Off on a Comet
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and it seemed as though the globe had assumed a more decided convexity.
At the pace at which they were walking, it was very evident that the captain
and his attendant would not take long to accomplish the three miles that lay
between the gourbi and the place of rendezvous. They did not exchange a word,
but each was conscious of an unusual buoyancy, which appeared to lift up their
bodies and give as it were, wings to their feet. If Ben Zoof had expressed
his sensations in words, he would have said that he felt "up to anything,"
and he had even forgotten to taste so much as a crust of bread, a lapse
of memory of which the worthy soldier was rarely guilty.
As these thoughts were crossing his mind, a harsh bark was heard to
the left of the footpath, and a jackal was seen emerging from a large
grove of lentisks. Regarding the two wayfarers with manifest uneasiness,
the beast took up its position at the foot of a rock, more than thirty
feet in height. It belonged to an African species distinguished
by a black spotted skin, and a black line down the front of the legs.
At night-time, when they scour the country in herds, the creatures are
somewhat formidable, but singly they are no more dangerous than a dog.
Though by no means afraid of them, Ben Zoof had a particular aversion
to jackals, perhaps because they had no place among the fauna of his
beloved Montmartre. He accordingly began to make threatening gestures,
when, to the unmitigated astonishment of himself and the captain,
the animal darted forward, and in one single bound gained the summit
of the rock.
"Good Heavens!" cried Ben Zoof, "that leap must have been thirty
feet at least."
"True enough," replied the captain; "I never saw such a jump."
Meantime the jackal had seated itself upon its haunches,
and was staring at the two men with an air of impudent defiance.
This was too much for Ben Zoof's forbearance, and stooping down
he caught up a huge stone, when to his surprise, he found that it was
no heavier than a piece of petrified sponge. "Confound the brute!"
he exclaimed, "I might as well throw a piece of bread at him.
What accounts for its being as light as this?"
Nothing daunted, however, he hurled the stone into the air.
It missed its aim; but the jackal, deeming it on the whole
prudent to decamp, disappeared across the trees and hedges
with a series of bounds, which could only be likened
to those that might be made by an india-rubber kangaroo.
Ben Zoof was sure that his own powers of propelling must equal
those of a howitzer, for his stone, after a lengthened flight
through the air, fell to the ground full five hundred paces
the other side of the rock.
The orderly was now some yards ahead of his master, and had
reached a ditch full of water, and about ten feet wide.
With the intention of clearing it, he made a spring,
when a loud cry burst from Servadac. "Ben Zoof, you idiot!
What are you about? You will break your back!"
And well might he be alarmed, for Ben Zoof had sprung to a height of
forty feet into the air. Fearful of the consequences that would attend
the descent of his servant to _terra firma_, Servadac bounded forwards,
to be on the other side of the ditch in time to break his fall.
But the muscular effort that he made carried him in his turn
to an altitude of thirty feet; in his ascent he passed Ben Zoof,
who had already commenced his downward course; and then, obedient to
the laws of gravitation, he descended with increasing rapidity,
and alighted upon the earth without experiencing a shock greater
than if he had merely made a bound of four or five feet high.
Ben Zoof burst into a roar of laughter. "Bravo!" he said,
"we should make a good pair of clowns."
But the captain was inclined to take a more serious view of the matter.
For a few seconds he stood lost in thought, then said solemnly,
"Ben Zoof, I must be dreaming. Pinch me hard; I must be either
asleep or mad."
"It is very certain that something has happened to us,"
said Ben Zoof. "I have occasionally dreamed that I was a swallow
flying over the Montmartre, but I never experienced anything
of this kind before; it must be peculiar to the coast of Algeria."
Servadac was stupefied; he felt instinctively that he was not dreaming,
and yet was powerless to solve the mystery. He was not, however,
the man to puzzle himself for long over any insoluble problem.
"Come what may," he presently exclaimed, "we will make up our minds
for the future to be surprised at nothing."
"Right, captain," replied Ben Zoof; "and, first of all,
let us settle our little score with Count Timascheff."
Beyond the ditch lay a small piece of meadow land, about an acre
in extent. A soft and delicious herbage carpeted the soil,
whilst trees formed a charming framework to the whole.
No spot could have been chosen more suitable for the meeting
between the two adversaries.
Servadac cast a hasty glance round. No one was in sight.
"We are the first on the field," he said.
"Not so sure of that, sir," said Ben Zoof.
"What do you mean?" asked Servadac, looking at his watch, which he had
set as nearly as possible by the sun before leaving the gourbi;
"it is not nine o'clock yet."
"Look up there, sir. I am much mistaken if that is not the sun;"
and as Ben Zoof spoke, he pointed directly overhead to where a faint
white disc was dimly visible through the haze of clouds.
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Servadac. "How can the sun be in the zenith,
in the month of January, in lat. 39 degrees N.?"
"Can't say, sir. I only know the sun is there; and at the rate
he has been traveling, I would lay my cap to a dish of couscous
that in less than three hours he will have set."
Hector Servadac, mute and motionless, stood with folded arms.
Presently he roused himself, and began to look about again.
"What means all this?" he murmured. "Laws of gravity disturbed!
Points of the compass reversed! The length of day reduced one half!
Surely this will indefinitely postpone my meeting with the count.
Something has happened; Ben Zoof and I cannot both be mad!"
The orderly, meantime, surveyed his master with the greatest equanimity;
no phenomenon, however extraordinary, would have drawn from him
a single exclamation of surprise. "Do you see anyone, Ben Zoof?"
asked the captain, at last.
"No one, sir; the count has evidently been and gone." "But supposing
that to be the case," persisted the captain, "my seconds would
have waited, and not seeing me, would have come on towards the gourbi.
I can only conclude that they have been unable to get here;
and as for Count Timascheff--"
Without finishing his sentence. Captain Servadac, thinking it
just probable that the count, as on the previous evening, might come
by water, walked to the ridge of rock that overhung the shore,
in order to ascertain if the _Dobryna_ were anywhere in sight.
But the sea was deserted, and for the first time the captain
noticed that, although the wind was calm, the waters were unusually
agitated, and seethed and foamed as though they were boiling.
It was very certain that the yacht would have found a difficulty
in holding her own in such a swell. Another thing that now struck
Servadac was the extraordinary contraction of the horizon.
Under ordinary circumstances, his elevated position would have allowed
him a radius of vision at least five and twenty miles in length;
but the terrestrial sphere seemed, in the course of the last few hours,
to have become considerably reduced in volume, and he could now see
for a distance of only six miles in every direction.
Meantime, with the agility of a monkey, Ben Zoof had clambered to the top
of a eucalyptus, and from his lofty perch was surveying the country to
the south, as well as towards both Tenes and Mostaganem. On descending,
be informed the captain that the plain was deserted.
"We will make our way to the river, and get over into Mostaganem,"
said the captain.
The Shelif was not more than a mile and a half from the meadow, but no time
was to be lost if the two men were to reach the town before nightfall.
Though still hidden by heavy clouds, the sun was evidently declining fast;
and what was equally inexplicable, it was not following the oblique curve
that in these latitudes and at this time of year might be expected,
but was sinking perpendicularly on to the horizon.
As he went along, Captain Servadac pondered deeply.
Perchance some unheard-of phenomenon had modified the rotary
motion of the globe; or perhaps the Algerian coast had been
transported beyond the equator into the southern hemisphere.
Yet the earth, with the exception of the alteration in its convexity,
in this part of Africa at least, seemed to have undergone no change
of any very great importance. As far as the eye could reach,
the shore was, as it had ever been, a succession of cliffs,
beach, and arid rocks, tinged with a red ferruginous hue.
To the south--if south, in this inverted order of things, it might
still be called--the face of the country also appeared unaltered,
and some leagues away, the peaks of the Merdeyah mountains
still retained their accustomed outline.
Presently a rift in the clouds gave passage to an oblique ray of light
that clearly proved that the sun was setting in the east.
"Well, I am curious to know what they think of all this at Mostaganem,"
said the captain. "I wonder, too, what the Minister of War will
say when he receives a telegram informing him that his African
colony has become, not morally, but physically disorganized;
that the cardinal points are at variance with ordinary rules,
and that the sun in the month of January is shining down vertically
upon our heads."
Ben Zoof, whose ideas of discipline were extremely rigid, at once suggested
that the colony should be put under the surveillance of the police,
that the cardinal points should be placed under restraint, and that the sun
should be shot for breach of discipline.
Meantime, they were both advancing with the utmost speed.
The decompression of the atmosphere made the specific gravity of their
bodies extraordinarily light, and they ran like hares and leaped
like chamois. Leaving the devious windings of the footpath, they went
as a crow would fly across the country. Hedges, trees, and streams
were cleared at a bound, and under these conditions Ben Zoof felt
that he could have overstepped Montmartre at a single stride.