longer entertain a doubt that the Englishmen had forestalled
him in the occupation of Ceuta. Provisions and fuel had evidently been
conveyed thither in the boat from Gibraltar before the sea had frozen,
and a solid casemate, hollowed in the rock, had afforded Major Oliphant
and his contingent ample protection from the rigor of the winter.
The ascending smoke that rose above the rock was sufficient evidence
that good fires were still kept up; the soldiers appeared to have thriven
well on what, no doubt, had been a generous diet, and the major himself,
although he would scarcely have been willing to allow it, was slightly
stouter than before.
Being only about twelve miles distant from Gibraltar, the little
garrison at Ceuta had felt itself by no means isolated in its position;
but by frequent excursions across the frozen strait, and by the constant
use of the telegraph, had kept up their communication with their
fellow-countrymen on the other island. Colonel Murphy and the major
had not even been forced to forego the pleasures of the chessboard.
The game that had been interrupted by Captain Servadac's former visit
was not yet concluded; but, like the two American clubs that played
their celebrated game in 1846 between Washington and Baltimore,
the two gallant officers made use of the semaphore to communicate
their well-digested moves.
The major stood waiting for his visitor to speak.
"Major Oliphant, I believe?" said Servadac, with a courteous bow.
"Yes, sir, Major Oliphant, officer in command of the garrison
at Ceuta," was the Englishman's reply. "And to whom," he added,
"may I have the honor of speaking?"
"To Captain Servadac, the governor general of Gallia."
"Indeed!" said the major, with a supercilious look.
"Allow me to express my surprise," resumed the captain, "at seeing you
installed as commanding officer upon what I have always understood
to be Spanish soil. May I demand your claim to your position?"
"My claim is that of first occupant."
"But do you not think that the party of Spaniards now resident with me
may at some future time assert a prior right to the proprietorship?"
"I think not, Captain Servadac."
"But why not?" persisted the captain.
"Because these very Spaniards have, by formal contract, made over Ceuta,
in its integrity, to the British government."
Servadac uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"And as the price of that important cession," continued Major Oliphant,
"they have received a fair equivalent in British gold."
"Ah!" cried Ben Zoof, "that accounts for that fellow Negrete and his people
having such a lot of money."
Servadac was silent. It had become clear to his mind what had
been the object of that secret visit to Ceuta which he had heard
of as being made by the two English officers. The arguments
that he had intended to use had completely fallen through;
all that he had now to do was carefully to prevent any suspicion
of his disappointed project.
"May I be allowed to ask, Captain Servadac, to what I am indebted
for the honor of this visit?" asked Major Oliphant presently.
"I have come, Major Oliphant, in the hope of doing you and your companions
a service," replied Servadac, rousing himself from his reverie.
"Ah, indeed!" replied the major, as though he felt himself quite
independent of all services from exterior sources.
"I thought, major, that it was not unlikely you were in ignorance
of the fact that both Ceuta and Gibraltar have been traversing
the solar regions on the surface of a comet."
The major smiled incredulously; but Servadac, nothing daunted,
went on to detail the results of the collision between the comet
and the earth, adding that, as there was the almost immediate
prospect of another concussion, it had occurred to him that it
might be advisable for the whole population of Gallia to unite
in taking precautionary measures for the common welfare.
"In fact, Major Oliphant," he said in conclusion, "I am here
to inquire whether you and your friends would be disposed to join
us in our present quarters."
"I am obliged to you, Captain Servadac," answered the major stiffly;
"but we have not the slightest intention of abandoning our post.
We have received no government orders to that effect; indeed, we have
received no orders at all. Our own dispatch to the First Lord
of the Admiralty still awaits the mail."
"But allow me to repeat," insisted Servadac, "that we are no longer
on the earth, although we expect to come in contact with it again
in about eight weeks."
"I have no doubt," the major answered, "that England will make every effort
to reclaim us."
Servadac felt perplexed. It was quite evident that Major Oliphant had not
been convinced of the truth of one syllable of what he had been saying.
"Then I am to understand that you are determined to retain
your two garrisons here and at Gibraltar?" asked Servadac,
with one last effort at persuasion.
"Certainly; these two posts command the entrance of the Mediterranean."
"But supposing there is no longer any Mediterranean?"
retorted the captain, growing impatient.